The Midterm Elections Don’t Matter
by Benjamin Studebaker
As the midterm elections approach, the political class is working very hard to increase voter turnout. President Biden has given a big speech accusing the Republicans of posing a grave threat to democracy. We are inundated with political ads in which the Democrats accuse the Republicans of plotting to ban abortion and the Republicans accuse the Democrats of causing inflation. None of the arguments offered by either side have much to do with reality, and it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who will even make a sincere effort to discuss what’s going on without incorporating distorted partisan messaging. If we look at the issues, it’s clear that the composition of Congress is not going to make much difference over the next two years.
There are four issues that are getting a lot of attention during the campaign:
Let’s take each in turn.
The cost of living crisis has its roots in the pandemic. Governments from across the political spectrum shut down substantial parts of their economies. This disrupted supply chains, leading to shortages and price hikes. The Russian invasion of Ukraine made the situation worse, by increasing oil prices. But we were in for a shock in any case. Pandemic-era stimulus programs staved off unemployment by putting cash in people’s pockets. But the American economy reopened faster than many other economies, and so these people started buying things before global supply chains were ready to support renewed demand. Even now, China’s zero-COVID policy continues to disrupt production.
To solve this problem, we would need to get those supply chains up and running, and we would need to restore the oil production and refining capacity that existed before the pandemic. To do that quickly, we would need to wrap up the war in Ukraine, get China to abandon the zero-COVID strategy, and get OPEC to increase production.
Neither party is able to do any of these things. Oil-exporting states understandably see this crisis as a leverage point. They want to squeeze as many dollars out of this situation as they can, and they will not help the United States boost oil production. Both parties regard this as an opportunity to reduce dependence on China. The Biden administration’s new export controls attack China’s tech sector, and suggest that the administration is hoping to redesign supply chains instead of reopening the pre-pandemic routes. And both parties are interested in continuing the war on Ukraine. Military aid bills still receive broad bipartisan support, with many Republican senators joining the Democrats in voting for war spending.
This means that there is no prospect of resolving the supply chain issues in the near-term. Instead, the two parties plan to rely on the Federal Reserve. The central bank is raising interest rates, and will continue to do so, vacuuming money out of the economy in a bid to push down consumer demand and reign in price increases. This will result in a painful recession in 2023.
The Republicans talk about passing tax cuts, but tax cuts would undercut the Federal Reserve’s strategy. In the UK, attempts to pass tax cuts in the face of high inflation have elicited very negative reactions from the markets. The Republicans know this, and they know that President Biden isn’t going to support the cuts in any case. If they do well in the midterms, they will blame Biden for refusing to pass the cuts while quietly shelving them.
Instead, the Republicans will try to extract spending cuts from the Biden administration whenever there is a need to raise the debt ceiling or pass a federal budget. These fights will go broadly the same way they went during the Obama administration. They will produce gridlock and inaction, but they will not fundamentally transform the state. The Republicans will claim that by supporting cuts they are opposing inflation, but any cuts that do pass will be much too small to meaningfully affect the inflation rate.
If the Democrats do retain control, they will find that there is little they are prepared to do about the inflation rate. The Biden administration sometimes threatens to hit oil companies with a windfall profits tax, but this threat is unlikely to incentivize them to increase production, when they know the administration aims to reduce oil and gas consumption in the long-term. In theory, the Biden administration could try starting up a public energy company and building the additional capacity itself, but in practice it has shown no interest in adopting any radical approaches. The infrastructure spending bills that the Democrats have passed under Biden have been far too small to have much impact on inflation. The Democrats overstate their impact by measuring the spending by the decade rather than by the year, allowing them to tack an extra zero on the end of every number for promotional purposes. In truth, those spending bills comprise only a tiny percentage of the annual federal budget.
Instead, in the next two years, inaction by the legislative and executive branches will force the Federal Reserve to play the key role in managing the economic crisis created by the pandemic. The Federal Reserve’s board includes both Trump-era appointees and Biden-era appointees, but there is substantial support from both sides for brutal contractionary policy. No matter who you vote for, this is what we’re going to get. Most likely, by around 2024, the pain of the recession will push the Federal Reserve to begin backing off, and when that happens there will be some level of economic recovery. Biden will try to take credit for it, as we head into the 2024 presidential election cycle. But it will have nothing to do with him or with the Republicans.
The composition of congress is not going to force President Biden to change his foreign policy. As I pointed out above, there are already large numbers of Republicans who already reliably vote for Ukraine aid packages. Many of the Republicans who vote against these aid packages are voting this way for political reasons, to signal that they are anti-establishment or avant-garde. They know their votes against military aid have no chance of undercutting the policy. If congressional composition heavily shifted toward the Republicans, some of the Republicans who currently symbolically oppose the aid would probably start voting for it.
