Matthew Rozsa Politics

Can Democrats Break the Midterm Curse?

Midway through FDR's first term, Democrats made major gains in the House and Senate. Are there lessons for 2022?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

By Matthew Rozsa / Salon.com

Now that Joe Manchin has sounded the death knell — at least for the moment — for Joe Biden’s Build Back Better package, Democrats are doomed in the 2022 midterm elections.

Or, wait: Are they? Sometimes the “laws” of politics (or economics) are characterized as immutable, akin to the laws of physics. They’re not, of course. Not a single ballot has been cast in the midterms. If Democrats can find a way to turn out their voters at unexpectedly high levels, while Republicans don’t, they could turn 2022 into another blue wave. Political trends do not govern us; they are the results of human behavior, which is never entirely predictable. 

Of course the apparent collapse of Build Back Better doesn’t help. But the pattern that every political analyst and historian understands may be the real problem: Since the modern era of American politics began with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932, the party that controls the White House has lost congressional seats in 19 of the 22 midterm elections. Two of the three exceptions, in 1998 and 2002, were special cases with little relevance to the Democrats’ predicament in 2022. In 1998, Democrats benefited from a booming economy and popular backlash against the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton over a sex scandal. The 2002 midterm elections came just a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks; patriotic sentiment was running high and George W. Bush had successfully defined himself (for the moment) as a “war president.” 

It’s that third exception, way back in 1934 — during the first of Roosevelt’s three-plus terms as president — that may offer an instructive example. Those midterms came after FDR and the Democrats had passed a series of ambitious and historic laws, known collectively as the New Deal. While the Great Depression certainly didn’t end immediately, the New Deal put millions of people to work and did a great deal to relieve suffering and despair. Despite Roosevelt’s reputation (then and now) as a progressive president, the underlying premise of the New Deal was more pragmatic than ideological: Economic insecurity, poverty and hunger were a threat to social stability and indeed to the capitalist system; creating a social safety net was understood as a matter of urgent importance. A few years later, Roosevelt put it this way in his 1944 State of the Union address: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Within his first 100 days, Roosevelt had done a great deal to restore confidence in government, providing emergency financial aid to those who were struggling, passing the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Securities Act, and implementing a number of other regulatory and relief measures. Indeed, his first term was among the most productive in presidential history, and resulted in a fundamental restructuring of the federal government, which from that point onward was a more direct presence in ordinary people’s lives than ever before. Conservatives characterized this as a dangerous intrusion on personal freedom (and have done so ever since); what we now call “liberalism” coalesced around the idea that government action was sometimes necessary to help the most vulnerable people in society.

Despite these legislative successes, however, political success was not guaranteed to follow. Persistent unemployment was still painfully high, and corporate America had begun to impose wage cuts. In the era before sophisticated polling, pundits could not scientifically assess a president’s popularity like they can today. For all the Democrats knew, Republican warnings about creeping socialism had led to widespread panic, and conservatives might turn out in record numbers to halt a supposed red menace. On the other end of the spectrum, some Democratic radicals and socialists were frustrated with the Roosevelt administration’s piecemeal approach to issues of social and economic justice. Sen. Huey Long, the legendary Louisiana populist who advocated a massive program of wealth redistribution and federal spending, was planning to run against Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936 (and probably would have, if he hadn’t been assassinated in 1935). 

In the event, Democrats did remarkably well in the 1934 midterms, gaining nine more seats in the House — and also an extraordinary nine seats in the Senate, giving them a supermajority in that chamber, with 69 of the 96 seats. Richard Walker, director of the Living New Deal Project and professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Berkeley, told Salon by email that the Democrats’ big win resulted from two principal factors. Most obviously, FDR and his party were seen as taking decisive steps to address the economic crisis. 

“The Depression was still bad and the Republicans had no new ideas since 1932,” Walker wrote, “so even though FDR had not solved anything definitively yet, no one was about to bring back the utterly failed Hooverites. Does that count as missteps of the GOP? Well, they had lots of time to do badly from late 1929 to early 1933 and people hadn’t forgotten yet.”

