10 reflections on the new Congress

Cartoon: David Fitzsimmons, The Arizona Star

By Marty Rochester

I teach political science. Although political science is not yet so scientific that we wear white lab coats to class, we can safely make a few observations and predictions. 

What can we say with some degree of certainty about the recent U.S. midterm elections that produced the 114th Congress, other than the fact that the Democrats saw red, as the GOP won big in not only the Republican-dominated Red states but also the Democratic-dominated Blue states? 

1. The electorate remains very cynical toward Washington, demonstrated by a near-record low turnout in November. Although biennial midterm elections always attract far fewer voters than the presidential elections every four years, apathy was especially evident this time. Just over one-third of the eligible voters went to the polls, the lowest turnout in a midterm election since 1942 during World War II. The 83 million people who bothered to vote barely exceeded the number who had watched the final episode of “Cheers.” 

Distrust of the federal government has reached an all-time high. In 1964, 75 percent of the public said in opinion surveys that they “trusted their government to do the right thing”; today only 20 percent believe such. Cynicism is likely to continue.


2. Although there is lack of confidence in government integrity and competence, many groups are making increasing demands on government for all kinds of services as part of a growing entitlement culture. Out of one side of its mouth, the public complains about taxes and “Big Government”; out of the other side, it is fueling a relentless expansion of the welfare state in health care, education  and other areas. 

During last year’s campaign, the candidates could be seen talking out of both sides of their mouths almost as much as the public, promising free lunches even as they railed against “waste and spending.” 

3. The only thing more certain than death and taxes is government spending increases, as the federal   budget inexorably keeps climbing. It took about 200 years for the annual budget to reach the trillion dollar mark, in 1986; in just 30 years since, it is approaching $4 trillion. Although national security accounts for 20 percent of the total, there are pressures to cut defense spending as welfare costs rise.

4. Both parties are guilty of pandering to various constituencies. 

The Republicans pander to “Big Business,” attracting the votes of corporate elites and the wealthy through tax breaks (57 percent of voters making over $100,000 cast ballots for the GOP in the midterm elections). 

The Democrats promise lots of goodies for other groups – attracting the 

votes of labor union members, by supporting job security for teachers, a higher minimum wage for fast-food workers, and other working-class benefits (60 percent of labor unionists voted Democratic in the midterms); minorities,by supporting amnesty for illegal aliens (64 percent of Hispanics voted Democratic) and increased welfare assistance and affirmative action for African-Americans (90 percent of whom voted Democratic); and young people, by defraying college costs through loans or grants and offering other perks (55 percent of 18-29 year olds voted Democratic). 

The GOP was clearly favored by white voters (getting almost 60 percent of the white vote), especially white men. Democrats accused the GOP of “a war on women” and won 53 percent of the women’s vote overall, while the GOP represented men in the battle of the sexes and received 55 percent of all male votes. 

5. Demographics favor the Democrats, since women outnumber men, Hispanics are a growing ethnic group in the population, and young people overwhelmingly identify as Democrats, not only for the goodies they hope to get but also because of their support for diversity and other social issues the Democratic Party is seen as standing for. 

Young people may hold the key to the 2016 election because, if they stay home in large numbers as they did in 2014, the GOP may well win the White House, while a strong turnout could turn the tide for the Democrats. The GOP will probably have to change some of its policy positions if it hopes to win national office. 

6. As usual, Jews, despite being among the wealthiest groups in America, continue to support the populist party, favoring the Democrats 2-1 last November. If the number of Jews keeps shrinking, their party affiliation will matter less and less.

7. Midterm elections almost always result in a loss of congressional seats for the president’s party. Still, the November elections were especially devastating to the Democrats, suggesting major dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s performance. When Obama first took office in 2008, the Democrats had 59 U.S. senators and 256 members of the House of Representatives, controlling both houses of Congress. They now have lost control of both, with only 44 senators and 188 congressmen.

8. Once again, we have divided government, with one party controlling the executive branch and another party controlling the legislative branch. If we complained about gridlock and dysfunction in Washington before the midterm elections, we likely can expect at least as much, if not more, over the next two years. 

Although the left likes to blame the GOP for obstructionism (I recall a Harvard professor talking of “asymmetrical polarization,” with conservative Tea Party extremists being the main culprits) while the right blames the Democrats (hear Ted Cruz talk about Harry Reid), the fact is both parties have shown an unwillingness to compromise. 

One ray of hope is that the GOP ran some more moderately conservative candidates this time, while liberal Democrats may feel sufficiently chastened by the election results to act more responsibly as well. 

9. The public complained bitterly about the negative ads run by politicians during the 2014 campaign. But the latter would never have spent $4 billion on trash-talking – the most expensive midterms in history – if they did not think it would resonate with the public. Sadly, complete honesty and civility rarely work in politics. 

10. We may get the government we deserve. 

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.