Last weekend, I got back home from a 3,600-mile solo drive that took me from Washington to Iowa, Iowa to Louisiana, and Louisiana back to D.C. I recommend the exercise. It’s a big and beautiful country. As my route took me through both Normal, Ill. (east of Peoria), and Peculiar, Mo. (south of Kansas City), it can be said that I went from Normal to Peculiar along the way. Last month, my travel milestone was going to North Dakota, my 50th state, a big deal to me and something that underscores the peculiar part.
During my August trip, most of my political conversations were in Iowa and Louisiana, but the content matched much of what I have heard from rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans for months. Pessimism about our country is pervasive.
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One of the more novel aspects of the political climate these days is that we seem to be missing the long-standing symmetry that usually exists in American politics between the two major parties.
Normally, if one party is happy, optimistic, or content, the other party can be expected to be the opposite: divided, discouraged, or pessimistic. But this is a peculiar time. It’s hard to find many people on either side of the partisan divide who feel particularly good about how or what their party is doing, and more than a little discontent is evident on both sides looking forward to 2012. The regularly binary nature of American politics usually works against this happening, but not now. It’s extraordinary to see both sides so discontent.
Just about any conversation with a Democrat these days — whether a rank-and-filer or political insider — reveals a real sense of disappointment with President Obama and how his administration has worked out. Nonetheless, it is a pretty safe assumption that Obama will receive 90-plus percent of the votes among self-described Democrats in next year’s general election (just as the Republican nominee will surely do the same among Republican-identifiers. Party cohesion rules: The variance between one election and the next of self-identified Democrats casting their ballots for the presidential nominee of their party and of Republicans doing the same just isn’t very great. There are rarely that many defectors, just as turnout doesn’t usually vary that much.
Sure, enthusiastic voters may line up to vote as soon as the polling places open or cast ballots early if that is possible because they can’t wait to vote or wear campaign buttons or put bumper stickers on their cars. Indeed, there are plenty of manifestations of enthusiasm not including giving money, but the fact is that turnout for presidential (as opposed to midterm) elections tends to be pretty high.
But when votes are counted, there is no weighting by enthusiasm of the person casting that ballot.
Today there are a lot of disillusioned Democrats and Republicans (and independents, too, but that’s a different issue). Not a day goes by that I don’t hear several Democrats bemoan how the president is doing. Nor does a day pass that I don’t hear a number of Republicans worry about where their party is headed, venting about what the GOP is doing on Capitol Hill or disparaging the current field of presidential hopefuls.
In the end, disillusion may not be less of a factor than disgust in next year’s election. Many Republicans may have little regard for their party’s contenders, but with Obama’s job-approval rating among them now down to 8 percent in the Gallup Poll, does anyone think that they will stay home or defect? Given how appalled most Democrats are at the tea party movement — not to mention the GOP presidential hopefuls — are that many likely to really stay home or vote Republican? The people who normally vote in presidential election years will probably vote again, with the number maybe dipping a bit, but not as much as one might think.
What the Obama White House and Democratic strategists ought to worry about are those 2008 surge votes, the ones the president got from people who don’t normally vote or who never had before 2008, particularly the younger and minority voters that were swept up in the Obama phenomenon. The question is, will they vote again? Unemployment is affecting them disproportionately, and it isn’t hard to see how those who were most caught up in his hope-and-change message could be now disillusioned by it.
But the fact that so much discontent exists in both parties is a sign of something deeply corrosive happening in this country. It isn’t just independent voters who have a derisive view of politics, elected officials, and public institutions. There is a growing sense that few good people are going into politics, and that many of those who are currently in office — people who are smart, experienced, and well-intentioned — are somehow neutralized, co-opted, or thwarted. A sense that institutions are failing, and no sense that they are being replaced with something that will succeed.
As I prepare to do another long road trip (this time as far south as North Carolina and then all the way up to the Canadian border), it’s doubtful that the messages I pick up along the way will be much different. It’s impossible to figure out where all of this is headed, but it does seem that the volatility and turbulence that we have seen in recent years is likely to continue. My hunch is that its focus will not be unilateral, targeting just one party. Many challengers will benefit, some wearing red jerseys and others blue. Many will win — just as challengers did in 2006, 2008, and 2010 — not because of who they are or what they stand for, but because of who they are not. And human nature being what it is, just as with the last three classes of freshmen, they may well misinterpret their election as a positive affirmation of everything they say and believe.
Or, maybe not.