Mid-term blues in the United States

The US mid-term elections, where 36 Senate seats and all 435 House of Representatives seats were contested, were held at the beginning of November. Polls had been divided about the predicted outcome, but when the dust settled Republicans won 244 House seats versus 186 for the Democrats, and 53 Republican seats in the Senate versuss 46 for the Democrats (five House races were undecided at time of writing, while Louisiana’s Senator will be decided in a December run-off election).

The Republicans were better organised and better financed than during previous elections. Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, strong supporters of right-wing Tea Party candidates, spent $77m on TV adverts; American Crossroads, a front for rich Republicans and big business, spent $70m on advertising. Altogether Republicans spent $205m on TV ads while the Democrats spent $132m. The Republicans also had the benefit of various recently enacted ‘Voter Identification’ laws, ostensibly to prevent personation, but actually benefiting Republicans by tending to undermine the ability of non-Republicans, young people, the poor and people of colour to vote. As an example Texas accepts a gun permit as proof of citizenship, but not student identity cards. In Kansas, some 22,000 people were stopped from voting because they lacked approved proof of citizenship.

The Republicans now control the whole Federal legislature. Despite claims that the result gives Republicans a ‘mandate’, this is not true, since there was no clear-cut national issue, nor even a clear Republican agenda; turnout was only 36.4% down from 40.9% in the 2010 midterms and the lowest since the 33.9% turnout in the wartime 1942 elections. Big business, which Republicans normally represent, has a clear agenda: corporate tax reform, immigration reform, new trade agreements, support for Obamacare (from insurance and healthcare companies), curbs on environmental control of emissions, support for the Keystone XL pipeline (a pipeline shipping crude oil from Canada to Nebraska, controversial because of the danger of polluting the vast Ogallala Aquifer), and opposition to regulation of fracking (hydraulic fracturing). Elements of this programme run head-first into collision with the right-wing Tea Party agenda. The Tea Party is hysterically opposed to immigration reform, which they see as a form of amnesty. Deeply racist and insecure about the swelling proportion of Latinos in the US population it is determined to fight a losing battle to try and prevent millions of undocumented migrants from becoming citizens. By contrast big business wants a stable labour force and reserve army of labour to keep wages down. Similarly Tea Party supporters are blindly opposed to Obamacare, while big business is generally is favour of it. The reasons behind capitalist support are not difficult to find. Since Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (popularly known as Obamacare) into law, the shares of four major insurers – Aetna, Cigna, Human and UnitedHealth have more than doubled in value while the S&P 500 stock exchange index has increased by 70%. Obamacare will shower $2 trillion of subsidised health coverage and spending on the insurance, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries over the next 10 years. They know which side their bread is buttered, have invested heavily in systems, training and procedures to harvest this windfall and don’t want a bunch of right-wing crackpots cutting off this intravenous lifeline. Consequently, for the last year, the Republican establishment has been quietly organising to reduce the presence of right-wingers in the House and Senate. Behind the scenes discussions with donors and judicious support from the national Republican Party have been used to weed out the most blatantly sexist and racist candidates and to encourage the selection and election of candidates supportive of the big business agenda.

So Barack Obama faces another two years as President with a Congress completely controlled by Republicans. Compared to past years, this won’t make much difference however: Washington has been unable to pass a Federal budget since 2010 and has experienced gridlock on most major political issues. Obama’s personal ratings are at their lowest ever. After all the broken promises of ‘Change You Can Believe In’, progressive Democrats have had enough of Obama. To Latinos, he is the ‘Deporter-in-Chief’, expelling more undocumented immigrants from the US than any previous President. Only the black community is still loyal, despite many betrayals: after all, there is no alternative and anyway Obama is peddling that powerful drug, ‘Hope’: with its perpetual promise of a better future, it numbs people to their present pain.

It is not clear what Obama’s programme for the future is, except muddling through. Although lifting the Cuban blockade has been aired, there is no important constituency in favour and some very vociferous and powerful ones against. Scared of Israel behaving like a loose cannon in the Middle East, Obama has put a high priority on negotiating a deal with Iran which would limit its nuclear program in return for lifting US sanctions. There are strong internal forces pushing sections of the Iranian ruling class in that direction, but agreement is not going to be easy. Negotiations are in their final stages, but there is a high likelihood that the Republicans, or a section of them, who condemn Obama for being ‘soft on Iran’ will try to increase sanctions, bringing down the whole house of cards that has been put together.

The Republicans have opposed immigration reform, and the Executive Order that Obama will implement, which protects some five million Latino immigrants from deportation, has enraged them, despite the desire of big business for some solution. Democrats recently proposed legislation, negotiated by Obama with leading software companies such as Google and Microsoft, which would have placed some curbs on NSA surveillance. Republicans were up in arms and immediately rejected it, despite their claimed support for the rights of the individual, condemning Obama for being ‘soft on terrorism’. Then there is the Keystone XL pipeline, which requires passage of legislation: environmentalists have been urging Obama to veto it, while Republicans are vociferously for it.

However, in other areas Obama is giving his full support to the ruling class. Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have prepared a report detailing torture under the Bush regime. Not only are Republicans opposed to its publication, but Obama is too. The White House refuses to allow release of the report until changes are made that will render it unintelligible. In addition the US administration has been dissembling and engaging in legal hair-splitting with the UN over its interpretation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, in an attempt to preserve some of the Bush-era loopholes which supposedly legally permitted torture.

Obama has authorised tens of billions of dollars to upgrade nuclear laboratories and extend the lives of aging warheads. The Department of Defense will, in addition, step up spending on nuclear forces by 10% per year for the next five years – an increase of about $10bn. Further, the Obama administration has told the Pentagon to plan for 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers and 400 land-based missiles, either new or refurbished. Quite an achievement after coming into office talking about a path to eliminate nuclear weapons, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize!

Steve Palmer


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