What’s Been On My Mind This Week

Question Mark

1. Unsurprisingly, for those of you who regularly read this blog, the results of the American midterm elections have been uppermost on my mind this week, as well as what the next two years (and beyond) might entail. What is not in doubt is that the Democrats suffered a catastrophic defeat, perhaps one even worse than they were expecting. Obama has the lowest approval ratings on record; the Republicans are in possession of their biggest majority in the House since Truman; the Democrats lost every contested governor’s seat bar one, including those in Massachussetts, Maryland and Illinois, states which are usually thought to be part of the party’s stronghold. Obama is considered such a liability he barely appeared on the campaign trail. In contrast, both Clintons were out in force, with Bill making thirteen appearances in his home state of Arkansas. However, despite their star power they only managed to influence one battleground Senate seat. Black and Hispanic voters, who usually overwhelmingly vote Democrat, failed to do so in such big numbers, though it’s worth noting that voter turnout was only about 40%, and a much higher number tend to vote in presidential elections. But, as divisions start to open up within the Democratic party, there is a palpable sense of malaise within it, coupled with general disillusionment and political apathy among the electorate. America was one of the largest Western democracies to be led by the Left; do these midterms mark a seismic political shift?

Though the Republicans will surely this is just the start of bigger victories to come, it’s worth remembering that they also made huge gains in the 2010 midterms, yet failed to wrestle the White House away from Obama in the 2012 presidential election. I’ve already mentioned that around 2/3 of the electorate didn’t vote earlier this week, and, of those who did, 65% of them were 45 or older, and the older generations are generally more likely to vote Republican. Furthermore, even though there might be serious rifts opening up within the Democratic Party, the same can be said of the Republicans, with the party’s more liberal wing, led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, apparently willing to work with Obama, while the conservative wing – whose de facto leader is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas – remains intent on pursuing a more confrontational agenda. Of course the Republicans will want to take back the White House in 2016; in the face of voter apathy, disinterest and distrust, showing a willingness to co-operate with the President, to find areas of compromise and to pursue a legislative agenda that actually gets things done rather than plunging the political system into deadlock again, should endear them more to the electorate. These elections cost $4billion, but most of the money spent by Republicans was in pursuing a viciously anti-Obama (and usually anti-Obamacare) message. The party did not offer any real solutions, nor promises of what they would achieve were they to be elected. Arguably they have no mandate to govern. They should seek areas of bipartisan agreement, and show the voters why they should have a Republican president in 2016.

The other big question is whether or not the midterm results reduce Obama to a lame duck president, with the role of either ratifying or vetoing every bill that comes his way. Just as the Republicans will be focussed on demonstrating why they deserve the office in 2016, Obama will be concerned with his legacy. It’s likely he will concentrate on foreign policy, immigration, security and trade: there are significant agreements he could put in place with Europe and China; there are continued threats from ISIS and Iran, and, of course, Russia. It’s also worth looking back at the tide that swept Obama to electoral victory not once, but twice: on both occasions he won more than 50% of the electoral vote. Despite what Republicans say, and the serious issue of voter misunderstanding and ignorance surrounding it, Obamacare is a huge achievement, providing millions with health insurance and also boosting the economy by creating 9 million jobs. Obama has also reduced the deficit, overturned the ban on gay people serving in the military, and achieved much which in the past the Democrats had only ever dreamed of doing.

Finally, there are some small glimmers of hope arising from these midterm elections. Namely that there are now more than 100 women sitting in the House of Representatives; the Republicans elected their first black congresswoman, Mia Love; and the American South has its first black senator since 1870, with the Republican Tim Scott elected in South Carolina. The next step is for the Republican Party to elect a Senate Majority Leader, as Harry Reid prepares to depart. The infighting and backbiting has already started, and it remains to be seen whether that will be characteristic of the party for the next two years, or whether they can rise above their own internal differences and start to inspire confidence and belief in the electorate again. Alongside them, the Democrats need to pick themselves up, move on and start planning on how to retain the White House in 2016. Potential presidential candidates will soon declare their intention to run; America is rarely out of an election cycle. But that ought not overshadow any actual governance occurring over the next two years; will even the slightest bipartisan co-operation be too much to hope for?

2. As the American political system might be poised to plunge itself into gridlock and crisis once more, closer to home the situation is just as serious. There have been renewed calls this week for Labour leader Ed Miliband to resign, and apparently some backbenchers had formally voiced their concerns about his leadership and the party’s potential to win the general election next year. Miliband responded by saying the stories of dissent were ‘nonsense’ and, given that there would most likely have to be a leadership contest to elect a successor, it seems unlikely that any serious challenge to his leadership will take place so close to such an important election. The New Statesman published a number of articles criticising Miliband this week, but they also published this one, which looks at the decline of the two-party system in Britain, the steep decline in membership of both the Conservative and Labour parties, and the lack of engagement with voters. Politicians have also failed to engage with the electorate in America but, as the article in the New Statesman points out, this week those same voters often re-elected politicans of whom they allegedly disapproved. Britain’s frustrated and disillusioned electorate already spoke once this year in the European and local government elections; whether the Labour and Conservative parties can meaningfully engage with voters before May 2015 remains to be seen.

3.  My body, my choice. The fight for abortion rights continues, as Parliament this week voted overwhelmingly (181-1) in support of a Bill that seeks to ban sex-selective abortion. As this article on the subject in the New Statesman points out, the legislation governing abortion in the UK starts from the position that the default outcome for all pregnant women should be motherhood. That is the way our society continues to operate, and I have written many times on this blog about the stigma attached to women who are childless (for whatever reason), and women’s continue fight – worldwide – for control over their own bodies. It seems unlikely that abortion will ever be anything other than a particularly difficult, contentious issue, so weighed down is it by emotional resonance coupled with hundreds of years of patriarchy and religious belief. Although it might be difficult to agree with all of the arguments expressed in the New Statesman piece, given the complexities surrounding abortion and the many different situations in which it might occur – where should the line be drawn? – the central sentiment, ‘my body, my choice’, remains of vital importance.

4. This week I’ve been reading Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny. Penny is a feminist, activist and journalist currently studying at Harvard. This is her first book and it’s the best kind of raw, hard-hitting and in-your-face. As a result of its examination of contemporary feminism, the position of women in society, cybersexism and much, much more, many have called for Unspeakable Things to be made compulsory reading in schools. I can certainly see why and would urge everyone to read it.

5. I’ve been listening to Young the Giant this week, a group I will admit to not having heard of until a fortnight or so ago. I’ve had both their eponymous debut playing, as well as their 2014 release, Mind Over Matter. These American boys are certainly competent indie-rockers, at their best approaching something of a Coldplay-esque sound, though without quite the same strength and depth in their lyrics. Both albums have some great tracks (‘I Got’ and ‘St. Walker’ on the first and ‘Camera’ and ‘Eros’ on the second), but the overall effect on each is rather uneven, and it’s difficult to tell where the group are attempting to go with their second release. Though it will probably be another four years until we find out anything further.

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