The 2018 midterm elections underlined one key lesson and one very important message for our political leadership class. The lesson: Politics is not done by others, it is done by ordinary citizens. When Americans vote, they do so with pragmatic passion. The message: You can’t be what you don’t see. And you can’t understand if you don’t listen. Americans voted to demand constructive political leadership.
What's up with our political leadership?
Americans supposedly suffer from a lack of faith in leadership in general and are particularly disgusted with political leadership in particular: 64% of the American public has no confidence in the Government in Washington, 90% believe that most politicians are more interested in winning elections than in doing what is right, and over 70% believe that the people running the government are incompetent (The Vanishing Center of American Democracy, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture's 2016 Survey of American Political Culture. Yet election voter turnout for the 2018 midterm elections hit a 50-year high. More than 49% percent of the voting-eligible population cast a ballot. That's the highest turnout for a midterm since 1966. Although this pales in comparison to the 60.1% voter turnout for the 2016 presidential elections, it’s evident that people are impassioned about our political leadership.
I’m not a political analyst nor am I a politician. But I’m not a passive political observer either. Like all those who took the time and made the effort to vote, I am not part of a passive audience to be talked to about particular campaigns through the media and occasionally galvanized to send letters or cards or join a particular demonstration based on simplistic messages. Nor am beholden to a political master who knows how to play the system of institutionalized professionalized politics.
I am an average citizen who takes an interest in understanding the issues that affect me, my family, my business, my community, my state, and the nation as whole. As a political scientist by training and a full-time business owner in practice, I was interested in identifying the gaps in political analyses that come out in the press and in books, in the news and presented in think tanks and academic circles.
What the 2018 midterms made clear is this: there’s a yawning gap between candidate issues and messages, on one hand, and real life meaning and action for citizens on the other. The elections were supposed to shape a better political landscape in the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections. What do they really tell us about political leadership in America?
Our political leadership needs CPR
Political leadership is not about data or stage performance. Beyond show-and-tell campaigning and the race for statistics, elections are about real life issues that affect real people. What distinguishes political leadership from other kinds of leadership is that it impacts the well-being of a nation and its people.
Were these elections a referendum or rebuke of Trump? I think they were a referendum on our leadership on both sides of the aisle and a rebuke of the practice of politics as a do-or-die battleground. The midterms did not “put two choices in focus: passion or pragmatism”, as stated the sub-headline of a November11th article in the Washington Post. This is a false syllogism. It’s not either or, it’s both.
Voters decided the results not based on dispassionate decisions based on “the issues”, but on the emotions lying raw on the kitchen table, the personal, family and community issues in relation to health care, illegal immigration, climate change, jobs, guns, education, and trade. Yet, amidst a restive national mood and despite the cultural and ideological divisions, the values, moral sentiments and psychology of voters combined with a reasoned understanding of these issues to determine how they felt about candidates and how they decided to vote.
Voters also expressed a common desire for political CPR: Compromise, Purpose and Respect. Among those who voted and even those who didn’t, regardless of disagreement on what the biggest issues facing the country are or how those issues should be prioritized, there seemed to be a common feeling: that our country is in trouble and needs urgent care. This can explain why, according to a March 2018 Pew Research Center, 53% of Americans think the economy is doing well but, according to a November 2018 Rasmussen Reports survey, 56% believe the nation is heading in the wrong direction.
The leading metric of analysis of election performance was data: How many people voted? What percentage of this or that constituency voted for what parties? How many women versus men voted for this over that issue? What do race and age numbers tell us?
The raw data gathered from the answers was summarized through statistics and then organized into information to give meaning to the numbers through descriptive and inferential analyses. They summarized samples of data to identify patterns and used that data to infer what the population might think and then make generalizations about observed differences between groups.
What’s important to keep in mind is that data is collected, viewed and analyzed from the perspective of a theory and that the data collected is not likely all the data possible; it’s just a sample of things. Results, therefore, often partially confirm some aspect of theory but go against some other aspect.
Statistics are, of course, important when dealing with large masses of data. But statistics are not data. They are calculated values that aggregate large amounts of data so they can be understood by the limited human mind; they help access data that we can’t generate ourselves. However, as famously stated in 1954 by Darrel Huff, in his book How to Lie with Statistics, “correlation does not imply causation”. In fact, statistics, when used in political analyses, more often than not and deliberately or not, distort reality and are often used to bolster weak arguments.
