Let me begin with a confession. When I cast my ballot for the midterm election last week in North Carolina, I didn’t vote for Kay Hagan. That doesn’t mean that I voted for her Republican challenger Thom Tillis, who ended up winning her Senate seat by a slight margin. But as someone whose politics are squarely and unapologetically on the left, I’m tired of voting for centrist and lukewarm “progressive” candidates whose main appeal often lies solely in the mere fact that they don’t belong to the other party. I’m under no illusions that my vote is some sacred form of active political engagement, but I’d prefer not to make it even more passive by rubber-stamping the Democrat because he or she is a Democrat.
I can already hear the criticism. “I’m fed up with the Democrats, too. But at least they’re better than the Republicans. The two parties aren’t the same! Every vote that isn’t cast for [insert candidate here] is a vote for the Republicans! You don’t want them in power, do you? Maybe we can talk about third-party candidates sometime in the next election. But not this time! There’s too much at stake!”
I certainly don’t think that both parties are equal. The old cliché “they’re all the same, so why does it matter” is lazy, and covers over real differences. Nevertheless, I don’t think those differences are as great as we often portray them, at least in and around the center of both parties. The fact is that most of the differences between the two parties occur within a predefined range of acceptable positions—and, yes, that includes “progressive” legislation like the Affordable Care Act.
Nevertheless, that way of approaching elections and politics in general is mainly driven by fear, fear of what will happen if the other side takes power. So we vote for “the least bad option,” as a way to ward off potentially regressive legislation or at times, we think, the apocalypse. That sort of fear-driven thinking often overplays political differences and ignores the actual complexity of our legislative system at the local, state, and national levels.
But it also functions cynically and ideologically to support the status quo: continually going with “the least bad option” virtually assures that there will never be a better option, that things will, in essence, remain the same according to what’s good for both parties. We may, of course, tell ourselves “maybe next time,” but we all know that next time never comes, which is why politics in this country takes the form of a perpetual game of ping-pong. Our aspiring and current elected officials and their parties know this, so there’s little incentive for them to act otherwise. It also means, as I’ve said before, that elections can be—and often are—about nothing, nothing other, that is, than the election itself and the power it promises.
All of which brings me to back to the midterm elections. Numerous explanations have been and likely will continue to be offered for the Democrats’ overall defeat, especially as party operatives work to pick up the pieces and develop a strategy for 2016. It seems to me, however, that the “at least it’s not the other party” ethos simply didn’t have enough traction this go around, especially against a GOP that, on the whole, ran a campaign that beat the Democrats at their own game. On the one hand, Republican challengers consistently adopted the strategy themselves, as seen, for instance, in the near-ubiquitous attempt to paint themselves as anti-Obama and their incumbent opponents as pro-Obama. Indeed, in North Carolina, that was Thom Tillis’s whole campaign. Simultaneously, however, they also downplayed social issues and, all things considered, ran a fairly diverse pool of candidates. Even religion didn’t play that much of a role, at least in the same, overt way that it often has in the past. Sure, according to a Pew Research Center survey, white evangelicals and those who reported frequent attendance at religious services continued to favor Republicans. But we saw less of the Christian “culture war” rhetoric that has been a staple of the political landscape. That may partly explain why the Republicans were able to make inroads among Jewish voters and those who report occasional rather than frequent attendance at religious services.
In other words, they neutralized traditionally Democratic ground, turning a host of issues into non-issues, at least generally speaking. Take Thom Tillis, for instance. As Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, he was instrumental in pushing through legislative and budgetary measures that were widely criticized—rightly, in my opinion—by those on the other side of the aisle as regressive and restrictive in regard women’s healthcare services. Hagan tried to play this card against Tillis, but he was able to neutralize in part Hagan’s claim that he was launching a “war on women.” Along with putting Mary Susan Fulghum (one of the founders of Planned Parenthood’s state headquarters in North Carolina) on his “Women for Tillis Campaign” early on, he also expanded over-the-counter access to birth control. During one of his debates with Hagan, Tillis stated, “I think over-the-counter oral contraception should be available without a prescription. If you do those kinds of things it will actually increase the access and reduce the barriers for having more options for women for contraception.”
However genuine such campaign rhetoric may turn out to be, and whether it translates into policy, is beside the point right now. It didn’t help the Democrats, especially when their field of candidates was already rather weak and more intent on playing defense than touting achievements and defining principles. The GOP’s victory, really, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
All this combined, I would suggest, to allow the Republicans to convert the American populace’s overall dissatisfaction into victory. An election about nothing, in other words, worked in their favor, while it worked against the Democratic candidates. It’s hard to drive voter turnout for non-issues, for nothing. Exit polls in North Carolina, for instance, showed that only 36% of voters were Democrat.
If the Republicans continue with that strategy going into 2016, the Democrats may not be able to rely on their traditional voting blocs and pet issues to drive turnout. They will, in other words, have to come up with something else, perhaps even something that is really “progressive” rather than in name only. Until they actually do, my vote will go elsewhere—and others should consider doing the same. If enough of the Democratic base, which includes many Independents, voted otherwise, we might force their hand or, if not, start speaking about a viable third party. That would involve, at the very least, doing politics without fear and for the long-term, from the ground up.