OVER THE last two years, the country learned how effectively a determined congressional minority could obstruct the legislative process. With the House in Republican hands and a slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate, we may soon look back on the 111th U.S. Congress with nostalgia.
Dissent asked six of its contributors to give their initial impressions of the midterm elections. Rather than focus on the difficult years that likely lie ahead, they have for the most part provided explanations of how we got here–just two years after what some hoped was a liberal renaissance.
Mark Engler: The Midterms and Misery Theory
Todd Gitlin: The Obvious
David Greenberg: What Went Wrong?
Feisal G. Mohamed: Love and Taxes, or the Political Theology of a Shellacking
Christine Stansell: What Happened with Women?
Julian E. Zelizer: Perception Politics
GOING INTO election day, the factors predicting a swing against the Democrats were no secret: since the 1930s, the party of the incumbent president has almost invariably lost seats in the midterms. Furthermore, given that in 2008 the Dems, holding onto Obama’s then-considerable coattails, won races in areas that would normally be considered enemy territory, it was foreseeable that many of these seats would return to Republican hands.
Take these losses, add in fallout from the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century, and I think you have a substantial accounting of the underlying elements that spurred right-wingers to go out celebrating this past Tuesday night and sent liberals to bed in distress or resignation.
That said, I believe three other aspects of the midterms also merit comment: the impact of money, movements, and misery.
First, money. As frequently noted as the tendency of the president’s party to lose votes during the midterms is the influence of corporate spending in elections, which has grown ever more pervasive in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Unchecked and undisclosed funding played some part in the defeat of Russ Feingold, who went down with principles intact, refusing to have outside parties run ads on his behalf. (The losses of veteran Feingold in the Senate and rookie Representative Tom Perriello in the House were particularly sad notes for progressives, just as the narrow win by Congressman Raul Grijalva in Arizona served as a bright one.)
Second, regarding social movements, I agree with those who have pointed to a failure by President Obama to effectively inspire his base. This was not so much a failure of public policy—the inability of the White House to pass enough legislation (although lower employment, produced by a larger stimulus, might have been helpful for the Democrats). Rather, as Marshall Ganz and others have contended, it was largely the result of the president’s preference for insider bargaining as a means of pushing forward his agenda, as opposed to marshalling grassroots forces (those that put Obama into office to begin with) to create pressure for change from without.
There is little question that a few percentage points greater turnout from an energized base would have yielded far more political dividends than any of the compromises the administration made in the name of moderation, pragmatism, and bipartisanship. Ask yourself: how many of the people you know who went out door-knocking for Obama two years ago put forth the same amount of effort this time around? I would guess you’d have a hard time finding any who did. (I confess that I, for one, did not.) The result was a relatively low-turnout election in which those who went to the polls were from the whiter, older, and more conservative segments of the electorate that cast votes in 2008. These people were not newly convinced that the Democrats were wrong; they believed it when they voted for John McCain two years ago.
Last: misery. Amid the volumes of post-election commentary that have already been produced in the first days since Tuesday’s results, there is one point I have not heard discussed. It involves what might be called the misery theory of social change. The midterm elections should put to rest the prevalent but unfounded notion that economic crises are prone to result in progressive—even revolutionary—gains, and that widespread suffering incites social advances.
Crises in a capitalist economy may be inevitable, as left theorists have long argued. But a crisis does not mean that the system ceases to exist. It means that, for a time, the reliable production of profit breaks down. The ranks of the jobless swell far beyond the number of people we think normal or acceptable to be unemployed. Families—usually the families of working people—lose their homes or their savings or both.
Unfortunately, as should now be as clear as ever, nothing about this naturally or inevitably leads to positive changes.
Many organizers will tell you that people take risks when motivated by hope and that they retreat when taken by fear. These days, there is plenty of fear to go around. May the midterm elections be the worst expression of it that is in store for our country.
Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com.
A BAD economy is bad for the party in power. A terrible economy is terrible for the party in power. Whether Obama could have mitigated the political damage by promoting a bigger stimulus in the first place—or by making sure health care reform was front-loaded with more tangible benefits—or by postponing the health care push until the stimulus kicked in—or (my own personal favorite) by giving more electrifying, morality-soaked speeches and, more generally, playing a stronger outside game from the moment he sent 1.2 million folks home from the Mall on January 21, 2009 and proceeded to dismantle the 13.5 million strong Organizing for America network (the organizing theorist Marshall Ganz’s argument)—we don’t know and we’ll never know.