Even if all of the Republicans who currently oppose aid are sincere and committed, they are very far from having the numbers necessary to defeat the aid packages. The May package easily got more than 80 votes in the Senate, indicating that a majority of the Republican caucus is not even interested in performatively opposing the policy to throw red meat to the base.
There is no substantial anti-war faction in the Democratic Party. A tiny minority of Democrats in the House signed an open letter to the president, urging him to pursue a diplomatic solution. The letter was highly deferential in tone. It repeatedly expresses sympathy for the Ukrainian position. Nevertheless, there was intense blowback from party elites and allied media, and the letter was swiftly pulled.
Ultimately, the American position on Ukraine will only change if the president decides it ought to change. Joe Biden is not up for election until 2024. Regardless of how Republican voters might feel about the conflict, Republican members of congress still have largely neo-conservative positions on foreign policy and are not going to be the reason the Ukrainian war effort fails.
President Biden will veto any effort by the Republicans to pass a federal abortion ban. There is no chance of any such ban in the next two years, regardless of the composition of congress. Biden says that if the Democrats retain control of congress, they will pass a federal bill guaranteeing abortion rights. But even if the Democrats have the votes for such a bill, the Supreme Court is very likely to strike such a bill down, on the grounds that it violates the rights of the states under the 10th amendment. The conservative Supreme Court justices did not strike down Roe purely on the basis that they feel it was poorly argued. They clearly oppose abortion, and they clearly want the states to have the opportunity to pass more restrictive abortion laws. They calculated that they could strike Roe down without significant political repercussions, and the Biden administration has shown no willingness to try to pack the court or impeach any of the justices. So, there is no reason to expect the court to hold back if Biden passes federal legislation.
Depending on where you live, abortion could be a live issue in your state. Often, American elections have more consequences at the state and local level than they do for federal politics. The more gridlocked and useless the federal government becomes, the more state governments are forced to try to make the investments the things the federal government finds itself unable or unwilling to make. But because states compete with one another for jobs and investment, they are limited in their ability to make autonomous economic policy. The more the blue states try to protect the quality of their public services, the more the red states try to siphon jobs and investment away with the promise of lower tax rates. And so, gradually, both parties drag more and more states in the low-tax direction, allowing public service provision to decline and infrastructure to decay.
These long-term trends cut across party lines. The federal government increasingly does not act, and without federal guidance, the state governments increasingly act in a competitive way. While it would be empowering to think that we can vote to change all this in the midterms, neither party in practice offers anything of the kind.
What about Biden’s speech? It is true that many Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen through election fraud. But many Democrats believe the 2000 presidential election was stolen by Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and that the 2016 presidential election was stolen by Vladimir Putin’s army of Russian trolls. The Democrats spent years in Congress holding hearings investigating the 2016 election. Casting doubt on the validity of elections enables the losers to avoid having to take responsibility for defeat. The two parties both promise to deliver hope and change, to ensure that the “forgotten” Americans are remembered, but both repeatedly fail to improve living standards for ordinary people. Under both Trump and Biden, the federal government is badly gridlocked, delivering milquetoast policies unable to resolve deep, structural problems. The state governments compete with each other for the scraps, running one another down in the process.
There is an electoral price to be paid for overpromising and underdelivering, and when the Democrats and the Republicans are made to pay this price, they seek to avoid responsibility. They tell their supporters that the election was stolen, and they promise all sorts of procedural reforms to “save” democracy from the other party. The Democrats promise to stop voter suppression and Gerrymandering, to make it easier to vote by mail, to pressure the social media companies into regulating fake news, and so on. The Republicans promise to stop voter fraud, to require more rigorous forms of voter identification, to pressure social media companies into allowing more incendiary forms of speech, and so on.
The more one party tries to save democracy, the easier it is for the other party to accuse it of authoritarian intentions. Democratic electoral reforms are clearly intended to make it easier for Democrats to win, and Republican electoral reforms are clearly intended to make it easier for Republicans to win, and it is easy for each set of reforms to be painted as a power grab. The Democrats frame the Republicans as semi-fascists, and the Republicans frame the Democrats as communists, and fear is used to drive voter turnout.
The fear is needed precisely because neither party is capable of getting the federal government to function. If either party made a genuine effort to defy an election and destroy democracy, the offending candidates would face arrest. Donald Trump tried to contest the results of the election, but his own Supreme Court justices refused to support him, and his own national security officials threatened to forcibly remove him from office. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, put it:
“They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed. You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.”
The argument that you have to vote to save democracy from the other party is a desperate argument coughed up by politicians of little accomplishment. It’s a ploy to get us to care about an election that doesn’t really matter very much. What should concern us is the persistent erosion of state capacity, the inability of the American state to act in the face of growing feelings of resentment. We are relying on the Federal Reserve to engineer a recession to control inflation because our elected government is not able to govern. Our ordinary citizens will pay a steep price for this in 2023, and in 2024 the same old politicians will try to sell that catastrophe as their success.