Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


“Boring” Election, High Stakes


Timothy Sherratt

11-03-2014


By Timothy Sherratt

November 3, 2014

 

Tomorrow’s elections may cap what David Brooks called the most boring campaign he could remember. But they reflect truly enough a society in flux, divided on what it should ask government to do and unsure about government’s capacity to deliver. With no presidential candidates running, the expected electorate will be smaller, but also older and whiter, a modest boon for Republicans, who look set to reap modest gains. Those gains may give the G.O.P. control of the Senate and thus the entire Congress. They do not otherwise suggest a vote of confidence in the Republicans’ approach to governing.

“Boring” may prove to be a relative term and even a welcome one, given the kinds of issues that have fueled polarized politics over many electoral cycles. In 2014, contentious social issues are driving the campaign in few races. Tea Party groups appear muted or lack candidates of their own. Democratic incumbents are playing down their links to an unpopular President. These conditions, boring or otherwise, are facilitating important change all the same.

Take Massachusetts. Democrats dominate the state’s electoral offices. But a breed of Republican politician in the mold of former governors like William Weld and Mitt Romney—fiscal conservatives who either openly declare their social liberalism or keep their socially conservative views in shadow—is set to make a comeback. Both Charlie Baker, the gubernatorial candidate, and Richard Tisei, candidate for the Sixth Congressional District, are running essentially nonpartisan campaigns with strong prospects for victory. Tisei, gay and married, even skipped the Republicans’ state convention in protest of its conservative platform.

No one should exaggerate these regional effects—although the same patterns extend elsewhere in New England—or predict a sea change in the parties. But if there are to be national effects, one can certainly see in New England’s shifting politics the form these may take. If Charlie Baker or Connecticut’s Tom Foley represent a new-old Republican party, Massachusetts’s senior senator, Elizabeth Warren, symbolizes the Democrats’ ascendant progressivism. To this point, she has insisted she’s not running in 2016, but her politics—consumer advocacy, hostility to Wall Street’s misdeeds, and talking up the wealth gap and the collapse of middle class incomes—positions her close to the center of Democratic sentiments.

If the Republicans do take control of Congress, President Obama will face challenges in his final two years that his fellow Democrats will watch with interest, if not trepidation. Both he and the G.O.P would need to demonstrate action, he to show that he has not been robbed of power altogether, they to shore up their governing bona fides in advance of 2016. If the results echo the pattern of the 1990s, when President Clinton and the Republican Congress reformed welfare in a decidedly center-right fashion, many Democrats will cry foul.  

And then the stage will be set for the public debate that has had a long gestation—how to address the falling incomes of the middle class, hobbled by “tectonic shifts in the global economy,” and given the “coup de grace,” as William Galston put it, of rapid advances in computer technology.

Whatever one’s politics, addressing this issue is bound to humble the government that grapples with it. Galston agrees with The Economist’s estimate that middle class incomes will have to be topped up by tax cuts or income subsidies, but that either approach will only “mitigate these trends but not halt them.”

Tomorrow’s election is not so boring after all if it shapes which Democratic and Republican parties will join this major debate. Polarized parties would debate this major question quite differently from ideologically moderate ones, for example. And the way things may be shaping up, progressive Democrats and moderate Republicans will bring different policy priorities to the debate over declining middle class incomes and the wealth gap than right-wing Republicans and moderate Democrats would bring.

On that note, may one conclude that votes never deserve to be wasted, nor elections overlooked? The stakes are high. A low turnout distorts the kind of conversation citizens as a whole have with their government. Although voting is not, and probably should not, be compulsory, the relationship with government is so important that citizens ought to take hold both of the responsibility to vote and the opportunity it affords to shape the direction of the policy debate.

 

-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.



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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”