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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Garcelon Spells Out Policy on National Scale

Author: [no author name found]

Last Tuesday, the Republican Party disingenuously claimed a national "mandate" after picking up two Senate seats and five House seats in an election in which only 39 percent of eligible voters in the United States voted. What Republican spinmeisters fail to mention is that if roughly 70,000 voters had voted differently, there would have been a dead-even draw — no changed seats in either the Senate or the House. The election, in fact, was a draw, a virtual tie, and was even closer than the 2000 election. The Senate races were particularly close — if Mel Carnahan and Paul Wellstone had not been killed in plane crashes in the fall of 2000 and 2002, respectively, the Democrats would still control the Senate today. That's how close it was!
You may recall that Carnahan was coasting to victory in the 2000 Missouri Senate race when he was killed. Even dead, though, he defeated the morbid John Ashcroft, and Missouri's Democratic governor appointed Carnahan's widow Jean to take his place. But election laws stipulate that appointees to replace dead senators must face re-election in two instead of six years, and Jean Carnahan lost a squeaker last Tuesday by 24,000 votes. There wouldn't have been an election for this seat until 2006 if Mel Carnahan hadn't perished in that plane crash, which means the Democrats would still control this seat. And Wellstone was pulling away in the Minnesota race and headed to what looked like his strongest victory yet. So the Senate turns.
Let's look more closely at how the Republicans whiskered an edge out of this virtually tie election. First, preliminary reports from key contests won by Republicans indicate that Bush succeeded in mobilizing a high white-male turnout in key races, whereas Democrats failed to energize their base in these same races. The fact that only 28 percent of Middlebury College students voted on Tuesday just stands as another instance of the Democratic Party's failure to excite its natural base enough to turn-out in elections. After all, college students are more liberal than the population at large, and a statistically representative study of political attitudes at Middlebury done last year by one of my students in a senior thesis confirmed this to be true of Middlebury students. This study also confirmed, however, that the majority of students have no real opinions about national politics and are almost completely disengaged from participating in the political life of their country as citizens — which is exactly what the Republican Party wants for those not already committed to their ideology of "free market fundamentalism" at home and unilateral interventionism abroad.
Second, low-voter turnout in many areas around the country speaks to the ways that incumbents in both major parties have gerrymandered districts to secure perpetual incumbency for themselves. Indeed, most House races had already been decided before the election, and thus voting in most districts was a pro forma activity. Indeed, on the eve of the race, only 20 House races were listed in the media as being "in play"! Thus the Democrats' stubborn defense of a rigid two-party system has led to deal-making favoring incumbency in both major parties, undercutting interest in national elections and playing right into Republican hands — who consistently do better in elections with low voter turnouts.
Third, low voter turnout in some areas, like California, reflected the unappealing candidates Democrats ran in some areas — like California's Gray Davis, who took tons of money from shady corporations and fell over himself to prove he could lock away as many poor people as any Republican. He thus "won" an election by only five percentage points against an even sorrier Republican candidate, while the Green Party took five percent of the governor's vote. Not a good sign for a "centrist" national strategy for future Democratic candidates, as California is now an overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Fourth, and most crucially, the national Democratic leadership's "defensive" strategy — from its inept and contemptible acquiescence to Bush's war resolution in October, to its failure to articulate a powerful critique of corporate corruption, to its inability to articulate what in fact the party stands for on a national level — proved a disastrous failure. As The Nation argued two weeks ago, the Democratic Party must change its national leadership and take a distance from its corporate entanglements, or it will be relegated to the status of permanent junior partner in a de facto one-party regime. Of course, this means standing for something and articulating a progressive agenda. More on this in a moment.
So the narrow winning of two Senate seats and five House seats, and the loss of one governor's seat, under conditions of low voter turnout, hardly counts as a mandate, though the big media and Republican spin doctors are working overtime to portray it that way. Last week's elections are more a sign of disarray in the Democratic Party than of the resurgence of popularity in Republican policies that polls consistently show are opposed by the public by a 2-to-1 margin (with the exception of Bush's Afghan invasion). It is true that people give Bush a generic approval rating between 60 and 63 percent, which reflects both a lingering patriotic reflex since 9/11, an identification with Bush's "bring 'em home dead or alive" rhetoric, and the continuing power of the politics of fear and war-mongering. And yet, depending on which poll you look at, only between 41-48 percent of eligible voters say they are inclined to vote for Bush in 2004 at this point, exposing just how soft Bush's political underbelly remains.
But you won't hear much of this from the six media conglomerates who enjoy a virtual monopoly over commercial television and radio news in this country. (Don't believe me? Just go to and type "massive media" in the search box, then click on the "massive media" listing that comes up and explore the facts and figures.) Crucially, the majority shareholders and senior managers in these conglomerates are closely aligned with the Republican Party, and keep constant pressure on journalists to reign in their "liberal proclivities." The coziness of the media oligopolies with the Bush government stem from the latter's opposition to campaign finance reform and, most importantly, Bush's support for both dismantling antitrust impediments to still more monopolistic consolidation in the media system, and for massive tax breaks for the media conglomerates. And so we get a shameless spin machine telling us that a virtual tie election in which only about one out of five eligible voters in the United States voted Republican represents a "swing to the right" and a "mandate" for Bush from the American voters. If you believe that line, hey, I've got a nice little island called Manhattan I can sell cheap, just slip me a few bucks under the table as a down payment!
Of course, had the Democrats "won" by a sliver out of the virtual tie last Tuesday, they would have engaged in the same shameless spinning — that the public had rejected Bush and so on. But a virtual tie is a virtual tie is a virtual tie, and all the spinning reflects the impoverishment of our political discourse under a more and more distorted and authoritarian system of mass communication which is "privatizing" the ultimate public good — democracy.
So what do last Tuesday's elections mean, once you get past the fog of spin? First, they indicate that the public remains disengaged and confused regarding the major political parties and their programs, as well as deeply fearful of terrorism. For the Republican Party, last Tuesday's results represent a perhaps irresistible temptation to overplay their hand and to delude themselves into believing their own hubris about a "mandate" and a "shift to the right" in the public at large. What the elections spell for the Democratic Party is more complex.
In my view, the elections spell the decline
of the Democratic Party's strategy of "triangulation," adopted as a defensive feint by the Clinton administration after the 1994 election. In the wake of Republicans taking control of the House and the Senate in that year, arch-spinmeister Dick Morris advised Clinton to co-opt —"triangulate"— parts of the Republican agenda in a defensive strategy to check the then-new Republican congressional majority from carrying out its hard-right agenda. (The 1994 House majority was elected, by the way, with the vote of about 19 percent of eligible voters — another "mandate" for the right!) While one can debate the merits of "triangulation" as a defensive strategy on the part of a sitting Democratic president maneuvering for some leverage under unfavorable circumstances, the dogged continuation of this strategy year after year ended up simply blurring most distinctions between the two major parties in the public eye.

Marc Garcelon, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology