So, the midterm elections were about as completely disastrous as could be. Progressives will try to spin the outcome with various reasonable arguments. The Republicans enjoyed significant cyclical advantages–the older and whiter midterm electorate, the traditional vulnerability of the party controlling the White House after six years, and the preponderance of Democratic-held Senate seats that were in play. They also benefit from enduring structural advantages in elections to both the Senate (one state, two senators regardless of population) and the House (gerrymandering plus the concentration of Democratic voters in fewer districts). All of these points are valid, but all of them together don’t explain the magnitude of the Democrats’ wipeout.
I think the simplest general explanation of what happened is that Americans are unhappy right now with their government. (The single biggest cause of unhappiness is the lackluster economy.) Most voters aren’t terribly sophisticated about things like cause and effect in politics and public policy; they tend to act on their unhappiness by going against the party that controls the White House. Unfortunately the electorate hasn’t come to the realization that the only major available alternative isn’t a normal opposition party.
As I have repeatedly argued, today’s Republican Party is an outlier in American history: a genuinely radical major party willing to engage in extraordinary acts of political warfare to advance its reactionary cause. But most Americans aren’t radical reactionaries. They don’t want to return to the 1920s. A majority of Americans generally favor progressive policies. They want a meaningful minimum wage, effective regulations to protect the environment and guard against the excesses of corporate greed, robust public investments in essential infrastructure, progressive taxation and a strong social safety net. They don’t want to outlaw abortion and they certainly don’t favor government shutdowns and debt ceiling crises. How then, can they vote for a party that aggressively, indeed ruthlessly, advances a radical reactionary agenda?
The obvious answer is that Americans don’t see the Republicans as the radical party that they are. Why don’t they? I will offer two answers to that question: one involving the mass media and the other involving the Democrats.
Apart from such openly partisan outlets as Fox and MSNBC, most of the mass media in the United States have long been dedicated to an ethos of objectivity. Objectivity means sticking to the facts and leaving the journalist’s personal opinion out of the news pages or newscasts. (Whether genuine objectivity is possible or desirable is another issue that I won’t go into now.) As far as partisan politics are concerned, objectivity in practice means non-partisanship: journalists must not be seen to be taking sides in the contests between our two major parties. But non-partisanship comes under stress when one of the two parties deviates sharply from mainstream positions; journalists are loath to portray the deviance for what it is, because to do so would appear partisan. So, even if Republicans are crazy, journalists can’t say so, because that would seem to violate the ethos of objectivity. Instead, they maintain the fiction that the Republicans are more or less a normal political party, and convey that misimpression to their audiences.
The just-finished Senate contests in Iowa and Arkansas provide excellent illustrations of this process. The victorious Republican candidates, Joni Ernst and Tom Cotton respectively, are at best borderline loons, but they have gotten respectful treatment in the media, which has mostly ignored their wackiest statements and beliefs. Why? According to Norman Ornstein (the token centrist at the rightist American Enterprise Institute), it’s because a realistic treatment of Ernst and Cotton would clash with the narrative that the media has come to favor for this election campaign. The preferred story-line is that the sensible Republican establishment has seized control of the party from the Tea Party radicals and is thus avoiding the mistakes of 2010 and 2012, when obviously unbalanced Republican candidates like Todd Akin and Sharron Angle ruined the party’s chances for victory. According to Ornstein, “embedded in the culture of campaign journalism” is an
eagerness to pick a narrative and stick with it, and to resist stories that contradict the narrative. The alternative theory, that the Republican establishment won by surrendering its ground to its more ideologically extreme faction, picking candidates who are folksy and have great resumes but whose issue stances are much the same as their radical Tea Party rivals, goes mostly ignored.
In my view, the media’s choice of the particular narrative that Ornstein describes reflects their way of dealing with Republican radicalism without risk of breaching the ethos of objectivity. The narrative enables journalists to maintain their non-partisan stance by evading the uncomfortable reality of Republican radicalism. A related problem is the media’s proclivity for “horserace” reporting of election campaigns. Rather than take a serious, intellectually challenging look at the substantive issues that divide candidates (boring), reporters have more fun focusing on the personalities and tactics, the clever moves or gaffes that help determine which candidate will first make it past the finish line. Of course, if reporting on substantive issue differences isn’t your thing, you are less likely to reveal that one candidate takes wacky issue positions.
But the media don’t get all the blame for the public’s ignorance. I put a lot of it on the Democrats, starting with the country’s leading Democrat, Barack Obama. From the eve of his inauguration on forward, Congressional Republicans made it clear that their main priority was the political destruction of the new president. Obama nevertheless held fast to the idea that the Republicans were a more or less reasonable bunch of folks with whom the normal accommodations and compromises of American politics were possible. Of course, everybody expects that the president of the United States will be something more than a party leader, that he will make some effort to rise above partisanship. But when the other side declares war, you have to fight back. Obama instead insisted on searching for common ground when the only place the Republicans wanted to meet was on the battlefield. Given his obvious formidable talents, who would have predicted in 2008 that Obama was wholly unsuited temperamentally for the necessary trench warfare with an implacable, ideologically driven foe?
Obama needed to say, over and over again, that the Republican agenda of budget cutting, “entitlement reform” and deregulation was disastrously backward-looking. He had to say, emphatically and consistently, that Republican economic policy prescriptions would block the country’s economic recovery. But that kind of rhetoric isn’t to Obama’s taste. Rather than highlight the differences that separated him from the Republicans, he seemed to prefer to obfuscate them. Too often he validated the Republicans’ policy narrative, paying obeisances to the wrongheaded goal of spending reduction during a recession. Thus, at least twice during his first term, he compared the federal budget to the budget of a family, making the point that government had to stay within its means. Anyone who has taken Macroeconomics 101 should know that this is dangerous nonsense, but Obama wasn’t above pandering to, and thus reinforcing, popular economic ignorance.
Obama’s search for common ground even extended to his disastrous first debate with Romney. If there is any place where you should be trying to sharpen, rather than blur your differences with your opponent, it’s in an election debate. But Obama began his answer to a question on Social Security by saying that the differences between him and Romney on that issue really weren’t great. (Unfortunately, there was too much truth in that assertion—Obama had repeatedly shown a willingness to yield to Republican demands to cut “entitlements,” thus legitimating their bogus claim that Social Security was in imminent crisis.) If the Democrats, led by the president, have been unwilling to call the Republicans on their radicalism, it is hardly surprising that the media don’t go there either.
It’s no wonder that the American people have such a poor understanding of what today’s Republican Party actually represents. The unfortunate result is that the radicals are now in control of both houses of Congress, and the best we can hope for is two more years of gridlock.