Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Baffling 2010 Elections

In 2008, Barack Obama was elected with 52.9% of the popular vote, according to Wikipedia. It's not really a landslide, but when looking at some recent presidential elections; Bush had 50.7% in 2004 and 47.9% in 2000, Clinton had 49.2% in 1996 and 43% in 1992 (when Ross Perot was strong), and HW Bush had 53.4%, it is certainly one of the stronger presidential wins. Furthermore, Democrats gained 8 seats in the Senate and 21 seats in the House securing strong majorities in each. I don't think this constitutes a “mandate from the people,” but it is hard to argue against the idea that the American people in 2008 endorsed the Democrat platform as espoused by Barack Obama. If you believe the American people didn't do that, then you're asking some pretty tough questions about the fundamental assumptions of representative democracy, but more on that later.

Of course, that doesn't mean the Republicans should have just rubber stamped Democrat legislation and policy. They should oppose policies they disagree with, they should engender compromise, and they should stand up for their beliefs. All of that is part of the democratic process. And there were elements to all of those actions in Republican efforts. But they went further than offering opposition opinion; they used the procedural structure of the Senate to delay, obstruct, and shape legislation in such a way that it was almost impossible for the Democrats to act with any really meaning on the platform they had been elected to enact.

Primarily through anonymous holds and the new filibuster (which happens because current rules require 60 votes to end debate on a bill and thus be brought up for a general vote wherein it only needs 51 votes to pass (that's right, the pre-pass is harder than the pass)) or threat of the filibuster, Republicans held up hundreds of bills, hundreds of nominations, and dramatically altered the legislation that was passed. Again, they do have, not just a right, but a responsibility to influence policy, but there is a point where they need to respect that the American people created a Democratic House, Democratic Senate with a virtual super-majority (thanks Blue Dogs, you know what we call you in MA, we call you Republicans.), and a Democratic Presidency. In short, the American people made the 2008 Democrats the most powerful party in recent memory and the way the Republicans responded to Democrat legislation was an affront to the will of the people.

So with every media and procedural trick available they opposed an extremely popular platform. The baffling thing about this: it worked. It worked really, really well. In the media, they were able to shape policy debate around things like “death panels” (which didn't exist) as opposed to the cost to hospitals of treating uninsured patients and the tax burden on our courts of processing medical bankruptcies. They questioned Obama's citizenship and his faith without any grounds of proof and one of them shouted at him during a State of the Union (can you imagine if a Democrat had done that under President Bush. He or she would have been impeached.) They asked whether the BP oil spill was “Obama's Katrina” (don't try and wrap your head around what that implies about what they think about Bush's handling of Katrina) even though now they are fighting to preserve oil tax subsidies. They even blamed Obama for the state of the economy pretty much as soon as he took the oath, after one of the greatest market drops short of the Great Depression, while delaying, diluting, and sometimes preventing all of his attempts to actually do something about said economy.

And it worked. Really well. They gained six seats in the Senate and took control of the House gaining a record breaking 63 seats. To sum up: Republicans radically and dramatically opposed a, based on previous election results, very popular policy platform and took over control of the House of Representatives. Baffling, no? I've been thinking about this for awhile and here are the factors that I've come up with that at least scratch the surface of how this happened.

People Don't Vote for Policy: (Told you I was going to get to this.) If anyone ever wanted to argue against representative democracy, they'd start right here. I have to wonder how many people who voted for Obama and the Democrat in their district in 2008, but Republican in 2010 really understood the platforms they were endorsing. How many people were simply voting for Obama because McCain always looked about to tell you to get off his lawn, or because Bush was slinking around looking somewhat ashamed the last nine months of his term, or because they were terrified by the thought of Sarah Palin being one heartbeat away from the presidency? If they didn't vote for his policy, then its not that weird to see how all the (completely irrational, but, that's the nature of the beast) emotions generated by Republicans and their supporters in the media, changed their vote in 2010.

The Short Media Unit: What caused the recession? Thirty years of societal and economic change influenced by dozens of different economic and social policies and legislation. There's the stagnation of middle class wealth, which had it roots in the erosion of the manufacturing economy, the weakening of unions, the globalization of production... There's the chaotic nature of high level financial speculation which is driven by the speed of information, the inability of regulators to keep up with new developments, and the (non-malicious, since I can't really say innocent) collusion of financial entities creating false strongs...Then there's the credit card economy. And the inherent boom and bust cycle of our stock market. Europe's economic struggles certainly didn't help. India's tech economy probably contributed. China's rise. In short, it is a complex issue with a lot of nuance, that would take a long time to fully describe. Contemporary media just don't do that anymore. Without an understanding of the complexity of the issue, if you hear a bunch people all saying “It's Obama's economy, now,” over and over again, it's not that strange to end up believing them.

Fox News: A lot of people watch them and they endlessly repeated (and/or generated) a lot of those statements that lead to the change in opinion. It feels a little scape-goatish to bring them up, but where would the birthers, deathers, and Tea Partiers be without them. (Ask the Green Party.)

The World is Changing in a Scary Way: I was walking through Davis Square and overhead someone say, “Hey, the United States has got a dictator. Obama...” I'm pretty sure if Obama were a dictator, we would have had a public option in the health care reform bill, the Bush Tax cuts would not have been extended last year, and the debt ceiling would have been raised in July. One of the engines of the 2010 elections was this palpable anger directed at President Obama. There are many Americans who have a very rigid personal identity based, in part, on their perception of America as the “greatest, best, good, country god gave this Earth,” and that perception is being shaken. With the recession, the rise of China and India, our Middle East wars, shifting demographics, climate change, and other factors, the United States is looking a lot less like Clark Kent from Smallville and Super Man from Krypton than it used to. I believe this change is shaking some people to the core of their being and many of them are lashing out in anger. Much of that anger, thanks to some of the other factors, congealed around President Obama. And I think you really see that anger manifesting in some of the radical conservative policies being adopted at the state level. The American economy is struggling so, with no real ideas for how to fix things, conservatives are attacking the standard conservative economic scapegoat: Unions. (You know, removing murals and stuff.) The social dynamic of the world is changing, and with no way to stop that change they're going after their standard social issues: abortion and equal rights for homosexuals.

Looking forward to 2012. Frankly, I'd rather not. Humans have always made decisions based on their emotions, they always will, and there will always be people exploiting that. Whatever party “wins” in 2012 it will be a victory of advertising and not of argument. Representative democracy will just muddle along being a better option than many other forms of government.

1 comment:

  1. I don't believe that representative democracy is truly dead, just sorta in a coma. The real unfortunate thing is that 2008 was a time when it felt like people were finally coming around to believing in government again, and that momentum appears to be all but lost with the ineffectuality of things like the debt ceiling. I personally think Congress is much more of a problem not talked about than the Presidency, in terms of it's inability to do anything substantive (with even the least substantive of things requiring atleast 5 weeks of vacation afterwards). But even tho I'm not the hugest Obama fan despite voting for him, it is sad to see his momentum waning. Thankfully my silly group of Republicans can't really produce anyone of national interest that is viable so he should be safe for 4 more years.