The Midterm Elections, Media Nonsense, and Lessons for the Left
By now everyone has heard of the Conservative “tidal wave” that has overtaken Congress and most gubernatorial seats throughout the U.S. Indeed, anyone who has watched mainstream media coverage probably understands the midterm election results as a “rebuke of Obama’s policies,” with the “Tea Party movement” captivating “The American People” and putting the brakes on the Democrats’ irresponsible, big government agenda.
That’s the prevailing narrative, at least. And, surprisingly, this has been accepted all across the spectrum. Even figures like Michael Moore, speaking with a group of analysts on Democracy Now, have made arguments for why the Democrats were defeated so badly (e.g., Obama and Democrats were too conciliatory, timid, etc.) and, moving on, offer arguments for what must be done going forward (e.g., fewer concessions to Wall Street and the rich, etc.). But, in doing so, those who make such arguments implicitly accept the “Conservative/Tea Party/anti-Progressive landslide” narrative.
I would strongly suggest that, while the election results are certainly a political setback for Democrats, this “Tea Party triumph” interpretation is wildly misleading once we look more closely at the actual results of the elections. Media love conflicts and narratives and, as Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research aptly predicted back in September, this election season was practically preordained to be the election where everyone finally acknowledges that the Obama administration and Democrats lost “because they tried to go too far, too fast, and too left for the inherently conservative American masses.” True, if we look at the change in the composition of Congress, we see that Democrats have lost at least sixty seats (with several races still to be decided) thereby forfeiting control of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, Democrats have lost at least six seats, now wielding only a narrow majority whereas they were once “filibuster-proof” (i.e., they held sixty seats). And in the gubernatorial races we’ve also seen a large shift: Though several races are still undecided, Democrats have lost at least nine governorships, now holding only sixteen out of fifty. So how can we possibly not understand this as a “clear” vote by “The American People” that the progressive agenda must be stopped?
I will offer four crucial points as to why evaluating the election in this manner is grossly inaccurate. It must be understood that referring to a substantial change in institutional power relations between the two parties as a substantial change in the mood of “The American People” is political sleight of hand at its worst. However, this should not be interpreted as a defense of the Democratic Party but, rather, a condemnation of nonsensical media “analysis.”
1. The Total Popular Vote
If asked whether it matters that Candidate A won an election over Candidate B by a margin of 3 percent versus, say, 60 percent, we would likely answer in the affirmative. This is because, though Candidate A is the “clear” victor in either case, there exists a serious qualitative difference between these two scenarios. And if we are trying to responsibly discuss the will of the electorate, it behooves us to look beyond the end result—i.e., Candidate A winning office. We would have to ask, for example, “How much did s/he win by? To what extent can we call Candidate A’s victory a rejection of Candidate B’s policies? To what extent can we generalize about the electorate as a whole?” These questions all require us to, at the very least, look at the popular vote rather than simply looking at who was the winner of the vote.
Readers might be thinking that this is fairly straightforward reasoning, perhaps even tediously elementary. But, apparently, the mainstream media, Republicans, and even Democrats disagree. President Obama referred to the Democratic losses as a “shellacking,” and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said the elections amounted to an “F” on the Democrats’ political report card; swiftly and decisively handed to them by none other than “The American People.”
But what happens when we actually look at the total popular vote for all U.S. Senate, gubernatorial, and House of Representatives races? When we look at the total popular vote (i.e., all national and gubernatorial votes for all Democrats and Republicans combined), Democrats are, unsurprisingly, still the losers overall (as was Candidate B in both hypothetical scenarios). But the results are at serious odds with the prevailing media narrative. I’ve calculated the Democratic and Republican averages in all available Senate, Governor, and House race results. In the Senate, Democrats took 43.2 percent of the vote; Republicans took 51.5 percent. In the gubernatorial races, Democrats took 43.2 percent; Republicans took 50.5 percent. And finally, in the House—where Democrats suffered headline-grabbing losses—Democrats took 47.3 percent; Republicans took 50.1 percent. Yes, in the House of Representatives, where the media has been screaming about a Tea Party-led “bloodbath,” Democrats lost the popular vote by less than three percent! In looking at these popular vote results, we clearly see that the Tea Party/Republican alliance barely captured a majority of the vote. The supposed “bloodbath,” therefore, only represents a large change in the party composition of Congress, not an easily discernable shift in the qualitative (i.e., ideological) composition of the electorate.
