America stands before a historic Midterm election on November 6th. With Democratic candidates polling strongly in deep-red states like Texas, Georgia, and Arizona, many pollsters are predicting a blue wave to sweep the elections. Today, it’s not a question, Americans are divided on every social and economic issue ranging from healthcare to tax reform. Party tribalism is reaching historic heights as Republican candidates play to their base by stoking fears of immigration, and Democratic candidates run on a platform of preserving healthcare. Though history shows that the President’s party usually loses seats in the House and Senate during the midterm elections - this is due to the lower turn-outs and the fact that the opposition’s voters are energized by losing the National Election - since President Roosevelt, the President’s party has only gained seats in both Houses twice. In the 1934 Midterms under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and 2002 under George W. Bush. However, these midterm elections are different because we are seeing Democratic candidates polling strongly in deep-red states like Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee. How America got to this point of shifting geopolitics and rising polarization is a cumulation of factors which predate the 2016 election, but the symptoms have only become visible.
Between the campaign messages of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders, key distinctions can be observed. While Sanders and Trump delivered a galvanizing message of populism and economic anxiety of the lower half of the middle class, it was the failure of the Clinton campaign to address these concerns that ultimately led to her demise. Analyzing the message of each candidate, Hillary failed to create a resonating message. Slogans like “I’m with her,” and “Stronger together,” did not address the fact that between 1973 and 2013, the hourly wages of the middle-wage workers had risen by only 6%. The wages of high-wage workers within the same time period had risen by 41%. In comparison, Bernie’s slogans of “Enough Is Enough,”
“Not me. Us.” and “A Political Revolution Is Coming," had the ability to channel the frustration of the working class. In the past 40-years, middle-income earners have seen their wages remain stagnant. Ultimately, the epitome of this social anxiety was embodied by the Trump Campaign slogan; “Make America Great Again.” The slogan drew on the nostalgic memories of older, white, middle-class Americans without a college education, who relied on mining and manufacturing jobs. Between 1980 and 2010, there has been a significant fall in the number of mining jobs by 40%. While manufacturing employment levels have fallen by 40.5% within the same timeframe.
The key difference between the populism of Sanders and Trump was a racial aspect. Sanders’ populism focused on the plight of the average American workers who lost their jobs as the economy shifted; while Trump narrowed the scope to focus on white, non-college educated, blue-collar Americans and played on their fears of being culturally displaced. A study by Dian Mutz, a political science and communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that Trump appealed strongest to white, Christian, and male voters. She found that Trump's base was motivated by a fear of cultural displacement. Her study found that losing a job between 2012 to 2016 or the perception of a financially worse situation did not make a person more likely to support Trump. That having been said, the popularity of Sanders and Trumps showed that America was already divided not only by class but by race. Moreover, Hilary failed to comprehend the growing resentment of globalization felt by many in the working class. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the rise of globalization led to the loss of 3.2 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. between 2001 – 2013 to China. Likewise, they found that by trading with emerging markets, full-time workers without a college degree saw a reduction in their wages by 5.5%. By accusing China of currency manipulation, and by criticizing NAFTA and NATO; Trump was able to tap into the negative emotions through his America 1st Agenda.
How this played into the growing division is that we must remember those on the other side of the argument, the advocates for globalization. A study by the Brooking Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization think-tank, found that between 1990 and 2010 the rate of economic convergence between American states had fallen significantly. The Brooking Institution also found that as productivity in metropolitan areas rose; middle-income cities which relied heavily on manufacturing and mining struggled to keep up. To further illustrate this, a report by the OECD found that the average productivity gap between the 10% of the most productive regions and the bottom 75% widened by nearly 60% over the past 20 years within its richest member countries. As a result, richer metropolitan areas like New York City pulled further away from places like Scranton, and South Carolina which voted heavily for Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, with the economy reporting near full employment at 60.6% and the Dow reporting record earnings, a blue wave should be viewed as a possibility, not a certainty. A blue way directly contradicts what has been a political campaigns’ doctrine for the past three decades. The economy should be the focus of any political campaign. With the economy flourishing and Republicans in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, it’s a surprise the economy is not the main talking point for Republican candidates. The irony here is that the economy, which took center stage previously, has now taken a back seat to immigration to rally the Republican base. To illustrate this, Republican candidates like Martha McSally of Arizona, Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Ted Cruz of Texas are unified in campaigning on a stronger southern border. While on the other hand, Democratic candidates like Beto O'Rourke of Texas, Stacey Abrams of Georgia, and Andrew Gillum of Florida are a campaign on the issues of Healthcare, education and, the environment.
With republics favoring stronger borders and tighter immigration policy, Democrats view immigration as a lesser problem that needs to be solved. However, a 2018 Gallup poll conducted between June 1st and 13th found that 75% of Americans favor immigration, while even 65% of Republican-leaning independents view immigration positively. With American largely viewing immigration in favorable terms it is surprising how the topic of immigration can cause division. The trigger is when the phrase “illegal immigration” is used. Harvard-Harris poll found that 70% of Americans feel a need for stricter immigration laws. While 61% of Americans feel that that illegal immigrants and their children should be deported. Though it can be argued that there has always been a growing level of cultural anxiety, the President’s focus on immigration reform has led to a sharp increase in the levels of cultural anxiety. As he wrote in a tweet that “many gang members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border.”
