The election last week, and the intense campaigning throughout 2010, seemed to me to be the most contentious, nasty, negative manifestation of American politics that I have experienced. Both sides predicted the end of life as we know it if they did not win: either the Tea Party would take us back to the Stone Age or the liberals would inaugurate socialism in America. Sharron Angle’s comment about “Second Amendment remedies”, which might have lost her the election in Nevada, was representative of how both sides demonized their opponents, crying “wolf” so loud and so often that it was hard to keep paying attention.
The extreme partisanship of this election, and of the actions and inaction of Congress in Washington and the Legislature in Springfield, represent a major problem for our country. In fact, neither Democrats nor Republicans command a majority of the electorate. Although every poll shows slightly different results, the Politico-George Washington University poll in mid-October revealed a typical portrait of the American electorate: 42% Republicans, 41% Democrats, and 17% Independents. Yet this weight in the center of the political spectrum was ignored by campaigners this season, as they pushed their extreme agendas.
If we tune out the shouting, we might find that we American voters are not at war with each other. Tuesday’s results included several messages about national policy that most Americans agree on. Here they are:
1. Americans are concerned about the deficit. Since the year 2000, the national debt has risen from about 5.5 trillion to 13.5 trillion dollars. The two wars, exploding health care costs, and the near depression all contributed to the accelerated growth in debt. Economists do not agree about how this level of debt will affect our economy over the long term, but it seems certain that the government cannot keep spending so much more than it takes in.
2. Getting more taxes from the rich is not popular. Democrats and Republicans split very forcefully on what to do about the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. The Republican desire to maintain the tax cuts for households earning over $250,000 does not appear to have hurt them at the polls. In Washington state, where the Democrat Patty Murray won reelection for Senate, voters rejected by a 2 to 1 margin a ballot measure to impose an income tax of 5% on people who earn more than $200,000 and of 9% on those who earn more than $500,000.
3. Voters did not support broadly cutting taxes. In Massachusetts, voters rejected cutting their sales tax in half; in Colorado three measures to restrict state and local borrowing, to cut motor vehicle and other taxes and fees, and to limit property taxes were killed by voters with 2-1 or 3-1 margins. A few specific taxes were voted down, for example, on alcohol in Massachusetts.
4. Cutting back entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare, is an election loser. Most conservatives refused to include Social Security in the programs they would cut. Sharron Angle’s intimations that she would raise the retirement age contributed to her defeat.
5. Congress is not working. An overwhelming majority of voters disapprove of the way Congress has performed, with approximately equal criticism for both parties: only about 30% approve of Democratic or Republican performance. This is a non-partisan verdict. Many more Americans approve of Barack Obama’s performance in office, with poll numbers hovering around 45%. So the verdict on Congress is not mainly a disapproval of liberal policies, but of gridlock, lack of cooperation between the parties, and flagrant use of congressional perks, like earmarks.
These messages are clear, although many politicians pretend they have received a mandate to enact extreme ideas, that in fact are unpopular. Unfortunately, it will not be easy to turn these popular ideas into legislation. It will not be possible to control the growing deficit without doing something about entitlements and about military spending. Without more tax revenue, the federal government and many state governments, like Illinois, will go further into debt.
The deep recession has created a political crisis across America. But getting the major parties to work together in the middle has become less and less likely in recent years. We need statesmen on both sides to offer serious long-term visions and to embrace practical political compromises. I wish I knew who they were.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 9, 2010