But wasn’t this past election really a rebuke of Obama’s policies? We all remember how popular he was when he won by a landslide in the election in 2008, capturing the Electoral College by the enormous margin of 365 to 173. Doesn’t this shift at least reflect a huge defeat for him personally?
Yes and no. A portion of the electorate, whether consciously or not, will have effectively made it harder for President Obama and the Democrats come January. If the past is any indicator, gridlock will be the name of the game for the next two years and, to the extent that this ultimately damages President Obama’s political capital, yes, it was a rebuke. However, we shouldn’t so readily accept the narrative that Obama came into office with overwhelming support. Though the Electoral College margin was enormous—just as the net gain of Republican House seats this year was enormous—he actually won with 53 percent of the popular vote; a mere 7 percent over John McCain. A decisive victory, yes, but it was hardly a mandate by “The American People” to enact a “progressive agenda.” Consider this last point along with the fact that in none of Tuesday’s national and gubernatorial elections did Republicans, as a whole, win by more than 9 percent over their Democratic challengers. If there was a decisive “sea change” amongst the electorate over the past two years, it has not been borne out by the facts. The only thing “clear” about Tuesday’s election is that the media and its “analysts” are terrible at accurately reporting on it.
2. Voter Turnout
When I refer to the supposed change in composition of the electorate, I do so because the electorate comprises those who actually voted on Election Day, not “The American People” as a whole. According to the United States Elections Project, the estimated turnout among eligible voters for Tuesday’s elections was 41.5 percent. When factoring in those adult Americans who cannot vote, but who are nevertheless affected by legislation and policymaking and presumably hold political opinions, the turnout rate drops to 38.2 percent. And, to add one more layer of complexity, those figures represent voters who went to the polls—whether they voted for one, all, or some of the candidates on the ballot is not explicitly clear. In other words, the actual percentage of people who voted for any given race could conceivably be lower than 38.2 percent. Thus, when hearing politicians and pundits proclaim that “The American People” have clearly spoken, one should be thoroughly perplexed. In the best-case scenario, among all Americans of voting age, only 38.2 percent “spoke” on Election Day and, as argued above, their message was anything but clear. Looking at this fairly meager percentage and making generalizations about “The American People” is woefully misleading.
3. The Narrative Eclipses Third-Party Impact
In a few key races, the “Tea Party/Rise-of-the-Republicans” narrative rendered third party candidates to appear as though they were of no consequence. By only looking for the winner of the vote, it becomes easy to miss the fact that more voters may have voted against a candidate than for him or her. For instance, in the Senate race in Illinois (for the seat formerly held by Barack Obama) all coverage that I witnessed neglected to mention that the considerable turnout for Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones, who took 3.2 percent, could arguably have cost the Democrat (Alexi Giannoulias, who lost by less than 2 percent ) the election. This is not an attack on the Green Party candidate, but rather a criticism of the media’s inability to treat the victory of Tea Party favorite Mark Kirk as something more complicated than a shining example of the “clear” pushback against progressive politics nationwide.
Similarly, in Florida’s Senate race, the moderate and Democratic vote was split between Independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Together, their votes amount to 49.8 percent, whereas Tea Party hero Marco Rubio won with 48.9 percent. In Alaska, a write-in candidate appears to be heading toward a victory over Tea Party darling Joe Miller. Regarding the Tea Party itself, now well-known far-right candidates (many of which explicitly endorsed by the Tea Party) like O’Donnell in Delaware, Paladino in New York, Angle in Nevada, Whitman and Fiorina in California, and McMahon in Connecticut all lost. And yet, the narrative lives on.
4. Ideological Rejection vs. Managerial Rejection
Lastly, it’s probably useful to question whether this was really an election about ideological preference, and not simply a fall in many voters’ confidence about the “handling of the economy” by the Democrats. It comes as no surprise that the number one issue for nearly 90 percent of likely voters this year was the economy/jobs. So, given the weak health of the economy, it is also not surprising that a portion of the electorate might employ a kind of “guess-and-check” strategy where, if one political party does not appear to be improving the economy, some voters will simply ‘give the other one a try’ for awhile. These voters, then, desire more of a change in management than a change in ideological direction.
