Midterms are over. Many people are freaking over the results.
Here is a list of sixth year losses for sitting presidents from the last century.
1918 – Woodrow Wilson (D): Lost 22 seats in the House, lost 5 seats in the Senate.
1938 – Franklin Roosevelt (D): Lost 72 seats in the House, lost 7 seats in the Senate.
1950 – Harry Truman (D): Lost 28 seats in the House, lost 5 seats in the Senate.
1958 – Dwight Eisenhower (R): Lost 48 seats in the House, lost 13 seats in the Senate.
1974 – Richard Nixon (R) (although Gerald Ford was President when the elections took place that year): Lost 48 seats in the House, lost 4 seats in the Senate.
1986 – Ronald Reagan (R): Lost 5 seats in the House, lost 8 seats in the Senate.
2006 – George W. Bush (R): Lost 30 seats in the House, lost 6 seats in the Senate.
2014 – Barack Obama (D): Lost 13 seats in the House, lost 7 seats in the Senate.
I post this to show that what happened is perfectly “normal” in the sense that American politics are cyclic and adhere to no single view of logic or common sense, nor do they respond to reason. What we saw Tuesday was part of a trend that every single president who had two consecutive terms has had to deal with. The only president who did not suffer this was Clinton and that is due largely to the absurd shenanigans of a congress that tried to impeach him and had failed in its ridiculous “contract with America” bid. It’s tempting to say Newt Gingrich, who seems to only be smart when he is either out of office and not running for office, caused the historic hiccup.
That said, there are other lessons. We had low turnout. Of course we did. Less than a third of eligible voters bothered. This also is typical for midterms.
Why? It’s not like there isn’t enough anger to go around.
Partly, I think we have a problem with perception based not so much on the presumed uselessness of voting in the midterm but on who we are allowed to vote for. Consider: during presidential years, we have twice or more turnout and naturally congress benefits from this as a matter of course. As long as people are there to vote for a president, they might as well vote for their representatives and all the other stuff on the ballot. But the chief goal is to vote for a president, which is national and for whom everyone gets to vote.
Unlike in midterms where you may not vote against someone else’s representative. To put it more plainly, no one not living in Kentucky can vote for Mitch McConnell’s opponent. So if you perceive McConnell as a major source of your dissatisfaction with congress, there’s nothing you can do about it unless you live in his state. So why bother? Your vote won’t get him out of office.
What about your own state representatives and senators? Like it or not, people tend—tend, mind you—to see less problem with their own representatives, but even with that there’s a certain amount of frustration adhering exclusively to national problems that, I think, depresses and demoralizes voters who feel that just voting in their own small patch won’t really change anything if that guy over there gets re-elected by the folks in his state. If you can’t affect all of the neighborhood, what’s the point in straightening out the mess in your own backyard?
This still leaves us with the fact that two-thirds of Americans either were too lazy, too ill-informed, or too depressed to bother going to the polls. Add to that the wrinkle in some states that many people were turned away from polls over some variant of voter ID rules.
Over all this, though, is still the problem of candidate identification with principles. A lot of Democrats tried to distance themselves from President Obama, seeing too-close affiliation with him as a problem. The irony is that in those instances where a candidate embraced Obama, those candidates did well. We saw something similar to this under Clinton.
But that still leaves us with the question of why people seem to be voting against their own interest in so many instances.
Fear certainly. The one emergent factor of the last few decades of Republican campaigning that seems consistent is the playing on certain rather unspecified fears. A vote, it is suggested, for the GOP is a vote to bring back things that are under threat. But what is under threat? Our way of life? How so? Especially in light of the fact that most GOP policies since Reagan have marched in lock-step with a shrinking of the so-called American Dream. The more we vote for Republicans, it appears, the more we lose of what was supposed to be our birthright. A strong middle class, upward mobility, job security, and an unquestioned superiority on the international scene. None of these have seen much in the way of success since Reagan. Not even under Democrats, which suggests it is not inextricably tied to the GOP, but is a consequence of a set of factors apart from party politics but which party politics has exacerbated as an issue. So the troubling reality is just that—reality—but probably isn’t the calamity we have made it. At worst, we could probably have slowed the losses way down with a bit less panic-driven ideology, at best we could have made some efficacious changes that would have addressed the reality of a changing global situation that would have seen us transformed but better off. It’s hard to think straight when the alarm is going off in our ears 24/7 by people whose main priority is getting elected and staying in office.