Joe Biden is no doubt aware of that history, and very likely intended Build Back Better as his own legacy-setting achievement, substantial enough to shift the political tides. Whether that package can yet be resuscitated remains unclear, but his fundamental problem remains that the Democrats have razor-thin majorities in Congress and remain unwilling to end the Senate filibuster. Without a major legislative win, the Democrats’ last remaining hope is to run a negative campaign and convince voters that a Republican victory would be catastrophic. Pending decisions at the Supreme Court, including the possible or likely overturn of Roe v. Wade, could potentially produce a political backlash that helps the Democrats hold control of Congress.

There are again vague similarities to the 1934 midterm elections, when Democrats successfully depicted Republicans as extremists, although in a different sense than today: They were associated with the wealthy elite, with businessmen who lived in mansions and held to laissez-faire dogmas radically out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. Returning to the disastrous economic policies of Herbert Hoover’s administration, Democrats argued, would be a dreadful mistake. In 2022, the threat posed by a recently defeated Republican administration has taken a more literal and even more dangerous form, with Donald Trump and his supporters using fascist language and tactics and overtly seeking to overthrow democratic institutions.

Calling out that extremism wasn’t enough for Democrats in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, but that doesn’t prove it wouldn’t work on a national scale, if pursued more aggressively and effectively. If there’s an applicable lesson for Democrats to be found in the 1934 midterms, it might be this: The incumbent party can win, but only if it makes an overwhelmingly persuasive and urgent case that their opponents are dangerous and the future will be truly bleak if they prevail. Given the circumstances, that’s a highly plausible argument.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

14 comments

  1. “Can Democrats Break the Midterm Curse?”

    Are you kidding? Have you seen the polls? The Democrats are going to lose both houses in the midterms, and they’ll probably get massacred in the House, and for good reason in addition to the fact that they’re the party in power. Biden and the Democrats have done virtually nothing for regular people, and Biden has reneged on every major campaign promise (minimum wage, $2,000 COVID checks, public option, etc.), and the suburban soccer moms they’ve on whom they’ve based their support recently are starting to switch back to Republicans. Because Bill Clinton and his gang shifted the party away from advocating for working class people by cozying up to corporate America, the Democrats have no fallback as the soccer moms abandon them.

    The best thing that could happen to the Democrats would be for the party to be wiped out. Maybe then we could get some real change in this damn country, like proportional representation. As long as it’s only Democrats or Republicans, who cares? A better choice would be to just leave the country, and I wish I’d done when Reagan was elected president and as my gut told me to do at the time.

    1. I agree. The democratic party aside from the “progressives” is the enemy of the people same as the republicans.

      1. @Daniel J Dropkin
        There are no real progressives in the Democratic Party. The Squad and their ilk do the bidding of the party establishment while pretending to be progressive and mouthing progressive platitudes.

  2. This article is about 40 years out of date. Because it’s been at least that long since we had anything remotely resembling a democracy. Republican or Democrat it’s all part of the same corporate coin. The smoke has thinned and the mirrors are cracked, but still many still cannot see beyond their programming.

    The only way win this game is not to play. Start a new game and set new rules is the only answer.

  3. The question is whether ‘we the people’ will ever break the curse of capitalist political parties in this country. The constant conditioning of political perception perpetuated by this pathetic piece of progressive propaganda is designed to make sure we don’t. And as long as we approach politics as something else managed by others, rather than a matter of living our own lives, this manufacture of consent will prevail.

  4. So the lesser of two evils wins. Insisting the other side is even worse seems to be the US mantra. It seems to work for international fights too- forget your own constant wickedness and claim Russia is unreasonable to want safety from your bombs, China is unfair to dare to challenge you economically, Iran is evil for wanting to return to an agreement you tossed out without having the conditions hardened and with your illegal sanctions still in place.

  5. I didn’t bother reading past the first paragaph. Why read stupid. Anybody who by now has any faith in either democrat or republican party, and who doesn’t get that they both work for the same people, is not worth paying any heed to. No democrat or republican politician gets any significant position without proving loyalty to the globalist agenda. I have greatly lost my respect for Scheer seeing this article here. Lack of intelligence shows.