This point deserves more analysis than I can provide here but, in short, the perception that higher deficits are somehow causing the poor health of the economy is probably fairly pervasive among the general public. But in reality, higher deficits are more the result of a weak economy—both in terms of decreased revenues, increased demand for government benefits (unemployment insurance, Medicaid, Food Stamps, etc.), and the political necessity of stimulating (or at least maintaining) aggregate demand. Without this point being made clear, one can see how some voters might easily misread the causality and opt for new “managers of the economy.” Had unemployment been half of what it is currently; had more people been able to keep their homes; had more uninsured Americans been able to obtain affordable health insurance before the end of 2010; had more working class people been able to see what a real economic “stimulus” program could do to improve their lives; had all of this happened, my guess is that the election results would have been markedly different. And if that is indeed the case, the midterms cannot seriously be treated as a decisive endorsement of free market economics and limited government.
THE PARTY’S OVER:
What should we take away, then, from the elections? Upon closer inspection, we’ve seen that the election results do not indicate any discernable massive shift in ideological preference among voters, much less “The American People.” That being said, they do represent new, considerable challenges for Democrats in the coming years. Getting substantial legislation passed will become even more difficult than during the previous two years. The 2012 races will therefore likely be a contest to see which party better communicates to the electorate that the other party was the one ultimately responsible for very little getting done.
And yet, at the start of 2009, Democrats had more power and support at the national level than they’ve had since 1994. So what did we end up with?
In terms of foreign relations, not very much has changed. One war has been emphasized over another (insert Eurasia vs. Eastasia quip here); relations with Israel and the Middle East have remained largely the same since the Bush administration, as have “relations” with Latin America (the unenthusiastic response to the Honduran coup being a prime example). On the domestic front, Democrats regularly lacked the political will and/or ability to pass truly transformational legislation. Recently, on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Obama intimated that he viewed the health insurance legislation, for instance, as only the first step in transforming the provision and affordability of health insurance in the U.S.—hence the continued survival of an unabashedly profit-oriented industry. Whether the “next step” can or will ever occur is anyone’s guess. The list of other shortcomings and/or outright betrayals is certainly long and covers a lot of ground. The Obama administration’s applauding of the mass teacher firings in Rhode Island and its general acceptance of conservative views on public education; the foot-dragging on labor issues and the Employee Free Choice Act; the equivocation on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; its unabashed triumphalism upon passing health insurance legislation, therein treating it as a clear victory rather than the result of successive, heartbreaking compromises; its dreadful performance at the Copenhagen Climate summit; its use of the “professional Left” phrase as a political tactic to create an appearance of bipartisanship—these are just a few of the many domestic complaints that the Left has of the Obama administration, and Democrats in general, thus far.
In fairness, the number of large pieces of legislation passed in one Congressional term was perhaps greater than usual (American history may indeed regard 2009-2010 as a very “productive” couple of legislative years). But the effectiveness of that legislation (e.g., financial reform) is still heatedly debated, and the visibility of it among voters is often even more lackluster. The point is that those on the Left should take an honest, sober look at essentially “the best we’re going to get” with the Democratic Party. It took eight years of the corruption-ridden, deficit-exploding Bush administration, international financial and economic turmoil, and nearly a decade of war for the stars to align to get Democrats in solid control of the executive and legislative branches of government. If there was ever a time that we could realistically evaluate the true limits of the Democratic Party, that time is now.
 I calculated these percentages using all available election data from The New York Times (http://elections.nytimes.com/2010/results/senate/big-board; http://elections.nytimes.com/2010/results/house/big-board; and, http://elections.nytimes.com/2010/results/governor/big-board). The calculations are based on the available results of 423 House races, 37 gubernatorial races, and 36 Senate races between Democrats and Republicans as of 11/4/10. In a dozen or so House races, percentages were listed for only one of the two parties. In these few cases, I subtracted the percentage from one hundred and gave the other party the difference. While this represents somewhat of an assumption on my part, it is not an unreasonable assumption and will have had only a small effect on the final party averages.
 I’ve always been perplexed by the popular notion that the U.S. government can be badly “managing the economy” in some way, especially when coming from the same people who tout the virtues of our “free market” system. If these people were coherent free-marketeers, they would never claim that the government has any responsibility to “fix the economy” (except, perhaps, vis-à-vis lowering taxes).