The Real Message of the Midterm Elections

Forget about ideology, the great majority of voters just want a more effective government.
by | November 29, 2006

I took one sociology course in college, and remember little that the professor said (a failing memory, plus 20 years of time, will do that to you). But one of his points did stick -- it surprised me at the time, but now seems very insightful:

The American people aren't very ideological, he said. Pundits and party leaders want us to believe that ideology is a major factor in our voting behavior, but he believed that we are in fact a most pragmatic tribe. We want our leaders to be capable, to find a way to solve problems and get things done. Few of us, he argued, wake up in the morning, brush our teeth, and wonder whether conservatives or liberals are winning today.

Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, wrote an analysis of this year's elections ("The Real Message of the Midterms," November 14, 2006, Pew Research Center website). His bottom line: it would be a mistake to read this election as an ideological move to the left, or even as a resounding affirmation of Democrats over Republicans. This election, like most, was decided by moderates and independents, according to his polling data. Republicans voted for Republicans, Democrats voted for Dems. But independents swung strongly to the Democratic side, and that's what led to the sweep at the national and state levels.

And what were moderates and independents most concerned about on November 7? Kohut writes, "This year's midterm elections were a referendum on Bush and GOP control of Congress, a judgment about performance, not ideology." His data show that moderate voters reacted to the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, more than terrorism; to corruption, far more than the economy; to Iraq , not immigration worries. Remember Kohut's conclusion: "this year's midterm elections were a ... judgment about performance, not ideology."

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis said that the election was about competence. He was wrong, at least in that election, and George H.W. Bush defeated him by almost 8 points. He would have been right about the 2006 election, however. Voters today are hungry for leaders who produce results, who get things done. They want pragmatic solutions, not ideological ones. Some want smaller government, some want a larger government, but the great majority wants a more effective government.

Some elected officials will welcome this conclusion. Others are already working hard to spin the November 7 results to support their ideological views (conservatives note that all but one proposed ban on same-sex marriage passed; liberals point out that minimum wage referendums passed in every state where they were on the ballot). Those with a vested interest in defining the ideological direction of the country will continue to pontificate. I'm more interested in those whose job is to do, everyday, what the voters clearly are demanding: to make government work effectively.

What are the lessons of the midterms, for civil servants?

I'd suggest these:

  • See this election as a real opportunity. Politicians have been making political points since the late 1970s by bashing government and criticizing bureaucrats. But this election emphasized that Americans of all philosophies want their government to work. After the horrors of Hurricane Katrina (which revealed incompetence at all levels of government), it's not in vogue today to argue that government doesn't matter, or that "the answer" is to radically reduce the size of government, or to contract everything out.
  • Americans are leery of those who promise transformative change through government. That's one of the lessons of the failed health care initiative pushed by Bill Clinton during his first term. George W. Bush made the same mistake in claiming that a democratic Iraq would transform the entire Middle East.
  • The flip side of the last point: Americans are often quite supportive of smaller, focused government programs that demonstrate results: health insurance for children in your state, reduced crime in large cities, higher expectations for performance in public schools. Big-city mayors everywhere have learned this lesson, and they are usually returned to office when they deliver such results.
  • Management matters. That's not news to civil servants, but it is for some politicians. Most elected officials care far more about certain policy issues than they do about program management -- that's why they ran, to promote their policies. The country's mood today, however, gives civil servants the opportunity to demonstrate the vital linkage between good management, solid performance, and achieving those policy initiatives that our elected officials desire.

My former sociology professor believed that Americans are basically a pragmatic lot. That was probably true in the 1960s, and it's clearly true today. Will we finally heed that message?

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