  6. Rosa; at best a fascist projecting, calling names as children do…dems now the most reactionary anti liberty, anti-justice imperialist political formation in USA.
    70 % independents and Latinos now favor GOP per polling. expect the GOP to reclaim congress. blunders and lies regarding covid, Afghanistan, Syria, domestic economic decline, wokist slogans and the obvious incompetence of the current admin are now transparent…the govt can claim only 10% inflation but few believe this.

  7. Liberals forget that we’re 25 years into the Democrats’ war on the poor, and there are far fewer middle classers today.

    1. Great comment. The Republicans waged war on unions and destroyed the Democrats’ funding source. The Dems responded by cozying up to Wall Street and the rich in the search for alternative funding sources. The Republicans and corporations and the rich won by this co-optation of the Dems. The rich won the class war, and we are seeing the results.

  8. Oh? Come on. This perverted country is perverted by both parties. War is the name of the game, and thankfully, EU, Nato, USA, Canada, Israel (we can only hope) will pay the price:

    NATO has focused on the military deterrence of Russia while it used to prefer engaging in joint projects, said Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin.

    “The current deplorable state of relations between Russia and NATO can be explained by the fact that the alliance has often resorted to using hybrid methods to contain Russia, combining dialogue with a build-up of military preparations,” Fomin said on Monday….

    He said that the deterioration of relations between Russia and NATO began earlier than 2014.

    “After the end of the Cold War, the Russian Federation has repeatedly made attempts to find new forms of engagement with NATO, to create a stable, equal system of European security for all,” Fomin said. “It would be wrong to believe that the deterioration of Russia-NATO relations began in 2014.”

    “The declared goals of equal cooperation by the alliance were not fulfilled much earlier, in fact, immediately after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact,” he went on to say. “At the same time, Russia was then unprecedentedly open to constructive partnership with the West and carried out a voluntary demilitarization of the country on its western borders.”

    Russia also withdrew its troops from the Warsaw Pact countries, the deputy minister said.

    Ahh, a good one here: Trump did win the election, no?

    https://dissidentvoice.org/2021/12/trump-thinks-hes-still-president-what-is-the-evidence/

    Donald Trump thinks he’s still president according to no more reliable a source than Rachel Maddow on her February 5th show. This was confirmed in May by Vanity Fair. Right-wing conspiracy theorists echo this analysis as recently as this month. Left-liberals are smugly confident that Kamala Harris’s running mate is in the White House, snoozing in the presidential bedroom. Inquiring minds ask what is the evidence nearly a year into the alleged Biden presidency that there has been a change of guard in Washington?

    +The Obama-Biden union card check proposal was not on Mr. Trump’s political horizon, nor is it on that of the current occupant in the White House.

    +The current occupant is ramping up Trump’s unhinged Sino-phobic hallucinations, sanctioning 34 Chinese entities for development of “brain-control weaponry.” Not that the Chinese have been angels. In an egregious suppression of freedom of information, the inscrutable Orientals have made it more difficult for US spies to operate in their country.

    +The current occupant nominally withdrew US troops from Afghanistan as negotiated by Mr. Trump, presumably reducing overall military costs. Yet, he continues the Trump-trajectory of lavishing billions of dollars more on the military than even the Pentagon requests.

    +Given his priority to feed the war machine, the new occupant is having a hard time finding sufficient funds for Biden-promised student debt forgiveness. Ditto for making two years of community college tuition-free.

    + President Trump slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%; candidate Biden vowed to raise it to 28%; the current occupant proposed a further cut to 15%.

    Biden, while campaigning in 2019, pledged to wealthy donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he’s elected. And nothing has changed despite recent drama in the Senate over Build Back Better. Trump’s $4.5 trillion corporate-investor tax cut still appears secure.

    +Raising the federal minimum wage to $15-an-hour from $7.25, where it has languished since 2009, was a big selling point for the Biden campaign. Now it is on hold, while billionaire fortunes balloon, leaving the working class broke but woke under the current administration.

    +The Obama-Biden nuclear deal with Iran was gutted by Trump. The current occupant, contrary to Biden’s campaign utterances, has not returned to the conditions of the JCPOA. Rather, he has continued Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran.

    +Candidate Biden, calling for a foreign policy based on diplomacy, criticized Trump’s dangerous and erratic war mongering. Yet only a month after his inauguration, the new president capriciously bombed “Iranian-backed militias” in Syria who were fighting ISIS terrorists and posed no threat to the US.

