We’re nearly six months away from the 2010 midterms, and the country is in a foul mood. “Democrats’ Long-Held Seats Face GOP Threat,” reported the New York Times last Sunday. “Both parties,” the article noted, “agree that Republicans are within reach of capturing the 40 additional seats needed to win control [of the house].” Long-serving members like David Obey (D-WI), chair of the mighty Appropriations Committee, and Earl Pomeroy (D-ND), North Dakota’s sole representative for nine terms, are suddenly facing tough re-election battles after years of cruising back into office. “Some election cycles are more challenging…than others. This should be in the range of challenging cycles,” said Pomeroy in a possible winner for understatement of the year.
What’s interesting is that just four years ago, the air was humming similarly, but back then the Republicans were the ones in trouble and the Democrats were the knights in shining armor. American political cycles have gotten more brutal lately; voters constantly feel the need to remind representatives that elected office, in the words of one of the rising Republican contenders, “is not a lifetime appointment.”
America has definitely entered an era of discontent. The most recent CBS/New York Times poll reports that 59 percent of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. Worries about a rising deficit and its long-term effects, the chosen issue of the Tea Partiers, are nonetheless pervasive. Traits that once seemed like boons to Americans—financial laissez faire and a penchant for risk-taking—have fast redefined themselves as liabilities. Immigration is a festering sore, and climate change is a source of never-ending polarization. Internationally, we have a rising China as a new economic and military competitor, Iraq is tenuously stable but bloody, and Afghanistan’s future is quite literally hanging in the balance this week. In the meantime, even old alliances—Israel, most publicly—seem to be in danger of fissuring.
With all of the gloom, it’s easy to forget that perennial bouts of anger and deep pessimism are not new phenomena in American life. Bleak-looking circumstances aren’t novel occurrences either. I always find it funny, for instance, when conservatives (and some liberals) point us back to the Constitutional Convention as the glory days of the republic. In point of fact, the 1780s were a nightmarish blend of mob actions and deep fear among the middle- and upper-classes that the country was headed toward anarchy. The Constitution, lodging unprecedented power in the national government, was a response to these fears. Essentially, it institutionalized discontent; if the people were unhappy with their leaders, they voted them out of office rather than taking to the streets.
All of which gets us back to the present Congress, whose Democratic members are busy wondering whether they’ll still be there this time next year. In a discouraging sign, Congress handily beats both the executive and judicial branches with a whopping 83 percent disapproval rating. It’s hard to imagine a group of people with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid at the helm accomplishing much in the PR department, but even by those standards the public is registering historically high levels of disgust.
This is thanks to two things. One, paradoxically, is liberal successes. The Republicans haven’t helped matters when it comes to portraying an image of congressional competence, but it was the Democrats’ year-long public battle for health-care reform that exposed the system with all its weaknesses to public view. Americans worried about the deficit, China, and terrorism are unlikely to be especially inspired by Ben Nelson holding up health care reform to garner special benefits for Nebraska. To supporters of the bill, Congress looks incompetent and, to its opponents, it looks corrupt.
The other reason that voters love to hate Congress is because it’s so easy. Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who has served in the House of Representatives since 1955, was right when he told Jon Stewart last week that when people don’t know who to blame, legislators are an easy target. “We’re a human institution,” he said, and human beings are flawed. In an electoral system which has, thankfully, institutionalized public anger, the easiest way for people to express their rage is in the ballot box against representatives serving a two-year term.
For all of the Democrats’ concerns, though, their fate is hardly sealed. If the economy bounces back, if Afghanistan turns around, or, as is looking likely this week at least, the Republicans dig their own grave, electoral prospects will change. The Republicans are currently filibustering a financial reform act on the rationale that it amounts to another potential bailout of big business. This is, to say the least, a non-sequitur and one that voters fed up with Wall Street are likely to notice. Public anger is both potent and unpredictable, and it’s a long six months till next November. These are facts that should give some amount of hope to struggling Democrats.