Per Tom Brokaw, the voter quote above wins my soundbite award for this election. As for the returns, several individual results were somewhat surprising, but as most pundits and polls predicted the Republicans recaptured control of the House but failed to win enough seats for a majority in the Senate. Ho hum.
Herewith, some random thoughts on voting and democracy.
If you voted, good for you. It made no difference in terms of outcome to any congressional or statewide race, but if it makes you feel virtuous for doing your so-called civic duty, then you got value for the inconvenience. In that regard, voting is not unlike purchasing a lottery ticket: the odds are overwhelmingly against your receiving any material benefit, but at least you can enjoy a bit of hope, however fleetingly.
It never ceases to surprise me how many people consider voting to be not only a politically and morally virtuous act, which in the first case is probably false and in the second case is almost certainly false, but an intrinsically good thing. Which is absurd.
If you believe in popular sovereignty or favor representative democracy, even if only because you think it the least evil form of government, then voting constitutes some tacit buy-in of the social contract its advocates keep hoping to legitimize. If you believe in the primacy of individual sovereignty, however, and think agreeing to the social contract requires considerably more, or if you are inclined to agree with H.L. Mencken that democracy is the worship of jackals by jackasses, then declining the opportunity to exercise your franchise can be reasonably construed as a positive act; namely, the act of positively abstaining and refusing to lend your support to whatever the results may be.
This argument falls on deaf ears, however, among much of the hoi polloi whose imprinted belief in “our sacred right to vote” back in grade school is as “reality based” as Lorenz’s ducklings imprinting on a beach ball they mistake for their mother. “But what if everyone refused to vote?” one invariably hears. To which the answers in no particular order of importance are (1) they won’t, (2) most already do anyway, and (3) maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe that’s what is needed to shake up the status quo, because nothing more than just another election ain’t going to do it.
Of course, you may approve of the status quo or wish only that it be tweaked this way or that.
The chattering classes are all abuzz now over what the impact of the so-called Tea Party Republicans will be. That’s easy. Zero. Or, like a function approaching its limit, so close to zero that the difference is insignificant. Tea Party Republicans may have made the difference in giving control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans at large, but Republicans at large are not Tea Party Republicans. More to the point, if history is any guide at all, at least some of these reform seeking firebrands will come to Washington intending to do good but will end up staying in Washington to do well. (Does anyone know how many elected officials signed the 1994 Contract With America and actually kept its term limits pledge?)
The 2010 elections do not signal a change in human nature, nor do the Tea Party rallies give any indication of constituting a sufficient groundswell of political clout to alter the average politician’s correct appraisal of what the average voter wants. Namely, unlimited government benefits and services paid for by someone else. So, yes, the election pretty much ensures that the “Bush tax cuts,” due to expire on January 1st, will be extended, at least for all but what Obama calls the wealthiest two percent of the population. But, Obama aside, the odds were very good that this would have happened even in a Democrat controlled Congress. A population enthralled by economic fears bordering on panic (so strong, in fact, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t even a campaign issue) would not react kindly to what they would correctly perceive as an increase in their tax burden.
Mind you, I agree entirely with the resurgent cries that the federal deficit isn’t a revenue problem but a spending problem. That said, what’s going to get cut? My prediction, though I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, is that Congress will be unwilling or unable to cut even the most superfluous federal programs and agencies. For example, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities immediately spring to mind here, as does federal funding for public television and radio. All combined these constitute chump change in the federal budget, and yet each of them is both obviously expendable and just as obviously not going to be eliminated. If you’re struggling to pay your other bills, maybe it’s time to cancel the cable TV service, you know?
It also needs to be said that to the extent that the Tea Partiers have described themselves or their opposition or the media has described them as libertarians, libertarianism has suffered even more misunderstanding. Yes, on an issue by issue basis it may well be that, at least for now, the victorious Tea Party cum Republican candidates are espousing some economic issues with which most libertarians would agree. But it was never difficult to find mainstream Republicans who gave at least lip service to limited government and economic libertarianism, just as it was never difficult to find mainstream Democrats who gave at least lip service to social and civil libertarianism.
With the arguable exception of Rand Paul, however, you’d be hard pressed to find many newly elected members of the incoming Congress who genuinely embrace both social and economic libertarianism. (Moreover, Paul looks to be a man who won’t manage to keep his mouth shut on politically pointless but emotionally charged ideological axe grinding. He may therefore end up single-handedly doing more harm to public acceptance of libertarianism than — gasp! — even the Libertarian Party has managed to do.)
Color me unimpressed. As usual. Still, there’s at least some good news to report. This election being over, we can all, even if only for a little while, safely turn on the television and answer the phone again.