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A Campaign That Fuels Disenchantment

A Campaign That Fuels Disenchantment

By Mark Salter - October 29, 2014

As another it-felt-it-might-never-end election season nears another thank-goodness-it’s-finally-over finish, the voters have already spoken to the people whose livelihoods most depend on knowing the national mood -- the pollsters.

And how are the voters feeling in the lovely Indian summer days of 2014?

They’re angry, warns the latest CNN poll. Some 30 percent of voters describe themselves as very angry about the direction of the country, and another 38 percent are just “somewhat” angry at how things are going, or not going, as government gridlock and incompetence seem to be a major source of voter irritation.

They’re also frightened, the same poll finds: 60 percent of respondents confess that ISIS or Ebola or the general state of the country or the perils of a shrinking world has them “scared” or “somewhat scared.”

They’re bored, declares the Washington Post, according to a finding in the paper’s most recent poll that only 68 percent of registered voters are paying even occasional attention to the campaigns. The poll also notes important exceptions to the voters’ ennui in states that have competitive Senate elections. In those states, over 80 percent of voters are following the campaigns closely.

They’re really polarized, and more so with every election, which seems to be not so much the product of a deepening affinity for one’s own party as it is a growing disgust with the other side. There are fewer persuadable voters every year, fewer genuine independents, while the number of self-identified independents continues to grow. This encourages campaigns to focus their messaging more on stoking their supporters’ anger than on appealing to truly undecided voters, a practice voters insist they detest.

They’re disenchanted with President Obama, whom they find useless, and have already consigned to lame duck status. That’s bad news for Democrats.

But they can’t stand Republicans, multiple polls have reaffirmed. Good news for Democrats. Except it looks like voters are probably going to hand Republicans control of both houses of Congress. Although they might not, since Democratic candidates in most of the competitive Senate races are putting up strong fights, the contests remain within the margin of error, and in at least two very red states, Kansas and Georgia, the Democratic candidates might hold slight leads today.

So, to sum up, Americans aren’t too interested in the election except in the handful of states where it matters, and in those contests, they are more ticked off than ever, or scared out of their wits or unhappy with the president or with Republicans or all of the above. Voters don’t like either party, and are more partisan than ever. They’re going to elect a Republican congressional majority unless they don’t. They hate gridlock and they despair of either party ever running on a positive message, and they’re going to the polls to vote against someone or to stop something.

All this confusion and dissatisfaction when the policy differences litigated in this election are small historically and in comparison to elections in other societies. The last presidential election was mostly a debate about whether the top marginal tax rate should be 36 percent or 39.6 percent. Not exactly ”give me liberty or give me death” material.

The future of the country will not be irreversibly determined next Tuesday. This is not a contest between socialism and fascism, no matter what one hears from hyperbolic, poorly informed partisans on either side. For the record, I hope Republicans take control of the Senate, though I have modest expectations for how well they would use that opportunity to solve some of the country’s problems.

But whichever side wins, Washington will continue plodding along, arguing, jockeying, preening, self-seeking, overwhelming attempts at problem solving and reform, doing little good and causing occasional harm, all to the great dissatisfaction of the voters, who persist in sending people there who won’t solve problems or really change things.

Some observers, such as veteran political reporter Ron Fournier at National Journal, think disgust with the personalities and politics of Washington is so deep and intense that voters are nearly motivated to break free of the parties and find new organizations and new kinds of campaigns to replace them. I’d like to live to see it, but I doubt I will.

That’s not because I think entrenched and wealthy special interests have rigged the system so that it can never be replaced. Rather its because, as the acerbic Barney Frank once observed, “the voters are no picnic either.”

Voters who can’t be bothered to vote in party primaries, much less precinct and district elections, as a way of selecting candidates who don’t consider bipartisan problem solving a venereal disease aren’t likely to go to the trouble of forming new parties. Voters who find campaign ads repugnant but don’t take it upon themselves to acquire information about policy issues from nonpartisan sources readily available in the Internet Age probably lack the initiative to build issue platforms to campaign on.

Unless voters can be convinced that they -- more than wealthy special interests and self-interested politicians and campaign consultants and the media -- are responsible for the ways elections are contested and the nation is governed, nothing much will change. Until voters actually decide to do more something more useful than complain to pollsters about their anger and frustration, politics and government will remain as irritating and unsatisfactory as ever. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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