Frustrated 2012 voters may hit the reset button yet again

by Brendan Monaghan

Divided, dysfunctional government may be here to stay, even if up to a third of today’s members aren’t.

Although the next (major) general election in this country is over a year away, the themes and tones of November 2012 are already quite clear.  Ask ordinary voters what they think in a poll or a focus group and the answers will be as quick as they are common.  “You see this every day . . . anger and frustration with the political process.”  Indeed, there is an unprecedented level of rejection, not just of the President’s Democratic Party, but that other one.  “It doesn’t matter who we elect- Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives- they get to Washington and there’s something in the air conditioning system or something and they forget who sent them there.”

In light of the recent Debt Ceiling compromise- not so much a debate as a three-ring circus- and S&P downgrade, there’s a sense that anti-incumbent sentiment and disgust with both parties has hit a critical mass.  “You have voters that want to take someone’s head off, it’s no longer at the alienation and apathy stage.”  The reasons and motivations for this anger and frustration are based largely on fear from one’s economic condition and apprehension for their children’s future.  “And when you put them together, you have a highly combustible mixture and the most turbulent political year we’ve seen in 50 years.”

Sound familiar?  Political oracle Charlie Cook made these remarks at a luncheon televised by C-SPAN in October, 1992.  With one notable absence (namely, an egomaniacal billionaire running a kamikaze independent bid for the White House), America’s political climate may be repeating along with its business cycle.  The result could be the worst bipartisan bloodbath in 20 years, producing the biggest freshman class since that election’s 110 new representatives, and tossing aside Tea Party freshmen along with entrenched liberal veterans.

There is bound to be some turnover next year anyway, as there is in every House election following redistricting.  Republicans will certainly make gains in the South and West, which may be enough to counter the California commission shenanigans and the cull that Democrats have planned in Illinois.  What’s more, wave elections, once quite rare in American politics, have suddenly become the norm as voters swung the nation’s pendulum (make that “baseball bat”) at both parties in 2006, 2008, and 2010 for shovelfuls of seat gains.  Indeed, there was every reason to expect 2012 would continue the pattern as the winning party would either sweep their coattails back in to Congress or solidify the gains they made in November.

Last week’s events may not have been a turning point away from that conventional wisdom as much as the final straw.  Anger with Congress and the President as institutions, as well as disgust at both parties, has reached unseen levels as the difference between voters’ expectations and leaders’ performance has become a chasm.  President Obama’s approval rating hovers in the low to mid-40’s (hardly re-election territory), but only 21% and 28% of respondents approve of how Republicans or Democrats are handling the economy, respectively.  All the polling suggests voters are desperate for some kind of positive change in the status quo, regardless of from what party it comes.

Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch viewed this mutual disgust at both parties as a sign Americans were finally ready to shake off the two-party system.  Duopolies are a false choice and never work out for anybody in the free market, they argued.  Now, after 150 years of being forced to choose between Kodak and Fujifilm, Americans would finally break free of the Republicrat chokehold on power and patronage and opt for a third party (the Libertarian Party, the authors hoped).  Most Americans, however, realize at the end of the day a third party of the left, right, or center is as non-starter, and in our single-member-district, first-past-the-post system, will only guarantee the election of our political enemies.

What is more likely is voters who opted for one party or the other in any of the past three wave elections opting to flip the switch once again (possibly splitting their ticket with their presidential choice in the process) and vote the bums out at the primary or general phase in numbers we haven’t before seen.  By the numbers and party balance, however, the partisan makeup might not be that different.  Divided, dysfunctional government may be here to stay, even if up to a third of today’s members aren’t.

Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.