Elections tell us less both less and more about the future than we think. Nothing, for examine, is more common in punditry than to overestimate the effect of a bad midterm on a president’s political relevance. In 1946 pundits wrote off Harry Truman after the record setting Republican wave of that year, but almost all of Truman’s historic foreign policy accomplishments came after that shellacking. Dwight Eisenhower didn’t fade away after his midterm losses in 1954 and 1958; Bill Clinton came back from 1994 and so it goes. President Obama may or may not fade into premature lame duckhood, but history strongly suggests that the political obituaries we have been reading lately are at best premature.Presidents have constitutional powers; midterm elections don’t take those away. Pundits keep forgetting this; they shouldn’t. President Obama’s political relevance will be shaped less by this (crushing) midterm defeat than by the interplay of uncontrollable outside factors, his political skills, the political skills and ambitions of his legislative opponents and the blind luck or fate that often plays a controlling role in human events. It is all very much in play, and at this point it remains the case that only Obama can make Obama irrelevant.Elections don’t even tell us all that much about the future of elections. Pundits and political analysts, who play a similar role in American culture to that of the Roman priests who checked the behavior of sacred chickens and the entrails of sacrificed animals to predict future events, are busy inspecting the entrails of the 2014 election results to predict 2016. It is a harmless pastime but when it comes to party politics, even blowouts don’t tell us much about the future. The Democrats got a thumpin’ in the 2014 midterms, but they got another one in 2010, and President Obama sailed to re-election. 2016 won’t depend much on the midterm just past; it will depend on the skills of the two parties, the attractiveness of the candidates they select, and the hand of God as revealed in the unpredictable events that will shape public perceptions two years from now.Misreading election returns is as American as apple pie. In 1964, pundits proclaimed the permanent collapse of the Republican Party as Barry Goldwater went down to a landslide defeat. Four years later Richard Nixon (an irrelevant has-been in 1964) was elected and inaugurated a period from 1968 until 1988 when Republicans won five out of six presidential contests. People used to talk about the permanent GOP presidential majority, featuring a Republican lock on the arch-red state of California. Then came 2008 and the pundits quickly hailed the inexorable rise of a permanent new Democratic coalition. We shall see.Election results are so often misleading in part because many young and emerging American political writers are brash, ambitious and over excitable people with short historical memories (I was one once, and know whereof I speak); more importantly, they are misleading because American politics is a dynamic and competitive arena. Things change in American life, and the two parties hustle to change with them. The GOP got killed among Hispanic and Asian voters in 2012; this time, GOP candidates and campaigners made significant gains. Expect those efforts to continue as these two groups grow in importance.But if one election won’t tell us who will win the next one, elections can be very informative about the state of the nation, and about where the country wants to go. This election in particular, in which Republicans did exceptionally well at the state level suggests that while the Democratic Party may well innovate and adjust, the core tenets of the blue model as a basic governing philosophy are in much deeper trouble than many of the operatives and thinkers of the Democratic Party are prepared to admit.The survival of Sam Brownback in Kansas and Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and the equally striking election of Tom Tiflis in North Carolina tell us that in some states at least relatively radical “Red Dawn” governance, even when it runs into serious policy and political trouble, doesn’t necessarily translate into political defeat. At the same time, the stunning losses of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in states like Massachusetts, Illinois and Maryland tells us that blue model governance as usual is no longer good enough to keep voters loyal.Election results in New York underline this point. In one of the bluest states in the country, Republicans gained control of the state Senate, a clear message that even New Yorkers don’t want to give leftie Democrats the keys to the car. New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, a self-avowed ‘progressive’ who rejects what he considers the soulless centrism of Democrats like (re-elected) Andrew Cuomo is not the wave of the future in New York State politics.The United States overall remains in its unhappy equilibrium. Voters like and even pine for the stability and general prosperity of the far away times when the blue model worked. But they are increasingly losing confidence that it still works, and the economic decline of states like Illinois, the decline of the middle class in states like New York and California, and the inability of blue model economies to generate the revenue that blue model government requires continue to erode voter faith.Yet, as the mixed results of GOP governance experiments in “Red Dawn” states like Kansas and North Carolina illustrates, we still don’t know what “new model” governance and economics will look like. Tax cuts alone aren’t the answer, and while initiatives like school choice offer promise, Republicans aren’t yet in the business of selling a social model that obviously works and that people like.What people want is isn’t the blue model in its current decadent state or the inchoate mix of policies that “red dawn” states like Kansas and North Carolina have unevenly introduced. What they—we—want is a set of policies and ideas that harness the wealth creating productivity enhancements of the information revolution in ways that reduce the cost and enhance the quality of essential services (health, education, governance) while providing economic opportunity, middle class living standards and rising living standards to the American middle class. This ought to be possible and one