Jonathan Cohn

Elections Are Only the Beginning

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There are two types of explanations for what happens in elections. One is an honest attempt to figure out exactly why elections turned out as they did. For those, there’s no need to rush to judgment. I’ll refer you to Brendan Nyhan’s quick analysis, but with all due respect to Brendan, we’re going to learn more as we go forward. There are lots of important questions to answer, but don’t expect good answers right away.

Then there’s the other type of explanation: the spin. Tea Partiers are going to have their version of why the GOP won, regular Republicans will have their own slightly different version, Democrats will have their own version. Liberal Dems will say it proves that Democrats aren’t liberal enough; moderate Dems will say it proves Democrats were too far to the left. Then there’s the issue groups: whether it’s climate, or health care, or foreign policy, or social issues, or whatever, each group is going to claim a mandate that the new Congress and the continuing president should immediately drop everything and do whatever it is that they want.

Which one should prevail?

There are two types of explanations for what happens in elections. One is an honest attempt to figure out exactly why elections turned out as they did. For those, there’s no need to rush to judgment. I’ll refer you to Brendan Nyhan’s quick analysis, but with all due respect to Brendan, we’re going to learn more as we go forward. There are lots of important questions to answer, but don’t expect good answers right away.

Then there’s the other type of explanation: the spin. Tea Partiers are going to have their version of why the GOP won, regular Republicans will have their own slightly different version, Democrats will have their own version. Liberal Dems will say it proves that Democrats aren’t liberal enough; moderate Dems will say it proves Democrats were too far to the left. Then there’s the issue groups: whether it’s climate, or health care, or foreign policy, or social issues, or whatever, each group is going to claim a mandate that the new Congress and the continuing president should immediately drop everything and do whatever it is that they want.

Which one should prevail?

The spin!

Now, obviously, it’s important to also find out why what happened did happen, and not just for curiousity’s sake. But, no, politicians and other political actors shouldn’t limit themselves to the actual, factual reasons. That’s not how the system works.

The way it really works is by everyone involved fighting for what they want, and claiming that The People are behind them. Of coursethey’re all lying spinning. Of course they’re all claiming mandates that are phony. Everyone knows (or should know) that.

So if it’s all phony, where’s the democracy? In winning. The spin that House Republicans use is going to count for more than the spin that House Democrats use not because they’re interpretation of voter intentions is (closer to) the truth, but because they have way more seats in the House now. Barack Obama’s spin counts for plenty, too, because he’s still going to be in the White House for the next two years. That’s true whether they really believe it, or whether they’re just posing for what they think they want their voters to hear.

Of course, just who wins is only the start of it. The spin is also contested. The pro-lifers are going to be doing their best to convince Senate Republicans -- and everyone else in Washington -- that what The People were really saying was that every Obama judicial nominee should be filibustered, no question about it. In this, groups are not equal. The groups with the strongest ties to the parties, with the strongest relationships, the groups that have convinced politicians over time that they can deliver: those groups will have more weight than others, and that’s democratic, too. 

It’s not just numbers, either; they’re going to put together whatever evidence they can, from polling numbers to individual “representative” election contests, to fragments of campaign rhetoric, to try to convince everyone that they’re right. Because the politicians themselves can sometimes be convinced. Hey, sometimes the quality of the evidence actually counts. That, too, is democratic.

I should be clear: this isn’t, for the most part, about winning the spin war in simple partisan terms. Indeed, the Obama crowd is correct that most of the short-term spin cycle isn’t really very important. 
 

I was watching the president’s press conference today, and the cable news yakkers were going on beforehand about whether Obama would accept responsibility, and whether he would act sufficiently chastened, and some other junk like that...that’s all going to be forgotten in a week or two, or maybe in a day or two. 

No, I’m talking about more long-term effects. How do the pols themselves, and other political actors, understand what happened? That’s what really matters. That question might be affected to some extent by what pundits say, but it’s also going to be affected by the experiences candidates have on the campaign trail, and what political elites say to each other, and what the leaders of various organized constituencies say.

So as important it will be down the road to figure out why the 2010 elections actually ended up as they did, the effects of those elections aren’t really going to depend on that. The effects are going to depend, first, on the actual numbers (and every seat counts, especially in the Senate); and, second, on how the politicians and political actors interpret what’s going on. 

In other words, what’s happening today, and tomorrow, and over the next few weeks, as everyone continues to fight the 2010 elections...well, that’s the reality of democracy. Elections, as important as they are, are only the very beginning. 

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