Divisions, disruption dominate US midterms
Underneath a “tight” midterm race is an inherent, unresolved tension: part of America feels that the current democratic system needs protection, while others are furious and battling for visibility.
On November 8, over 42 million Americans cast their vote during the closely-watched midterm elections, a consequential moment for the balance of power in Congress. The Biden presidency, to some extent, has risked the Democrats’ popular appeal in the election spell, and given way to rising political violence on the back of citizen discontent. As such, observers worldwide witnessed a tighter-than-expected race between the Republicans and Democrats, but that is no point of consolation at all for the latter’s leadership at the center – which has been coldly received by the public. Meanwhile, staunch supporters of former President Donald Trump and extreme right-wing outfits are immediate beneficiaries of a flawed U.S. electoral exercise. They have rediscovered their sway in a critical election season, and are all for intimidation and voter fraud that is now characteristic of U.S. democracy as a whole.
The continuity in violent threats and voter intimidation suggests that America’s political landscape – despite a turbulent Trump presidency – still has ample appetite to consume right-wing disinformation. A case in point is the state of Arizona, where hundreds of conspiracy-laden threats were enough to force attention toward fake ballots and rigged voting machines. From the Democrats, there is hardly an alternative effort to salvage public trust in the system.
Biden’s so-called agenda to rebuild America has failed to gain broad traction in key disinformation hotbeds as well. Disgraced former President Trump has kickstarted his populist campaigning on his own, and so have populist loyalists in the state of Florida, boasting revolutionary tendencies. It took a heightened threat advisory from US security and law enforcement agencies to caution the public on potential voter fraud. That is the true state of American democracy at present. The same democracy that wants to be seen as a guarantor of freedoms and stability.
Substantial public discontent with the American economy is likely to carry on, regardless of any degree of variation that the midterms bring to party support in the US House or Senate. The democrats and their self-identified progressive ideologies have given way to deep divisions within the party itself: insurgent and moderate groups represent internal splits and afford more space to conspiracy-laden populism to mislead the public. Biden’s shambolic economic performance, now lingering in the minds of voters in key democratic states, reflects poorly on the brand of reform and progression he has championed. Refusal to change course, as reflected in the lead-up to the midterms, is a recipe for deeper divisions, violent protests, and right-wing disinformation whether desired or not.
It is true, this week’s midterms have been seen by some as far from a Republican “red wave” sweeping the US. But Biden and his allies can’t bank on a narrow escape to rationalize their controversial governance. Public frustration over an undone American economy is difficult to temper when Biden fails to hold his policy decisions, including on foreign militarization, accountable for rising discontent back home. Trump and many other hardliners appear to have their eyes set on that niche. As the midterms demonstrated, there is a coordinated effort to paint any unfavorable result as a left-wing conspiracy that has somehow stolen the public’s mandate. The widely-condemned Capitol riots were as much the result of Trump’s confrontational and violent rhetoric as they were the result of US voters left on the fringes. With high inflation dominating voter views now, and limited buy-in for Biden’s domestic economic reform, there is a vacuum for rising political violence that could expand well beyond the midterms.
Plots to discredit the American electoral system have familiar roots. Violent right-wing groups are simply treating any exercise in democracy as one that challenges the will of those with different political views. The consolidation of such disinformation exercises, and its sponsorship by far-right politicians, has made this a lucrative exercise for Biden’s rivals. There is a massive discord between the type of democratic exceptionalism that the US has touted abroad, and how that sense of exceptionalism contributes to the people’s own sense of alienation in the American system. Underneath a “tight” midterm race is an inherent, unresolved tension: part of America feels that the current democratic system needs protection, while others are furious and battling for visibility.
In the masses’ own telling, there is widespread concern about intensifying political divisions that risk politically-motivated violence in the country. After all, incidents of harassment, attacks, and targeted campaigns against public officials have seen upticks amid the midterm climate. More deeply, this pattern of hostility towards the American system remains largely unattended under Biden, who wishes to explain it away as a simple threat to US democracy. But prior memory of such frustration hitting a tipping point in the US should alarm policymakers in the country. One cannot address political violence and polarization by giving both ample space in the mainstream.