What Happened in the 2006 Midterm Elections
An update to Who Rules America?
by G. William Domhoff
Who Rules America? shows how a power elite based in the corporate community dominates on key decisions in the United States whether Republicans or Democrats are in office. However, it does say that elections matter in a number of ways for the rest of the population, and perhaps especially so for low-income people and people of color.
The midterm elections in November 2006 were an excellent example of how elections can matter. The unexpected Democratic victory hobbled the right wing of the power elite and returned moderate conservatives to the central position they had held on policy issues for decades until the Republicans took control of the White House in 2000 and then both houses of Congress in 2002.
So, the purpose of this update is to explain what happened in the 2006 mid-term elections, and what this is likely to mean for the functioning of the power elite. It also shows once again how a third party of the right -- the Libertarians -- mattered greatly and how a third party of the left -- the Greens -- almost mattered, which is relevant to issues of social change in the United States.
But let's start with the fact that Democratic control of Congress could have significant economic impacts for the tens of millions of Americans who are outside the top 20% of the wealth distribution, that is, for the 80% who own only 16% of all marketable assets -- e.g., stocks, bonds, real estate. (See "Wealth, Income, and Power" for details.) This point is seen most dramatically in a recent simulation study which suggests that the income distribution would have stayed the same over the past 50 years -- not become much more concentrated, as it did -- if Democratic patterns of income growth had been followed during that whole period. On the other hand, the inequality of the income distribution would have increased almost 80% faster if Republican income growth patterns had been in place during that same period (Bartels, 2003; Jacobs & Skocpol, 2005). That's a huge difference for Americans in general, even though wealth still would have been highly concentrated in the top 1% -- the corporate rich/social upper class -- under either set of policies. For example, the top 1% had 31.1% in 1968, at a time when Republicans had held the presidency for only eight of the previous 36 years, and the Congress for a mere four of those years, whereas the top 1% had 38.1% in 1998.
The fifth edition of Who Rules America? explains why the country came to be ruled by the far-right wing of the power elite: because the Republicans, driven by their more conservative factions, and focusing on the South, were able to take over both houses of Congress in 2002. Before that time, moderate conservatives within the power elite were the predominant influence because the Democrats usually controlled either the Senate or House of Representatives, which provided a moderating check. After the trauma of 9/11 and the Republican sweep of 2002, there were no domestic constraints on the right wing, so the Bush Administration pretty much had its way on everything for the next few years, although it could not convince Congress or the people in general that partial privatization of Social Security was a good idea.
The reality of right-wing dominance is reflected at the end of Chapter 7, "How The Power Elite Dominate Government." After explaining the constraints on the power elite that existed in the past, the concluding sentences suggest that under the current circumstances, "it may be that the only real limits on the corporate-conservative coalition will be set by the length and ferocity of the war in Iraq, and the reaction of financial and currency markets to the growing budget deficits and increasing federal debt" (Domhoff, 2006, p. 198). In other words, the right wing would have to make big mistakes on the war or the economy for anything to change, and that's exactly what it did when it came to the war, as nearly everyone now agrees.
The Iraq war and independent voters
Due to the war, and the seeming arrogance and intransigence of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld on this and most other issues, there was an anti-Bush, anti-war vote in 2006 that included a higher turnout by Democrats and under-30 voters; but most of all, it was based on the strongest vote ever recorded for either party by independents (a margin of 59% vs. 37% overall, according to exit polls). As also happened when there were mounting American deaths in the Korean and Vietnam wars, people turned their anti-war feelings into anti-incumbent votes, which are the main restraint on how the power elite conducts foreign policy (Mueller, 1973). Despite feelings of patriotism and appeals from Bush to stay the course, the majority of voters in effect said they are not for imperial wars at the expense of the young men and women from their neighborhoods and cities. People may not fully realize that the power elite wants to reshape Iraq's economy in ways most Iraqis do not like -- and even worse, to keep military bases there, which is anathema to all Iraqis as a clear sign they have been conquered, not liberated -- but Americans do understand that they were misled into an unnecessary war that has caused incalculable pain and damage.
(For those unaware that the Pentagon entered the war with plans to build several major bases well beyond urban areas for policing the Middle East, see Donald Rumsfeld's suggestion in his November 2006 memo to Bush -- two days before he learned he was being fired -- that the White House "Conduct an accelerated draw-down of U.S. bases. We have already reduced from 110 to 55 bases. Plan to get down to 10 to 15 bases by April 2007, and to 5 bases by July 2007." For further details, see http://www.tomdispatch.com/
Social issues: Democrats break through
But it wasn't just the anti-war vote that won for the Democrats, as important as that was. They also won because the various social issues that have been a major key to Republican success -- the religious, morality, and gun-control issues on which social liberals and social conservatives strongly differ -- were neutralized in this election. This happened in three ways, all of which involve extreme breaks with the past 45 years.