Here are some things we do know, insofar as exit polls are more credible than tea leaves:
1. According to Pew, 40 percent of voters expressed “support for the Tea Party Movement.”
2. Also according to Pew, “views of the Republican Party are no more positive than those of the Democratic Party…which was roundly defeated.” (The numbers for Republicans were 52 percent unfavorable to 42 percent favorable; for Democrats, 53 percent unfavorable to 43 percent unfavorable.)
3. The young voters who roared into political life in 2008 by voting, campaigning, indeed, crusading for Obama, and in the process helped ignite hopes that the long national nightmare of the right-wing revival was over, went back to sleep.
Far more liberal than baby boomers (already in 2006, they were 40 percent more likely to call themselves by that dirty word, according to Anna Greenberg), they didn’t turn out. In 2008, the under-thirties barely outnumbered the 65+ crowd among the total voting population (18 percent to 16 percent). In 2010, the geezers outnumbered the kids more than two to one (24 percent to 10 percent). And the geezers went Republican by a twenty-point margin, the same margin by which the kids went Democratic. Just about all you have to know about the demography of this election is that the kids stayed home.
A huge portion of what happened in this election…reflects the fact that Obama won with a coalition unusually dependent upon the young, and that he failed to turn these sporadic voters into regular voters. Democrats’ strength among the young bodes well for them in the long run, but as Keynes famously said, in the long run we’re all dead.
I can’t help but think that, spirited as they were, inventive, joyous, buoyant, and delighted to see each other in insouciant regalia as they were (I was among the throngs who turned out for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the Mall three days earlier, and posted some photos here), they were the hippest possible vanguard of a nonexistent movement. Or, they were actually representative of a generational sensibility deeply disaffected from normal politics—the politics of congressional elections, ho-hum—and/or too busy for politics and/or uncomprehending of how much is required of them before they truly become, for more than a single campaign season and an election-night epiphany, the people they have been waiting for.
Todd Gitlin is on the editorial board of Dissent and is a professor of journalism and sociology at the School of Journalism at Columbia University. His most recent book is The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, co-authored with Liel Leibovitz.
IF THE way to fight bad speech is with more speech, is the way to fight bad punditry with more punditry? Let me try. The Democrats’ drubbing on Tuesday has yielded the usual analyses, most of them, to paraphrase Mencken, simple, neat, and wrong: from the right comes the sneer that President Obama and the Democrats pushed an agenda that was too far to the left. The Left dangles the delusion that Obama tacked too far to the right. The center bloviates that this most gifted of communicators failed to sell his programs. These analyses misleadingly imply simple remedies: work with the Republicans, à la Clinton; boot the Blue Dogs and build a true progressive majority; rekindle a disillusioned electorate. All are easier said than done. One might as well tell Obama to get unemployment down to 6 percent. That would have done more for the Democrats this year than any of the above prescriptions.
I don’t purport to have a solution to the Democrats’ troubles, because there’s simply not much they can do. The problem lies mainly with the continuing fallout from the economic cataclysm of 2008. A robust jobs program, obstructed by the Republican minority of the 111th Congress, certainly won’t appear under the Republican majority of the 112th. The best we can hope for is some small steps, achieved through legislative trench warfare, that speed the sluggish recovery, and perhaps the Fed’s growing recognition that it too needs to do more.
For those liberals who never drank the Obama Kool-Aid in 2008, it’s tempting to say I told you so. Obama’s skeptics, while rallying to his banner after he won the nomination, always worried that the man who sought to reconcile Red and Blue America still lacked a strong partisan instinct; that this product of socially elite institutions still didn’t excite the white, working-class voters on whom Democrats’ fortunes have for decades hinged; that the whole of his professional record left it uncertain whether he could actually accomplish much beyond getting elected to office. Even so, it’s doubtful that, had she been elected, Clinton—who surely would have named the same people (or kind of people) to key economic and political jobs—would be occupying a substantially stronger position than Obama does today.
And so I find myself defending Obama and the Democrats from most of the criticisms directed their way. Yes, they should have seized the populist ground instead of ceding it to the Right. But they faced the worst economic crisis since the Depression and a Republican party determined above all to thwart all progress. And still they made modest progress, while also passing two flawed but major pieces of progressive legislation and several significant smaller bills. It’s just a damned shame that a jobs program wasn’t among them.
