Commentary: Where do we go from here?
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2010 - To a close follower of the political scene, the 2010 elections produced no real surprises. I am talking about the broad trends now and not individual elections such as Harry Reid's victory in Nevada. The House changed hands and the Democrats' majority in the Senate was whittled down to 51. The Tea Party movement scored some major victories, Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida, but suffered serious defeats in New York (gubernatorial candidate, Carl Paladino) and Delaware (Senate candidate, Christine O'Donnell).
Going forward, what does this mean? What big picture emerges from the results of Tuesday night? First, without doubt this was a historic election (just like 2000, 2006 and 2008). Anyone spot a pattern?
In each of these four recent elections, the party in control of the White House suffered a major defeat. In 2000 and 2010 it was the Democrats, in the other two, it was the Republicans' turn. Of the last six elections, only 2002 and 2004, proved to be exceptions. Arguably, this was because of unique circumstances: 9-11 in 2002 and the start of the Iraqi War in 2003. Typically, the American electorate rallies around the party in control of the White House during times of foreign emergencies.
Second, all talk of political realignments and dealignments are incorrect because the electorate is so changed from all the historic precedents. Indeed, it may be more appropriate to talk about electorates and not a single electorate. In 2008, an unusually high number of young and minority voters participated. In 2010, the electorate was considerably older and whiter. This speaks to the ability of the parties to mobilize their core constituencies. The Republicans used voter anger over Obama's handling of the economy to fuel this year's victory just as Democrats were able to mobilize their core with anger directed at Bush's handling of the Iraqi War in 2006.
Independents now comprise the largest segment of voters. People, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, are fed up with both major parties and with the partisanship in Washington, D.C. Outside spending, the result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, set new records and will play a major role in future elections. This will undermine the major parties because independent expenditures go to individual candidates and causes (for example, Proposition A in Missouri) and not to the party.
Third, one cannot predict the outcome of the next election based on the results of the previous one. In 2002 and 2004, the voters gave President George W. Bush control of both the House and Senate. In 2006 and 2008, they voted just as strongly in favor of the Democrats. This year, the pendulum has swung back to the Republicans. If the pattern of the past eight years holds, one can speculate that the Republicans are in the middle of their cycle of victory and should win the White House in 2012. However, this analysis is too simplistic for the reasons given in the rest of this article.
Fourth, the mobilization of a segment of voters is the key to winning elections. Technology and social media have helped to ignite new political movements and maintain their momentum. This year's Tea Party movement borrowed a page from the Obama 2008 campaign in its use of social media to organize, fund raise and get out the vote. Technology will continue to play an important, evolving role in politics at all levels. As Matt Bai recently wrote in The New York Times, use of technology has a leveling effect in politics. It allows newcomers to circumvent the traditional political party machinery.
Fifth, it will be harder for Obama to pass legislation. But it will also be harder for the Republicans to gain political points by resisting Obama's agenda as they did before. They will have to put forth an agenda of their own. Obama and the Democrats can use the GOP agenda as their foil. This could mean either two years of political gridlock or both sides will be forced to compromise. I think the more likely scenario is gridlock. However, if this happens, Obama may be able to borrow from Harry Truman's successful 1948 campaign and rail against the "Do Nothing" Congress.
Sixth and finally, the economy was the defining issue of this election and will be in the next election as well. This does not bode well for either party. Obama saw how the tables turned this year after riding the voters' anger over the economy in 2008 to the White House. The U.S. economy is in the midst of a fundamental restructuring. In the past, housing starts helped to lead the rest of the economy out of downturns. This appears unlikely to be the case this time.
Both consumers and companies are not spending as they save more. While saving is generally viewed as a virtue, economists do not like it because of the Paradox of Thrift. Simply put, this is the idea that people saving more leads to a drop in economic growth as people cease to spend and demand falls off. Across the developed world, productivity per worker slowed even before the recession hit. All of this is to say that pulling ourselves out of this slump is not likely to be easy even if the official recession ended last year.
The difference in 2012 will be that both parties will have to share the blame over the economy's performance and not just Obama and the Democrats.
Robert A. Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at Saint Louis University.