After reading a lot of post-election articles, Im stunned that most analysts have completely missed the main reasons why people voted the way they did. Most Americans are not obsessed with politics; they dont dig deeply into the candidates backgrounds, and often dont take the time to read and understand the candidates positions on the issues (if indeed the candidates even have anyand many dont).
There were three important dynamics involved the current election:
1) Anti-incumbent fervor.
This election was not a massive victory for the Tea Party candidates, or even for the Republican Party, as exit polls showed. Many voters supported Republican candidates, but when asked if they supported the platforms of the Republican Party, they disagreed with most of its tenets. For example, a majority of Americans are against making changes to Social Security or cuts to Medicarebut both those issues will be major components of any Republican plan to balance the budget. Likewise, most Americans think the Bush era tax cuts shouldnt be extended for people making more than $250,000, although the Republicans want to extend them for everyone, the rich included.
By and large, the single sentiment that most people expressed was a yearning either for less intrusive government or a desire to throw the bums outpossibly reflecting a desire to make politicians understand our high unemployment rate through firsthand experience.
2) Elderly voters.
Midterm elections are usually dominated by older voters (folks who are over 50 and are nearing or in retirement). What exactly is the current situation for older Americans in this lingering recession?
Well, for one thing, the value of their homes has plummeted by as much as 50% in some parts of the county, and its not recovering anytime soon. It can be disheartening, to say the least, to work hard most of your life, pay off your home, and then find out its worth a lot less than you put into it, especially if you were counting on selling it to help pay for your retirement.
Secondly, most elderly Americans live on a fixed income: Social Security plus whatever savings theyve accumulated, which is usually invested in very safe, fixed income investments (i.e., cash accounts or bonds). But right now, the policy of The U.S. Treasury and The Federal Reserve is to keep interest rates at or near zero, which means elderly Americans are making no money on their savings during a time when they have to spend a portion of it to pay for living expenses. As a consequence, theyre seeing their retirement funds dwindle at an accelerating rate, and many are having to go back to work or delay their retirement to make ends meet at a time when theres already a shortage of jobs. And the U.S. government is doing nothing to create jobs.
And, finally, even though inflation is near zero, healthcare costs are still increasing by double digits every year, while the new healthcare reform legislation wont kick in for a while yet. Elderly and disabled Americans take the brunt of our broken healthcare system, and thats played a major role in how they voted in this election.
3) Rural vs. urban.
One useful graphic I saw on TV this week was a map of the United States with the areas of the nation that elected Republicans candidates in red and the areas that elected Democrats in blue. The entire center of the country was red, with a thin blue edging on the east and west coasts and a few isolated blue dots corresponding to major Midwest cities. Nothing so clearly shows the rural vs. urban divide in the U.S. electorate.
Why do rural folks vote overwhelmingly for the party that promises a smaller government? Its because of an enduring perception that government takes more away from them than it gives backa perception aggravated by the biannual act of paying property taxes. A higher percentage of rural people tend to own land, and own more of it, than city dwellers (more than 50% of urban dwellers in the U.S. are renters). When rural folks open their property tax bills, it sets off strong anti-government feelings.
Yet studies have shown that rural communities benefit more from state and national government services than their local tax base could afford. In short, taxes paid by city dwellers helps to subsidize services provided to the surrounding rural areas: roads, schools, fire departments, police, hospitals and health clinicsyou name it. Few of these things would exist in rural areas without state and national government funding.
In addition, many rural people take for granted the federal entitlement programs that the Republicans would like to dismantle: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment, Disability, and Welfare. In fact, the term entitlement program is meant to make us think that people who receive money from these programs dont really deserve what theyre getting. But they do, and the fact that these programs are or will be available to all of us if we need them is a form of insurance that underpins a humane, modern, and civilized society.
These programs should be called the safety net, because thats what they are. Yet those of us who are not receiving any direct cash benefit from the safety net often have the suspicion that someone else is, and is taking unfair advantage of it. Why cant those people just work hard like we do, who are also struggling to get by? This is where rural isolation comes into play. Urban dwellers routinely encounter the poor, disabled, and disadvantaged and cant deny the need for programs to care for them.
In rural areas, the attitude is often: give me my guns, my family, and my land, and the rest of you can go to hell! But a nationand its economycant survive with that attitude.
Hopefully, the next two years of gridlock in Washington DC will be eye-opening for the American public. Im hopeful that people will begin to talk more about the issues and less about personalities, and make more effort to become educated about the issues that face us as a nation. As a first step, we should acknowledge the problems Ive listed above, and try to figure out a way to address them.