Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Post-Election Musings: Was This Really the Seinfeld Election?
I have friends who are disappointed in yesterday's results and friends who are pleased. Some of this really is rooting for the tribal team - if you don't live in Kansas, who the governor is there doesn't really matter to you. For me, the "national scorecard" isn't very interesting for much the same reason that fantasy football isn't interesting - it's a made-up scoring system for something that doesn't really exist.
We also put FAR too much faith in the ability of any of these politicians, or all of them together, to actually make things better for the country. Does what Congress does matter? Of course. But if you think that one-party control of both chambers is going to usher in the new Golden Age, you need a reality check. Congress' ability (with or without the President) to affect things right now is pretty minimal.
[And yes, I know some folks will offer counter-examples - the Federal Minimum Wage being one. But those are exceptions, and most of the time these days Congress doesn't act anyway.]
At their best, elections serve as a kind of national conversation - a big (if imperfect and messy) discussion about the stuff that matters. The fact that we have to conduct those conversations through politicians, PACs, and media outlets is frustrating, but it can also be helpful. Ross Perot's surprisingly good third-party run at the White House in 1992 helped put the budget deficit and the federal debt on the map as an issue. Reagan's 1980 campaign was about America's place in the world and general vision for its future. Obama's 2008 run was fueled by a broad sense of post-racial and even post-partisan optimism (both now dashed hopes, which helps explain his approval ratings).
Midterm elections are usually NOT these kinds of conversations, although they can be. In 1994 the Republicans ran on the Contract with America, which put forward a broad set of ideas about what government should or shouldn't do. But that was the exception - usually midterms are about jockeying for power.
In this sense, 2014 was not the Seinfeld election (an "election about nothing", for those who don't get the reference), but it was the latest in a series. There were few if any defining issues - mostly just the same motley set of divides that we've been fighting over for years.
More important to me than what the candidates and PACs did talk about was what they didn't. Minimum wage laws are important, but that's a small stand-in for a much larger issue: the fast-growing and massive inequality in both income and wealth among Americans. That's a serious issue that shouldn't be a partisan one; most thoughtful conservatives I know (and yes, for my liberal friends - there are such people) don't want to live in a Russian-style oligarchy any more than anybody else. But nobody wants to talk about it.
Global climate change has also been buried as a live issue. Here we've so tribalized the issue that we are failing to ask the questions that need to be asked: how do we adapt to a changing planet? On the local level, coastal communities are already doing so, often in broadly bipartisan ways. But nationally our collective head is stuck deep in the sand while otherwise-grown people scream at each other.
I'm sure we can think of a few more such issues - things that broadly affect everybody in significant, even life-altering ways. Ebola isn't one of them; neither are Benghazi, ISIS, or most of the other claptrap that dominates the daily headlines. This isn't just the media's fault; it's their job to cover day-to-day news, to focus on what's changed since yesterday. But somehow, somewhere, we need to talk about the big stuff. I have no faith in either political party's ability or desire to do so. Somehow, the rest of us will have to figure out how without them.