The US national mood seems to be going through wild swings every few years, as evidenced by the results of our recent elections. After the 2004 elections, we were talking about the coming Republican hegemony. Not only was President George Bush re-elected, but Republicans enjoyed comfortable majorities in both the House (231 - 200) and Senate (55 - 44). This Republican hegemony lasted but two years, as the Democrats gained control of the House and Senate in 2006.
Then in 2008 we started talking about a whole new hegemony. Barack Obama became President and the Democrats gained large majorities in the House (257 - 178) and Senate (60 - 40). Once more, long term predictions turned out to be short lived. Our just concluded 2010 wave election saw the Republicans re-gain control of the House (239 - 188), as well as gain 6 seats in the Senate and 9 governorships.
What’s going on out there? According to CNN exit polls, the parties retained their base. 92% of registered Democrats and 95% of Republicans voted for their respective party candidate in the 2010 House races. The figures were similar in the 2006 and 2008 elections when around 90% voted for House candidates of their own party.
But when you look at independent voters unaffiliated with either party, the picture is radically different. These same CNN polls show that in the 2006 House elections, independents voted 57% for Democrats and 39% for Republicans. In 2010, the figures were just about reversed. Independents voted 56% for Republican house candidates and 38% for Democrats. These are really big swings. Given that independents were more than a quarter of all voters in these elections, it totally explains why the Democrats took the House in 2006 and then lost it in 2010.
A recent article by NY Times political columnis Matt Bai discussed the similarities between the grassroots movements that helped Democrats gain control of Congress in 2006 and elect President Obama in 2008, and the grassroots movements responsible for the Republican electoral gains in 2010.
Ideologically, progressive movements like MoveOn.org and Netroots Nation are very different from the conservative Tea Party movement. But, as Bai points out, when you look past ideology, several characteristics unite them.
“The first is that both movements were made possible by the Internet revolution. Twenty years ago, it would have been all but impossible on the left or the right for so many of these like-minded activists to find one another in such a short space of time; their best potential convener would have been the local party, with its entrenched leadership and arcane rules that seem designed to drive away newcomers.
“Second, these activists are products of a do-it-yourself culture - the Internet-age notion that expertise in most things, once the province of a select few, is now just a few clicks away.
“Another common thread is that both movements are as much about community as they are about governance. They hold together not just because of a political agenda, but because they enable people to transcend a sense of civic isolation.”
I like Bai’s analysis, because it frames these ideologically polar opposites within a common historical arc. Grassroots populist movements are nothing new to America. The country itself was founded on the principles of individualism and power-to-the-people. The common people will rise up against out-of-touch politicians in Washington and throw-the-bums-out if they don’t like what they are doing. What is new is that the Internet is now helping such like-minded people to quickly find each other and self-organize as activist communities who share a common interest or passion.
A large portion of the country seems to be in a particularly fickle mood. The fickle mood, angst, frustration - or whatever best describes these feelings - are egged on and considerably amplified by politicians, 24/7 cable news stations and talk radio. Add to the mix the Internet-based social networks that enable people to transform their individual feelings into those of activist communities, and you get the influential progressive and conservative movements of the past few years, seemingly rising out of nowhere, and able to exert a huge influence on the results of elections.
A similar fickleness is evident when you look at the inconsistent messages coming out from people in these groups: cut taxes and spending, decrease the deficit, and don’t touch third rail entitlement programs; decrease government regulations so business can invest and create jobs, but protect us from the greedy, incompetent companies responsible for financial crises, oil spills and the outsourcing of American jobs; and, perhaps most famously . . . stop the socialist Obamacare program but Don’t Mess with My Medicare.
Why are people being so inconsistent? Are they being irrational? These are the wrong questions to ask, akin to asking why an electron is sometimes a particle and sometimes a wave. In the real world, there are no absolute truths or absolute feelings. They all depend on the context. What experiment are you trying to explain? What question are you asking? What are you trying to do? Sometimes it is best to look at an electron using a wave model, sometimes a particle model.
These seemingly inconsistent opinions begin to make much more sense if you examine them from the point of view of the people expressing them - not that of politicians, talk radio hosts or cable news personalities - and take into account the stresses and pressures they are under. Almost a third of those answering the 2010 exit polls said that someone in their household lost a job in the last two years. About 40% said that their family financial situation is worse, and a similar number said that life for the next generation will also be worse.
Not surprisingly, two thirds said that the economy was the most important issue facing the country today. Eighty-seven percent said that they are worried about economic conditions; and 50% said that they are very worried. About the same percentage said that the highest priority for the next Congress is reducing the deficit (39%) that said it was spending to create jobs (37%).
The picture that emerges from these exit polls is that a large segment of the country is suffering pretty badly from the recession. They are understandably unhappy with their present condition, and apprehensive about their future and that of the country as a whole. They don’t have answers as to what will work. They are pragmatic, not ideological, and are willing to try whatever works best and makes life better for them, their families and their communities. They are voting against what hasn’t worked, rather than for what they think will work, because frankly, they don’t know.
As Matt Bai writes in his Times article:
“Perhaps, then, the recent uprisings on both ends of the ideological spectrum shouldn’t be viewed as opposing trends, but rather as points on the same cultural continuum . . . What we are seeing now - and are bound to see more of in the years ahead - might better be described as a series of mini-movements. They come together quickly, almost like flash mobs, anointing leaders overnight and reaching peak intensity within weeks or months. They create a satisfying outlet for frustration and a means for social connection.
“But it’s possible that the very speed and ease with which these movements rise up also make them, in the end, more ephemeral and less transformative . . . The mini-movement . . . seems to array itself against the most recent iteration of change, rather than advancing a modern agenda of its own.”
This accounts, in my opinion, for the wide swings of votes in recent elections. Despite what so many politicians and pundits say, there is no overriding ideological message. In the end, people just want their elected officials to fix the economy and let them get on with their lives.