Ilhan Omar on the critical issues of the midterm elections: ‘People understand what’s at stake’
"The snow is already falling in Minnesota and with less than three weeks until election day, the priority for congresswoman Ilhan Omar and the state Democrats is getting people out to vote early before enthusiasm – and the temperature – dips.
“The number one concern for a lot of people I am talking to is Roe – it’s reproductive rights,” Omar said. “There’s also concern about inflation and what that means for people. We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm. I hope it holds … We can pay attention to the polls, but if we don’t get the people out to vote, nothing else matters.”
It’s not so long ago that polls, political analysts and even straight-talking party officials were forecasting humiliating losses for the Democrats in the November midterm elections. But then came the supreme court’s devastating and largely unpopular decision in June to strip away the constitutional right to abortion access.
It was a ruling that enraged and mobilised Democrats and independents across the country, but whether it’s enough to outweigh concerns about the rising cost of living that Republicans are blaming squarely on Joe Biden, is yet to be seen.
And while this could be framed as an abortion versus inflation election, issues like climate and migration are also playing on voters’ minds, according to Omar.
“People are trying to wrap their heads around the investments made in the Inflation Reduction Act, and when they’ll be able to access the home improvement subsidies in the climate provisions. There’s just a lot of excitement about that,” she told the Guardian.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was passed in August after months of wrangling by Omar’s fossil fuel friendly colleagues in the Senate, and only after progressives were forced to drop anti-poverty measures like the child tax credit.
Still, when the Biden administration signed America’s first-ever climate legislation there was a collective sigh of relief among the Democratic party – finally. Omar says people are genuinely enthused about the historic $369bn climate investment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable energy sources.
But they’re also a bit confused, as there’s no money in people’s pockets yet – that will take months or even years.
“People are excited about what we’ve been able to do with a slim majority – three [representatives] in the House and almost zero in the Senate – so it’s been easy to translate that into campaign conversations around what happens if you continue to elect Democrats, that we are going to do the work even if it’s hard.”
And it is going to be hard. Despite Biden polling upwards since a slew of policy victories this summer, polls still suggest that Democrats will probably lose the House and possibly the Senate. In addition, the supreme court’s extreme right majority is likely to follow last year’s controversial rulings with even more constitutional rollbacks.
“Some days it is hard to stay motivated and optimistic,” admitted Omar. “But people understand what’s at stake and they know that if we are back in the majority, we will take action to mitigate a lot of the harm coming from our courts.”
Earlier this week Biden promised to make codifying abortion rights his legislative priority next year if the Dems take back both Houses. But it’s a big if.
Born in Mogadishu in 1982, Omar was elected to the House in 2018 – the first Somali American and one of the first two Muslim women in Congress. She is in the most progressive wing of the party, one of six newly elected representatives from communities of color, collectively known as the squad.
Her seat, which includes the city of Minneapolis and some of its suburbs, is considered solidly Democratic; however Omar’s primary race was much closer than expected and she won by just two percentage points.
Omar says that she is frequently asked questions about the country’s failed immigration system. There has been no meaningful reform for decades and 2022 has been truly awful, with a record number of deaths at the southern border and thousands of refugees sent to Democratic-controlled northern cities by southern Republican governors. Then, just last week the Biden administration expanded Title 42 – a controversial Trump-era order that denies people from a handful of countries the chance to seek asylum on the false pretense of Covid prevention, given how selectively it is enforced.
“In many ways a country that was once seen as a beacon of hope for those escaping persecution has now become one that persecutes those who are escaping persecution. It’s become easier to use these desperate immigrants as a political pawn,” said Omar.
Congress did pass immigration reforms, but the measure predictably perished in the Senate. “It’s where all good ideas go to die,” said Omar. We have to find a way to make immigration not be a politically toxic conversation.”
Immigration is another important issue for voters, according to national polls, but there’s little evidence that many are worried about root causes like political repression, corruption, and climate disasters – or the role the US plays in creating these conditions that drive people to flee their homes. “The fact that these linkages are not evident to the everyday American voter is alarming.”
The climate breakdown is increasingly forcing people to migrate. And as voters go to the polls in the US, the UN climate negotiations will be getting under way in Egypt after a year of catastrophic extreme weather events that include deadly floods in Florida, Nigeria and Pakistan, destructive wildfires in Alaska and western Europe, as well as historic drought in the greater Horn of Africa (which includes Somalia), where 37 million people face hunger and starvation.
In what’s been called the African Cop, the US and other large polluting economies like the UK, Germany and France will face growing pressure to pay for the loss and damage being suffered by developing countries that have contributed little to the climate breakdown.
“In order to make things right, I think it is important for the US and other countries to make heavy investments, and [part of that] can come in the form of reparations,” said Omar.
Africa is the continent confronting the worst climate impacts despite having contributed least to greenhouse gases. It is also the region where American and other transnational companies continue to extract fossil fuel and are cutting deals with governments to extract minerals needed for green technologies.
If internationally financed green energy projects – like lithium mines or windfarms – are imposed on communities just like fossil fuel projects, talk of a just transition will be just talk.
“If we are not serious about consulting Indigenous and impacted African communities, we are allowing for their exploitation to take place.”
But that’s not enough, argues Omar. “We need to back up and make sure that countries like the United States and China are also doing their part by ending new [fossil fuel] expansion and phasing out the existing oil, gas and coal in a fair and equitable way.”
On a recent trip to Honduras, Omar witnessed first-hand the lasting impact of the US having propped up for more than a decade a repressive regime that terrorized communities and killed environmental defenders such as Berta Cáceres. “It was easy to see the ways in which the United States and Canada are complacent in brutal extraction practices where people’s livelihoods and sheer existence are being destroyed.”
It’s not just the US that needs to be held to account of course. The decision to hold this year’s climate talks in Egypt – and next year’s in the UAE – has been widely criticised given that both governments have a propensity for arbitrary detentions, torture and cyber espionage against citizens, and the failure by many governments to raise the issue of human rights.
Omar said: “The United States needs to centre human rights in all our foreign policy and it certainly needs to do it with our climate action. Egypt is one of the most repressive regimes in the world and one that the United States continues to prop up with weapons. The UAE is one of the largest exporters of fossil fuels, not to mention their complicity in the brutal war in Yemen. There can be no safe or habitable planet without the protection of human rights.”