    The new president went on to authorize further “air strikes” on “targets” around the world such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Now, the undiscriminating reader might think these are acts of war. But war, according to the “rules-based order” of the new occupant, is best understood as a conflict where US lives are lost rather than those of seemingly more expendable swarthy-skinned foreigners.

    +The Obama-Biden normalization of relations with Cuba and easing of restrictions were reversed by Trump. Presidential candidate Biden had signaled a return, but the current occupant has instead intensified the US hybrid war against Cuba.

    +Candidate Biden pledged to review Trump’s policy of US sanctions against a third of humanity. The presumptive intention of the review was to ameliorate the human suffering caused by these unilateral coercive measures. Sanctions are a form of collective punishment considered illegal under international law. Following the review, the current occupant has instead tightened the screws, more effectively weaponizing the COVID crisis against countries such as Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela, while adding Ethiopia and Cambodia to the growing list of those sanctioned.

    +Among Trump’s most ridiculous foreign policy stunts (and it’s a competitive field) was the recognition of Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela in 2019. The then 35-year-old US security asset had never run for a nationwide office and was unknown to over 80% of the Venezuelans. Contrary to campaign trail inuendoes that Biden would dialogue with the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, the new guy in the White House has continued the embarrassing Guaidó charade.

    +The current White House occupant has also continued and expanded on some of the worse anti-immigrant policies of the xenophobe who preceded him. Asylum seekers from Haiti and Central America – fleeing conditions in large part created by US interventions in their countries – have been sent packing. Within a month of assuming the presidency, migrant detention facilities for children were employed, contradicting statements made by candidate Biden who had deplored locking kids in cages.

    +President Trump was a shameless global warming denier. Candidate Biden was a refreshing true believer, boldly calling for a ban on new oil and natural gas leasing on public land and water. But whoever is now in the Oval Office opened more than 80 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for fossil fuel drilling.

    Perhaps the strongest evidence that Trump is practically still in office is the political practice of his left-liberal detractors who solemnly promised to “first dump Trump, then battle Biden.” However, these left-liberals are still obsessing about dumping Trump. Instead of battling Biden, they are fanning the dying embers of the fear of another January 6 insurrection, giving the Democrats a pass.

    Of course, the Democrats occupy the executive branch along with holding majorities and both houses of Congress. Yet, despite campaign pledges and spin, the continuity from one administration to the next is overarching as the preceding quick review documented.

    The partisan infighting theatrics of the “dysfunctional Congress” is in part a distraction from an underlying bedrock bipartisan consensus. Congress is dysfunctional by design on matters of social welfare for working Americans. It is ruthlessly functional for matters of concern for the ruling elites, such as the military spending, bank bailouts, corporate welfare, and an expansive surveillance state.

    The Democrats offer an empty “we are not Trump” alternative. The bankrupt left-liberals no longer stand for substantial improvements to the living conditions of working people, a “peace dividend,” or respite from war without end. Instead, they use the scare tactic that they are the bulwark against a right popular insurgency; an insurgency fueled in the first place by the failure of the two-party system to speak to the material needs of its constituents.

  9. After Manchin’s betrayal, I think I’ve just about had it with the Dems. I voted against Trump in the last two general elections and regret it. Next time, I will vote Green or Socialist, even if the are guaranteed to lose. No matter. I’m tired of voting for the lesser of two evils and will vote for the greater of all possible choices, instead.

  10. 750,000,000,000, give or take a billion, on defense…that’s the amerika I know and love, and an invigorated Cold War perpetrated by an unabashed war hawk who totally supported the greatest crime of the 21st century…f@#k the usa.

    1. Indeed, USA is world’s biggest terorist. Stop using 750 billion$ as the marker. We, USA taxpayers, foot a bigger bill than that. Miltary includes colleges that have drone AI Engineering Chemistry Media Law Etc. Curricula tied to war and empire. Militarized cops border patrol DEA FBI NSA ATF CIA TSA HS …. on and on and on.

      Trillions a year!

      An aside: Israel per capita is truly number one for war spying terrorism in the globe. What havoc that small population of Zonists unleashes globally… The elephant in the war room. “Israel “

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