David Greenberg is a historian at Rutgers University and contributor to Dissent, Slate, the New Republic, and other publications. In 2010-11 he is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
And though each Spring do add to love new heat—
As princes do in times of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace—
No winter shall abate the spring’s increase.
AS FAR as I know, John Donne is the only poet to have connected love and taxes in a conceit, meant subtly to ironize a declaration of spiritual love so that it inadvertently reveals its worldly and physical nature. One senses that the irony would be lost in our moment, which has elevated taxation to cosmic importance. Nobody has ever enjoyed paying taxes, of course, but in many times and places citizens have recognized that governments must secure revenue for valued services. Taxes seemed in the 2010 American election, by contrast, an anathema to be denounced with a degree of hair rending, chest beating, and eye rolling that would have led the biblical Jeremiah to organize a rally for sanity.
We find this view especially, though not exclusively, amongst Tea Party twits and wingnuts. Democracy unfortunately legitimizes their half-baked views, and we are further obliged to confront them by the strong showing that they made in this election, which must already have SarahPAC stockpiling wardrobe funds for a 2012 presidential run. So let us take seriously for a moment the Tea Party’s core sentiment that taxation frustrates liberty. When taxes fund enormous military spending and the incarceration of citizens at a rate higher than that of any state, democratic or totalitarian, then yes, taxes do frustrate liberty. When taxes fund social programs promoting human flourishing, then taxes serve the cause of liberty. I think that covers it. Our moment of taking the Tea Party seriously is now adjourned.
Fatuous extremism can sometimes have the benefit of revealing sentiments roiling in the political middle. Rational discussion of tax policy seems quite impossible for anyone aspiring to hold public office: the only politically viable statement a candidate can make is a shallow promise to lower taxes and eliminate government waste. Here in Illinois—where a bankrupt state government is behind on payments to pensions, schools, universities, and hospitals, to the tune of eight billion dollars—former state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has been pilloried in ads attacking his run for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. The ads play in rapid video loop his entirely reasonable statement, “We need an income tax increase,” and dwell on a still photo of Giannoulias with would-be reality television star Rod Blagojevich, arms around each other’s shoulders, both grinning widely and clad in tuxedoes. The equation of tax with graft could not be clearer. Giannoulias lost to Republican Mark Steven Kirk.
The irrationality of this political conversation is in some respects a symptom of hard times, when we all guard with especial vigilance our scant resources. But it also seems like the full apotheosis of the possessive individual in the nation’s political theology. In this divine economy, loves and hopes are bound to a moment of messianic arrival when taxes will cease to exist, when those vitiated souls draining government resources will be justly afflicted with plagues—never mind that this implicates us all—and when the deserving few pull themselves up by their own bootstraps into a New Jerusalem that knows not the paycheck deduction.
It is no coincidence that such sentiments are enjoying a Great Awakening during the first African-American presidency: the role of the sovereign is played by a member of precisely that racial group perceived to be at the root of the state’s violation of the possessive individual’s sanctity, the group traditionally blamed for the existence of welfare, affirmative action, and all other brands of theft. Those who feel this condition to be a violation of America’s political theology have taken both to casting doubt on the president’s citizenship and to seeking refuge in the purity of the nation’s founding revolutionary moment.
How else can we explain the political untenability of proposals for progressive taxation? (Remember that unlikely hero of the common man from the 2008 election, Joe the Plumber, who chafed at an income tax increase for those with an annual income of more than $250,000.) How else do we make sense of the Republicans taking the House on a campaign of cutting taxes for the wealthy and dismantling the new health care bill, that incremental and expedient measure designed only to prevent the most outrageous crimes of the insurance industry? Its identification with Obama has fueled the false perception that it is a costly handout to underemployed minorities and illegal immigrants, while the Bush drug benefit that is in fact a handout to large drug companies accumulates without objection costs in the trillions of dollars.
