People who criticize election year mudslinging and politicians dodging substantive issues are right in wanting higher standards for national elections. But they should also recognize that the two-party system that is integral to America’s representative form of democracy works reasonably well in bringing about necessary course corrections even when most voters don’t understand issues deeply and when politicians are evasive.
When they drafted the Constitution, the founders made no assumptions about there being a highly informed electorate in America, and they also had no illusions about politicians’ propensity to lie and deceive to achieve and maintain power.
But they did trust the people to decide whether they should vote for change or continuity. By instituting elections every two years the Constitution guarantees the people’s voice is heard frequently and can alter the nation’s course, sort of like the way street lights regulate traffic — with green signaling go, yellow caution or slow down and red requiring stop.
When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, he campaigned and presented himself as a centrist candidate, with such refrains as “we are not a collection of red states and blue states … we are the United States of America.” He committed himself to accountability and transparency — declaring a requirement that bills be posted on line for five days before being signed into law. Lobbyists would be prohibited from serving in government and have no access to the White House.
Once elected, Obama walked back on this and moved sharply left on foreign and domestic policy, punctuated with a health care reform law — the passage of which was controversial — that radically restructured 17% of the U.S. economy. The unpopularity of that was a clear red light and served as the impetus for Americans to go to the polls in the 2010 mid-term election and overwhelmingly vote Obama’s Democratic Party out of power in the House of Representatives.
Retaining Democratic Party control in the Senate, majority leader Harry Reid became reduced to preventing bills from reaching a floor vote so as to shield Democrats from going on record against popular legislation from the new Republican House majority. For their part the House majority believed they were doing their job in opposing legislation that would increase the deficit and take the country further left. But on the surface and in the media, that made Republicans vulnerable to being called the party of “no” — a label that stuck with many voters.
This year across the land there are complaints about negative attack ads and a failure of candidates to provide a clear affirmative message. But what is most important for voters in this mid-term election is to judge politicians and their parties by their actions — what they have done rather than what they have said. Being the majority party in control of the White House and the Senate, the Democratic Party now has a six-year record of actions and outcomes.
Political pundits will always suggest that politics is complicated with a nuanced menu of issues about which voters and candidates need to understand and address. But the wisdom of the founders who structured our system suggests, thankfully, that it is really simpler than that.
On national election choices this November 4th, voters need prioritize how they feel about the direction of the country and decide whether they are comfortable driving ahead through a yellow light, or whether they see a red light and the need to stop. This is a year when the outcome of the Senate contest has such significance for the nation that voters need to act nationally rather than locally, and exercise their Constitutional right to check a wayward and incompetent president.