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A Backlash Against The Backlash

Mrs. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland both carry a unique epithet. Being the first Native American women to become elected to the United States Congress representing the Democratic Party, they are part of the special flavor of this November’s midterm election result, which saw Democrats take back the House of Representatives. They are not alone. Alongside them stand newly appointed Senator Jared Polis from Colorado (Dem), the first-ever openly gay man to have been elected to Congress, and Rashida Tlaib (Dem) and Ilhan Omar (Dem), the first Muslim women to ever win seats in the Capitol.

This midterm election, the highest number of American women were ever elected to the legislative chambers, with over 100 to the House of Representatives and at least 23 to the U.S. Senate. According to US News “2018 was an historic year for women in politics.” with the share of women now holding seats in the 116th United States Congress summing up to 23 percent, a total three-percentage increase. Likewise, the female contingent is still hardly making up a quarter of the seats in the House and the Senate. Yet the spirit among the newly elected candidates and supporters remain optimistic. Representative-elect Jennifer T. Wexton from Virginia (Dem) showed genuine gratitude toward her voters, not at least towards the women activists whom she saw as critical in her success. However, she also pointed out that there is work to do. “All of us are career women, all of us know how important it is that we just put on our big-girl pants and do our jobs — and maybe more people in Congress need to do that, too.”

Stephane Schriock, president of Emily’s List, a political group with a Democratic emphasis that backs women in politics, proclaimed “This is only just the beginning, I think we are going to see a historical turnout of women in 2020 — this is not dying down.”

Furthermore, without being able to conquer a majority of the Senate, the Democratic Party fields a clear majority of the elected female candidates. In total, the share of female lawmakers in each respective party is very skewed, with the Democrats including slightly more than 40 percent of female lawmakers, while the GOP only accounts for 8 percent. This has strayed some discontent among Republicans, not the least with Sarah Chamberlain, president, and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership. “We need to go out and get our women engaged. We are being dwarfed by the Democrats. This is something we are going to focus on.”

An all-female panel on the issue of the historical mobilization of women in politics, organized by the Future Forum in Austin, Texas, June 20th, 2018. From the left: Moderator Alexa Ura; Gina Ortiz Jones, candidate for Congressional District 23 (Dem); M.J. Hegar, candidate for Congressional District 31 (Dem); Randan Steinhauser, GOP strategist (Rep); Sheryl Cole, candidate for House District 46 (Dem). Photo: LBJ Library/Flickr.

However, regardless of the unique nature of the result, it does not lack potential ground to its genesis. It is fair to say that the current administration’s inclusion of female legislators and popularity among American women has not been remarkable. Hardly a third of its appointees are women, with the previous Obama and Clinton administrations having two women for every five appointees. In addition, President Trump’s approval ratings among the American people, judging from the three categories college-educated, non-educated and minority, are dominated by men in all the three sets according to polls from Gallup, Quinnipiac University and NPR made in August and July this year.

Consequently, with gender now constituting another political divide in the country’s vote bank and in public office, the result can be viewed as an indication of how American politics have assumed a nature of backlashes. This notion is coined by Paul Waldman, a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect, and his description can be summarized as follows:

“American politics has become a cycle of endless backlash, every new development followed by a reactionary counter-development, a mobilization of anger to undo what was just done. If you’re happy with how things are going at a particular moment, you shouldn’t get too comfortable, because chances are that your political opponents are looking at your victories and seething with rage, a rage they’ll be taking out at the ballot box.”

George C. Wallace attempts to block the doorway for the first two admitted black students to the University of Alabama while being confronted by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Photo: Warren Leffler/Wikimedia Commons

It is possible to trace this notion of backlashes all the way back to the 1960s. George C. Wallace, the infamous segregationist governor of Alabama, rode on a white backlash against the Civil Rights movement in his attempt to run for president in 1968. Remembered for his attempt to block the registration of the two first Afro-American students at the University of Alabama in 1963, Wallace’s creed for a segregation would incite national attention. followed by the Democrats’ passing of civil rights legislation such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Likewise, his actions would contribute to the foundation of a more conservative movement within the Republican Party, headed by Ronald Reagan.

Returning to Paul Waldman, he argues that, while backlashes in American politics can be found far back in American history, the most recent cycle can be traced to the early 1990s. At this time, the Republican Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, promised an aggressive scorched-earth policy against the Democratic Party. This tone led to Republican victories in the midterms in 1994 against the contemporary Clinton administration. Likewise, President George W. Bush suffered the nature of back-lash politics in 2006 in the aftermath of the Iraq War, with Democrats regaining control over Congress. Two years later, a senator from Illinois, Barack Obama managed to win the presidential race as the first black President of the United States.

Donald J. Trump swears the presidential oath during his inauguration on January 20th, 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This pattern leads us to the politics of the present day. The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States in 2016, constitutes another sequence of backlash politics. Vowing that he would “Make America Great Again”, or, in other words, undo everything that had been done until that point, Trump has managed to create the stream of hate and fear forming a back-lash, according to Waldman. He is supported by George Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy. She believes there are several similarities between her father and the current man in the White House. “They both were able to adopt the notion that fear and hate are the two greatest motivators of voters that feel alienated from government,” she said in an interview with NPR.

Now, with a stricter immigration policy, a tough tone against Muslims, and a hostile attitude against women’s reproductive rights with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the Democrats have struck back. However, the conquest of the House of Representatives including a significant group of female legislators may yet only be the beginning of the liberal backlash. With the current conservative majority in the Supreme Court remaining for decades to come, who knows what the Democratic Party has in store for the GOP?

The outcome of the midterm elections in November reminded us of the growing polarization in present-day America. Although one can never predict what the future holds, the potential shakings in the political foundation of the world’s most powerful nation will most likely prove fateful for the United States – and for the world.

 Jonatan Pupp

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