Such is the magical thinking particularly pervasive amongst that portion of the electorate that deems the theory of evolution to be a wile of Satan. Its unthinking faith assures its hostility to the empiricism on which sensible policy is founded. We have learned in 2010 that 2004 was not so very long ago. The Republican House will treat us to a good deal of bluster in the coming months on the necessity of preserving obscenely low rates of taxation for the exceedingly wealthy, and will denounce government relief of human hardship as an abomination. Any resistance to this view will be presented as an affront to the American way of life, and the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency will find 2008’s small push of progressivism met with stronger recoil.
Feisal G. Mohamed is an associate professor of English at the University of Illinois. His most recent book, Milton and the Post-Secular Present, is forthcoming from Stanford University Press.
WHAT HAPPENED with women? One leading indicator, the number of women in Congress, isn’t bad—there was only slight change downward—but that’s only when you stick to the old assumption that more women in Congress means more Democrats. Where there was turnover, it mostly went with the Republicans. Still, the right-wing female bloggers are chortling. Why? Because the Palin effect has for the first time given Republican women some purchase in fielding candidates and appealing to a female constituency in language more sophisticated than the hoary “family values” rhetoric that shaped the right-wing women’s agenda for years.
This means they’re adopting feminist rhetoric to their own uses. Republicans in this campaign hurled charges of sexist treatment—not unjustifiably—at some Democrats and left-wing commentators for the innuendo and ridicule they threw at some of the more obnoxious high profile women—Meg Whitman, Christine O’Donnell, and Sharron Angle. Feminism, carefully parsed, is now an element of right-wing populism. For a taste, go to the FoxNews blog for an article by Kay Bailey Hutchison, “Stop Insulting Female Candidates and Start Playing Fair.” Hutchison came up in politics in the bad old days; she earned the right to protest. As for FoxNews—this is the venue that, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, featured commentary like, “[Men] won’t vote for Hillary Clinton because she reminds them of their nagging wives.”
In the face of this turn in Republican strategy, the Democratic leadership was behind the curve. The big news was that the gender gap disappeared, which means that one pool of reliable Democratic votes dissolved. As any number of liberals, male and female, have pointed out, Obama has made few efforts to pull in Hillary’s female supporters, assuming—as did Democratic pols in the old days about blacks and ethnics—that they would follow because they had nowhere else to go. It turns out enough either stayed home or went to the Republicans to obliterate the Democrats’ advantage. However you view the 2008 primaries, it’s clear that Clinton’s campaign showed the political gold to be mined in the women’s vote. This year, the advantage she showed could be consolidated just disappeared.
The worst news is the big hit that pro-choice forces took. The anti-abortion organizations are crowing. We now have four proudly anti-abortion governors, and for the first time, an anti-choice woman in the Senate: Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire. The Susan B. Anthony List—a feminist anti-abortion organization—claims thirty-four wins out of the forty-eight candidates (including twenty-three women) they endorsed, and eleven defeats of pro-choice women. By their count, the percentage of anti-choice women in the House increased by sixty percent, while the percentage of pro-choice women decreased by sixteen percent.
There was one big loss for the lifers: the Personhood Amendment went down in a resounding two-to-one defeat in Colorado, along with its chief proponent, the Tea Party’s Ken Buck. The Personhood Amendment (Amendment 62) is the old Human Life Amendment (of 1980s fame) recycled. It makes the fertilized egg a constitutionally protected person and would recriminalize abortion in all cases, including rape and incest, along with the morning-after pill and most forms of birth control. Faced with the reality of an out-and-out ban, not some incremental chip like parental notification, Colorado women favored Buck’s Democratic opponent Michael Bennet by seventeen percent. That’s the gender gap at its most robust.
Overall, anti-abortion politics have become the default social issue for the Right, just as temperance politics were for both parties in the nineteenth century—guaranteed to appeal to the base and push candidates who make a show of zeal to the front. Such politics don’t always work, as Buck’s defeat shows. This is especially the case when the candidate represents the reality of a complete abortion ban, which few Americans really think will ever come to pass. But it’s an issue that can reliably mobilize right-wing women.
Feminism and right-wing politics are an uneasy mix, because the Right opposes every piece of national policy that would actually improve the lives of women. The right wing of the GOP—which now calls the shots—has over the last fifty years purged the party’s substantial feminist contingent, cheered the defeat of the Equal Rights amendment, denounced policies and laws meant to give women equal footing in their families, and waged holy war against legal abortion and access to contraception—not to mention nearly torpedoed health care reform, which is desperately needed by all the women who bear the brunt of family members’ unattended health care needs. But finger-shaking at sexist language is one element of female outrage that can coexist with anti-choice vendettas, blending into a theatrical stance of pseudo-feminism. That’s what the Right has discovered with its Mama Grizzlies and their demand for a level playing field.
