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The Right Did Worse Than Expected, But That Shouldn’t Satisfy Progressives

Organizing efforts paid off in the midterms, but the left’s work isn’t over yet.

Supporters of Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman react at a watch party during the midterm elections in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on November 8, 2022.

U.S. voters seem to have defied expectations of handing a midterm defeat to Democrats, who lost less seats in the House and Senate than expected. Voters also rejected election deniers in governor’s races in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan. And, in probably the biggest win for reproductive justice, voters in Kentucky appear to have rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have eliminated abortion rights, and 56 percent of Michiganders voted for Proposal 3, enshrining abortion care into their state constitution.

However, our political situation remains rather muddled. The Republicans are likely to win the House and could still win the Senate. At best, we are still looking at a divided Congress, and it is hard to imagine such an institution solving the problems affecting peoples’ daily lives, such as inflation, rising living costs and the climate crisis. A divided Congress won’t stem the continued trend of fascist politics.

Even if the absence of a red wave offers some relief, we still must remain vigilant against reactionary politics. The GOP will continue its post-2020 efforts to defeat movements for racial, economic, reproductive and climate justice. Since the 2020 uprisings for Black lives, the GOP has launched campaigns against anti-racist protests under the guise of combating anything it deems to be “critical race theory.” In a chilling (yet rather unsurprising) development, this right-wing effort has led to the banning of books covering topics related to race and LGBTQIA+ issues.

This midterm season saw a concerted push from the GOP to discredit the Movement for Black Lives, and to restore law enforcement legitimacy. Republican candidates have run political ads that make conservative media consultant Larry McCarthy — the mind behind George H. W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad — look timid. Living in the Pennsylvania television market, I watched my fair share of ads running footage of groups of individuals committing acts of violence and falsely portraying Pennsylvanian Democratic candidates John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro as advocates of defunding the police, and thus “soft on crime.” (This claim seemed especially spurious considering Shapiro served as Pennsylvania’s attorney general, and he brags about arresting “more than 6,500 drug dealers” on his campaign website. Moreover, Fetterman said he “never believed” in defunding the police, calling the idea “absurd.”)

However, few in the GOP tied the issue of crime, anti-Blackness and movements for Black liberation together quite like Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who told a crowd of Trump supporters at an Alabama rally in October, “[The Democrats are] pro crime. They want crime. They want crime because they want to take over what you got…. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that. Bullshit. They [Black Americans] are not owed that.”

Unfortunately, what we may see is the parties joining together to pass legislation in their efforts to restore the legitimacy that law enforcement lost after the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020, by extending more funding and expanding police forces. We cannot forget that Democrats like President Joe Biden, Mayors Lori Lightfoot and Eric Adams, as well as Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia (a former CIA officer), have spoken out stridently against defunding the police.

And lest we forget, Biden has not needed GOP encouragement to adopt “law-and-order” policies. His Safer America Plan would put 100,000 more police onto the streets and mandate nearly $11 billion for law enforcement. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Commitment to America plan would enlist 200,000 police.

These midterms are unlikely to stop Republican elected officials, activists and media personalities from articulating neo-Nazi ideas of “replacement theory.” And it’s highly unlikely that they will stop raising the temperature by continuing to embrace the violent white power militias within their coalition.

We are living in a conjuncture, a moment of overlapping crises. While we might be living “in-between” protests against racist state violence, we’re still in a moment of reactionary politics despite the failure of a red wave to materialize. The world is burning.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken away reproductive rights, opening the door to criminalizing abortion care and expanding the carceral state. It also stands to roll back affirmative action.

The COVID pandemic-induced economic crisis has led to the return of inflation at 1970s levels. Corporations and landlords have taken advantage of the supply glut and increased demand by further increasing the costs of goods, energy and rent, hurting many working-class Americans. Oil companies like ExxonMobil have posted record profits. As Truthout’s Sharon Zhang reports, “three of the largest five shipping companies increased their profits by a staggering 29,965 percent, an increase of nearly 300 times their pre-pandemic profits.” To add insult to injury, the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates yet again, which tends to hurt workers disproportionately. Inflation and feelings of insecurity either due to the economy and/or threats of violence adds to feelings of uncertainty surrounding the future.

However, movements for racial, economic and gender justice can steer us through these volatile times. So far, SCOTUS’s horrifying decision to rescind Roe v. Wade has spurred more reproductive justice activism and organizing. The passage of Michigan’s Proposal 3, as well as Kansas voters’ refusal to codify a de facto abortion ban its constitution, might offer a model to formally legalize abortions in states with sympathetic majorities. These votes also might buoy abortion rights activists and organizations abroad.

Contemporary social justice movements also might be able to continue to operate effectively when not exposed to the noise of national discourse. Few in the national mainstream media seem to notice that there’s an ongoing uptick in labor struggle: There have been more strikes in 2022 (at least 316) than last year (257).

The Debt Collective, an organization with roots in the Occupy movement, helped push the Biden administration to cancel some student debt (although the measure is currently tied up in the courts).

And, based upon protests in response to Donald Trump’s sexual violence, his administration’s attempts to ban Arab, Muslim, African, Mexican and Central American immigration, as well as the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, the GOP’s far right agenda might provoke the growth of left opposition. The GOP’s efforts to till the ground for a Trump presidential campaign in 2024 — encouraging election denialism, advocating for national abortion bans, attacking student debt cancelation and continued assaults on “wokeness” — will provide further opportunities for mass action. We must continue to encourage more people to get involved in these types of struggles, and support the groups and organizations that lead these efforts. This requires offering people an on-ramp from one-off protests to movement building and organizational life. And, in doing so, it will require an effort to engage more people in the political education and training needed to expand a base that can challenge authoritarianism, settler colonialism, patriarchy and racial capitalism. Additionally, we will have to harness the disruptive power of protest and turn it into sustained political power. To paraphrase Howard Zinn, activists must look toward the optimism of uncertainty.”

No political outcome is foreordained. While the odds will remain stacked against us in a reactionary and politically divided nation, we never know when the next conflagration is around the corner.

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