Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Turn red for what?

Iowa finally has sent a woman to Congress. Yay, Iowa?
The off-year elections of 2014 occurred in the shadow of continued economic uncertainty. Economic indicators have shown improvement since the recession hit bottom in 2009, but the public is slow to buy into the idea of recovery--appropriately so, in my view. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last summer found respondents split almost down the middle: 50 percent believed the economy is improving, 47 percent disagreed. Similarly, 49 percent said the economy was still in recession, 46 percent disagreed. (The percentage describing the economy as in recession has steadily declined since 2010, but remains too high to describe the public mood as anything like confident.) 69 percent of respondents told CNN that another financial crisis in the near future was either "very likely" or "somewhat likely." (Source: Polling Report) As of today, the Real Clear Politics average on the question of whether the country is on the "right track" or the "wrong track" stands at 28-66 (Source: Real Clear Politics).

Continued economic uncertainty is, I argue, central to many questions at the core of our common life in 21st century America. Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution argues inequality "lurks" in election-year arguments over the Affordable Care Act, taxes and the minimum wage (cited below). Beyond that, it's hard to be confident about the next generation's prospects for rewarding work. (I liked the way KCRG-TV reporter Chris Earl put it in a recent conversation about the election, that the issue is not so much about jobs as careers.) Uncertainty about our immediate prospects make it nearly impossible to address important long-term challenges such as resource conservation, climate change, community-building and accommodating diversity. Negotiating complex phenomena while feeling personally insecure is hardly likely to be productive.

What all this adds up to is the nature of the political campaign we have just endured. Clearly public officials are aware of the public mood, but have little to offer in the way of constructive solutions. My Drake University colleague Dennis J. Goldford used the term "carpet bombing" to describe what's been happening to states like Iowa as well-resourced groups, freed from restraints on their spending "speech" by a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, tirelessly and relentlessly communicate at us. There may be some argument somewhere in all this noise, but the themes from the groups, and the candidates have largely amounted to: Vote against the bad guys. And please send us money so they don't accidentally win. I've been getting eight e-mails a day from groups like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, saying essentially that and no more. As a result, writes former Des Moines Register editorial page editor Richard Doak (cited below), "I can't remember a year when voting was so unsatisfying. Casting an early ballot in 2014 felt like a chore. There was no pride or enthusiasm. There was something close to indifference." Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson chimes in: "We're being asked to vote out of resentment and grim duty. So much for what Lincoln called 'the better angels of our nature ("Four Takes").'"

Republican gains in the Senate set up a situation we've seen before (1959-60, 1987-88, 1999-2000, 2007-08): a President of one party, in the last two years of his administration, facing a Congress controlled by the other party. This will change the context of Washington politics--Republicans will control the agenda and the investigative apparatus of the Senate--but if the past is any guide nothing of significance will occur to affect our lives or the direction of the country. President Obama will become decreasingly relevant as attention swivels to the long 2016 presidential campaign. This may be just as well, given that neither party has run an issue-oriented campaign, and so would have no mandate to govern if they were somehow in position to do so. (That is not to say they wouldn't try, given recent unpleasant experiences with one-party rule in Kansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and arguably Colorado, where an agenda-less election produced a government in a sudden hurry to enact an ideological agenda.)

Perhaps the best outcome of this year's elections would be to cause us to re-examine what national politics can contribute to our common life. A global economy requires national, if not, global responses: only the national government can produce a health care system, counter-cyclical economic policy, and financial and environmental regulation. In an ideal world, Democrats would be making this case, and Republicans would be arguing how they could do it better. But that's not going to be happening any time soon. Both parties--maybe, apres Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein (It's Even Worse Than It Looks [Basic, 2012]), the Republicans more than the Democrats--are ideologically out of the mainstream of American voters and so shun policy appeals in favor of cheesy promises, absurd fantasies and attack ads.

So, what can we do in the mean time?