day it will be, but at the moment we are still stumbling around in the early stages of one of the most disruptive changes the human race has ever known.In the meantime, American politics feels stuck. We try the right for a while, and turn to the left in disgust—until the left fails as well and we turn wearily back toward the right. There’s a tendency to blame this on the caliber of our politicians, the influence of money in politics or on a whole host of other scapegoats. There are certainly issues there, and in particular nobody is going to remember the present era as a time of towering intellects and stunning probity in American politics, but the real causes of our problems are outside politics. We instinctively understand that the higher productivity of the information revolution ought to transform the daily lives of ordinary people in a host of beneficial ways, and that a richer and more productive society ought to mean wealthier and more secure middle class families, but we don’t yet understand the mix of political policies, economic techniques, social values and individual habits and choices that can make the revolution pay off. We see an explosive rise in great fortunes, and we see glittering towers of corporate and individual success, but we don’t see that prosperity spreading out the way we’d like it to. In the meantime, the insidious consequences of the rise of super-empowered fortunes and individuals with hundreds of millions to throw into political and social campaigns make us uneasy, and rightly so.The Obamacare debate is an example of the way that our inability to master the new potential of the tech revolution leads to frustration and a dysfunctional political debate. Obamacare proponents were and are right to say that the old system was increasingly dysfunctional. Premiums were rising for the insured at a rate that ate up the country’s wage gains. The uninsured faced increasingly ruinous bills for the simplest medical procedures. The system was out of control, and skyrocketing costs made its problems more serious every year. In all this, the Democratic supporters of Obamacare were absolutely correct; something had to be done.Yet the something that they did was well short of the kind of successful reform that we need. America’s health care system is too big and too complicated for anybody expect perhaps a small handful of super dedicated wonks to fully understand; the interest groups who have entrenched themselves in it are too powerful for a sweeping congressional reform effort to address many of the system’s most serious problems.We need health care reform but we don’t seem able to do it very well: this is the kind of governance problem that helps turn our politics so sour. Republicans have some good ideas on health care, but they are well short of a serious approach that, in a reasonable timeframe, could make healthcare cheaper, better and more accessible.This won’t always be true. 50 years from now the country’s health care system won’t look very much like Obamacare, and it won’t look very much like the system we had pre-Obamacare. It will be significantly cheaper as a percentage of GDP and the outcomes will be measurably better than the ones we know get. Not only will there be new treatments and new drugs; there will be new ways of delivering health care services that will be radical improvements over the systems we know today. Our need for this kind of system gets more urgent every year, but we are groping our way towards it. For what it’s worth, I think that some of the market based and experimental approaches suggested among ‘reform conservatives’ are the most useful suggestions around today, but it’s going to take a lot of trial and error to get this right.In the meantime, we are stuck with frustrated voters choosing between unsatisfactory political alternatives: Democrats too wedded to preserving an old and increasingly broken system, and Republicans more confident that they don’t like the status quo than knowledgeable about what to do next. Under the circumstances, the public preference for divided government, and the frequent switches we see between left leaning and right leaning election outcomes seems rational rather than dysfunctional. The American people by and large understand where things stand and while they will invest some hope in a charismatic, friendly politician who talks about hope and change, they will see through the hype soon enough.Over time, we are going to make our way through this. American society’s supreme competitive edge is its ability to innovate and adjust. We figured out the industrial revolution and we will get the information revolution right as well. The “new model” when it comes won’t be blue–but it won’t be totally red either. Many of the values that blue model partisans are trying to defend, including the economic dignity and well being of those at the low end of the labor market, will ultimately be better secured in the new model than they are now. That is what progress is all about; as society reaches higher levels of economic and social development, we are able to do more for the needy at a diminishing burden to the rest of the country. When health care is both better and cheaper than it is today, providing some form of universal health care will be cheaper, easier and less bureaucratic than taking on such a task is today.We are not there today, but the race for answers is on. Democrats and Republicans are in a competition to come up with the ideas and the policies that can make the information revolution work better for more people. Over the long run, success in policy innovation is going to drive politics more than demographic trends and opinion polls. If the latest midterm tells us anything at all, it is that the American future is still up for grabs. Neither party has a lock on the ideas that will shape the next generation, and an increasingly impatient public is looking for answers.
This is your free article this month. A quality publication is not cheap to produce.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Published on: November 8, 2014
America After the MidtermsBlue Twilight and Red Dawn?
Elections can’t and don’t tell us who will win the next one, no matter how much pundits like to claim otherwise. But elections can be very informative about the state of the nation, and about where the country wants to go.