If Trump’s election in 2016 was a victory for the demagoguery of racist nationalism, the midterms marked a quiet but meaningful repudiation of that vision. Looming over the campaign trail was the “migrant caravan,” which Trump painted as an invading boogeyman, illustrated with vitriolic racial caricatures. But Trump’s last-minute racist television ad did not seem to have its intended effect. There was no dramatic sweep, but a number of midterm victories showed that the constituencies most historically disenfranchised at the ballot box—youth, immigrants, and communities of color—could still be a linchpin in a broken election process.
Though some of the marquee elections ended in close losses, and Democrats lost ground in the Senate, progressive candidates will inject key state, local, and congressional seats with much-needed fresh blood.
Among the surge of women and people of color are Lina Hidalgo, a twenty-seven-year-old Texan born in war-torn Colombia, who was elected Harris County’s new judge. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar became the first Muslim women in Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest-ever female representative, will also stand as one of the loudest advocates for the abolition of ICE, the frontline agency of Trump’s immigration regime. The DSA-approved Nuyorican could finally make a once “unthinkable” demand a viable progressive policy stance in Washington.
Meanwhile, many Trumpians stumping on racism lost. Archconservative Dave Brat, who campaigned alongside Trump’s fascist henchmen Sebastian Gorka and Steve Bannon, lost his Virginia House seat to Democrat Abigail Spanberger, who appealed to voters’ real concerns about healthcare rather than racial animus. Kris Kobach, the far-right anti-immigrant zealot who penned Trump’s immigration policies, lost the Kansas governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly.
The polls revealed that overall, hate was not a winning ticket. A study by Muslim Advocates, examining dozens of races with candidates who campaigned on anti-Muslim rhetoric, showed that demonizing Muslims mostly led to losses or projected losses this election season.
While many voted for progressive voices over hateful bombast, the act of the vote itself took precedence over the candidate in some critical ballot initiatives. Through referenda, voters seized for themselves what politicians failed to deliver, including: better wages and job schedules (voters in several states approved minimum wage hikes covering nearly a million workers); better healthcare (Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah voted for Medicaid expansion, shoring up the Affordable Care Act for an estimated 300,000 people); decent housing (a coalition of techies and locals pushed through San Francisco’s landmark measure to expand housing and homelessness services); and more progressive drug policy (marijuana legalization initiatives dotted California and the Midwest). In Florida, a landmark referendum that restores voting rights for an estimated 1.4 million people with felony convictions could ultimately reshape a deeply fissured swing state. Next door in Louisiana, long seen as the zenith of racialized criminal justice, voters approved a measure to overturn a Jim Crow–era law allowing split juries; they now require unanimity for felony convictions. In a rebuke to their state’s right-wing resurgence, Oregonians voted down a measure to overturn a decades-old sanctuary law, which protects local migrant communities by restricting local cooperation with federal immigration agents.
Though some progressive ballot initiatives failed, such as a labor-backed proposal to regulate nurses’ workloads in Massachusetts, the flurry of bread-and-butter ballot wins present a working-class agenda that the new class of Democratic representatives should carry with them to the Capitol. In addition to driving policy imperatives like universal healthcare and a restoration of keystone federal social and education programs, they are also advancing the issues that are crucial to the nation’s most disenfranchised: the immigrant communities who are denied the ballot yet have everything to lose in the ongoing clashes over migration policy.
The new progressive streak running through Congress can’t completely upend Trump’s scorched-earth border wars, but the new class can obstruct his most immediate xenophobic attacks: the military build-up at the border and the mass arrests and detentions all require massive budget infusions that the House can control. Congress can also demand oversight of our crumbling refugee and asylum systems, which have morphed from a humanitarian program into a phalanx of vile eugenicist exclusion. A fresh tide of gender and racial diversity entering the House can work to block ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s cruel policies of dismantling asylum relief for domestic violence survivors and all but shutting down the border to future asylum seekers.
The new House also has an opportunity to break the impasse on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the flagship Obama-era policy that shields an estimated 820,000 undocumented youth from deportation and is now on Trump’s chopping block. Similarly, Democrats can block Trump’s efforts to steamroll Temporary Protected Status, another longstanding reprieve granted under previous administrations to several “shithole” Global South nations on humanitarian grounds. Working toward permanent resolutions for both programs in Congress could save thousands of families from deportation.
Of course, immigrants did have a presence in the backdrop of the midterms through the spectacle of the “migrant caravan.” Though Trump exploited the scenes of Central American refugees to serve his bigoted narrative, they also held up a peculiar mirror to U.S. civic life. These were desperate families, people fleeing mass violence in countries scarred by decades of U.S. economic and political imperialism. But they proved capable of organizing a mass action that was both political and undeniably humane, traversing thousands of miles with impeccable discipline, forming their own austere resistance through the quiet dignity of their forward march.
On this side of the border, migrants also helped fuel the resistance from below, particularly the youth who generated grassroots protest networks, campaigned to free family members from detention, and organized for self-protection in their neighborhoods and schools. They worked relentlessly to mobilize voters to use their ballot to protect the millions for whom it is denied.
While noncitizens, contrary to Trumpian fantasy, don’t get a direct say in the elections, their voice still mattered on Election Day. They joined a new majority, built on solidarity in defiance of silence. The latest elections won’t change everything in Washington, but they do change our view of what real populism might look like: not just popular candidates, but popular democracy.
Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.