First, the Democrats supported candidates in socially conservative areas who were opposed to gun control or abortion. They had candidates who openly professed their religious faith, such as a former Methodist minister-turned-Congressman who won the governorship of Ohio, and even an economically liberal Congressman from the same state who was able to take the Senate seat from an incumbent Republican. These candidates projected the image of bread-and-butter Democrats who were for hard-working "middle-class" families (of course, just about everyone in the United States considers themselves "middle class"). So it was difficult to paint the Democrats as far-out upper-middle-class liberals who did not care about ordinary people, despite strong efforts to do so.
However, social issues were neutralized in another way as well, courtesy of the Republicans. They had so many highly visible Congressmen and candidates who appeared "immoral" or "corrupt" -- taking money illegally from lobbyists, various sexual/marital scandals, etc. -- that they looked like hypocrites when they talked about the Democrats as godless, immoral, and depraved.
Third, Democrats won because the touchiest social issue of them all -- race -- was not on the table in most districts or states in this election, except in Tennessee, where a black Democrat tried (and failed) to become the first African-American in the Senate from the South since the Reconstruction Era. As explained in Who Rules America?, the shift to the Republicans by middle-American whites, whether from the North or South, who had supported the Democrats from 1930 through 1964, began with their strong resentment of the various attempts at affirmative action for African-Americans. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the past, they saw affirmative action as coming at their own expense, not at the expense of the well-educated and the well-to-do, increasing the competition for good blue-collar jobs and admission to college. For those who came of age during or after the 1990s, when attempts to level the playing field for African-Americans had been almost completely squelched, and there was no longer any fear of black disruption in major downtown areas, it is hard to imagine the immense role that racial resentments played in reshaping the Republican Party, which is now seen as a party concerned with religion and morality.
Affirmative Action: A setback for progressives
Still, in the 2006 elections there was a ballot initiative in Michigan that is very revealing about the importance of racial issues in understanding voting choices by white Americans. The initiative was meant to do away with even the slightest efforts toward affirmative action in that state in terms of hiring decisions, the awarding of contracts, or college admissions. It was created by a white woman who several years ago was put on the waiting list for entrance to the elite campus of the University of Michigan, the one at Ann Arbor. She went to the University of Michigan at Dearborn, but resented being wait listed ever after because she feels her individual rights were violated on the basis of race. After graduation from the Dearborn campus, she filed a lawsuit contesting what she saw as her exclusion from the Ann Arbor campus. (Actually, she never told Ann Arbor to keep her on the wait list, so we don't know what might have happened if she had returned the necessary paperwork.) In any event, her lawsuit led to a recent Supreme Court decision that leaves the door only slightly open for some form of affirmative action on admissions. It is a form of affirmative action that opens only a few slots and has only a tiny effect on the overall chances of the large number of whites who apply.
Not satisfied with her victory, she formed a group to put an initiative on the ballot, an initiative tailored after one that had passed several years ago in California. This initiative, called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, supported by some of the same people who backed the California initiative, basically said that race cannot be taken into account in any way, shape, or form under any circumstances. It was worded in such a way that a "yes" vote meant that affirmative action would be abolished, thereby affirming everyone's civil rights.
Just about every organized group in Michigan opposed the initiative, including the Republican Party and its very conservative white male candidate for governor, so it was not a party-line issue. This set up a unique situation because white voters did not have to vote for Republicans in order to block a race-based policy they did not like. They were free to vote their racial resentments through the initiative and their economic preferences through the Democrats, and that's exactly what many of them did.
The fact that the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative was backed by a margin of 58% to 42% overall, due to the support of 70% of white men and 59% of white women, according to exit polls, is a stunning commentary on the resentment whites have toward affirmative action even at this late date. This vote is all the more revealing because about half of whites voted for the Democratic incumbents in the governor's office and the Senate, both women, which made it possible for them to be re-elected. Based on the results in Michigan, I think it is safe to say that the Democrats were lucky that issues related to race were not part of the competition in the 2006 elections.
Class & religion
Who Rules America? argues that classes and class conflict are the key to understanding the American power structure, but it does not say that politics are only about class, or necessarily have anything to do with class at all. Although lower-income people are more likely to vote Democrat than Republican, they do not do so in overwhelming numbers because they often vote on the basis of identities that are more important to them than class, such as race or religion. In the 2006 election, for example, 52% of whites, who are by far the largest group in the electorate (79% of the people who voted), said they voted for Republicans. It is the overwhelming support for the Democrats by African-Americans and Latinos that provides them with the necessary margin when they win.
But is not just race that matters. Religious affiliation, another important identity that often transcends class, also is important. In 2006, the same large differences that always have existed between Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish voters were still there -- 62 % of white Protestants voted Republican, compared to 49% of Catholics, and only 12% of Jews.
Since there are far more people in the United States with low incomes than high incomes, it is not hard to see why Republicans want people to vote on the basis of their racial or religious identity, not their class, whereas Democrats want them to vote on the basis of their pocketbook, i.e., economic issues. It is for this reason that even Republicans without strong religious beliefs often stress social issues in their campaigns.
