Americans Are Sick to Death of Both Parties: Why Our Politics Is in Worse Shape Than We Thought

2014 signaled a new stage of disintegration.

The way many pundits tell it, the Democratic debacle in the 2014 midterm elections sounds like a perfect storm of bad breaks.  The President was aloof. The party’s message was weak and muddled, in some races focused almost entirely on gender issues. Meanwhile record or near-record breaking waves of political money (for off year elections) cascaded through the political system while voter turnout plunged to levels last seen in 1942.

The real story is much uglier: 2014 was fundamentally a democratic debacle.  It likely heralds a new stage in the disintegration of the American political order.

Though Republicans jubilate now, the trend is probably as threatening to them as it is to the Democrats. The reason is stark: Increasing numbers of average Americans can no longer stomach voting for parties that only pretend to represent their interests.

So they stayed home, in quite extraordinary numbers. A full accounting of all votes cast in 2014 is still weeks, perhaps months away; it takes that long for all the returns to come in, especially in races in which incumbents faced no challenger or a recount was required. Some high stakes state elections also attract a few more voters than House contests held at the same time, which makes working off unofficial tabulations of a state’s “total vote” even trickier. But our cautious guess is that turnout in this year’s Congressional races will finally weigh in at around 36 percent of the potential electorate that had legal rights to cast a ballot.

That’s a shocking statistic. Put aside for a moment all talk of 1942 and absolute levels of turnout. Instead focus on changes in turnout between presidential elections and the next off-year election. Across the whole sweep of American history, the momentous dimensions of what has just happened stand out in bold relief. The drop off in voting turnout from the presidential election of 2012 to 2014 is the second largest of all time –24 percentage points. Only 1942’s decline from 1940 was bigger – 29 percentage points. But then there was an excuse. Millions of Americans were hurriedly fanning out across the globe to wage total war. (World War I showed a similar pattern – turnout in the off year elections of 1918 fell 22 points from 1916’s presidential race, marking the fourth largest decline ever. Which leads naturally to the question of the third largest.  Read on.)

Now cast a glance at the actual levels to which turnout in many states sank this year. In the last generation, turnouts in the many formerly industrialized states in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic region, and parts of the Midwest have bounced around, with one or another state sometimes touching historic lows in a particular election.  But this year the decline is broad and to levels that boggle the mind – rates of voting that recall the earliest days of the 19th century, before the Jacksonian Revolution swept away property suffrage and other devices that held down turnout. Turnout in Ohio, for example, fell to 34 percent -- a level the state last touched in 1814, when political parties on a modern model did not exist and it had just recently entered the Union. New York trumped even this: turnout in the Empire State plunged to 30 percent, almost back to where it was in 1798, when property suffrage laws disenfranchised some 40 percent of the citizenry. New Jersey managed a little better: turnout fell to 31 percent, back to levels of the 1820s. Delaware turnout fell to 35 percent, well below some elections of the 1790s. In the west, by contrast, turnout declined to levels almost without precedent: California’s 33 percent turnout appears to be the lowest recorded since the state entered the union in 1850. Nevada also hit a record low (28 percent), as did Utah at 26 percent (for elections to the House).

Exceptions to this pattern exist. There is no point in comparing changes in turnout in 2014 with 2012; presidential elections are in a different league altogether. But if one looks at the differences between 2014 and the last off year election of 2010, some interesting cases turn up. For decades after the failure of the Populists in 1896, southern politics was a world unto itself. Turnouts were reminiscent of England before the Great Reform Bill of 1832. In Georgia in 1942, for example, turnout topped out at 3.4 percent (that’s right, 3.4 percent; no misprint). Why is no mystery: the Jim Crow system pushed virtually all African-Americans out of the system, while the network of poll taxes, registration requirements, literacy tests and other obstacles that was part of that locked out most poor whites from voting, too. Since the civil rights revolution, turnouts in the South have risen fitfully to national levels, amid much pushback, such as the raft of new voter ID requirements (though these are not limited to the South). In 2014, the sharp plunge in turnout elsewhere helped achieve a milestone of sorts: regional differences between the South and the rest of country just about vanished, for the first time since perhaps 1872, when the Union army still occupied much of the old Confederacy.

The other class of exceptions is uniquely telling. Turnout rose compared to that of 2010 in at least eight states. We will not know whether 2014 set a new record for political money in off year elections until the post-election disclosure reports are all in at the Federal Election Commission and the IRS (where reports on so-called 527 spending are filed, on a different schedule). But it is already clear that the scale of expenditures this year guarantees 2014 will be a worthy contender for that dubious honor. Most states in which turnout rose were sites of high stakes, heavily contested elections either for the Senate, as in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Arkansas, or for the governor’s office – precisely the sort of places that big donors for sure concentrated their resources on. The tidal wave of money, we judge, supercharged campaigns in those states, if not electorates. (The turnout increases were quite modest, save in Louisiana.)

It seems plain that the American political universe is being rapidly reshaped by economic and cultural crisis into something distinctly different. The Democrats’ messaging this year was, indeed, almost eerily spectral. But its otherworldly feebleness was rooted in fundamental facts that are not going away and cannot be fixed by switching media advisers.

The first problem was the administration’s dismal economic policy record. Though some Democrats try to sugarcoat the dismal facts by focusing on changes since 2009, when the President assumed office, the truth is that the fruits of the recovery have gone lopsidedly to the very richest Americans. Wall Street and the stock market boom, but wages continue to stagnate, and unemployment remains stubbornly high, with millions of Americans withdrawn from the labor force or working only part time. As incomes recovered from 2009 to 2012, for example, 95 percent of all the gains went to the top 1 percent of income earners.  The rest of the population was left far behind. As of July 2014, real median household income was still more than 6 percent below its value in early 2008. The administration’s continuing efforts to court Wall Street, along with its reluctance to sanction even flagrant misconduct by prominent financiers just pour salt into these wounds.