We don’t know if the samples collected for numerous analyses of the midterms were great or not so great. What we do know is that the House was overcome by a blue wave and that red outperformed in the Senate. Political observers and commentators are still scrambling to figure out what this all means. But the overriding focus on data and statistics continues ignoring the natural collision between passion and pragmatism when people vote. What is the data and the statistics not telling us? What was the aggregate message from voters to our political leadership?
Our political leadership is failing us
Some say passion has gotten the better of us and is at the root of a “crisis” in American democracy. Others directly ignore or dismiss the serious emotions evoked by our political climate. Regardless, voting is an emotional matter, because thinking and feeling go hand in hand. Decisions, including who to vote for, are made based on how people feel about the information they’re being given. How a person decides to vote is based on their gut reaction to the perceived competence and responsiveness of candidates.
What voter participation on November 6th showed is that Americans have a healthy acquired habit of democratic behavior and still have a strong public faith in democracy. Even though in recent decades many Americans have quit creating, joining and participating in civic groups and organizations of all kinds, when the rubber hits the road they’re in the car.
At times it may seem like we’ve traveled forward to the past, to Athens and direct democracy. In its October 2018 issue, The Atlantic featured a series of articles addressing the question of whether democracy is dying. Our Founding Fathers James Madison and Alexander Hamilton believed that in direct democracies citizens were swayed by crude and ambitious politicians who played on their emotions. Madison, hailed as the Father of our Constitution, had a vision of majority rule based on reason rather than passion. In a representative democracy like ours, enlightened delegates of the people are supposed to serve the public good by observing constitutional mechanisms intended to inhibit passionate fractions and ensure reasonable majorities prevail.
Madison expected delegates to communicate ideas and thoughtful arguments in a way that would allow level-headed reason to spread without pandering to the mob among the masses. He would undoubtedly be highly distressed today with the political “tribal” zealots and virtual factions that have formed across the nation. He would be equally dismayed with the spread of misinformation and the inflamed partisan differences that political analysts zero in on as they dissect the results of the midterms. Analyses underline that the vote in these elections was based more on negative partisanship and on polarized identities than they were on personality and brand. But Madison would also likely concede, based on our political history since his death in 1836, that when reason and emotion collide in politics, emotion wins.
What these elections made clear is that what Madison feared would afflict citizens has afflicted our leaders. It is our leadership who has failed to counteract their own impulses of interest and passion.
During the midterms campaigning, too many representatives and delegates focused the “issues” based on their own personal stories and preferences, assuming that Americans are passive, frozen in place and don’t really know what they want. The midterms showed that they do know what they want and that they are willing to use their vote to shift the conversation away from the “me” to the “we”.
We the people matter
The citizens who voted, and that our leadership is supposed to represent, sent out a plea for “We the people” matter. This doesn’t mean that victories on either side of the aisle will change the nation’s course or define the path to 2020. In an ultra-divided political environment, it means that the estimated 113+ million Americans who voted took the time and interest to access objective information and make a thoughtful decision.
So what do the results of the 2018 midterms mean to us as average citizens starting the New Year? Were they a blue wave? A tsunami? A trickle? Or just an expression of the fears and anxieties that derive from a growing lack of trust in and respect for and from our leadership, on both sides of the aisle?
As U.S. Senator Bill Sasse reminds us in his recently published book entitled Them, the goal of elections is to determine who will best reward our style of self-government for the next short while. Divided government has always been a part of U.S. political history. It’s an integral part of a democracy that works. So elections should not be understood as a competition of “Good Guys” versus “Villains”. They are not a battleground of individual opinions.
There is, or should be, a common conviction in what after World War II was referred to as “principled pluralism” by our grandparents, a belief in political leadership as the ability to strike a healthy balance between a transactional and transformational ethos and the will to make timely strategic choices to ensure all stakeholders have the chance to be considered for support. Americans voted for Government leadership as a shared project to protect “the People”. That’s us, you and me, the average citizen.
Americans voted in the 2018 midterms with what I would call pragmatic passion to demand a renewed commitment by our delegates and representatives to respect our institutions, to reinvigorate common citizenship and to expand national prosperity. In other words, we must do it together. People are tired of political warfare. Americans want leaders, not warriors.