A midterm Election Day bit of sanity

I honestly can’t remember an election that has interested me less or struck me as less consequential than this one we’re concluding (well, sadly, probably not totally concluding) today. I’ve got a couple of weeks of TV shows to watch on my DVR, so I won’t have to tune into Election Day media coverage, but I probably will anyway just to cause myself pain. If you do tune into the coverage, you’re going to hear a lot of breathless talk about “wave elections” and “Senate takeovers” and “power shifts,” and I’m sure there will be a whole lot of yelping about how the Republicans are back in charge, and President Obama is going to have to move to the center (which the media will define just a little bit further right than it did two years ago, as then they defined it a little further right than it was two years before that, and so on back into the ages) if he wants to get anything done. Here, then, is my effort to suggest that this election is actually pretty inconsequential, at least at the federal level (it’s actually quite important at the state level, so you should go vote if you haven’t already done so):

  • Nobody is voting: The fact is that barely more than half the electorate bothers to go vote when there’s a presidential race on the ballot, and when there isn’t that top draw turnout historically comes in at around an embarrassing 37%. This is a shame, because state elections really are important and midterms often have many important ballot initiatives to vote on, but mostly it’s something to keep in mind when you start hearing about “electoral mandates” for whichever party (SPOILER: it will be the Republicans) wins the day. There’s no electoral mandate out of an election where only 37% of eligible voters bother voting. If it sounds like I’m blaming eligible voters for not voting, I’m really not. For one thing, one of our two major political parties has devoted itself to the task of making it harder for people to vote when it was already pretty hard for a lot of people to vote in the first place. For another thing, and admittedly I’m only seeing the ads here in northern Virginia, but they have been plentiful enough and overwhelmingly negative enough to drive anyone to question the utility of voting for any of these people. For still another thing, it’s hard to get psyched up about a campaign whose most prominent issue is “which party will control the Senate?” when
  • Congress doesn’t do anything anymore: Well, I shouldn’t be so flippant. Congress does amazing work at scheduling the absolute fewest number of work days for itself that it can possibly justify. But as far as “passing legislation” is concerned, they’ve kind of decided to chuck that part of the job description. And when you’re somebody who pays more attention to foreign policy than domestic policy, the empty space where Congress used to be is put into even starker relief. The fact is that Congress, and I mean both parties here, has been voluntarily ceding ground to presidents on foreign policy for decades, and that trend has only gotten worse since 2001, with only a few folks — Tim Kaine, Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders come to mind but there are others — who regularly try to assert a Congressional role on defense and foreign policy issues.
  • The next Congress especially won’t do anything: If the Democrats somehow eke out a defense of their Senate majority, then we get more of the same for the next two years, which means nothing. If the Republicans win control of the chamber, as is likely, then we get probably a bunch of vetoes for the next two years and possibly a big confirmation fight over a Supreme Court vacancy. Or, hey, maybe we’ll get an impeachment, which would be entertaining but wouldn’t do anything other than waste time and blow up in Republicans’ faces. Either way, nothing is getting done. On foreign policy it’s the same thing. What can a Republican-controlled Senate do to impact the Obama administration’s conduct of foreign policy? Cut funding for the campaign against ISIS? Unlikely, to say the least. Refuse to approve a nuclear treaty with Iran? Unnecessary, at least in the short term. Actually, on that last one I’m kind of glad that this Congress, or the next one, will be left out of the process.
  • The Senate is likely to go Democratic again in two more years: The Senate map for 2016 tilts in the Democrats’ favor. The Republicans will be defending 24 seats to the Democrats’ 9, and if Hillary Clinton doesn’t screw up her edge in the primary then her presence on the November ballot could open up a few otherwise Republican states for potential upsets. As for the other chamber in Congress,
  • The House is under Republican control until at least the 2020 census and election: The House is rigged in Republican favor, thanks to the redistricting that was done after the 2010 census and the results of the 2010 election when Republicans won control of most state legislatures around the country. 2020 will be a presidential year, meaning the Democrats will have presumably better turnout and thus better performance in those state legislature races, which means that when it comes time to redraw districts again after the 2020 census there may be a move toward parity in the House. But maybe not, since above all else these days,
  • These elections are bought and paid for by your friendly neighborhood billionaires: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than $1.3 billion has been spent by House and Senate members this campaign cycle, and over $780 million has been dumped into the campaign by outside spending groups. More than $1 billion in advertising has been purchased. Thanks to the Supreme Court and a deliberate effort to weaken the FEC, we now have a system where the wealthiest among us can essentially buy a candidate through unlimited campaign support. So no matter who wins, you can be sure that Congress will serve the interest of its #1 constituency, which isn’t you or me or anybody else who lacks the cash to buy primo access.

So, you know, if you’re a Democrat don’t sweat tonight too much, and if you’re a Republican, feel good about tonight but probably not that good. The loser of the American political process is and always has been We the People, but the more broken the system becomes, the lower the turnout gets, the more oligarchs try to buy the whole system for themselves, the lower Congress’s approval ratings get, the more America looks like a fraud to everybody on else around the world. We still talk a great game on the merits of democracy and freedom, but our words lose their impact when the reality here at home is such a self-created, corrupt mess.

None of this should be taken as reason not to vote. Voting is important. If we got turnout up to something approaching the 90+% levels it hits in Australia, it might go a long way toward fixing some of the problems in this list. But don’t let the media’s narrative-driven coverage of the election results get you too high or low. If I had to boil this down to one simple message, it would be this: go and vote, please, everybody, but when you’re done go home and pay no attention to the professional yakkers on the tube. We can change the system in America over time, and I hope we do, but what happens tonight isn’t really going to matter all that much in the big scheme of things.


3 thoughts on “A midterm Election Day bit of sanity

  1. This essay actually made me feel much better, Derek. Thanks, for reminding me how little Congress does. What can they screw up.

  2. As the old saying teaches us, either you pay close attention to local concerns and international affairs or you will be ruled by those who do.

    Of course I am bummed out by the results, but it was not entirely unexpected. I have outlived Nixon, Reagan, and Bush (so far) so I imagine I’ll get through this gang as well.

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