Such rhetoric is used to rally the conservative base to the election booths this midterm election. In contrast, Democratic candidates are using another fear-based tactic to motivate their base. These midterm Democratic candidates are sticking to the talking points of healthcare, and the Trump tax cuts. Democrats are arguing that if Republicans keep the House, they will repeal the mandate in the Affordable Care Act which disallows insurance companies from denying coverage to someone with a pre-existing condition. In regard to the GOP Tax breaks, Democrats are campaigning under the current tax reform, a study by the Tax Policy Centre has found that the top 1% of American earners will receive 60% of the total tax cuts. What this has created is a situation where both political parties are playing to the fears of their base; leading to a situation of growing partisanship. Results from the Pew Research Centre found that in 2016 over 50% of members in the Democratic and Republican party view members of the opposing party as “very unfavorable” for the first time in over 20 years. Moreover, the Directory of the political research for Pew is on record saying that there has been a sharp increase in the intensity of negativity.
Again, to blame this solely on the Trump Presidency would be a misrepresentation of the facts. Though data from the Pew research only dates back to 1992, data from the National Election Study does show a steady rise in the levels of partisan negativity. A study by the University of Northern Iowa found in 2016 that "attributes of social media, particularly the ability it gives users to surround themselves with information they already agree with, and filter out information they disagree with, is a likely contributor to political polarization" in the U.S. Moreover, research by Matthew Levendusky, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, found that political television aimed at a certain audience also contributes to the growing polarization levels by shifting those who are already at the extremes ends of the political spectrum further away from the center. As Amy Chua writes in Political Tribes (2018): “The Left believes that right-wing tribalism [of] bigotry [and] racism is tearing the country apart. [While] The Right believes that left-wing tribalism [of] identity politics [and] political correctness is tearing the country apart.” That is not to say that the left does not engage in such practices, to argue that they are not equally complicit would be false. Armed with this, it is easy to see the divide being created by the President’s dehumanizing rhetoric against minority groups. Such rhetoric, which is then magnified and echoed by right-wing media organizations, solely speaks to those operating on the extreme right and alienating those in the center and left; creating greater divisions in U.S. politics.
The #Metoo Movement has also added to the division in the nation. With women worldwide rallying together to say no unwanted sexual advances and harassment in the workplace; it is not surprising the movement is divisive, but it is disheartening. The movement began soon after the sexual assault allegations where brought up against Harvey Weinstein in October of 2017. It is important to make it clear at this point that I am not advocating or implying that the principals of #Metoo are divisive. However, what I am arguing is the politicization of the movement has led to greater division. The politicization of the Kavanaugh hearings has led to the political consequence of many young women viewing the Republican establishment as once again choosing to side against the victim. Meanwhile, Trump used this as a rallying cry to move his conservative base to vote this midterm election, portraying the left as an “out-of-control angry mob”.
As a result, the Kavanaugh hearings have further divided the nation along gender lines. With the Quinnipiac University poll reporting roughly 60% of women are leaning towards the Democratic candidate in their district compared to 42% of men. While only 33% of women leaned towards the Republican candidate compared to 50% of men. At the same time, to argue that the gender gap is solely due to the Trump Presidency would be misleading, as analysis by the American National Election Studies research shows that it is not unusual to observe the two genders leaning towards opposing candidates. In the elections of 1948, 1952 and 1960, data shows women were more likely to support Republican candidates. At the same time, to argue that the Trump Presidency has not had a significant effect on the increase in the gender gap would be equally dishonest. On average, there is a 20-point gender gap favoring Democrats with women - the largest since 1958. With the President’s remarks on the Access Hollywood Tapes and mocking Dr. Christine Ford at his at a Mississippi Rally, it’s no stretch of the imagination to argue that there exists a correlation between the President's rhetoric and polls reporting a historic gender gap.
Altogether, these factors have created today's political landscape where polarization is nearing historic heights. The steady decline of the middle class and the growing levels of income inequality brought about by an increase in globalization; coupled with growing change in Americas’ demographics all have contributed in leading us to where we are today. President Trump is not the cause of today’s division; instead, he is merely a symptom. History has shown that when a majority of a people feel scared, threated and economically vulnerable; they turn to a leader that provides a scapegoat or common enemy. This leader would demand absolute loyalty and seek to control the free press. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. In this midterm election, the Republican party could lose both the House and Senate, in addition to losing key governorships. This election is seen by many as a referendum on the Trump Presidency as he has labeled it that on many occasions. By losing both Houses, the election would show that the American people are not in support of the Presidents policies and rhetoric. Alternatively, if the Democrats fail to take the House or the Senate, it would be an affirmation of the Trump Presidency, emboldening him to push more of his agenda.