The missing mid-term mid-ground

Tuesday, 2. November 2010     3 comment(s)
Rally for Sanity, Washington DC. Photo by Intellinuts via Flickr/Creative Commons. Rally for Sanity, Washington DC. Photo by Intellinuts via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Americans have a lot of democracy. It is only two years since the hysteria of President Obama’s election, but today Americans are returning to the polls for the mid-term elections. Outside of the US, as well as domestically, the Tea Party with their vehemently conservative and populist views, and some rather eccentric candidates, have captured attention. The rhetoric has become so polarized and at times extreme, that Jon Stewart, America’s satirist-in-chief could attract tens of thousands to join him in Washington DC last weekend for a “Rally for Sanity”, where people turned up with witty signs to declare their intense moderation in response. But what pushes American politics to the level of polarization where those who feel they are the ignored middle would rally to declare this (and have a fun day out with a picnic)?

Senators serve six year terms whilst Representatives in the House serve two year terms, hence every two years certain sections of the Congress take their turn to face the electorate. Additionally at state and local levels, more elected offices come up for election. Finally, certain states take the opportunity of their citizens coming to the polls to ask them their opinions in referendums; in California for example these citizens’ propositions can be added to the ballot if enough signatures are gathered by activists. Today for example, along with selecting many of their politicians, Californians have the chance to have their say on whether they think marijuana should be legalized in their state – along with many other questions.

This of course means that American politics is in almost constant campaign mode. And to campaign well takes money, hence fundraising for campaigns is another constant. And then, not only do politicians have to compete with their rival in the other party (the US is essentially a two-party system), firstly they have to compete within their own party. This mid-term election has shown this viciously with the rise of ‘Tea Party’ who have supported candidates running within Republican primaries. The Tea Party favourites have in many places stood against a Republican backed by the national or local party and won. The primary system is in many ways more democratic than most European systems, where party representatives in a certain election is decided amongst the party hierarchy, not by that party’s supporters in that electoral district. Nevertheless the primary system is one of the important ways US politics is becoming increasingly polarized – both Democrats and Republicans need to appeal to activists and partisans who are most likely to organize for, and vote in, primaries. Hence Republicans tend to get pushed to the right (as the Tea Party has done this year) and Democrats go further left, as organized labour and the “net roots” – young, progressive activists – become central interest groups in helping to select Democrat candidates.

Secondly the media, and in particular 24 hour cable news, pushes the separation further. Fox News is often seen as central to this, although scurrilously partisan newspapers go back to the birth of the Republic. But Fox News is also a business model, and other channels have realized that by identifying with one side of the partisan divide, you can attract a loyal audience. Now other ‘news’ channels are trying to do the same on the left. Even if cable news still does not actually attract particularly large audiences, it helps set the agenda by defining the ‘news cycle’. The White House and Congress are forever having to ‘react’ to stories that were brought to the fore by cable news.

Finally, redistricting is central to how US politics works. Redistricting – the ability for elected officials to draw the boundaries of their own electoral districts – means that in effect, politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking their politicians. Bizarrely shaped districts are created that snake around enclosing certain suburbs but excluding others, all in an effort for the politicians to be able to gain the maximum support by predicting who will vote for them by their socio-economic and racial profile. This means increasing numbers of ‘safe seats’, where the ‘other’ party has little chance of winning. Instead politicians, Democrat or Republican, become captured by their special interests – the supporting groups within their party, again pushing them left or right. With safe seats there is no need to fight for the middle ground.

In California, most attention has been paid to Proposition 19, on legalizing “da’ weed”, but before Californians toke up and chill out, they should consider Prop 20 – the creation of an independent, expert and most importantly – non-partisan panel for future redistricting in their state. With some real competition between Democrats and Republicans, perhaps Californians will find the missing middle ground once again.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (3 comments)

4.11.2010, Kenneth Sikorski

Hi Toby,
According to the United States Constitution, Representatives serve two-year terms, Senators serve six-year terms, with no term limitations. Clause 1, Section 2 of Article I
Question, why would you claim Tea Party members are "vehemently" conservative with "populist views" for sticking up, no better yet, demanding, that their elected officials adhere to the US constitution that they swore to uphold?
Why is it Toby, that the term "populist" has the feeling of a smear, used almost exclusively by the Left to describe the Right that they are in opposition with? Just saying.
By the way, you're spot on about the established "team players" redistricting areas to make it more easy for them to field candidates. This is the mindset that these Tea Party candidates are rising up against.
You are also spot on about the primary system being the mechanism that greatly differentiates the US system from European social democracies.
I would say that's the supremacy of a Republic style of representative government over that of a democratic parliamentary style of government. Because in spite of the problems mentioned, the voice of the people are better represented.
Also why would "moderation" be more favorable to angst, rivalry and intense opposition and polarization, when in fact that was exactly what the Framers and Founders of the country had in mind when they created this kind of representative republic?
Look at the division of power between the three bodies of government. All three looking towards the US Constitution in defending their perspectives and agendas. Did you know that the US Supreme Court is not the end all in deciding law or legislation?
The US system has a built in mechanism that automatically pits one side against the other in perpetual motion. That mechanism reflects the mindset of the Founders, it reflects the wills, aims and desires of the people who placed them in power to craft the document.
Europeans are perplexed by the American penchant for creating "gridlock" in government, not realizing that gridlock is the mechanism by which the electorate "holds on" till the next election, midterm or else.
What's happening in today's politics, during this Obama administration is the battle between those who want to overturn the Reagan revoltion and those who want to see it continue and come to fruition. Reagan started it, and the same forces fighting the Tea Party are the same forces that were fighting Reagan, tooth and nail, within and outside of the Republican party.
I am stunned that the political analysts in Finland, from Tampere University, from the UPI have not really figured that out yet. They know that the Repubs are infighting with the Tea Party, but haven't a clue that it's this latest battle is part of the same cause started in the 60's by Goldwater and later in the 70's and 80's by Reagan.
Grid lock! The Tea Party driven Congress needs to bite down, explain their agenda and reason for doing so, and create enough grid lock until next elections when yet more candidates are selected by the Tea Party and flood Congress, in the quest to overturn socialist policies of the present and past administrations...including some dumb bi-partisan legisltation by Bush.
The Republican leadership for the most part have been very bi-partisan with the Dems, which in domestic policies never seemed to be as forth coming in the opposite way. The realization of that status quo relationship has now become the focus of the Tea Party. That is what al the buzz is about, it's the exact same fight Reagan fought, and the people have just begun to pick up where he left off.

16.11.2010, nils bjorksten

U.S. Senators are elected to serve 6-year terms, U.S. Representatives to serve 2-year terms. Every two years all 435 seats in the House and a third of the Senate seats face elections.

19.11.2010, Toby

My thanks to Nils for spotting my error on Congressional term lengths in the original blog post. I have now corrected the mistake.

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