It's Not the End of the World -- 7 Things Progressives Need to Keep in Mind About Last Night's GOP 'Wave'

Election 2010 was, by any measure, the “bloodbath” the forecasters predicted. It was a terrible loss for the Democratic Party, but what about the progressive movement? Should liberals hang their heads in the wake of the GOP retaking the House? Was it a repudiation of everything we believe, or are these results merely a bump in the road for the movement -- a setback on the way to a better, more progressive America?

The reality is that Congress is going to be even more dysfunctional, and thanks to the incoming Tea Party candidates, Fox News and the rest of the right-wing noise machine, we’re going to be subjected to endless investigations into pseudo-scandals involving everyone down to the White House gardener’s second cousin. Maybe we’ll even be treated to an impeachment hearing or two.

The bottom line is that progressives went to bed last night fighting a right wing that’s lost its collective mind, in a broken political system, with a centrist, Wall Street-friendly party that can’t sell its successes, and we wake up in pretty much the same situation. In other words, yes, we now face the disheartening fact that Rand Paul is a member of the United States Senate, the “greatest deliberative body in the world.” But remember, we already had James Inhofe.

But despite all of that, the long-term winds that devastated the GOP in two consecutive “wave elections” and propelled a black man with a funny name into the White House are still at our backs.

We thought a little perspective was in order, so without further preamble, here are seven things progressives should keep in mind after Tuesday’s drubbing:

1. Midterm elections, unlike presidential races, are a collection of low-turnout, localized contests rather than a barometer of the nation’s ideological tilt. Former AlterNet staffer Steve Rosenfeld has a detailed piece at Project Vote examining the historic trends that shape midterm outcomes. “Many of the features of this year’s election,” he writes, “from the drop-off in voter turnout, to swings in political representation, and the uptick in activity by partisan idealists, are predictable outcomes that have distinguished midterm from presidential election cycles in recent years.”

The GOP’s gains in last night’s elections, as Rosenberg notes, “are part of the predictable rebalancing that occurs between presidential elections, rather than ideological shifts in the electorate.”

The most important point, one that will be all but ignored on the cable gabfests, is that “midterm elections consist of hundreds of lower turnout, individual, localized contests,” and, “as a result, they are weaker barometers of the views of the public at-large than higher-turnout presidential elections.”

2. The electorate is hopping mad, but they still dislike Republicans. A month before an election that has swept some rather extreme GOPers into Congress, an Associated Press-GfK Poll found that “60 percent disapprove of the job congressional Democrats are doing -- yet 68 percent frown on how Republicans are performing.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll last week found that while a majority of Americans voted GOP yesterday, the electorate “continues to have a more favorable opinion of the Democratic Party than of the Republican Party, with 46 percent favoring Democrats and 41 favoring Republicans."

This will be the third consecutive year in which the party out of power wins. That’s not a measure of the country’s ideological leanings, it’s a sign that people are hurting and are mad as hell about it (in case one needed such a sign).

3. Blue Dogs took the brunt of it. The loss of Wisconsin’s liberal lion, Russ Feingold, is a blow to the progressive movement. Alan Grayson’s defeat in Florida hurts. Other good lawmakers were booted out of office last night as well. But in many cases, what we saw were conservatives with Ds next to their names replaced with conservatives with Rs.

That’s to be expected after two big Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008. They won in a lot of conservative districts, but as many observers noted at the time, many of those Dems winning in marginally “red” districts were the bluest of dogs, who have not exactly helped advance a progressive agenda.

In his new book, Ari Berman argues that a smaller, more ideologically coherent Democratic party would in fact be good for progressives. Whether or not one agrees, it’s hard to see a bunch of the most corporate-friendly Dems losing their seats as a tragedy for American progressivism.

4. This was a wave of right-wing turnout, but few have changed their positions. In a story about that New York Times/CBS News poll mentioned above, Times reporters Jim Rutenberg and/or Megan Thee-Brenan fueled a common misperception, writing that “critical parts of the coalition that delivered President Obama to the White House in 2008 and gave Democrats control of Congress in 2006 are switching their allegiance to the Republicans….”

But few Americans’ political preferences have in fact changed between 2008 and today. What is different is who voted -- and who made it into pollsters’ "likely voter” screens. And this year, conservatives, enraged by all manner of completely improbable conspiracy theories about the Democrats, are very, very excited to vote.

This has been clear for a while. Back in August, I wrote about a study conducted by the progressive pollsters Greenberg Quinlan and Rosner. GQR only sampled people who had voted in the 2008 election. They divided the group into those who are likely to vote in 2010, and “drop-out voters” who intend to sit out the midterms. What they found confirmed the massive “enthusiasm gap” identified by a host of polls this cycle. In contrast to the views of those who intend to vote, drop-off voters trust the Dems to handle the deficit (46-29) and the economy (43-32), and to help small businesses get ahead (43-31). On the generic Congressional ballot, likely voters favored the GOP candidate by a 7-point margin at the time, while those who said they wouldn’t vote in November would have gone for the Democrat by a 21-point spread.

So, Obama’s coalition is, to a large degree, still out there. They simply weren’t nearly as pissed off as McCain’s “coalition” of older white Tea Partiers last night.

5.  A wave of low-information voters says more about our media and education system than our politics. In late July, a much discussed poll revealed that only 42 percent of Republican primary voters were confident President Obama was born in the United States. Compare that to 77 percent of the electorate at large.

It’s important to remember that many Tea Partiers are voting in an alternative universe where the decidedly centrist Dems are stealthily pushing the nation toward socialism, trying to enact Sharia law, taking over broad swaths of the economy, setting up “death panels” to decide if grandma lives or dies and plotting to join the United States with Canada and Mexico.

Given those beliefs, it’s really no surprise they’re so animated to “take their country back.” But all of that is a testament to the power of the Right’s mighty Wurlitzer, and says little about the state of our political beliefs.

6. Political realignments occur over decades, not cycle to cycle. In 1964, Barry Goldwater’s campaign crashed and burned. But 16 hard-fought years later, Ronald Reagan was elected and the 30-year period of conservative ascendancy that reshaped the American political landscape came into being.

Progressives are fighting for a similar long-term realignment, and they’ve been winning in the 2000s. But those shifts don’t happen overnight, and long-term trends don’t interest pundits doing post-election analysis. But that long-term picture looks as good for progressives today as it did yesterday,

Communities of color continue to grow as a percentage of the electorate. A large share of the GOP’s base identify as white, married Christians (all three), a demographic that is in steep decline. Younger voters continue to be more socially liberal than their parents’ generation. And the GOP doesn’t appear to have any new messages to appeal to these groups.

7. Still a center-left country where it counts. As Steve Rosenfeld put it, “Despite 2010’s political rhetoric, academic and media surveys from 2007 through today repeatedly find that most voters want government protection from economic hardship and continuity of core programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, in education and infrastructure spending."

That a majority of Americans agree with them on the most important issues facing the country, even as they vote regressive politicians into office, has long been a source of confusion and discontent for progressives. Their difficulty selling proposals to the public that they already favor may be, as Thomas Frank argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas, a testament to the Right’s skill at using social wedge issues to obscure the differences between the two major parties. But last night’s returns haven't changed those obstacles.

All of this is important context to keep in mind in the coming days and weeks, because along with death and taxes, there’s one thing you can count on: the pundits’ chatter is likely to coalesce around the idea that the Democrats received an epic spanking because they over-reached -- because they moved too far toward the left in what the Beltway media has long been convinced is a “center-right country.” But that narrative, however inevitable, bears no relationship to the evidence at hand.


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