Asked on election eve to assess the significance of the coming Democratic defeat, Tim Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, tried to portray this election as fairly typical. “Since Teddy Roosevelt,” Kaine told Gwen Ifill of the “PBS NewsHour,” “the average midterm is, you lose twenty-eight House seats and lose four Senate seats if you’re the party in the White House.” Does losing over 60 House seats and six Senate seats simply make this a below-average outcome—or did something much more serious and significant happen in this month’s election?
Republicans might say it’s the re-emergence of a conservative majority, but that’s not really what happened. What took place on November 2 suggests that the United States may have finally lost its ability to adapt politically to the systemic crises that it has periodically faced. America emerged from the Civil War, the depression of the 1890s, World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II stronger than ever—with a more buoyant economy and greater international standing. A large part of the reason was the political system’s ability to provide the leadership the country needed. This election indicates that may no longer be the case.
The current economic downturn structurally resembles the depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s, rather than the cyclical recessions that have recurred since World War II. The American people, mired in debt, with one in six employable adults lacking full-time jobs, are not spending; and businesses, uncertain of demand for their products, are not investing, no matter how low interest rates fall. With the Fed deprived of its principal weapon for boosting the economy, the only way to stimulate private demand and investment is through public spending or (far more inefficiently) by printing trillions. Obama tried to do the former with his initial stimulus program, but it was watered down by tax cuts and undermined by decreases in state spending. By this summer, its effect had dissipated.
The Republicans may not have a mandate to repeal health care, but they do have one to cut spending. Many voters have concluded that Obama’s stimulus program actually contributed to the rise in unemployment and that cutting public spending will speed a recovery. It’s complete nonsense, as the experience of the United States in 1937 or of Japan in the 1990s demonstrated, but it will guide Republican thinking in Congress, and prevent Obama and the Democrats from passing a new stimulus program. Republicans will accede to tax cuts, especially if they are skewed toward the wealthy, but these tax cuts can be saved rather than spent. They won’t halt the slowdown.
And that’s only what one can expect over the next few years. Like the depressions of the 1890s and 1930s, this slowdown was also precipitated by the exhaustion of opportunities for economic growth. America’s challenge over the next decade will be to develop new industries that produce goods and services that can be sold on the world market. The United States has a head start in biotechnology and computer technology, but, as the Obama administration recognized, much of the new demand will focus on the development of renewable energy and green technology. The Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans understand that these sorts of industries require government coordination and subsidies. The new generation of Republicans, however, reject this kind of industrial policy. They even reject Obama’s obviously successful auto bailout.
Instead, when the United States finally recovers, it is likely to re-create the older economic structure that got the country into trouble in the first place: dependence on foreign oil to run cars, a bloated and unstable financial sector that primarily feeds upon itself and upon a credit-hungry public, boarded-up factories, and huge and growing trade deficits with Asia. These continuing trade deficits, combined with budget deficits, could finally reduce confidence in the dollar to the point where it ceases to be a viable international currency.
The election result will also put an end to Obama’s attempt to reach an international climate accord. It will cripple his ability to adopt domestic limits on carbon emissions. And it could doom the administration’s one substantial foreign policy achievement: the arms treaty it signed with Russia that still awaits Senate confirmation. In other areas, Obama will be able to act without having to seek congressional approval. But there is little reason to believe that this class of Republicans will be helpful in formulating a tough policy toward an increasingly arrogant China, extricating America from Afghanistan, and using U.S. leverage to seek a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the fix that the country is in. Out of power, the Republicans are the party of reactionary insurrection. They have little that’s constructive to offer the country, and they have successfully frustrated Obama’s efforts at every turn. But Obama has to share some of the blame. Structural crises like the Civil War or the two great depressions present presidents with formidable challenges, but also great opportunities. If they fail, they discredit themselves and their party, as Hoover did after 1929; but if they succeed, as McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt did after 1896 or Franklin Roosevelt did after 1932, they not only help the country, but also create enduring majorities for their party.
To succeed requires some knowledge of the task at hand, which Hoover did not have; it also requires a vulnerable opposition, which Franklin Roosevelt had and which Obama certainly had in the first months of his presidency, when Republicans were in disarray and Wall Street was disgraced. Two things are then required of a president: bold and unprecedented initiatives that address the underlying economic problems and a populist—and sometimes polarizing—politics that marshals support for these initiatives and disarms the opposition. Obama failed on both counts: His economic program—no matter how large in comparison to past efforts—was too timid, as many liberal economists recognized; and he proved surprisingly inept at convincing the public that even these efforts were necessary.
