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The Midterm Election ‘Rainbow Wave’ Will Change American Politics

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Andrew Kelly / Reuters

Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress

Last night’s US midterm election did not usher in the blue wave and certainly not the blue tsunami that would have been necessary for the Democrats to take over a solid majority in Congress. Instead, CNN’s Van Jones dubbed the results a ‘rainbow wave’ – a mixed result both in terms of partisan colours and the makeup of the country’s freshly elected officials. As I, along with the rest of DC, put down my paper bag and tried to resume normal breathing patterns, some causes of optimism emerged. While the Democrats only flipped the House of Representatives by a slim margin and did not get anywhere near a majority in the Senate, this midterm’s new batch of elected officials marked many historic firsts in terms of representation of marginalised groups.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has personified the pull of the Democratic Party to a more progressive platform, became the youngest-ever woman elected to Congress. Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota became the first Muslim congresswomen. Sharice Davis from Kansas joined New Mexico’s Deb Haaland as the first two Native American women elected to Congress. Two transgender women, Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker, were elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. The list goes on.

The ‘rainbow wave’ in terms of a high influx of LGBTQ+ representatives could become a significant example of how a more diverse Congress can create real change. Aside from the wave of LGBTQ+ elected officials, positive news also emerged on the state level. Massachusetts voted to uphold a state law that forbids discrimination based on gender identity in public places.

“Particularly under a presidential administration hostile to the rights of transgender people, victories like this are all the more important,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, stated in a press release.

Pundits are starting to catch on to how diverse legislative representation matters for policy change. Political analyst Charlie Cook has remarked that the ‘pink wave’ of women now entering Congress (in record numbers) is significant because women (of colour) tend to be the group of people who are the angriest at the current administration. A Congress that bears more resemblance to the constituents it claims to represent is also a big step for political legitimacy. Increased representation from marginalised groups has been linked to better policy outcomes for these groups, as well as a decrease in discrimination and political violence.

However, while the midterm results are an indication of a strong progressive push, they also indicate a strengthening of Trumpism. Far-right Republicans were re-elected, while several new strongly Trumpian candidates felt emboldened to run on more openly racist and nativist platforms – and succeeded. In many ways, this election confirmed that the GOP has become Trump’s party. Extensive gerrymandering and voter suppression made this a difficult race for Democrats. This issue will likely be high on the agenda for many Congress newcomers.

A Democratic House means the US political machine will likely start to be characterised by increased gridlock, and therefore largely a preservation of the status quo. However, the ‘rainbow wave’ shows that business-as-usual cannot be the continued aim of the Democratic Party. Democratic gains were fuelled by women, young and Latinx voters, while white women continued the 2016 trend of providing key support to candidates like Ted Cruz. New progressive representatives have based their legitimacy on running campaigns fuelled by grassroots action and rejecting corporate influence. They linked up with activist movements such as a Black Lives Matter and were unafraid to take clear ideological standpoints, with many openly affiliating with the Democratic Socialists of America. This has been crucial in mobilising young people and shows a hunger for candidates who provide clear and credible political alternatives.

This midterm election needs to be a wake-up call for the Democratic party as to who their supporters are. The Republicans are facing no real internal challenge, but the Democratic base are sending a clear signal about the kind of candidates they want to see represent them. It is up to the Democrats to listen up and follow the wave of change that these new representatives will be pushing for.

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