1. Think locally, act globally. Communities need to be engaged in conversations about their future: what the town will look like, how things are going to get paid for, how to include everyone. Some of these conversations have begun in Cedar Rapids, while other places have gotten implementable ideas from organizations like Strong Towns and The Better Block. More people should get involved in these sorts of conversations, even informally. I'm not sanguine about this, either, as you can tell from the tone of my last few posts about development in Cedar Rapids, and I know there are plenty of people in localities who only want to put space, walls, guns and laws between themselves and The Other. But local communities are where conversations can occur, and maybe just maybe that spirit can bubble up into our national political dialogue. If we can fix our neighborhoods and metro regions, I think the country could fix itself.

2. Think critically. This election, I freely admit, I cast unenthusiastic votes for unimpressive people because I found the alternatives far worse. Maybe this is dumb. Can we insist that the people on "our side" articulate coherent solutions to our problems before we vote for them? And can we stop believing whatever bad things are said about the other side? One reasons candidates use coded language and sloppy arguments is that someone out there is falling for them. Don't be that guy. Democrats should say, "Climate change is real, and Republicans sound silly when they deny it. So what are we going to do about it?" Republicans should say, "Let's do repeal Obamacare. But what are we going to replace it with?" Better yet, eschew ideology altogether and look for proven, practical, affordable solutions to public problems.

3. Hope for a rational system of financing campaigns. We cannot have a common life when most of us are priced out of the political dialogue. I'm all for the freedom of expression, but this is ridiculous. In a billion dollar campaign centered on Super PACs there is no way the common voice gets heard. A lot of the money is spent by groups whose true identities are unknown even as they spend millions on last-minute ads and phone calls (Confessore and Willis; see also Hudak and Wallack) The average House member raised $2.6 million for the 2014 election, occupying up to 70 percent of their time this year (Schanzer and Sullivan). The Republican advantage this year may be a product of the political climate, not some inherent advantage, but the problem is not that Democrats don't have enough money. The problem is that the vast majority of us who aren't mega-donors have lost our voice, and our participation is being manipulated. In all the screeching about "Millionaire Rod Blum" and Bruce Braley-the-trial-lawyer-who-doesn't-care-about-terrorism, where are the constructive solutions? Is anyone talking about making the poor less poor?

Reeves of Brookings notes, "In private, at least, many Republicans are as troubled by Democrats by the relative weakness of middle class earnings and incomes" and "political possession of both Houses may increase the pressure to deliver some reforms in response to the growing anxiety on all sides about the economic health of the American middle class." But that's not what Republicans were selling, and that's not what their voters bought. So it's hard to imagine progress being made on that front, or on climate change, or on immigration, while Republicans are the ones doing the end zone dance of joy and feasting their eyes on the White House. It is unlikely, too, given past experience, that they'll be able to do much harm, either. But can Democrats plausibly claim that keeping their Senate majority would have led to better outcomes? Sure, they don't have the Republicans' wackier delusions, but where is the roadmap to a better future? President Obama has something of a roadmap, at least domestically, but many Democrats are too busy pretending they don't know him to own it or anything else (Capehart).

I am humbled by the number of my students who immersed themselves in this year's campaigns, on both sides of the partisan-ideological divide. I hope they found the experience rewarding. But I think as long as national politics features a ton of money and a paucity of policy solutions we are a long way from having politics that is worthy of their passion.


Jonathan Capehart, "Democrats' Mistake: Running from Obama or Staying Home," Post-Partisan, 3 November 2014,

Nicholas Confessore and Derek Willis, "Hidden Donors Spend Heavily On Attack Ads," The New York Times, 3 November 2014, A1, A16

Richard Doak, "Despite Choices, Nothing Changes," Des Moines Register, 2 November 2014,

"Four Takes: Columnists Predict What Will Happen in Tuesday's Midterms, and What It Means," Dallas News, 2 November 2014,

John Hudak and Grace Wallack, "Outside Spending Increases the Price of Senate Elections," FixGov: Making Government Work, 3 November 2014

Richard V. Reeves, "2014 Midterms: Inequality Lurks Beneath the Surface of Political Discourse," FixGov: Making Government Work, 24 October 2014

David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan, "Cancel the Midterms," The New York Times, 3 November 2014, A25

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