The election results amply illustrated Obama’s political failure. Economic downturns invariably awaken the populist demon inside the American psyche. Americans come to see themselves as part of an embattled middle class—from the clerk at Wal-Mart to the small businessman—that does the work and plays by the rules but is taken advantage of by illegal immigrants, welfare cheats, pointy headed state bureaucrats, Wall Street speculators, and ruthless robber barons. Right-wing populists tend to point their finger mainly at the undeserving poor and the government that serves them; left-wing populists usually focus on Wall Street and CEOs. During the Great Depression, Roosevelt was able to direct Americans’ ire primarily at the “economic royalists.” But Obama, who was uncomfortable with the rhetoric of populism and apportioned blame to Main Street as well as Wall Street, left a political vacuum that the right-wing populists of the Tea Party filled. They even managed to portray Obama and the Democrats as the patrons of Wall Street. When asked who was most to blame for “current economic problems,” a plurality of voters said “Wall Street bankers” rather than George W. Bush or Barack Obama. But, amazingly, these voters backed Republicans by 56 percent to 42 percent. That testifies to the utter failure of the Obama administration’s politics.
The other telltale sign of Obama’s failure was the youth vote. Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 very much depended upon increased support from and turnout among young voters. In 2008, Obama’s organization specifically targeted these voters. In this election, voters aged 18 to 29 again favored Democrats, by a whopping 57 percent to 40 percent in House races. But they constituted only 11 percent of the electorate this year, compared to 18 percent in 2008 House races and 13 percent in 2006. Obama and his political aides recognized that this was a problem, and, in the last weeks of the election, tried to rouse these voters (hence all those campus rallies and Obama’s appearance on “The Daily Show”). But it was too late.
The damage was done soon after Obama took office, when he and his political aides decided to disband the huge, locally based political organization they had created. Obama for America became Organizing for America and was eventually folded into the Democratic National Committee. But it proved toothless, as Ari Berman explains in Herding Donkeys, an excellent account of the rise and fall of Obama’s organizing efforts.
Republicans can certainly make the case that this election cuts short the kind of Democratic majority that Ruy Teixeira and I foresaw in our 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. But they would not be justified in suggesting that it revives the older Republican majority. The Republicans remain (as they were after the 2008 election) a bitterly divided party without an accepted national leadership. You essentially have Karl Rove, Haley Barbour, Mitt Romney, and Mitch McConnell on one side; and the Tea Parties, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Glenn Beck on the other. The Republican National Committee is virtually defunct.
In 1994, when the Republicans won Congress, the election was not only a repudiation of the Clinton administration, but also an affirmation of the Republican alternative. According to one poll, 52 percent of voters approved, and only 28 percent disapproved, of “Republican Congressional leaders’ policies and plans for the future.” This election, however, was not a victory for the Republicans, but a defeat for Obama and the Democrats. According to exit polls, 52 percent of voters in House races had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party and only 42 percent had a favorable view. I found this myself in interviewing suburban Philadelphia voters just before the election. Even those who said they were Republicans had grave doubts about what the party stood for and regarded the Tea Partiers as “wackos.”
The election results represented only a modest shift in existing loyalties. Democrats retained, but at somewhat reduced proportion, the loyalties of blacks, Latinos, and professionals (evidenced by their 51 percent to 47 percent margin among those with postgraduate degrees); they lost ground among older and working-class white women, but the gender gap endured; and they suffered from reduced turnout among young voters. Republicans sharply increased their margin among white voters without college degrees, who made up 39 percent of the electorate. In 2008 House races, Republicans carried this group by 54 percent to 44 percent; this year, it was 63 percent to 34 percent. In other words, the Republicans did much better with their coalition than the Democrats did with theirs; but the contours remained the same.
Where does this leave American politics? If the downturn continues unabated—and it might—and if the Republicans can control their radical right (the way Reagan co-opted the Christian Right in 1980 and 1984), and if they nominate and unite behind someone like Mitt Romney in 2012, and if Obama doesn’t revive the movement that carried him to the White House in 2008, the GOP could win back the presidency. But if I am right about the fundamental problems that the nation suffers from at home and overseas, then any politician’s or political party’s victory is likely to prove short-lived. If you want to imagine what American politics will be like in the long run, think about Japan.
Japan had a remarkably stable leadership from the end of World War II until its bubble burst in the 1990s. As the country has stumbled over the last two decades, unable to extricate itself from its economic slump, it has suffered through a rapid succession of leaders, several of whom, like Obama, have stirred hopes of renewal and reform, only to later create disillusionment and despair within the electorate. From 1950 to 1970, Japan had six prime ministers. It has had 14 from 1990 to the present, and six from 2005 to the present. That kind of political instability is both a cause and effect of Japan’s inability to transform its economy and international relations to meet the challenges of a new century.
The United States does not have a parliamentary system. Its politics have generally been characterized by long-term realignments in which one party dominates for a decade or more. But lately, such realignments have not come to pass. In 2001, Karl Rove believed that George W. Bush had created a new McKinley majority that would endure for decades; and when Obama was elected, many Democrats, including me, thought he had a chance to create a Roosevelt-esque Democratic majority. Instead, like Japan, we’ve had a succession of false dawns, or what Walter Dean Burnham once called an “unstable equilibrium.” That’s not good for party loyalists, but it’s also not good for the country. America needs bold and consistent leadership to get us out of the impasse we are in. And if this election says anything, it’s that we’re not going to get it anytime soon.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article ran in the December 2, 2010, issue of the magazine.