New Internationalist

We need to bust the pendulum, not see how it swings!

November 2010

Our new columnist Mark Engler considers the impact of the US midterm elections.

This midterm election season, the Republicans will prevail. Whether they take control of either house of the US Congress or not, it is clear that President Obama and his Democratic partisans, who just two years ago were optimistically touting ‘Change we can believe in’, are now facing changes they’d no doubt prefer were imaginary.

This outcome has been predictable for some time. Since the 1930s, the party in control of the White House has almost always lost seats in the midterms. Yet such facts are unlikely to calm our high-octane political commentators, who have variously held recent shifts in power to herald either a ‘permanent Republican majority’ or ‘40 more years’ of Democratic dominance.

Some people take comfort in the back-and-forth sway of the political pendulum. It is part of the greatness of our ‘two-party system’, they contend; it reflects the American aversion to extremism on ‘either side’. For the mainstream media, charting each degree of the pendulum’s swing is the essence of the 24-hour news cycle.

Ron Sachs / ABACA USA / Empics Entertainment
There may be trouble ahead… President Obama in pensive mood. Ron Sachs / ABACA USA / Empics Entertainment

The problem is that focusing on the to-and-fro of electoral politics, like staring at the hypnotist’s medallion, can lull you into a trance. Once there, it is easy to miss those political trends that transcend episodic US elections. A graph of these trends would not show undulating curves that rise and fall based on shifts in Congress. It would be marked by arrows pointing steadily upwards.

In recent decades, raising the budget for US military spending has been a bipartisan passion. That budget now amounts to around $680 billion per year, more than seven times the military spending of the US’s nearest rival, China, and enough to sustain a network of more than 700 bases scattered globally across some 130 countries.

Damage to the environment has similarly accumulated over time. One administration’s mess merely augments that of the last.

Economic inequality is another arrow, and perhaps the most distressing one. Since the 1970s, the once-garish sight of a CEO making more than 250 times the pay of an average worker has become the norm. This, combined with the steady growth of corporate power, has given the wealthy a firm hold on the levers of our democratic politics. A landmark Supreme Court decision in January, which eliminated restrictions on corporate spending in elections, only strengthened their grasp.

The power of organized money is everywhere evident. Much-hyped movements like the Tea Party, which tap genuine reserves of popular anger, cannot be entirely regarded as artificially groomed ‘astroturf’. Still, it hardly hurts these movements to have billionaire magnates who are willing to spend untold millions on organizations to sponsor their rallies and journalistic outlets (if Fox News can be called that) to hang on their every half-cooked slogan.

Given the influence wealth affords, it is a testament to democratic determination that resistance still arises as often and as undaunted as it does.

In the past decade we have seen impressive protests in the US for immigrant rights and uprisings against corporate power uniting labour and environmentalists. In 2008, grassroots activity surrounding Obama spilled beyond his official campaign, revealing a base that might yet be mobilized anew.

The challenge of a progressive, internationalist US politics is to combine and sustain these energies – not so that our political weight can thwart Republican momentum and start a swing that once again empowers the Democrats. Rather, the goal is to break the fixation on that pendulum, to snap its rod or chain. It is to build movements that can steadily gain power to confront those issues that lie beyond. Regardless of how the midterms turn out, the goal must be to send forth an arrow of our own.

Our new columnist, Mark Engler, is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 437 This column was published in the November 2010 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 437

New Internationalist Magazine issue 437
Issue 437

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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