Where's the US headed in next year's crucial midterm election?

The vote will see 'culture wars' face off against pragmatic, pocketbook concerns
TOPSHOT - Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden waves to supporters before speaking at a Drive-In rally at Dallas High School, in Dallas, Pennsylvania, on October 24, 2020. / AFP / Angela Weiss

“Divided America” may be a cliche but its political impact is deepening. As Democrats and Republicans prepare for next year's crucial midterm congressional elections, the two parties are not just offering different answers to similar questions, they are talking about completely different aspects of reality.

Parties often want to focus on different matters. But the extent to which Democrats are preparing to run on governance, the economy and recovering from the pandemic, while Republicans are laser-focused on culture and grievance, is remarkable.

Republicans will – if need be – talk about the economy and attribute the post-pandemic boom that is already underway to tax cuts under former president Donald Trump. But unless there is a sudden downturn or inflation scare they are likely to avoid the topic.

Democrats will tend to claim credit for all economic progress. But they will also highlight the supposed benefits of their big plans for the US economy, especially if they can pass another major spending bill before November 2022.

Even if they can't, President Joe Biden is seeking to engage the US government with the economy to an extent unknown in recent decades, primarily through executive orders that do not require congressional approval.

The White House “Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force” is the centrepiece of a plan to revive US manufacturing. Claiming to have learnt from crises during the pandemic regarding medicines, personal protective equipment, ventilators and other core medical requirements, Mr Biden wants to ensure that the US becomes independent of international suppliers in manufacturing such key products without relying on a complex global supply chain.

It's part of the Biden version of "America First" economic nationalism. Rather than rely on tariffs, as Mr Trump did, and ignore the reality of complex global supply chains, Mr Biden hopes to revitalise manufacturing by insisting that the US needs to be self-sufficient on broad categories of items.

That is all probably too detailed for much of the electorate, but most of the public, including many Trump-supporting Republicans, want the government to play a major role in overseeing economic growth and securing large numbers of well-paying jobs.

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Fortunately for Republicans, liberal activists sometimes overplay their hands

Democrats are going to run on that issue and they will easily link it to the striking success the Biden administration has had in making Covid-19 vaccines available to all adult Americans in very short order.

Many Trump supporters and others are refusing vaccinations, which is the only reason the project has stalled just short of the stated goal of 70 per cent national inoculation by now.

Some Republican House members may try to run on an anti-vaccination and anti-mask platform. But most will avoid the issue altogether, save to again credit Mr Trump with having overseen the development of the vaccines in his last year in the White House.

Instead, Republicans are now focused on three cultural issues in which the federal government is sometimes barely, if at all, involved, but that certainly have a long track record of efficacy.

They will stress their categorical opposition to illegal and even legal immigration, with appeals to both anxieties about low-skilled wages and more cultural and racial xenophobic sentiments. Of the three, that's the only genuinely federal issue.

Republicans will also point to rising crime rates, attempting to link that to Democratic control of most large cities and falsely painting Mr Biden as leading an agenda to "defund the police".

There is almost always a strong racial component to such language, with violent crime invariably, if sometimes implicitly, attributed to African-Americans and Latinos.

DES MOINES, IOWA - AUGUST 10: Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (L) (D-CA) talks with her aide Julie Chavez Rodriguez (R) during the Asian and Latino Coalition event at Jasper Winery on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. Kamala Harris is on a five day river-to-river bus tour across Iowa promoting her "3AM Agenda" to Iowans.   Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP

But perhaps their biggest bet is on a "culture war" motif with "Critical Race Theory" serving as the main target. CRT has come to mean many different things. But it now frequently serves as a synecdoche for “woke progressivism” that is perceived to be, and sometimes can indeed be, an overly aggressive and even irrationally doctrinaire, hard-liberal approach to racial and, more controversially, transgender issues.

Despite the prevalence of QAnon and other bizarre conspiracy theories, and the near ubiquitous personality cult around Mr Trump, within their own ranks, Republicans will try to paint Democrats as the ones who have "gone crazy," and been taken over by a radical, illiberal and oppressive "cancel culture" ideology.

All that has little to do with Mr Biden's policy agenda, but Republicans are probably right that it is their biggest opportunity to make gains with a public that is otherwise likely to welcome more competent, expansive and ambitious governance on issues like the economy, infrastructure and climate change.

What is often being attacked as America-hating CRT is simply the public and academic unpacking of the reality that no society can impose centuries of slavery and mandate almost 100 years of segregation and racial discrimination without it leaving deep structural and institutional imprints and lacerations.

Fortunately for Republicans, liberal activists sometimes overplay their hands, and come across as power-hungry ideologues demanding conformity to their, often highly debatable, identity-based assertions. That inevitably alienates many people, and even alienates several African Americans and Latinos, not to mention many committed liberals and traditional leftists.

The irony is that Republican state legislatures across the country are by law mandating a countervailing political correctness which, for example, in Florida, effectively prohibits an honest discussion in schools about the role of racism in American history and present day society.

Such controversies are perennial and cyclical in the US. The cultural battle over race and identity peaked in the late 1960s, the mid-1990s and are again a focal point today. The explosion of anti-racist sentiment following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year virtually insured that the right would launch an organised "anti-anti-racism" pushback, which is the core of this controversy.

It's ironic that the Republicans' best allies in this debate are precisely some of the most zealous, hyper-progressive identity liberals, much to the dismay of many traditional class-oriented leftists.

The midterms will be about how much traction "culture war" issues can gain against an impressive commercial comeback under Mr Biden’s ambitious economically oriented agenda. The midterms appear set to pit emotional impulses against pocketbook concerns – and symbolic and cultural anxieties against pragmatic interests.

So, November 2022 will indicate whether the US national economy, manufacturing and jobs are more important than ethnic and cultural morale among the still-dominant white American constituency.

Published: July 11th 2021, 2:00 PM
Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National