We just witnessed a pivotal moment of revenge in our democracy, a mass withdrawal of the consent of the governed. Don’t confuse Tuesday’s rout with what happened in 2010. This wasn’t about lapping up a conservative agenda. There was no Pledge to America this time. In fact, the only real agenda was the one pushed by the losers and rejected by voters. This was about revoking permission and getting some payback. The question is why? Were we unhappy because we didn’t like what we were getting, or because we weren’t getting enough?
Consent of the governed turns to revenge
Did our response last Tuesday mean America has finally rejected Obama and embraced the GOP? Hardly.
Barack Obama had a startling moment of clarity in a press conference the day after the midterm bloodbath. Looking ahead to what will likely be a grim, isolated two years, he said of the people:
They expect us to focus on their ambitions and not ours.¹
The Obama presidency has brushed dangerously close to autocracy and yes, benevolent dictatorship in pursuit of policies it insists the people agree with. The refugee protests in Murrieta, California last summer should have been a stark wake-up to Obama’s party that we were feeling less than agreeable (see: Angry Americans Can Create Real Change). Those on the right were angry. Americans on the left weren’t getting what they wanted. Favored special interests relied too heavily on shady executive action and that meant an outcry when presidential orders failed to materialize. Too bad for Democrats. They backed away from their hapless leader too late to save themselves.
Bizarre outcomes in a stricken state
It would be difficult to find a better example of this curious political revenge than what happened in a notoriously blue state. How could Illinois voters reject a Democratic governor while keeping Dick Durbin in office and approving ballot measures to raise the minimum wage and whack millionaires with a tax increase? Voters even said yes to a huge Republican sticking point, mandatory contraceptive coverage, while they were casting votes to put a conservative in the governor’s mansion.
Illinois residents revoked their consent to be governed by Pat Quinn while asking for new laws guaranteed to be opposed by the right and at odds with the new governor-elect’s agenda. In a state with a Democratic supermajority, approving these liberal initiatives is more than likely. What were voters saying and what do they really want? Obviously not a governor with a terrible approval rating despite his efforts to give away the ranch.
Is greed the problem? Did Democrats not do enough?
Did the GOP win the consent of the governed, or did Republicans get lucky because Obama’s troops didn’t? The president’s approval rating is embarrassing, but at less than half of our commander-in-chief’s numbers the judgment on Congress is worse than abysmal. It’s a miracle lawmakers haven’t been run out of town.
What happened to all those policies Obama told us we wanted? Washington never delivered. Illinois gave a resounding yes to liberal ballot initiatives like raising the minimum wage. Either voters who turned on Quinn didn’t know what they voted for or they were angry that these measures hadn’t already been passed and were out for revenge. The people weren’t getting what they wanted and when the people are unhappy politicians lose their jobs. Across the nation the phrase “working families” was tossed about ad nauseam, but those doing all the talking have not done much to make working families’ lives better. You may be used to voting blue, but when things aren’t working out turning red is worth a shot.
Let’s see what happens when and if the GOP starts to live up to its words and takes a scalpel to the federal budget. John Boehner has already set the tone, discussing his GOP roadmap for the new Congress:
It calls for fixing our tax code, solving our spending problem, reforming our legal system, reforming our regulatory system, and improving our education system.²
Was he right when he said:
Republicans have made these our priorities by listening to the people we take an oath to serve.³
We’ve been here before. Only time will tell whether Boehner and Mitch McConnell’s priorities satisfy an electorate that was out for blood and may not like who and what they voted in. For the moment, Republicans should think hard before they get too cocky about what they just accomplished. It might not have much to do with them.