Republican victories in the 2010 elections raise a nagging and uncomfortable question: why the violent pendulum swings in our politics?
Are the American people fickle, indecisive, and confused by all the partisan bickering? Or do their rapid zigs and zags from one side to the other reflect a healthy pragmatism, and a skeptical impatience with ideological agendas of all varieties?
Just two years after a sweeping, historic triumph for Barack Obama and his liberal cohorts, the American people sharply reversed course and turned back to conservative Republicans, apparently embracing some of the same principles (and even some of the same principals) they had angrily rejected in 2006 and 2008.
Over the course of the last sixty years the electorate has displayed an odd tendency to flip from Democrat to Republican every two years or, at most, every six. Eisenhower won crushing landslides for the GOP in 1952 and 1956; in 1958 the Democrats took an amazing 15 Senate seats and 43 seats in House, and two years later recaptured the presidency. Lyndon Johnson earned a 44 state Democratic sweep in 1964; four years later, Richard Nixon won back a full thirty of those states for the GOP.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter brought the Democrats back to the White House and captured a mammoth two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives. Four years later, the voters delivered 44 states to Carter’s rival Ronald Reagan, along with GOP control of the US Senate. Reagan’s successor George H. W. Bush won a landslide in 1988, then managed only a feeble 37.5% of the popular vote in his ill-fated drive for re-election. The subsequent Clinton honeymoon ended even more abruptly – with the huge Republican gains of 1994, seizing both houses of Congress, before more Democratic triumphs (1996, 2006 and 2008), interrupted, of course, by solid GOP victories (2002 and 2004).
The unstable state of our politics make a mockery of all the experts and pundits on both sides who proclaimed “an emerging Republican majority” or durable control for resurgent Democrats. The recent returns demonstrate that there is no dominant, majority party in the United States, and there hasn’t been one since the Eisenhower era. Any proclamations about the nation’s fundamentally conservative nature, like all the pronouncements about the deeply-ingrained progressive instincts of the populace, inevitably sound laughable within two or three electoral cycles.
By now, our political leaders should have gotten the message: the people of the United States aren’t liberal, and they’re not conservative. They feel abiding affection for neither Republicans nor Democrats. In fact, they feel little enthusiasm for politicians or politics of any kind.
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.