The stunning reversal in New York's 26th Congressional District yesterday, while a hopeful sign for the Democrats, suggests some rather depressing things about the American electorate. Personalities aside--and I'm guessing that the winner was a more... well, winning personality than the woman she defeated--one would want to assume that voters were persuaded as much by promises and policies when they elected a Republican just a half year or so ago, and by a vast majority. One might also, fairly, assume that yesterday's result was in good part an utter repudiation of what the Republicans have done, and what they have proposed to do, since gaining control of the House of Representatives.
My own conclusion is that voters were not listening last November. It's not that Republicans failed to make their intentions clear. True, they dressed those intentions up in fancy rhetoric about jobs and tax cuts, and sold them aggressively to easily seduced buyers. But really, who could be surprised by their continuing, stubborn, irrational opposition to everything the President presented--even when, at times, his proposals met with or surpassed their own requirements? Who could be surprised by their draconian budget proposal, their attack on Medicare, their inalterable opposition to putting an end to the Bush tax cuts? All these were perfectly predictable, to anyone who cared to listen to their message.
The point is, people listened to what they wanted to hear. They listened to the fear and the greed in their own gut, not to the unconcealed ideology or its predictable consequences. There was no exercise of judgment, no critical discernment. I have to add, ruefully, that something similar can be said about Democratic voters in 2008. They projected all their desires and all their hopes on candidate Obama. He became some kind of messiah, rather than the politician that he was, and is, necessarily, in order to reach the Oval Office. He could never have fulfilled all the expectations that built up around him. (I hear you say, "But he promised!" Don't you listen to a politician's promises with an ounce of realistic skepticism?)
If it were in my power to endow American voters with a gift--excuse, for a moment, the presumption!--it would be the gift of that skepticism. And I'm not talking about the cynical form that discounts all hope and aspiration with a smirk; nor the kind that belittles every effort to progress. I'm talking about the kind of skepticism that simply asks reasonable questions and insists on reasonable answers; the kind of skepticism that requires the careful examination of conscience and the weighing of likely outcomes; the kind of skepticism that is as skeptical of itself and its own self-interest as it is of others.
So the wild pendulum swing in New York's 26th District is less a cause for celebration among Democrats than for some sober self-questioning. Where were all those voters in November, 2010, who so miraculously saw the light in May, 2011? What does it mean, that the pendulum swung so far, so fast? What dangers does the swing suggest, and how must they be addressed? The success of a democracy depends on the educational maturity of the demos. No nation can be run on the basis of purely emotional self-interest. It must be governed by rational choices and well-thought decisions. But alas, given the history of the past couple of years, I'm compelled to wonder if this is what people find so objectionable about Obama? I remain, um, skeptical.