Libertarians and Greens
The first several pages of Chapter 6 in Who Rules America? explain how the electoral rules in the United States create a situation in which a vote for a third party of the right or the left is in effect a vote for the voter's least favored candidate. In 2000, when Ralph Nader ran for president on the Green Party ticket, a vote for him instead of Democratic candidate Al Gore meant that George W. Bush ended up with more votes in Florida and New Hampshire than Gore. That gave the presidency to George W. Bush because he had more votes in the electoral college, even though Gore won the popular vote nationwide by about 500,000 votes. Who Rules America? also cites several examples where the Libertarian Party, a right-wing party that is staunchly anti-government, received just enough votes to deprive the Republicans of Senate seats and a governorship between 1998 and 2002.
In the 2006 election, the Libertarian candidate in Montana probably cost the Republicans control of the Senate by garnering 10,000 votes; the incumbent Republican, Conrad Burns, lost by less than 3,000 votes to Democrat Jon Tester. (Yes, some of those voters might have stayed home if there was no Libertarian on the ballot, or even voted Democratic, but Libertarians usually prefer Republicans to Democrats if forced to choose.) If Burns had won, the Senate would be deadlocked at 50-50, and Vice President Dick Cheney, as President of the Senate, would cast the deciding vote and give control of the Senate to the Republicans.
The same thing almost happened in the tight Senate race in Virginia, where the 26,000 votes captured by the Green Party candidate could have cost Democrat Jim Webb his victory over the incumbent Republican, George Allen, who only lost by 9,329 votes.
Because of the enormous impacts that third parties can have, people who support them are deeply disliked by those who have similar views but have chosen to work within the constraints dictated by the electoral rules; i.e., within the Democratic or Republican Party. Even though it is the Libertarians who have hurt a major party the most in recent years, these tensions are often greater on the left, between liberal Democrats and leftist third parties like the Greens. That's because the liberals feel they are always fighting an uphill battle, where they need all the help they can get from energetic organizers, not third-party opposition that could undo all their efforts.
This resentment grows even greater when the liberal Democrats learn that right-wingers are providing funding for the left-wing third parties, as happened in 2006 when wealthy supporters of the embattled Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, gave money to the Green Party candidate in the hope that he would siphon off enough votes from the Democrat to return Santorum to office. As it happened, the Democratic candidate won by a near landslide, 59% to 41%, but the fact that Republican rightists funded a leftist party -- which has happened in other states, and even in the Nader campaign of 2000 -- is powerful evidence for the idea that progressive social change has to be approached through a combination of social movements and selective challenges in Democratic Party primaries, as argued in the article "Third Parties Don't Work" on WhoRulesAmerica.net.
The near future
Everyone loves to prognosticate, even though everyone is usually wrong. And even when someone gets it right, it may be just dumb luck. If a thousand people make predictions, someone may prove to be right just by chance, although the lucky winners never admit that; instead, they capitalize on their temporary success by becoming media gurus or stock market mavens.
That said, my guess is that the Democratic victory first and most importantly means that the moderate conservatives in the power elite are back in charge of foreign policy. Although they are far from being liberals, there was not much they liked about the Bush/
Second, it may mean that the policies that helped increase wealth and income concentration in the top few percent over the past 30 years will be halted. By this point even moderate conservatives may be uncomfortable with rising CEO pay and tax cuts for the super-rich. Many moderates are also deeply worried about the huge budget deficits that are projected for the near future.
However, it would be difficult to legislate any of the policies that might work against the strong tendencies within a market-based, increasingly globalized economy to undercut wages and increase income derived from investments. A slight increase in the minimum wage might happen, and perhaps tax breaks for middle-class Americans concerning health care and tuition costs, but it would take strong unions and an enlarged Democratic majority that is liberal on economic issues for significant changes to occur. However, strong unions and economic liberalism are opposed by moderate conservatives in the Republican Party as well as by the wealthy centrists who are the major financial supporters of the Democratic Party.
What about the 2008 elections?
Will the Democrats once again do well in 2008? If the war issue has declined in importance, and one or another of the liberal social issues, such as abortion or gay marriage or gun control, is upsetting large numbers of independents and centrist Democrats, then they may not. Unless, of course, there is a recession or independents suddenly become annoyed by CEO salaries and tax cuts that favor the well-to-do. In other words, I doubt that anyone can say for sure what will happen because there are too many unknowns in the equation. Those who lean Democrat, of course, say that the 2006 elections signal the end of an ultra-conservative era, and those who favor Republicans say those elections were just a blip, but partisans on both sides are hoping and guessing, not analyzing.
Bartels, L. M. (2003, May 29-30). Partisan politics and the U.S. income distribution. The Russell Sage Foundation Conference on Social Dimensions of Society Inequality.
Domhoff, G. W. (2006). Who rules America? Power, politics, and social change (Fifth ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Jacobs, L., & Skocpol, T. (2005). Inequality and American democracy: What we know and what we need to know. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Mueller, J. E. (1973). War, presidents, and public opinion. New York: Wiley.
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