Post-election blues


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Well, that one hurt.

On Tuesday, Republicans — aided by the Tea Party — handily defeated Democrats, taking control of the U.S. House and winning a majority of gubernatorial seats and state legislatures.

So what happened, and why? The hangover should be subsiding by now, so let’s take a walk.

It’d be easy to lay the blame for the Democrats’ defeat at the altar of Obama’s White House: The election was a rebuke of liberal overreach and an outcry for conservative governance. The result — Rep. Nancy Pelosi, meet Speaker John Boehner. Or the critique from the left: “During the campaign, we were promised the fierce urgency of now, hope, and change. What we got was a president who coddled corporate interests and who let liberal priorities — the public option, immigration reform, climate-change legislation, repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ — die without a fight.” Republicans are grinning from ear to ear, while disaffected Democrats are incensed and indignant.

The economy can explain most of what happened on Tuesday. But yet, the volatility among the public and their readiness to nod in approval at a political party thought irrelevant two years ago indicates this election was about something more.

This election has highlighted the ephemeral quality in our politics. Political power is fleeting. No matter how popular any political party or politician is, they are only one election away from defeat.

Likewise, a political party once thought moribund is only one cycle away from resurrection.

In 2008, there were some on the left who thought Obama’s election signified a political realignment. The Obama coalition of youth, minorities, women, and the college-educated portended long-lasting majorities. His campaign also expanded the electoral map, winning such states as Indiana, North Carolina, and Colorado.

The most significant failure of the free market since the Great Depression would, at long last, allow for unabashed liberal governance. Revanchist liberal economists were now proudly coming out of the closet.

This all sounded too familiar, however. In 2004, many on the right were captivated by the same romantic feeling. A permanent governing majority. Conservative governance in the White House, Congress, and state governments for generations to come.

Fortunately for us, we’re not living that nightmare. President Bush’s second term proved to be particularly incompetent and bumbling. Democrats were quickly handed Congressional majorities in 2006, setting the stage for 2008.

What should we glean from all of this? Voters aren’t looking for ideological governance. Republicans who think they’ve been handed a mandate for change of the stridently conservative variety are mistaken. Rather, the public wants government that works.

After eight misbegotten years of George W. Bush, Obama’s task was to show that our government and political process could work for the American people. The rhetoric of hope and change during the campaign was very nice, but Obama’s rationale for running was that he was uniquely qualified to bring people from disparate backgrounds together to tackle problems. Tuesday showed that an impatient and anxious electorate still isn’t satisfied.

For young people this may bear particular truth. Youth turnout across the nation was on par with previous midterm elections, but it needed to be higher. It could’ve been higher.

Yes, young people are decidedly progressive compared with older cohorts. But these labels are decreasing in relevance. They no longer accurately describe how youths truly feel about our two-party system. And — especially if you’re trying to motivate youth voters — regurgitated, Democratic boilerplate rhetoric just won’t do.

We’re still yearning for a new politics. The economic order and avaricious individuals that caused the economic crisis still seem to be entrenched and pulling the levers behind closed doors. Tuesday was not the end of the world, although gridlock and inanity will define the 112th Congress.

It does present both political parties with a unique opportunity: Prove that government works; show us that American democracy is still the envy of the world.

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