The recent midterm elections do not give us grounds for confidence in our country’s future. Too much money, too few voters, too much cultural division, too much mistrust.
Mistrust seems to be both a cause and a result of the bad trends. We are in a vicious circle. When politicians think that votes can be bought as commercial commodity, they spend a lot of money. Al Franken spent $30 million to be only one of 100 people in a deliberative body. He will not be a leader. His party will be in the minority. His vote will not make any great difference on any issue. True, his voice might count for good. He could be leader on certain issues. But $30 million spent to get that position is a lot of money that could have spent on food for the hungry or scholarships. The same could be said for the money spent to re-elect and un-elect Rick Nolan in the 8th congressional district. A lot of money spent to what end? What do those with all that money to spend want to buy?
Nationally, nearly $4 billion was spent to hold or to win office this past election. If we as a people are truly up for sale as the pliable objects of marketing campaigns, how can we be trusted to do the right thing for the country?
Voter participation in Minnesota was credible, but not outstanding. Nationally only 36.4% of eligible voters turned out to select candidates. Our country’s democratic destiny was controlled by a minority. Too many Americans are no more than casual rulers of our democracy. They are on-again, off-again, intermittent voters who lack passion and don’t trust politicians.
Less than one third of young Americans believe that running for office is honorable. Two-thirds are convinced that politicians mostly go into public service for selfish reasons. That does not auger well for the quality of our future leadership from townships to the presidency. The millennial vote is sliding from a margin of 13 percent more Democratic in 2008, to 9 percent in 2012 and only 7 percent in 2014.
In line with the culture of distrust, we have the current network sit-tragedies about our politics: The Good Wife, Scandal, Madame Secretary. The scripts of these popular shows do little to show politics as honorable service.
The two major parties in the Congress each represent a small minority of Americans — each supported by more or less only 20% of eligible voters. Why should either of these two minorities, factions really, be trusted with power? Who do they propose to serve in office? All of us or just some of us? The elections exposed continuing social and cultural trends dividing us into different tribes.
First, we have the tribe that shows up to vote in presidential elections, which skews young, minority, female and inner city and tends to elect Democrats. Then we have the tribe that shows up to turn mid-term elections in its favor, which is smaller than the first tribe and disproportionately white, male and older.
In Minnesota, the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives by winning 11 rural districts. The state is now pretty much divided into rural and outstate city districts of hard core “Red” thinking voters and other inner city and suburban districts of hard core “Blue” thinking voters. Electoral districts are culturally homogenous and so only politically competitive within the dominant party’s candidate selection process. Culturally, there are now two Minnesotas. On what terms will they agree to work together? Do they have a common destiny?
Tribalism rarely leads to prosperity and goodwill towards others. Consider the historic record of ethnic and religious rivalries — Sunni/Shi’a, Irish Catholic/Protestant Unionist, Russia/Ukraine, Israelis/Palestinians, French/German, Scot/English, Spanish/Catalan, etc. Tribalism undermines trust making cooperation impossible.
So money, indifference and tribal separation are eating away at the quantity of trust we Americans have in one another. Then as trust erodes, indifference to and alienation from others who are different intensifies. More and more money is needed to pull voters to the polls. Advertising based on tribal fears and totems, basely though effectively, motivates voters. More distrust results. The vicious cycle continues year in and year out to degrade our politics.
I recently saw a list of 10 alleged “Blue” superstitions. They include cultural icons like “spending more money improves education”, “raising the minimum wage helps the poor”, “genetically modified food is dangerous”, “voter ID laws suppress minority turnout”. There are also “Red” superstitions like: “Muslims are a threat”, “government spending is a waste of money”, “low taxes promote growth”, “too many Americans are just takers and not makers”, “climate change is an overblown danger”, “military intervention solves problems”, “nation-building is a fool’s errand.” A politics of mistrust plays to all such superstitions as if they were truths. Thus we get confused between truth and myth and feel insecure and don’t know who or what to trust.
This is why the condescension and elitism of MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, which has just come to light and is lighting up conservative passions over Obamacare, is so harmful to us all. His truthful acknowledgment that Obamacare was promoted with falsehoods through a lack of transparency to take advantage of the “stupidity of the American voter” is icing on the cake of our failed political leadership. They do not trust the people. They do not trust each other. Their lives play out midst smoke and mirrors, within illusions and delusions of power and self-promotion. It is too much about spin, which is rooted in exploiting others prejudices.
If there is less and less trust in our politics, then candidates and public officials will be more and more reluctant to assume responsibility for hard choices and to assert the frankness, both of which build trust. The less responsible and less frank they become, the less they will deserve our trust and the less we will trust them.
It is not a pretty picture at all.