What we very much needed after the Soviet Empire collapsed was a sound management team that would have midwived a shift from a constant war-footing into something resembling the domestic prioritizing of the pre-WWII period. But that’s not, as they say, “sexy” and it’s difficult to run on the complexities involved in such a realignment. Instead, both parties sought out and rode power issues, manufacturing new enemies for us to be on guard against, scaring the constituency, and probably hoping we had enough wherewithal to allow for a federal war superstructure despite the fact that we couldn’t really afford to maintain one forever. Domestic issues would take care of themselves, let the locals handle that, we here in Washington have bigger issues.
And they did. Primarily that the world was beginning to catch up economically and in some cases pass us by socially.
Here’s where it gets tricky and where I think the real fear being played on comes into it.
The fear played upon is the fear of impotence and loss of identity. This has been so since the Civil War and, surprisingly enough, it still plays, because in many ways the United States of America is still not One Country. We are, in some ways, fifty small countries under a single umbrella, which we are proud to claim but bristle when we have to do anything to support.
No? Consider the irrational outrage over our current president. Not the policy arguments or the disagreements over ideology—one should expect that and frankly be a bit concerned in its absence—but over Who He Is.
People who think of themselves as Americans voted him into office. The people who hate him do so from a perspective that defines “America” as their state, their county, their city or town. They are the same folks who see D.C. as a foreign land and vote against “Washington Insiders” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and seem to also be those most stridently opposed to immigration reform and frightened about the demographic shift in ethnicity we see happening.
We see the results of this in elections. The more “national” the election, the less power these folks seem to exercise, but the more local and narrow the more we see something like the Tea Party gain ground.
“As long as America looks like Kansas, everything will all right,” one can hear them say. Or Oklahoma or Kentucky or Texas. But the country doesn’t look like Kansas. Or rather it looks like that plus everywhere else. And it’s the “everywhere else” that seems to be at issue.
By any metric, Obama has been a successful president. I resisted the conclusion that his detractors are obsessed with his race, but it seems inescapable. If he were white his track record would be what people are arguing about, but I see almost no acknowledgment of his accomplishments, only squealing that he is terrible, that he has taken us in the wrong direction, that he is the worst ever. When asked on what basis, you get either nothing or vague rumblings about Obamacare or taxes, or flat-out untruths.
And yet, when you look at the midterms, it would seem people are not so uniform in their fear, because this was normal. Look at FDR’s sixth year debacle in the above list. Or Eisenhower, as a comparison.
So while we may be looking at this and wondering where everybody’s brains have gone, that’s not a fair reaction. Frankly, if this were intended as some kind of referendum on Obama, it ain’t much of a one. At least eight of those states were marginal to begin with and have now returned to what is normal for them. In two years, a slew of senate and house seats are up for grabs and it’s then that we will see whether or not the country has suffered a political lobotomy. I’ll make my prediction now, that the GOP is going to take a severe licking. They have defined themselves in too many regressive ways as a party opposed to meaningful reform and one, frankly, of mean-spiritedness. They have managed to put themselves on the wrong side of history, and if they can only stay in power by virtue of a tepid midterm turnout as the one we’ve just seen, then they are in serious trouble.
But the Democrats need to clean their own stables and stop mealy-mouthing about what they stand for. If fear is the driving force in recent politics, then many Democrats exemplify it by being so frightened of losing their seats that they won’t be the representatives they were elected to be.
So chill. This isn’t the end of the world, it’s just politics as usual. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be pissed off about it, but it also doesn’t mean it’s the worst that’s ever happened.
For all you people who didn’t vote because, well, there is no good reason. You bitch and complain all the time and then do nothing. We have a system that responds to those who operate the controls and the more basic control is the vote. If you don’t put your hands on the switches, the system won’t work for you, it will work for those who do.