Don’t Fret, Democrats: We Have Bigger Fish to Fry

George W. Bush called the 2006 midterm elections a
“thumpin’.” President Obama referred to 2010’s midterms as a “shellacking.”
Last Tuesday’s elections? They were just a good night for the Republican Party.

Republicans gained at least eight seats in the Senate and 12
seats in the House. They picked up important governors’ mansions and sealed
majorities in state capitals across the country. I am confident that this will
not be as important as many people are making it out to be. However, these
elections raise an important question: Why are Democrats so bad at winning
midterms, and what can we do to fix that?

First, let’s look at the Senate and what a Republican
majority means for the country. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be taking over from
Harry Reid (D-NV) as majority leader. More importantly, each of the committees
will now have Republican majorities and be controlled by Republican chairmen.
That gives Senate Republicans like John McCain (who will likely be the new Armed
Services Committee chairman) a taste of power and aura of control over policy that
they haven’t had for years.

What will this actually change for you and me? Not much. The
President still has the veto pen, and Senate Democrats still have the
filibuster, so we’re probably not going to see much legislation getting passed
that wouldn’t have been otherwise. The Democrats’ legislative agenda is just as stalled
as when the GOP only controlled the House. Republican committee chairmen will
have the power to hold hearings and generally antagonize the administration,
but not much else.

While last week’s Republican victories may not mean much
real action in Washington, their effect may be much more real in state capitals
across the country. Incumbents won across the board—Democrat and Republican—in
governor’s races and in fights for state legislature seats. Meanwhile, the
Republicans quietly took control of 11 legislative chambers previously held by
Democrats. In states where public sector unions, reproductive rights and
Medicaid expansion are big issues, this could mean much bigger changes than at
the federal level.

Back in Washington, any real change that comes about is
likely going to be thanks to President Obama. He is vigorously pursuing the
fight against ISIS in the Middle East and has already signaled his willingness
to move unilaterally on issues like immigration reform. He recently laid down
the law to House Speaker John Boehner: Pass a comprehensive immigration reform
bill by the end of the year, or I will issue an executive order. That is
exactly the right thing for President Obama to do—we have far too many people
in this country living and working in the shadows, and our immigration system
is outdated, unfair and bad economics.

If Republicans are smart, they will recognize that they have
a great opportunity to embrace diversity and pass a comprehensive immigration
reform bill this year. As Congressman David Dreier CM ’75 and his fellow
panelists pointed out during last week’s Dreier Roundtable at Claremont
McKenna, a party that simply demands deportation and refuses to compromise
cannot keep winning elections. The changing demographics of the country make
that impossible. 

However, it seems unlikely that Republicans will be willing to
work across the aisle and do that. More likely, they will wait until they are
in the majority to pass an unrealistic and uncompromising ‘reform’ bill, and
President Obama will be forced to take real action on immigration.

As you can see, Democrats still have the upper hand in a lot
of ways. Even so, it’s worth asking ourselves how we got into this mess.

It’s not a surprise that Democrats lost—the president’s
party is usually punished in midterms, especially in the president’s sixth year
in office. Political scientists call this the “six-year itch.” Gerrymandering
does not help. It means Republicans can win huge majorities in the House even
while losing the total popular vote. 

However, this month’s results surprised
many pundits and casual observers, most of whom did not predict just how big a
win it would be for the GOP. 

Democrats thought that we could apply 2012’s strategies to
midterm elections and turn out young and minority voters through digital
engagement and a good ground game. We were wrong. Voter turnout was the worst
it has been in 72 years, and it showed in the results.

The real problem this election points to—that most Americans
don’t think their vote will matter—will require a much deeper response. People
vote in presidential elections because we think they matter. They are about big
issues and big ideas. But the rest of the time, voters recognize (correctly, I
think) that our politics are broken and that politicians don’t pay attention to
their views but instead only to the wants of the wealthy donor class. Even
worse, Americans still feel like the economy is leaving them behind—because it
is. And they do not think Democrats can do anything to change that.

We need to act aggressively to show them that we can. But making
government actually serve the people it is supposed to represent should not just
be a Democratic issue. It should be a national issue. Only once we get money
out of politics, end gerrymandering and voter discrimination, and start working
for the people rather than for the wealthy few, can we truly have a democratic
society—let alone a Democratic one. 

Michael Irvine CM ’16 is a philosophy, politics and economics major and computer science minor from Falls Church, Va. He serves as Social Media Coordinator for the College Democrats of America and as Social Media Director for the Democrats of the Claremont Colleges. The views expressed in this column do not represent the views of these organizations. 

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