A political system on life support

The results of Tuesday's "earth shattering" election are quite revelatory, but not for the reasons bruited about by your average MSNBC/Fox/CNN vacuous pundit.

Although President Obama won't use the word—and bless him for it—it was a "shellacking" which the voters meted out to the Democratic Party. But let's examine this "mandate" a bit further.

The turnout for the midterm election stands at 36%, a low not seen since the 1940s. That's 36% of registered voters. Voter registration in its turn doesn't encompass all eligible voters. This Al Jazeera article has this telling paragraph:

Election turnout is often cited as an indicator of the strength of the mandate of winning candidates, but it can be a misleading statistic: Turnout is usually measured as a proportion of registered voters rather than of those eligible to vote — and census numbers show that more than 70 million U.S. citizens of voting age are not registered voters.

Get that? 70 million Americans who are eligible to vote aren't even registered. What does this mean? That the number of registered voters is at best a bare majority of eligible voters. And then that the voters who turned out were a minority of that number. And then that the GOP "landslide" depended on a further minority of registered voters, which in turn doesn't account for all eligible voters.

This opens up a veritable cornucopia of delicious dysfunction.

On one side we have the Democratic Party. Democrats are what I like to call "sexy voters": they only vote when the election is sexy. Thus they swamp the polls in presidential elections. This will almost ensure a Democratic successor to Pres. Obama in 2016.

The problem is that when the election isn't sexy—"Oh God, who cares about Congress/judges/school boards?"—Democrats are far less likely to turn out. Which leads to what happened Tuesday.

On the other side, we have the Republican Party. If there's one thing you can depend on Republicans doing is turning out to vote. There's one slight problem with that: they're dying off. GOP demographics trend older, male, and white—exactly the demographic going into rapid decline. Democratic voters are the ones who will own the future. But, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans, it doesn't reflect in who shows up at the polls for off-year elections. Thus, aside from the 2007-2011 interregnum, the GOP has had a chokehold on the House of Representatives since 1995, a grip which doesn't seem about to be loosened soon. (Because, remember, Democrats don't turn out for non-sexy elections, so the GOP death brigade decides state legislatures, which in turn decide Congressional redistricting. Funny how things mesh like that.)

What does this mean? This means that in 2016, if the pattern of the past two decades holds (because remember, in 2000 Al Gore won the popular vote, and in 2004 G. W. Bush scared the country sufficiently to win an election he should have lost), the Democratic nominee will win the Presidency, and Republicans, who will have to defend 20+ seats in the Senate to the Democrats' ten, will lose control of that body. However, in 2018, the coalition which propelled the Democrats to a third consecutive national triumph will most likely fail to show up at the polls. The excuses will be the same tired ones, centering around not "being inspired" to vote, as if the serious business of self-government is akin to a childhood crush. And the GOP will continue its grip on the House, and may make up ground in the Senate.

Thus the delicious death spiral continues. Republicans can't win national elections. Democrats can't—or rather, don't care to—win midterms. And the gridlock repeats into the distant future.

One can say many disparaging things about the US political system. But up until recently, the one thing it was was stable. Both parties were broad coalitions which sought to make deals across the ideological aisle. Ronald Reagan was saved not by values voters, but by Tip O'Neill.

But now in the Democrats we have a party which can't seem to win local elections. And in the Republicans we have a party which can't win national elections because it's seen as too extreme. So each party dominates one branch of government, in an infuriatingly unstable tango. The US political system has taken on the trappings of those unstable parliamentary systems at which we like to tut-tut. But at least those systems, for the most part, can function, even if messily. The World's Greatest Democracy™ has a political system awash in untraceable money, doing the bidding of silent corporations, unable to deal with the challenges facing it, lurching from one crisis to another. Democrats aside from Barack Obama don't know how to formulate a reason for voters to vote for them. Republicans are in thrall to Know-Nothings on the one hand, who provide the shock troops, and a cabal of the super wealthy who want to trim the state to nothingness. It doesn't make for a cheerful prospect.

But, of course, there is hope. Not for the Republicans; that party must fail root and branch, and its demographic demise is unavoidable. However, the Democratic Party has demography and history on its side. But that's not enough. It has to build the sort of grass roots movement at which Republicans have excelled. But Democrats can do an even better job of it, due to the demographic advantages they have. However, ultimately Democrats have to stop being ashamed of being Democrats. They have to get on the mass media and passionately defend Democratic ideas. They have to out-argue and out-shout the right wing demagogues. They have to meet fear with hope, division with inclusion, irrationality with reason. They can't back down, but have to be as in-your-face as the most reactionary Republican, with the difference that they have a better argument. Democrats have to take the "kick me" sign off of their asses and glue it firmly to the GOP. Democrats have to, as the kids say, "grow a pair", not in some fake, macho way the way the GOP does, but show that they passionately believe in their ideas, and will tirelessly promote them.

Liberal ballot propositions won all across the country on Tuesday, from marijuana to the minimum wage. Democrats didn't. That should tell the Democratic Party something. Liberal ideas resonate with the public. It would be nice if there was a party which could embody and fight for those ideas. That is the party's task for the next two years. Otherwise, the future looks very grim.