Posted by: sean | November 3, 2010

US Midterm election results

Due to the time difference between the US and Middle East, unless I stay up all night, I generally have to go to bed before the results are in on election nights. This morning, I woke up to a 6-9 am electricity cut, so I wasn’t able to see the midterm results until I came into the office just now, but it did give me some time to think a little about how I felt about the meaning of the impending loss for Democrats while I was shaving in the dark.

Aside from whether my beard was uneven or not, the main problems I kept coming back to this morning are unoriginal but important. First, what happens when the majority in a democratic system wants policies that are clearly not in the country’s best interests? Second, what is the purpose of public service — actually governing in a way that you see as helping the country or hedging your bets to maintain a majority for your party?

While I was skimming the internet this morning, I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only person asking myself the second question. Ezra Klein has been mulling over the same problem:

Republicans will probably win the House today. They might win the Senate, too. But either way, the brief moment in which Democrats not only controlled Congress, but held enough seats to do big things, is over. And it’ll end in defeat.

Actually, scratchthat. It’ll end in a few dozen politicians losing their jobs. But if you see the point of politics as actually getting things done, the last two years, for Democrats, have been a stunning, historic success. Whatever else you can say about the 111th Congress, it got things done.

[...]That this has been the most “do-something” Congress we’ve seen in 40 years hasn’t made much of an impression on the public. Multiple polls have found that only a minority of voters know that the 111th Congress got more done than most congresses. That’s true even among Democrats. Nor has their productivity made the 111th Congress popular. But if they failed as politicians, they succeeded as legislators. And legislating is, at least in theory, what they came to Washington to do.

This is a sentiment that I largely agree with. To my mind, a lot of the activity of the 111th Congress wasn’t bold enough for my taste, but at the end of the day, I realize that given the nature of Republican obstructionism and American politics more generally, it’s actually kind of surprising that anything got done at all. Say what I will about the health care reforms — how I would have wanted to see more cuts in spending, less reliance on private insurance and a robust public option — but at the end of the day, 32 million people who were without insurance are projected to be covered. That’s a net gain in my book, and a substantial one at that.

Ideally, being a successful legislator and a successful politician shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Why they are today goes back to the first question of why the majority wants clearly unhelpful policies, like permanent tax cuts for the richest Americans. I haven’t got an explanation for that, although my gut instinct is that it’s at least partially due to an American optimism (or the American dream, if you will) that drastically skews people’s image of the economic playing field and their position on it.

In any case, until the first question is sorted out and being a successful legislator is the same thing as being a successful politician, I think it’s important that besides blocking Republican follies (no small feat when we look back at 8 years of Bush), just holding a majority doesn’t actually accomplish much if you don’t use it. As a citizen, I’d much rather see a member of Congress get ousted after one term but manage to pass significant climate change legislation, than see that same member of Congress keep the seat warm while not doing anything of import.

Now finding politicians who are willing to act boldly even if that means taking one for the team, that’s another problem altogether.

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