Like everyone else I know, I've been trying to interpret the mass annihilation of Democrats in the elections that just took place. I have no particular expertise to apply, and in any case the data we need to test our hypotheses aren't available yet. Right now, it’s all speculation.
First, let’s agree on the facts. (1) At the national level the Democrats got creamed. Their losses in the senate, when this is all over, will prove to be even greater than their most pessimistic pollsters imagined. Even their victories, like Warner’s squeaker in Virginia (if it holds up), were signs of collapse. And they got further clobbered in the House. (2) Governorships and state legislatures went decisively Republican, with few exceptions. This was a red tide all the way down. (3) Turnout was low, but even where it wasn't (Colorado), it didn't make a significant difference.
Now for some hypotheses.
1. This was the biggest-spending nonpresidential election the country has ever seen, and a large proportion of the total was anonymous and unaccountable to anyone except political strategists. There was wall-to-wall TV advertising in October. My browser was popping with political ads for a state senate race that wasn't even in my district. (Hey, don’t these guys know about zip codes?) The bulk of the money was Republican, but of course we don’t know how effective all this spending actually was. While I’m sympathetic to this howl of outrage by Jeffery Sachs, I think it’s premature to conclude that money was a big factor. Look for a wave of research (and “research”) conducted by and for political operatives trying to convince donors to pump in even bigger bucks the next time around.
2. It was also an election of fear. Polls have shown an obsession with ISIS and Ebola that can only be described as paranoia. I’m not saying that there aren't nasty paramilitary groups around the world or scary diseases, just that the current moment isn't actually scarier overall than others we've lived through, but a substantial portion of the public is convinced that we are staring at the face of Armageddon. This was perhaps the main theme of late-campaign advertising and messaging, no doubt driven by the widespread belief that fear activates mental processes favorable to conservatism. Whether that was a meaningful factor in the rout remains to be determined, however.
3. It was a scream of anger directed at Barack Obama, personally. The intensity of this hatred is in about the same range as we saw with Bush Junior during the late stages of his presidency, but the causes are different. With Bush it was above all the catastrophe of the Iraq invasion and the nonchalant dishonesty with which it was peddled, as well as the perception that his ignorance and lack of interest in the hard work of governance was revealed in the botched response to Hurricane Katrina. To put it bluntly, he came across as an overly entitled frat boy, an easy target as it turned out. With Obama it’s a little more complicated. To begin, we can’t overlook the fact that hatred of Obama is largely a white phenomenon. White people hating a black guy has to have a racial element. Here’s a very speculative reading: Obama is a professional talker. He has given us years of smooth talk about making government work for us, supporting the middle class, and managing international conflicts prudently and professionally. But the reality has been a steadily declining median income, a lack of visible success in government programs, and continuing global chaos. In the case of ACA/Obamacare, first there was the disaster of the website meltdown, which John Judis, based on polling data, describes as Obama’s Katrina, and then, due to the complexity of the program, the delay (at best) in the impact on health care utilization. (How many voters have benefited yet from ACA in the form of actually getting health care they needed, reducing their medical spending, and not being enslaved to health insurance benefits when deciding what job to take or stay in? This might kick in over time, and perhaps ACA will be given some credit for the decline in health cost inflation, but we’re not there yet.) What I’m getting to is this: there’s a big gap between Obama’s rhetoric and the results on the ground, and this plays into a racial stereotype, the jiving black guy. The performance of Obama explains a general disillusionment with what his wing of the Democratic party has come to represent, but the racial element explains the hatred. It’s interesting that Obama has gotten trapped in this bind; clearly much of his original appeal was based on his being able to convince voters that even though he was black he wasn't angry or militant or anything like that. And that’s still the case. But he waltzed into a different, but just as toxic, racial stereotype, and since it’s based on not believing anything the man says any more, there’s nothing he can say to defuse it. Worse, it tarred the entire party in the eyes of many white voters, since they suspected all along that the Democrats had become the party of those people, and now they knew it for sure. In this context, it’s interesting that a fourth of Republican voters voiced displeasure with their own party in the exit polls, but they hated Obama and the Democrats more.
4. There’s no sign that the electorate shifted to the right on substantive political issues. In fact, the evidence from referenda around the country, on marijuana, guns, abortion, and the minimum wage, is that, if anything, the swing is moderately to the left. This election played out on ideological and cultural stereotypes.
5. Blaming the election results on low turnout is a distraction: turnout is, as we like to say, endogenous. The voters Democrats depend on, younger, lower-income, nonwhite, weren't motivated, as they often aren't. I think it’s presumptive to claim that their lack of interest is a technical problem to be solved by better outreach and mobilization. No doubt more accurate targeting and so on can play a role, but surely the biggest element is that, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats don’t stand for anything their base is likely to get motivated about. Worse, in power Democrats do stand for principles (privatizing education and more liberal and lucrative finance, to mention just two) that are anathema to large parts of their base. It is not an exaggeration to say, as Arun Gupta does, that “it’s time to rethink this notion that Democrats lack principles. They have a clear agenda and are actually more ideological than Republicans. Democrats like Obama are willing to lose power to carry out the neoliberal agenda.”
To repeat, all of this is simply speculation. These are hypotheses that can and hopefully will be put to empirical tests. I especially hope we will have some experimental evidence on the racial dimension of Obama-loathing, since we’d be a lot better off as a society if we could talk about this stuff openly and honestly. Oh, and we need a programmatic political movement with a post-neoliberal vision and agenda.