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Making Sense of the Recent Election



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Making sense of the outcomes of the mid-term election has been something of a cottage industry in recent days, with all manner of pundits and experts offering explanations for the GOP’s strong showing. I have found it useful to separate these into different arguments as I have sought to understand the results. Commentators and Republican partisans have offered at least the following explanations for the GOP triumph, which one may distinguish by their assigned cause and scale of analysis.

Demography and turnout rule

Older Southern whites, and older whites across the nation, voted at higher rates in key states while large numbers of voters, particularly minority and young citizens who lean Democratic, stayed home this November. Indeed, average voter turnout, at 36.4 percent, was the lowest recorded in an American national election in 72 years. Advocates of this thesis contend that the political party that gets its adherents to the polls will win, and in the present scenario that seemed to hold true in considerable measure for the Republicans. The question this sort of meta-level analysis begs, however, is why those older white GOP partisans turned out in disproportionately higher numbers while other groups’ members did not. Demography and turnout may be vitally significant, but the issue remains, on what basis did voters go to the polls? Why did some citizens make the effort to vote while millions of others did not?

The President is an incompetent leader who has failed to take steps to assist the economy and who is trying to take citizens’ guns and steal their freedom by providing access to health care

This was one major set of GOP claims this campaign season and the arguments apparently motivated many citizens to vote for the party’s standard bearers. The trouble with these assertions, however, is that they lack foundation in reality. President Barack Obama has never sought to take away citizens’ right to bear arms or to hunt. Moreover, with regard to the economy, his efforts were in considerable measure responsible for the nation’s ongoing recovery from its deepest recession since the Great Depression. Meanwhile, the GOP in Congress has fought consistently to prevent the President from taking steps to stimulate the economy or to address the nation’s environmental and infrastructure crises. Indeed, Republican congressional leaders have long and publicly argued their primary aim is to stop President Obama from realizing virtually anything he might propose. Finally, to date, the nation’s access to health care law appears to be working as envisaged. In any case, it was never designed to prevent citizens from choice making, as Republicans have alleged, but to enable them to make decisions that would result in health care. Whatever one’s partisanship, it is difficult to take these contentions seriously when they are analyzed with any care.

The President is responsible for an exceedingly high unemployment rate and national deficit and debt

This was the second major group of GOP allegations during this campaign and, while it addresses what pollsters consistently found to be citizens’ highest concern in this election, it also has no basis in fact. The latest reported national unemployment rate, while doubtless stubbornly high at 5.8 percent among all population groups and 4.8 percent for whites (who, recall, voted disproportionately for the GOP in key states), is much lower than most citizens surveyed routinely believed in polling during this electoral cycle. It is also considerably lower than is currently the case for major European nations. More, contrary to public perceptions and Republican arguments, the federal government’s deficit has been declining rapidly, a trend that continues. In addition, the national debt is within historically acceptable levels as a portion of the nation’s GDP. Finally, the United States is currently enjoying sustained modest economic growth while Europe is presently coping with a triple dip recession that resulted in good part from decisions by elected leaders’ in those nations to follow a policy course indistinguishable from that offered by the Republican Party in the United States. These facts suggest that these GOP campaign arguments are empty of factual content, however successful they proved in mobilizing a share of citizens to go to the polls.

The President is too cerebral and unwilling/unable to convince pols to adopt his positions

This contention that President Obama is too willing to be above the political fray is a favorite of two or three national columnists and basically amounts to a claim that the President could convince GOP House and Senate members to adopt compromises or to accept his positions were he “less intellectual” and disposed to do so, despite their ideological perspectives and efforts to stop or undo his every initiative. It is never altogether clear in these arguments how the chief executive should or could accomplish this feat. This individual-scale claim blames the President’s alleged personal weakness for congressional polarization and persistent GOP unwillingness to act on key national concerns. It sets aside all other plausible contentions and, as such, it provides an easy explanation. But, its proponents cannot provide any evidence that their assertions would hold true if President Obama were to behave as they wished, while skeptics of their claims can point to six years of intractable GOP opposition to virtually every initiative the president has proposed.

In sum, during this election cycle the GOP successfully blamed the President for situations he did not advocate, for scenarios he did not create, for being at once “too smart” for his post and incompetent and for an economy that Republicans have fought to prevent him from taking additional positive action to address. Apart from, and in addition to the Party’s individual level claims, several prominent columnists have argued that President Obama is too “removed” from politics and is thus personally responsible for any ideological or other intransigence his opponents might evidence. Since he is lacking, his opponents cannot be held accountable for their behavior. The Republican Party sought to sway citizens to vote against this carefully constructed view of President Obama as the alternate choice to GOP candidates, even though he was not on the ballot. Finally, a large group of commentators have argued that turnout and demography go far to explain this election’s outcome.

An alternate explanation

Another and quite different explanation for the GOP’s gains this cycle, and one that threads through the Republican Party’s success in convincing so many voters that the President is actively working against their interests, has nothing to do with whether those claims make factual sense. Instead, these analysts suggest that the GOP successfully dominated the media narrative of what the election was about, even as its partisans turned out in larger numbers than the Democrats. The Democratic Party actively provided space for these Republican attacks by failing successfully to press its own agenda linked to reducing income inequality and improved wages. As a result, the GOP’s daily barrage of carefully, and inaccurately framed contentions, shared via its instruments and allies, including Fox News, of the President’s alleged incompetence and willful deprivation of citizens’ “rights” convinced many of the small number who voted that Obama and his fellow partisans were feckless and personally responsible for actions they either did not take or never embraced.

If this analysis has merit, and I think it does, whatever one makes of the President’s talents and weaknesses, the past election’s successful GOP campaign rhetoric relied implicitly on misleading as many people as often as feasible while sending mobilizing messages to that party’s partisans. It relied on Americans not following politics closely and therefore being relatively uninformed, and on their willingness to be satisfied by ad hominem attacks as “explanations” for complex phenomena. Put differently, these strategies worked assiduously to assign blame while their proponents accepted no responsibility. This is a rhetoric of projected simplicities devoid of reality, but one that provides ready justifications notwithstanding. Bluntly, many Americans voted while taking as fact assertions that had no basis in reality. Whether practiced by Republicans or Democrats, this form of politics can yield little but elite manipulation and an ever more corrupt electoral process. This GOP victory looks hollow in the face of what it represents about how neatly the parties can shape the opinions of a public that poorly understands its nation’s own situation and realities. It is difficult not to view this election, therefore, as the triumph of a protracted and disciplined media campaign that convinced many of “facts” that never obtained. I come away musing on how far this trend may go before Americans take steps to address it, or it hollows out democracy completely.

Publication Date

November 16, 2014