The returns are in, and for the third consecutive election the victor is change. This time, though, voters have changed their minds about change they can believe in, preferring instead to revert to a course before the course was supposedly reverted. What explains such seemingly schizophrenic behavior?
The prevailing Republican narrative for the most recent electoral zigzagging is that Obama lurched too far left. Voters on Tuesday merely pushed back against an arrogant president—the most liberal in generations, perhaps ever—and his big government agenda. Such ghastly statism, so it goes, is a non-starter in a fundamentally center-right nation, and voters reacted accordingly. “Ideological overreach provokes a backlash,” writes the Washington Post’s Michael Gerson.
That Republicans are even less popular than Democrats in national polls throws in doubt Republican’s self-serving storyline. The outcome on Tuesday may have been a rejection of Democrats, but it certainly was not a vindication of the GOP and its much-trumpeted but rarely-practiced smaller-government-is-better-government ideology: fifty-three percent of voters in exit polls held negative views of Republicans against 41 percent with positive ones. But then why did voters abandon at the electoral altar a party it so eagerly embraced just two short years ago?
A short explanation is 9.6—the unemployment rate (that number is significantly higher if all workers who cannot find fulltime employment are included, i.e., those working part-time, too). Americans vote their pocketbooks, and this election was no exception. The country’s deepest recession in decades is causing great angst. Such deep-seated nervousness is borne out by the results of a Rasmussen Reports survey that found that nearly half of respondents believe America’s best days are behind it. Democrats simply reaped that whirlwind.
But does blaming the lousy economy too easily let Obama off the hook? Columnist John Judis thinks so. In the New Republic, Judis takes the president to task for his failure to propose sufficiently bold initiatives in the wake of the financial meltdown and for his inability to convince the public that even his inadequate actions were necessary. That shortcoming provided an opportunity for a perverse right-wing populism to take hold. Judis writes: “When asked who was most to blame for ‘current economic problems,’ a plurality of voters yesterday said ‘Wall Street bankers’ rather than George W. Bush or Barack Obama. But amazingly, these voters backed Republicans by 56 to 42 percent. That testifies to the utter failure of the Obama administration’s politics.”
Judis may well be onto something. Yet Obama’s tepid response to the economic crisis or his defective political messaging does not illuminate why Americans have developed a habit of oscillating between political parties every two years, tossing out a party that failed to deliver change for another promising better results. Are we so impatient that the absence of transformational change sends us scurrying into the arms of the opposition offering a new direction? Is this proof positive of Americans’ notoriously short attention spans? Perhaps something much larger is amiss.
Maybe Americans are not whimsical fools when it comes to their voting behavior, but rather are shrewd and rational. They genuinely covet a new direction, and for good reason: ninety percent of the population has not seen significant growth in its wages in real terms since 1973 while wealth concentration has reached Gilded Age levels. Yet both trends (really one trend seen two ways) as well as many others detrimental to the economic well being of most Americans continue when both Democrats and Republicans control Washington. Hence, the errant search for change at the voting booth.
Judis wonders whether Americans are beginning to mimic the Japanese. He points out that from the end of World War II to the bursting of its economic bubble in the 1990s, Japan’s political system was remarkably stable. Over one twenty-year stretch in that time period, it had just six prime ministers. But once the country’s economy sputtered, voters got restless, as if in search of a savior. Since 2005 Japan has had six heads of government.
While it’s too soon to make a firm judgment about Judis’ theory, it is certainly true that Americans, like the Japanese, are easily disillusioned and deeply divided. Not that this is a new phenomenon. Joshua Speed, a confidant to Lincoln, wrote to the president after the 1860 election, “The eyes of the whole nation will be upon you, while unfortunately the ears of one half of it will be closed to any thing you might say.” Until real change accompanies promised change, such an embittered electorate prone to violent swings may confront any US leader, Republican or Democrat.