Among liberals and progressives the recent election results have caused much weeping, gnashing of teeth, and rending of garments. Republicans and Tea Partiers gained 61 seats in the House of Representatives and 6 seats in the Senate as well as several governorships. Some commentators referred to the results as a Republican tsunami, a triumph of conservative principles of less government and more individual freedom over the big, socialistic programs of the Obama Administration and the Democrats. There is another way of looking at the results that is not so complimentary to the Republicans, or the Democrats and voters either. When one considers that about 130 million people voted in the election of 2008 and only 75 million voted in 2010, the results look less like a tidal wave and more like a pond drying up in a depressing dust storm of discontent. 55 million voters stayed home. The Republicans and Tea Party stirred up more voter enthusiasm than the Democrats did but the voters, according to many polls, did not like either major party. Among all persons polled, not just likely voters, both Republicans and Democrats had approval ratings in the low 20s. The fact that 55 million voters stayed home may be more significant than the enthusiasm margin generated by the Tea Party and other conservatives among the 75 million that did vote.
And what of the Tea Party? Three of their most conspicuous candidates, Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, Sharon Angle of Nevada, and Carl Paladino of New York, lost by convincing margins. Some pundits have opined that their positions were just too bizarre or offensive for the voters to support. Yet each of them received over 30% of the vote in their respective states and Angle only lost by about 5-10%. Their positions were not too bizarre for voters in other states as one can see if one just inspects a list of positions taken by five Tea Party candidates who won. They are: Sandy Adams of Florida, Tim Griffin of Arkansas, Allen West of Florida, Raul Labrador of Idaho and Alan Nunnelee of Mississippi. In no particular order some of their stated positions are: anti evolution, anti abortion, anti Sharia Law, pro repeal of the 16th and 17th amendments, pro abolition of the Departments of Energy and Education, pro privatization of Social Security and Medicare, pro repeal of the Health Care Reform package they call Obamacare, pro withdrawal from the UN, pro return to the Gold Standard, anti enforcement of gun control laws, anti enforcement of civil rights laws, and pro prohibiting Muslims to build a mosque anywhere in the USA. Such a collection of attitudes constitutes the dust storm to which I referred earlier. Add to this a Bloomberg poll two weeks before the election that showed that two thirds of likely voters believed that middle class taxes had actually gone up during the Obama administration, that the economy is still contracting and that all the TARP money is permanently gone. I believe that the facts show that the middle class enjoyed a tax cut, that the economy has grown steadily though slowly for five straight quarters, and that most of the TARP money has been paid back and the projection is that all of it will be paid back with interest. The government will actually make money on the deal. With the Republican and Tea Party segments of the electorate and their candidates so misinformed and set in their ways, more real data and argument are unlikely to change their minds.
So what are we to do? In medical school I learned that one must make an accurate diagnosis before one knows what to do for a patient. Though the mainstream press is apparently reluctant to say so, I think that our recent election results suggest that the American electorate is lazy, not too bright, and easily fooled. This is not a unique nor recent concept. Alexander Hamilton reportedly told Thomas Jefferson, “Your people, sir, are a beast.” Congress, as would be expected of a bunch put in office by such an electorate, has a disappointingly large number of members who are pretty dishonest, easy to bribe, and maybe not too smart either. Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma has recently said that he thinks that Global Warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind. He was returned to office. In the same election the folks in Oklahoma passed a proposition prohibiting judges from considering Sharia or foreign laws in any cases before them. This had not been demonstrated to be a problem there or anywhere else in America, but the proposition carried handily. Neither the Senator nor his voters bring much credit to Homo Sapiens. In fact, their relationship to this term seems downright oxymoronic.
We are in a pickle. Recent research in psychology indicates that most people tend to believe the very first thing that they hear about a subject, as long as what they hear does not obviously conflict with other facts that they already know or believe to be true. When presented with subsequent information that conflicts with what they first heard, many if not most people will use their skills in argument to defend what they heard first, not to investigate the problem critically and perhaps change their minds. Equally disturbing is the finding that many people hold firm opinions about subjects about which they actually know very little. Evolution and Global Warming are examples. These same thoroughly convinced but rather ignorant folks also have more of a tendency to rate their knowledge of the subject in question highly compared to those who actually know a lot more, appreciate complexity, and therefore might have a more nuanced opinion. George Bernard Shaw noted this specific characteristic of humanity when he observed that it was a shame that ignorant people were often so certain and that the truly knowledgeable were often so uncertain in their views. The ignorant but certain invite pandering which is willingly supplied by many, unfortunately successful, politicians. H. L. Mencken pointed this out when he wrote that for every complex problem there is a simple, easy to understand, wrong solution. Republicans generally ran on the ideas of cutting taxes, cutting spending, reducing the deficit, reducing regulations, opposition to unions, and repealing Obamacare. In the last two years they opposed anything that President Obama proposed. They were not specific about where they would cut spending and neither are the voters who are for “cutting spending.” An article in the Nov. 18 Los Angeles Times showed that while over 40% of voters wanted to cut spending, any specific proposal for spending cuts was not supported by more than 20% of people polled. The Republicans and Tea Partiers did not explain how cutting taxes would reduce the deficit since they can’t specify spending cuts to go along with reduced revenues, didn’t acknowledge that the banking crisis was actually in large part due to a failure to regulate properly, seemed to ignore the historical evidence that unions, for better or worse usually act to preserve jobs, and offered no program to cover all the 30 million presently uninsured people who will eventually be covered by the health care reform bill. They have had two years to offer such proposals. The psychological observations cited above suggest that most of the folks voting Republican and Tea Party in this election will not change their mind about any of the above issues no matter what. Stephen Colbert described this best when he said of George Bush that he would believe the same thing on Wednesday that he believed on Monday no matter what happened on Tuesday.
What about 2012? Will the 75 million stay-at-homes return to the voting booth? We don’t know but they must be stimulated to do so. Generally elections are won by the party that inspires its base, not by persuading those who disagree with you to change their minds. A further particularly disturbing statistic is that only 7% of the 18-29 demographic voted in 2010. This was the only demographic in 2008 where President Obama won a majority of the white vote. Maybe racism has not been completely overcome either.