What Elections Mean
November 7, 2002
Are the pundits reading too much into
Tuesdays elections? Those pundits have a dubious habit of
interpreting election results as if they were virtually unanimous
utterances of vox populi, oracular pronouncements of The American
To be sure, the
Republicans won a very impressive victory for the party in the White
House in an off-year. They actually gained seats in both houses of
Congress, in defiance of the historical pattern.
But they didnt
win the sort of transforming landslide that changes the character of
politics for a generation. They won a lot of fairly close races because they
managed to get their voters to the polls, while the Democrats
didnt. That may be all it means. It could easily be reversed in 2004,
especially if the momentary GOP hegemony in Washington leads to
military disaster or economic collapse.
The last three
Democratic presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill
Clinton started off with Democratic control of Congress too, but
all three quickly misplayed their advantages. Power is a perilous thing to
The Republicans ran a
very smart national campaign, but they had lots of help from their
opponents. The Democrats had no theme. While the Republicans were
unequivocally for war on terrorism, the Democrats were
ambiguous, appealing neither to pro-war nor to anti-war voters. Like the
Republicans in the 1930s, they hoped the electorate would share their
partisan hatred of a popular president. It was an attitude, not a strategy,
and it backfired.
fierce but empty partisanship resulted in a series of unedifying
spectacles. In New Jersey, they managed, in spite of the law, to switch
Senate candidates when the shady incumbent dropped out of the race for
no better reason than that he was losing. In Minnesota, the incumbent died
in a plane crash days before the election, and a memorial
service in his honor turned into an ugly anti-Republican hate rally at
which the mourners actually booed Republicans who had
come to pay their respects. And the Clintons, symbols of corruption to
everyone but hard-core Democrats, campaigned for Democratic candidates
from coast to coast.
Democrats were trying to bring angry Republicans to the polls, they
succeeded magnificently. Having done their best to lower the tone of the
campaign, they are now bitterly blaming each other for their defeat. These
recriminations, fully in character, reinforce the impression they have
been assiduously creating, that they are a party of malcontents.
But they are wrangling
about something serious: Which way should the party go? The die-hards
want it to keep moving in its traditional path, which is leftward. The
moderates see that incremental socialism no longer sells and that voters
have had enough tax increases, thanks anyway. Each faction sees the other
as futile. The die-hard leftists charge the moderates with watering down
principle in a vain attempt to ape the Republicans; the moderates see the
leftists as living in the past. Both sides have a point.
This split explains
why the Democrats werent able to unite on a campaign message,
and probably wont unite on one in the near future. The Republicans
can at least offer an optimistic conservative rhetoric to continue building
their electoral support. This soft right-wing approach
enrages the Democrats (and the media from whom they take their
guidance), but it works politically.
Still, neither party as
a whole really stands for anything much, and a vote for either is no more
than a vague gesture of approval (or discontent, as the case may be).
Voting is like trying to say something with a gag in your mouth, and a
million votes dont add up to any particular meaning beyond an
inarticulate preference for one of two available but unsatisfactory
Even a lopsided
outcome shouldnt be construed as a hearty endorsement of the
victor, only a widespread agreement on the (perceived) lesser evil. And as
Lyndon Johnson learned, people can change their minds about the lesser
evil pretty rapidly.
We do have provisions
for those eccentric people who insist on voting for what they really want.
These are called third parties, a synonym for automatic
losers. Their supporters have the consolation of knowing that their votes
do mean something fairly definite and that they are saving money on