A wave that didn’t rise

Ghazi Salahuddin
Sunday, Nov 13, 2022

There is not much sense in finding an allusion to Pakistan in the mirror of what happens in another country, though political trends sometimes flow across frontiers in a regional or global context.

But we do need to look a bit closely at the prevailing state of affairs in the United States because of the close and yet undecipherable relationship that Pakistan has had with this superpower. And the midterm elections held in the US on Tuesday have surely been watched with interest across the world.

So, what do the results of these elections tell us about the political drift in America? Now, the intricacies of American politics and its electoral arrangement make it very difficult to interpret the entire situation. Hence, I would refer to it only in its broad contours.

Let me put it again: any resemblance to Pakistan in the political circumstances of the US would be incidental and, in a sense, allegorical. One temptation here is to underline some similarities between Imran Khan and Donald Trump, something that has been done so well in the past. That clip from Trevor Noah’s show in August 2018 is a masterpiece in which the leading American late night comedian said that they were actually twins.

Considering how the two leaders have conducted their politics in recent months and weeks, Trevor Noah would do well to present a sequel. Imran Khan rejects his removal through a vote of no-confidence as a conspiracy. Donald Trump does not accept the results of the US presidential election of 2020. Both are running campaigns that have intimations of political violence. Both behave like populist demagogues. Both have followers who lack civility and intimidate their opponents.

In the build-up to this week’s midterms, the political situation in the US was infused with a sense of dread. Some observers expressed fears about disorder, chaos and even a civil war. America may still not be able to wake up from that nightmare of January 6, 2021 when a mob supporting Trump had attacked the Capitol building in Washington DC. They were seeking to keep Trump in power.

With the midterms approaching, the Republican Party of Trump was seen to be gaining strength. There was some talk of a Republican tsunami. Almost every political pundit foresaw a red wave rising. Red is the colour of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is identified as blue. Actually, there are red states where voters predominantly vote for Republican candidates and there are blue states where Democrats are dominant.

I do not have to go into the details of what is at stake in a midterm election for the entire House of Representatives and a number of senators and governors of particular states. My focus is restricted to the surprising and potentially inspiring message that these midterms have delivered this year.

Lo and behold, the red wave did not rise. With egg on their face, most political analysts had to concede that they had not read the situation correctly. Before Tuesday, there seemed little reason to expect any gains for President Biden’s party. The overall mood of those who care for democratic values and rule of law was of gloom and doom. The toxic politics of Trump appeared to be ascendant.

In fact, a number of American analysts saw a global trend in their country’s anxiety and discontent. They talked about the decline of democracy all around and weakening of rule of law. They were alarmed by the use of violence as a political strategy. One opinion writer spoke about ‘democratic recession’. “We should be afraid of our future”, someone said.

It was so depressing that just a day before the election, Margaret Renki had this as the title of her column in The New York Times: ‘What has happened to my country?’ Not only this, she punctuated her piece with lines from Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’, such as “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. And so much more: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ….. The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”.

Even if these midterms had not become a test of American democracy, with Trump accused of the ‘Big Lie’ of the denial of the 2020 election, there is a kind of American tradition that the midterms in the first term of an incumbent president cause a lot of damage to his party.

This year, the Democrats were additionally under pressure because of high inflation and low approval ratings of President Biden. These two factors would in themselves be decisive. But they must also be doing something right, including their handling of the abortion issue.

Anyhow, the commentators are trying to sort out why the red wave did not materialize. There is also a sense of relief. “People just want the circus to stop”, said a columnist. ‘America just dodged an arrow’, was the heading of Thomas Friedman’s opinion piece. One thought is that people perhaps do care about democracy.

For sure, this does not mean that America has been transformed. The country remains divided. But the threat that a leader like Trump can pose is a bit curtailed. An analysis in The Guardian said: “The winner of the midterms is not clear – but the loser is Donald Trump”. President Biden hailed a “good day” for democracy.

In short, the Democrats have outperformed expectations and there are signs of the repudiation of Trump. The impression that the momentum, before the election, had shifted towards the Republicans was not valid. This means that more than many things, the midterms have rejected the wisdom of media pundits.

Finally, do America’s midterms bear a lesson or a warning for our media analysts to be more careful in their pronouncements? But critical thinking is not in our national curriculum and partisan passions greatly restrict objectivity and reason. Against this backdrop, let the question of whether the long march is akin to the promise of the red wave in America remain unanswered.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: