This week Democratic leaders and activists are dancing in their respective city streets as they celebrate sweeping victories in off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Breathless commentary veers between a complete repudiation of Donald Trump and a total embrace of Democratic policy prescriptions. Neither is completely right nor completely wrong.
Whatever the cause of this week’s election results, we cannot forget that American voters have only (a) two real choices from which to choose and (b) do not completely associate with one party or another, especially in state and local elections.
If wave elections are ultimately referenda on the party in power, why do we have so many of them? To believe that we’ve had five wave elections since 2006 because Americans are radically changing their political outlooks is to diagnose voters with an ever-shifting set of policy priorities and principles. The answer is not so complicated.
For the last 150 years, American voters have been reduced to two choices: Republicans and Democrats. For decades, there was largely stasis in federal politics – Democrats generally controlled Congress and more often than not Republicans controlled the White House. The few occasions when Republicans did take Capitol Hill were short-lived outliers.
This pattern was broken by the 1994 Republican Revolution in which Newt Gingrich swept away a tired, old and complacent Democratic majority in favor of a more activist, conservative type of legislature. In the context of two decades ago – when both the Republican speaker and the Democratic president were willing to make deals, the system worked. Voters could still find what they were looking for.
Fast-forward to 2006. George W. Bush’s presidency was coming to an end, Hurricane Katrina and two wars scarred the American psyche and the Mark Foley intern scandal put Republicans on the defensive. They lost the House and were forced into a tie in the Senate.
Two years later, then-Sen. Barack Obama won an electoral landslide, increased Democratic numbers in the House and achieved a filibuster-proof 60-vote margin in the Senate. But it would not mark the resurgence of the long-term Democratic legislative majority.
In 2010, President Obama watched as his legislative margins evaporated, returning angrier, more partisan, less-policy-oriented Republicans to power on Capitol Hill. Was it a reaction to Obama himself? Was it a convulsion based on Obamacare’s single-party passage?
Did all of the voters who swept Obama and his philosophy into office just two years earlier suffer buyer’s remorse? Or was it simpler than that? When faced with two bad options, or the two options you’ve been conditioned to accept, your only real power as a voter is to throw the bums out.
We do a lot of throwing the bums out. Why does this matter? Because our elections are largely becoming an expression of voter anger and frustration at both parties and at our political system writ large. The unwillingness and inability of either Republicans or Democrats to put their constituents first has two major consequences.
First, because both sides are deathly afraid of giving the other side anything resembling a victory going into an election year -- and we’re always going into an election year -- the partisans dig their trenches and lob bombs back and forth as the American people sit in No Man’s Land.
The follow-on to the fear of giving an opponent a win is doing nothing -- except preparing for the next election. Whether that is purposefully voting on the same legislation 50-plus times (see Obamacare repeal) or spending inordinate amounts of time raising money from wealthy donors and special interest groups, doing their actual jobs – that of legislating and representing the American people -- rarely makes the podium.
There is hope, though. Given the chaotic nature of our politics today, the overwhelming unpopularity of both political parties and what looks to be yet another wave election in 2018, now is the time to find, recruit and support independent candidates up and down the ballot.
There are dozens of longtime Republican and Democratic incumbents who are ripe for upsets – some don’t have to campaign, some don’t even both to come home and face their constituents in town-hall meetings. With the growing wave of Republican congressional retirements, there are seats that may be ripe for an independent takeover.
It will take individual voters -- hundreds of thousands of them, perhaps millions of them -- to band together to make this happen. The alternative is what? More sclerosis and apathy from the White House to the statehouse. Get out and find one another. So many of us are out here – and we’ve been waiting. The time for waiting is over. We know what the landscape in 2018 looks like; let’s take advantage of it.
The process of electing Independents will not be easy, nor will it be fast. But we don’t need to win every race. We need to field competitive and credible candidates across the country – many will lose, some will win. But as we chip away at the two-faced edifice that is the two-party system in this country, change will come.