Christine Stansell is a historian at the University of Chicago and author of The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present, published by Random House.
WHEN JOE Wurzelbacher, a.k.a “Joe the Plumber,” confronted Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign and criticized his tax plan, conservative pundits immediately used the encounter to raise questions about whether the Democratic candidate was a socialist. The actor John Voight wrote in the Washington Times that, “It seems to me that if Mr. Obama wins the presidential election, then Messrs. Farrakhan, Wright, Ayers, and Phleger will gain power for their need to demoralize this country and help create a socialist America.”
It was difficult for many Democrats to believe that the charges would stick. After all, Obama was anything but a socialist. Many liberals had been far more excited about the candidacy of Senator John Edwards because he was the only candidate willing to talk about issues like poverty and urban decline. If anything, Obama was more like Bill Clinton than Lyndon Johnson, part of a new generation of Democrats who were not invested in the orthodoxies of the 1960s.
Yet Republicans persisted in mounting a fierce attack by using cable television and the Internet to paint the future president as far left of center. Since Obama started his presidency, those attacks have only accelerated. Every piece of legislation offered an opportunity to confirm their worst fears. The midterm elections suggest that the Republican strategy worked. Polls indicate that the much of the public is not satisfied with his policies.
The irony is that many liberal Democrats have not been comfortable with many of Obama’s policies either. For a significant number on the Left, the period since Obama’s election has been a disappointment. Many liberal economists argue that Obama’s economic stimulus package was much smaller than what was needed. With health care reform, the president worked squarely within the existing system rather than pursuing proposals to fundamentally overhaul the way that the industry operates. He even jettisoned the public option, which some felt could have created a check against rising premium costs. His efforts on the environment have been mixed. While Obama has used executive power to overturn some of the decisions of President Bush, he was willing to support offshore drilling in exchange for votes on climate change legislation and did not give much attention to reforming the regulatory bodies responsible for oversight. When pressed about these decisions, the president has often been hostile toward the critics, complaining that they are not appreciating what he did and that they have no understanding of the difficulties of the political process.
Yet even as liberals attacked, conservatives depicted Obama as a Democrat who has undertaken a quasi-socialistic experiment that has given the federal government control of the economy.
There were many reasons that Democrats did so badly in the midterms. Without question, the high unemployment rate is the number one factor. Many Americans are also uneasy about Obama’s health care reform. But clearly another problem has been the inability of this White House to sell its policies to the public, to communicate with voters, and to shape an image in the media that counteracted what his opponents were saying.
Like it or not, perception matters in American politics, and it can have a big impact on the success or failure of presidents. When Lyndon Johnson came to be seen as the wartime president rather than the creator of the Great Society, many liberals abandoned him. When Jimmy Carter came to be seen as an incompetent leader rather than an outsider who Americans could trust, his approval ratings plummeted. When Ronald Reagan came to be seen as the president who brought peace with the Soviets rather than a warmonger, he was able to rehabilitate his presidency in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal.
President Obama needs to do many things differently if he wants to strengthen the Democratic Party before 2012, but overhauling his communications team and strategy must be front and center. Thus far, the president’s team has managed to anger liberals, alienate moderates, and enrage conservatives all at the same time. This is a remarkable political feat.
Obama’s rambling and unfocused press conference following the midterm election suggested that he had not received that part of the message. Indeed, at the press conference, the president said: “You know, a couple of great communicators, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, were standing at this podium two years into their presidency getting very similar questions, because, you know, the economy wasn’t working the way it needed to be.”
But then a few days later, he sounded a different tune. He said in an interview with 60 Minutes that “leadership is not just legislation, it’s a matter of persuading people. And giving them confidence and bringing them together. And setting a tone. And making an argument that people can understand.” The president admitted that, “we haven’t always been successful at that…”
Over the next two years, Democrats will see if he can actually get back on message. If he can’t, the political future might look very red.
Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of Jimmy Carter by Times Books, Arsenal of Democracy by Basic Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush’s administration by Princeton University Press.
Homepage image: Wikimedia Commons/2007