Politics of division fails during midterms

By Joe Katz

All right, everyone listen up. Those on my left, if you could stub out your victory cigars for a second? Folks on my right, please put down the Kool-Aid and pay attention.

It’s now been a full week since the 2006 midterm elections, and maybe—just maybe—enough time has passed that we can engage in some rational analysis of what actually happened. Between the shrill shock of the newly shorn Republican leadership and the giddy awe of Madame Speaker and company, too many in politics and in the press seem to be taking for granted that our nation has just undergone a fundamental change. The Bush presidency is dead, the Reagan revolution is over, let’s all swing by the drive-in abortion stand and then celebrate our mandatory gay marriages while we welcome every last soldier back from Iraq.

It’s not that the election results are insignificant. But the sort of sweeping generalizations being made in their wake are based on the fallacy that we have become a polarized nation of ideological zombies, mindlessly in lockstep with the extremes of the political spectrum. Were that the case, this shift in party momentum might well represent a legitimate evolution toward a more liberal mindset, rather than temporary dissatisfaction with the actions of our government. Contrary to what the network experts would have you believe, we are living in the same America today that we were last Monday. What’s really noteworthy about the 110th Congress is that it proves that America was a much more unified and pragmatic country than we thought it was.

We’ve labored too long under the impression that we live in a nation divided by demographics and by beliefs. Especially here in the Ivory Tower, many of us truly feel that Chicagoans have more in common with the Brits or the Canadians than they do with their downstate brethren. But Americans don’t think in terms of red and blue nearly as much as red and green—blood and money.

No matter where we’re from or what our ideological differences are, we prioritize our security and that of our children. That means we demand that our leaders keep us safe at home and strong abroad. It also means we want more money coming into our pockets and a damn good explanation for how every cent taken out is used. And we will punish the party in power if it can’t deliver on these demands, no matter which party it is. Is anyone surprised by this?

The Bush White House and a GOP–dominated Congress, fairly or unfairly, were tagged as having gotten the United States bogged down in an unwinnable war that made the world we live in more dangerous, and as having accepted kickbacks from big corporations in the midst of an economic recovery that benefited no one. In a handful of key races across the nation, the Republicans got burned for these fiascos. This has nothing to do with a massive shift in how we think and everything to do with our sense that those in charge were fiddling while Baghdad burned. Electoral punishment for major failures in foreign and domestic policy isn’t exactly a shocking new development in American politics.

Looking at last Tuesday from this perspective may be deflating for those with big dreams about making up for six years of Bible-thumping and unilateralism. But while it’s not necessarily a mandate for the left, it is a sign of something extremely positive. We are living in frightening times, and our country is faced with serious questions. For too long, both parties have been giving in to the temptation to demonize their opponents instead of promoting their own ideas. This does not refer to negative advertising so much as much as the politics of good versus evil—“Their vision of America isn’t just improper, it’s immoral.” This is an old, old problem, and there is no doubt that it will continue to dog us. But in recent election cycles, the blue state/red state concept has taken it to a dangerous new level. We really began to believe that there were two Americas—one right and one wrong. The Democratic victory, keyed by uprisings in areas too long abandoned as “red areas” that a “leftie” could never appeal to, has made it clear that we still value government’s effects on our daily lives above what we think it can do for our souls. What this suggests is that more than a moral compass, what Americans really desire from politicians are serious solutions to everyday problems. And if those answers come from someone across the aisle, far more of our countrymen than we have come to expect are willing to say “so be it.”

What this election revealed was that America is dominated not by country-fried conservatives or latte liberals, but by a large practical and self-interested mass at the center. Whatever their ideological leanings, their votes apparently can be won most effectively by the party they associate with effective government. Our nation, believe it or not, really does prioritize leadership over demagoguery. And that’s something we can all celebrate.