November 14, 2010


The 2010 Verdict (James Ceaser, 11/13/10, RCP)

There was accordingly an additional factor that played in this election outcome that was hardly noted or tested in the polls. It was a cultural clash between an elite and much of the public, between liberal intellectuals and the Obama administration on the one hand and the mass of Tea party activists on the other. The one has shown disdain and the other has responded with resentment. It is impossible, then, not to say that the person of Barack Obama was a major factor in this election, for when he was not himself the leader he became the frequent enabler of this dismissal of middle America. That Obama would have to descend from the lofty heights that he inhabited during the campaign and after his election was something that no sane observer, and no doubt Obama himself, could fail to have foreseen. But this loss of bloated charisma has never been the real problem. It has instead been his demeanor as president. Obama modeled himself on Abraham Lincoln, and it is painful in retrospect to draw the contrast in how they have behaved. One showed humility, the other arrogance; one practiced sincerity, the other hypocrisy; one made efforts at cultivating unity, the other seemed to delight at encouraging division: and one succeeded in becoming more and more a man of the people, while the other, despite his harsh populist appeals, has grown more distant.

Elections in America serve two functions-- a "formal" function of filling the personnel for the constitutional offices, which takes place in every election, and an "informal" function of signaling what the people want, which takes place in a meaningful way only in certain elections, where national public sentiment has congealed on a common message or theme. The situation in Washington now reflects a conflict stemming from the results of these two functions. On the formal side, the array of forces puts neither party in full control. Democrats hold the presidency, Republicans will now firmly control the House, and the senate appears likely to swing in ways no one can now foresee. The Democrats, who now derive their power from this formal situation and rely on officials chosen in elections conducted two and four years ago, will emphasize the constitutional authority of the offices. They represent for the moment the conservative position. On the informal side, Republicans claim not just their seats and numbers in Congress, but the weight and power of the majority as expressed in the clear and powerful message delivered on election day. This claim cannot, of course, cancel the formal array of power--we are a nation governed by laws and institutions--but there is nothing amiss in reminding those in offices that they cannot stray too far for too long from the wishes of the majority without straining the fabric of authority in a democratic system. The informal function, while it should not be overvalued, should not be undervalued, either.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 14, 2010 5:58 AM
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