The people, rather, like government that seems to function to their benefit. If they share the sense that their lives are going well and the state of the nation is reasonably healthy, they’ll stick with the party in power, no matter how left-wing or right-wing it seems to be. If, on the other hand, they get worried about their own families and feel that conditions stink in the nation at large, they’ll turn the bums out, regardless of ideology.
This practical, show-me-results approach extends even to life and death issues of war and peace. When President Bush launched the War in Iraq he won overwhelming support from the people (and from Congress). Even after the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction cited as justification for the war, the people stuck with him in 2004 because our troops looked reasonably successful after eighteen months of battle. By 2006, however, Iraq had become an apparent quagmire so the electorate turned to Democrats, even though they offered few new ideas for turning the war around.
By the same token, the Republican victories in the just-concluded elections don’t reflect some new national consensus on behalf of tea party principles of smaller government or reduced spending any more than Obama’s triumph in 2008 represented an eager embrace of French-style social democracy.
The public, rather, disliked the state of affairs in the last two years of the Bush regime and so turned to something—anything—distinctly different, and the more fresh and novel the better. When Obamanomics disappointed them, and unemployment and deficits both skyrocketed in 2009, the majority yearned for another change.
For most voters, busy with jobs and families, it’s not possible to analyze 2,000 pages of health care legislation—in fact, few members of Congress managed to read the bill they foisted on a dubious public. But voters do get concerned when things seem to be falling apart in Washington and the future looks steadily dimmer and darker.
In the months ahead, a vibrant economic recovery may change everything once again. Could anyone doubt the proposition that even in this dismal election for Democrats, Obama’s allies might have still prevailed had the unemployment rate remained below 8%?
The self-described “moderates” and “independents” who seem to decide every election don’t swing randomly or capriciously from one side to another; they don’t alter their ideological orientation from left to right and back again every few years. For the most part, they renounce ideology altogether-- rejecting allegiance to either major party precisely because they place practical results over partisan preference.
Neither the president nor his recently strengthened opponents will ever succeed in winning the long-term loyalty of these swing voters, who actually follow an ancient and honorable American tradition beyond programmatic platforms—reserving their decisive and flexible support for whatever works.