The other reason for the messaging failure is graver, because responsibility for it cannot possibly be fobbed off on the Republicans. Though the full figures are still coming in, we are confident that what Ferguson, Jorgensen, and Chen demonstrated to be true in 2012 will hold for 2014, despite claims to the contrary in parts of the media: The President and the Democratic Party are almost as dependent on big money – defined, for example, in terms of the percentage of contributions (over $500 or $1000) from the 1 percent as the Republicans. To expect top down money-driven political parties to make strong economic appeals to voters is idle. Instead the Golden Rule dominates: Money-driven parties emphasize appeals to particular interest groups instead of the broad interests of working Americans that would lead their donors to shut their wallets.

In the short run, the Democrats’ minuses look like big pluses to Republicans. Both the party’s big donors and its national leaders are exultant at their prospects. As David Stockman, President Reagan’s Budget Director once all but confessed, in the modern era the party has never really pretended to have much of a mass constituency. It wins elections by rolling up huge percentages of votes in the most affluent classes while seeking to divide middle and working class voters with various special appeals and striving to hold down voting by minorities and the poor. As we move further into the next stage of our New Gilded Age politics, only the terms of the bargain will change that the party’s core donors and economic policymakers strike around election time with the gaggle of evangelicals, gun advocates, and anti-feminist and homophobic crusaders – not to mention sheer racists – that whip up their flocks. They will also serve, who only stand and bait.

By contrast, 2014 suggests that the Democrats’ ability to retain any mass constituency at all may now be in question. The facts of globalization, top heavy income inequality, and the world wide tendency toward austerity may just be too much for a party that is essentially dominated by segments of the 1 percent but whose legacy appeal is to average Americans.

Exit polls from the 2014 House races suggest that the old New Deal political formula has become like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. Traces of the ancient pattern are still there in the aggregate: In the lowest income bracket (under $30,000 in the 2014 exit polls) voters overwhelmingly prefer the Democrats by 59 percent to 39 percent.  As income rises, that percentage falls off steeply, with the slightest of hiccups in the very highest bracket.  Conversely, upper income voters were much more likely to vote Republican, though a modest gender gap remained in the national electorate, if not that of every state. (Nationally women voters preferred the Democrats by only 51 percent to 47 percent; the Republican advantage among men was much larger – 57 percent to 41 percent.) But after six years of profound policy disappointment, not enough lower income voters bothered to go to the polls.

Right now Hillary Clinton’s strategists appear to be pinning their hopes on firing up another ritualized big money-led coalition of minorities and particular groups instead of making broad economic appeals. That hope might perhaps prove out, if the slow and very modest economic recovery continues into 2016, or the Republicans nominate another Richie Rich caricature like Mitt Romney, who openly mocks the poorest 47% of the electorate. But exit surveys showed that in 2014 many women voters thought economic recovery and jobs were top issues, too.  And one may doubt how robust the recovery can be in the face of a steadily rising dollar, which now seems baked in the world economic cake for a considerable time to come.

But if the time has perhaps passed when a Democratic Party dominated and financed by Wall Street and Silicon Valley can mobilize anything but remnants, the Republicans can hardly count on smooth sailing for very long. In 2016, if voters are offered another choice between Republican Lite and real Republicans, the affluent Americans who will mostly turn out may well once again cast ballots for the real thing. But once in power the Republicans will have to do something.

Here they face a huge problem. We live in a world in which education, infrastructure, and national strategies are crucial to economic performance. Corporate leaders also reward themselves virtually without limit for average (not to mention less than average) economic performance that runs down their own firms over the long run.  And, especially in the financial sector, they do this as they throw the costs of their mistakes on taxpayers and demand all sorts of subsidies as they finance campaigns for big budget cuts and against taxes. (A stunning case in point is the recent success of the big banks in muscling through a provision in the new spending bill that allows them to move many derivatives back into the parts of their operations insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, even as Congress trimmed government backstops for pension funds. )

Little in the free market fundamentalist prayer book offers effective solutions to these dilemmas. Large scale public investments are indispensable to any effort to revitalize the American economy. Since 2006, when the Democratic landslide lamed George W. Bush’s administration, American politics has become a game of musical chairs. 2008 was certainly a negative referendum on the greatest economic policy disaster since the Great Depression. 2010 was yet another vote of no confidence after the administration’s timidity and intransigent Republican opposition combined to dash the soaring hopes that had accompanied President Obama into the White House. That election saw the third greatest drop off in voting turnout in American history and a Republican landslide in the House. In all probability, if the GOP presidential field of 2012 had not behaved like Democratic caricatures, including the eventual nominee, the President might quite possibly have become one of the millions of Americans who lost their jobs and their homes thanks to the Great Recession.

In any case, both direct poll evidence and common sense confirm that huge numbers of Americans are now wary of both major political parties and increasingly upset about prospects in the long term.  Many are convinced that a few big interests control policy. They crave effective action to reverse long term economic decline and runaway economic inequality, but nothing on the scale required will be offered to them by either of America’s money-driven major parties. This is likely only to accelerate the disintegration of the political system evident in the 2014 congressional elections.

Walter Dean Burnham is Professor Emeritus, Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Chair in State Government at the University of Texas, Austin.

Thomas Ferguson is professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and contributing editor of AlterNet. His books include "Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems" and "Right Turn: The Decline of Democrats and the Future of American Politics."

Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Personal Health