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The US Midterm Elections: A Sigh of Relief in a Broader Downward Trend

08 Dec 2022
By Dr Adam Bartley
Voters in Des Moines precincts 43, 61 and 62 cast their ballots at Roosevelt High School. Source: Phil Roeder /

The recent midterm elections in the United States were a clear repudiation of Donald Trump’s hyperbolic claims of election fraud. But his legacy and his politics remain, bringing further trouble to foreign policy.  

The result of the 2022 mid-term elections in the United States are still coming in, but the outcome is clear. Republicans will take control of the House, and Democrats will keep the Senate. With Raphael Warnock of Georgia confirmed to retain his seat in the Senate, gifting the democrats a two-seat advantage, the Biden administration will have more control over the budget process, the nomination of judges, and success in climate change mitigation (a win for us all). Just as important, however, is the broader minimisation of pro-MAGA election deniers – considered a major a win for civility. Some 300 election deniers ran for seats across the country, and but for a handful all of those running in contested ballots lost their races.

Republicans have also begun pivoting away from Donald Trump as the presumptive leader of the party. Former Trump acolytes and proponents, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and major donors such as Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman and Citadel’s Ken Griffin, have all publicly called for new leadership. Trump’s call to suspend the constitution sparked further agitation in the Senate, this time from Senator John Cornyn of Texas who was “at a loss words” before responding with the point that “we need to move on” – presumably from Trump. As of 8 December 2022, the chorus to conclude Trump’s hold over American politics is growing.

While there is call for optimism in such remarks, we must also confront some inconvenient truths. While many central figures in the election denial fight lost their races, more than 170 were elected to the Senate, Congress, or state-wide offices. Some key denial figures indeed have gained from the elections. These include Lauren Boebert, the Christian and Second Amendment fundamentalist, who preaches, among other things, for eschatological end-times and theocratic rule. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the former QAnon supporter who has accused the Democratic Party of pedophilia and Satanism, has improved her position in the party as leaders seek to shore up their agenda with a narrower than expected majority in the House. This is expected to bring the GOP even further to the right.

Even with a slim majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans have indicated that they will be seeking to wield what power they have militantly. Expectations about the upcoming agenda include the impeachment of the president – though for what behaviour exactly is still to be decided. There is a planned investigation into the laptop controversy of the president’s son, Hunter Biden, as well as planned oversight commissions for the government’s support for Ukraine and the chaotic evacuation of Afghanistan.

Additionally, Republicans are looking to break another norm by barring from the House Intelligence Committee popular Democratic representatives Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell, both of California, for their treatment of Trump. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is also likely to be booted from the House Foreign Affairs Committee for her rhetoric on Israel. There is no doubt that Republicans have retribution in mind for the removal of Greene from her committee positions last year. What the agenda more broadly suggests is that American citizens can expect few solutions to the real problems facing their nation: misinformation, data security laws, and social media regulation, among many others.

All this demonstrates that even as Trump-mania has begun to subside, however slightly, the Republican Party continues to sanction the fanatical behaviours of its more outspoken members in its important governance functions. Government-minded (as opposed to party-minded) Republicans who can be relied upon to cross the floor to vote on spending bills and other necessary legislation have become increasingly marginalised. Partisan militancy, all this suggests, has only deepened since 2008. The prospect for further conflict remains strong.

The broader outcome from such partisanship will be the continued erosion of democratic norms and guardrails. According to Freedom House, the overall decline in “political rights and civil liberties” has sped up in recent years, with notable acceleration under Trump, putting “American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom.” In the legislative space, such examples are illustrated in the abuse of the filibuster, up dramatically since the turn of the century. In the foreign policy domain, the inability of the government to push a treaty through Congress has led to a more liberal use of executive orders, also up considerably, which can be abandoned with any new administration.

Implications for foreign policy

This “new normal” in American politics has no doubt contributed to shifting perceptions internationally about American staying power in the Indo-Pacific, considered the strategic centrepiece of American foreign policy. These shifts truly began with the Trump administration. Across the Pacific Ocean, Chinese researchers, think tank personnel, and military strategists, watching the drama unfold in the Trump White House, began talking of “great changes unseen in a century,” a euphemism to describe the unmistakeable decline of America in absolute terms. In 2017, many watched, much to their disbelief, as the new Trump administration walked away from commitments painstakingly negotiated over in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the world’s largest potential trade block that unmistakeably and purposefully excluded China.

More recently in Southeast Asia, nations having been paying lip service to American initiatives like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in large part because they know US domestic political opinion has become uncompromisingly opposed to such multilateral economic initiatives. Former ambassador, and now director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William J. Burns astutely noted in 2020 that international actors would find little reason to join America in international agreements when elected representatives couldn’t even come together to discuss the merits of a treaty, as often occurred during the Obama administration, much less uphold a commitment should it be made. “And why should they have any confidence that the American government will deliver on its commitments if they do?” Indeed, many pundits are still asking why Washington cannot just re-join the TPP, now the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership?

The answer is soundly inconvenient, yet also revealing. Even with control of both houses of Congress, Biden considered the prospect so distant that it wasn’t even worth attempting. Naturally, this position does little to reconcile the differences between nations in the Indo-Pacific who see economic trade and development as central to their interests and American efforts to re-establish geostrategic dominance as central to theirs. The IPEF is not a free trade agreement, and while it seeks to build resiliency in supply chains and new standards around digital commerce, it offers little incentive for regional actors to join. Indeed, IPEF asks participants to adhere to stringent labour and environmental standards, among others, without improved market access to the United States, leaving some to ask what incentives the US is providing them to join at all.

The one consistency in the election, and the one subject seemingly immune from political partisanship, is the challenge of China. Both parties have promised to increase initiatives to combat China’s drive to regional supremacy, including more spending on defence and more support for initiatives such as reshoring semiconductor manufacturing and the CHIP 4 Alliance. However, as the score with the TPP and IPEF illustrates, the internal debate about how to compete with China is just as divisive and self-destructive. Until America’s two main political parties can agree on the need for providing public goods, whether in global governance, economic partnerships, or in human rights, its methods for achieving strategic aims will continue to falter.

Dr Adam Bartley is a Fulbright Scholar and resident fellow at the Elliot School for International Affairs, the George Washington University. In addition to this, he is a post-doctoral fellow at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, program manager of the AI Trilateral Experts Group, and managing editor of Australian Outlook. Twitter: @AaBartley

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution