Government and Politics


US Update

Edward Ashbee puts the 2010 mid-term elections in context.

The Republican Party made major gains in the 2010 mid-term elections. It secured a majority in the House of Representatives and gained seats from the Democrats in the Senate elections. Although Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, beat off a challenge from a Republican candidate closely associated with the Tea Party movement, there is little doubt that President Obama faces major difficulties. There is now no hope for legislation that would add to the powers of government. Furthermore, the Republicans may use their control of the House to intensify oversight of the White House. Given the differences between the parties, there is little scope for compromise. (The results of the 2010 mid-term elections are the subject of a forthcoming article in Vol. 20, No. 4, April 2011.)

A ‘wave election’

‘Tip’ O’Neill, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, once said in a celebrated comment that ‘all politics is local’. He was thinking in large part of Congressional elections, which have traditionally been focused on issues that are important to a particular state or district. When seats were lost, it was usually because of local issues or concerns about a particular candidate.

There are however important exceptions to O’Neill’s dictum. Indeed, some would argue that it has lost much of its former relevance. Increasingly, there are ‘wave elections’. These are driven by national rather than local concerns. Although there will be variations, there is a clear national swing from one party to another.

Three recent Congressional elections have, in particular, had a wave character. In 1994, widespread distrust of President Bill Clinton and the Congressional Democrats created a Republican tide that gave the party majorities in both chambers. In 2006, there was a Democratic tide. And in 2010, just 2 years after losing the presidential election to Barack Obama, the Republicans regained a majority in the House of Representatives and made significant gains in the Senate on the basis of widespread antipathy towards the Obama administration and the Democrats on Capitol Hill.


It is difficult to be sure why there are wave elections. Part of the answer is that the emergence and growth of cable news networks (and perhaps the internet) has ‘nationalised’ political debate. There has also been growing polarisation, at least among committed activists. Everything else, including state and district concerns, has been subsumed by the battle between conservatives and those on the left. For a significant minority, President George W. Bush’s policies served only corporate interests. He had, it was said, ruthlessly exploited the anxieties created by the 11 September attacks. Similarly, President Obama has faced vitriolic abuse from those who question whether he is constitutionally entitled to be president, believe that he is fundamentally ‘anti-American’, or assert that he is a dedicated socialist or black nationalist.

2008 and 2010

The 2010 mid-term elections require further explanation beyond this. Just 2 years previously, Barack Obama won the presidency and the Congressional Democrats increased their majorities amid claims that there had been a process of realignment. The term ‘realignment’ suggests that for a prolonged period, and commentators are usually thinking of about 30 or 40 years, one of the two major American parties has secured predominance while the other party has been reduced to a subordinate status. From this perspective, the Democrats were the dominant party between the early 1930s and the late 1960s. They won most elections and set the political agenda for much of the period. Then, in the decades that followed, the Republicans appeared (although the evidence was sometimes rather patchy) to be the dominant party. The Democrats’ victories in 2006 and 2008 had, pundits argued, ushered in a long period of Democratic Party dominance.

This was explained, at least in part, by pointing to demographic trends. The USA was changing in character. By about 2050, there would be a non-white majority. In particular, Latinos and, to a lesser extent, Asian-Americans were growing as a proportion of the US population. Like African-Americans, these groupings leant (although not to the same degree) to the Democrats. Furthermore, at the same time, there were increasing numbers of highly-skilled professionals (who had advanced educational qualifications). They also voted disproportionately for the Democrats.

Against this background, some spoke of the ‘coming Democratic majority’. In May 2009, James Carville, an influential Democratic Party strategist who had masterminded Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, published a book entitled 40 More Years: How Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. For much of 2009, the Republicans’ bitter opposition to the Obama White House and the conservative movement’s embrace of controversial figures such as the Fox News commentator, Glenn Beck, seemed to suggest that the party was in its death-throes.

Republican resurgence

All these claims were misjudgements. By early 2010, it had become clear that there was a popular shifting of opinion against the Obama administration and the Congressional Democrats. Why was there a Republican comeback?

There was a clash between rhetoric and reality. In 2008, President Obama won the Democratic Party primaries against Hillary Clinton and the general election against John McCain amid soaring rhetoric. He invoked change, talked of morality as much as politics, and promised to rise above partisanship. In February 2008, following the ‘Super Tuesday’ results, Obama’s rhetoric reached new heights as he told supporters in Chicago:

"We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have little; who’ve been told that they cannot have what they dream; that they cannot be what they imagine... Yes they can. "(Obama, 2008).

Such rhetoric could only lead to disappointment when matched against harsh political realities. Just before the 2010 mid-term elections, Obama appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart’s first question was incisively sardonic:

"’re two years into your administration, and the question that arises in my mind: Are we the people we were waiting for? Or, does it turn out those people are still out there and we don’t have their number? How are you feeling about that?"

Obama’s 2008 victory against McCain was, in some respects, the product of exceptional circumstances and the results were, therefore, unlikely to be sustained. The USA and much of the world faced a dramatic, and escalating, economic crisis. At times, the banking sector had appeared to be on the edge of collapse. The Republicans were discredited by policy failure and scandal. Despite the military successes of the surge, the Iraq war was dragging on. After two terms, President Bush was highly unpopular. Although McCain structured the campaign around claims that he was a maverick, it was difficult for him to distance himself from Bush. The McCain campaign was also damaged by questions about the credibility of his choice of vice-presidential running mate, Governor Sarah Palin.

The 2008 election had been exceptional in other ways. Obama’s candidacy attracted particular support among certain groupings, most notably young people (those aged 18–29) and minorities. Although these groupings lean towards the Democrats, turnout levels are often relatively low. In 2008, Obama’s campaign energised these groupings and turnout was higher. Again, it was difficult to maintain this, particularly in a mid-term contest when the presidency was not being contested.

Some grassroots Democrats were to some extent dispirited by Obama’s first 2 years in office. They felt that the healthcare reform package had been a retreat from the administration’s original goals. Efforts to impose tighter regulation on the financial sector had been watered down. And, as Paul Krugman repeatedly asserted in his influential New York Times columns, the fiscal stimulus enacted in February 2009, which sought to increase economic growth and reduce unemployment, was far too small.

The state of the US economy brought about many disappointments. It made only a limited and faltering recovery from the crisis of 2008–09. The unemployment rate was still 9.6% in September 2010 and the effects were magnified by the absence of comprehensive government provision for those who were out of work. Businesses struggled to find customers. These harsh economic realities have contributed to widespread pessimism about the country’s future. With less than a week to go before the mid-term contests, Rasmussen polling found that only 32% felt that the country was ‘heading in the right direction’. In contrast, 64% said that the USA was ‘on the wrong track’ (Rasmussen Reports, 2010). Opinion about the direction of the country is closely correlated to voting behaviour.

Whereas there was a degree of demoralisation among Democratic Party supporters and the groupings that traditionally leant towards the party, the Republicans were re-energised. In part, this was because of the efforts and initiatives undertaken by the Tea Party movement. Taking its name from the Boston Tea Party of 1773 (and some assert ‘Taxed Enough Already’), the movement is committed to limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility. It sees the measures taken by the Obama administration and the Congressional Democrats, such as healthcare reform and the fiscal stimulus, as dangerous threats to both the nation’s economy and individual liberty. If government gets bigger, it is said, the rights and freedoms of the citizen are inevitably in danger. A poll conducted in April 2010 suggested that 22% of Americans defined themselves as ‘supporters’ of the movement.

Some groupings have not only stayed at home but swung against the Democrats. In particular, those calling themselves independents (who comprise three in every ten voters) moved against the Obama administration. In 2008, Obama carried independents by eight points over Senator McCain. By July 2010, the Republicans had a twelve point lead over the Democrats (Cillizza, 2010). The evidence suggests that many independents share the right’s fears of ‘big government’ and are concerned that large-scale spending commitments will add to the federal government budget deficit and the national debt.


In the wake of the elections, the word ‘gridlock’ was often heard. In other words, the political differences between the Obama administration, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and the newly-constituted Senate will prevent legislation from being passed.

Some feel that Obama might emulate President Clinton who, following Democratic losses in the 1994 mid-term elections, pursued a policy of ‘triangulation’ as he positioned himself between much of the Democratic Party and the Republicans. This, a willingness to force a showdown with Republicans on a few, carefully chosen issues, and an expanding economy, enabled Clinton to regain some of his earlier popularity and win the 1996 presidential election. The task will not be so easy for President Obama. It is likely that there will be a prolonged period of low economic growth and high unemployment. The Republicans are committed to a rollback of his legislation, thereby limiting the scope for compromise. And Obama may not have Clinton’s personal flexibility. In other words, there is every chance that the stalemate between the parties cannot be broken.


What would gridlock or stalemate mean in practice? It is usually understood as a period in which nothing is undertaken or achieved. However, there is more to it than this. In an influential article building on their earlier work (which is based on institutionalist methodologies), Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that the absence of legislative action does not mean that political and economic processes are unchanging. Instead, there is policy drift as the structure of the economy shifts over time, existing legislation becomes increasingly outdated, and politics shifts away from Congress and towards more informal methods of persuasion.

"But more often than not, drift is a quiet, passive-aggressive form of politics… Drift plays favorites. It gives advantages to the organized and vigilant and those who want the government to be less and less involved in shaping American society and responding to social and economic challenges. Drift empowers those who work in the shadows of politics: lobbyists and interest groups and activist networks." (Hacker and Pierson, 2010)