Uncharted territory. Historic upheaval. The tallies are not all in as this is written. But it seems that the 2010 elections have produced results that are unprecedented in the lifetimes of most readers.
Some numbers are clear. In nine of the 10 congressional election cycles between 1986 and 2004, no party gained or lost more than 10 seats in the House of Representatives, the one exception being 1994, when Republicans gained 54. Otherwise, the numbers were pretty static.
Not so in the three most recent cycles. Democrats gained 31 seats in 2006 and another 23 seats in 2008. Now Republicans have won significantly more than the 39 seats they needed to regain the House majority they lost four years ago.
American politics has had not such sharp shifts to one party and then the other for more than half a century — not since the elections of 1946 and 1948, immediately after World War II. And then, as now, very fundamental issues about the size and scope of government were at stake.
After World War II, the issue was whether the United States would move in the same direction that voters in Britain chose when they elected a Labor government that instituted national health insurance and a cradle-to-grave welfare state.
Franklin Roosevelt laid out a similar program in his 1944 State of the Union, and labor unions, bulging with new members due to New Deal and wartime laws, for the first time became a mobilizing force in that year’s presidential election. They sought legislation to provide public housing, federal aid to education and national health insurance.
The voting public had other ideas. Unions in 1946 called more strikes than in any other year in American history, and that fall voters elected a Republican Congress. That 80th Congress proceeded to abolish wartime rationing and wage and price controls, enact a record tax cut and pass the Taft-Hartley Act limiting the powers of labor unions.
In 1948, Democrats won back control of Congress, in large part because of support from farmers (one-quarter of Americans in the 1940s still lived on farms) and in tribute to Harry Truman’s vigorous response to communist aggression in Europe. But the Democrats were unable to repeal the 80th Congress’ legislation and failed to pass major housing, education or health care legislation.
The Republican Congress thus put postwar America on a very different path from Britain’s. Its enduring public policies laid the groundwork for the generation of postwar prosperity.
For six decades, from the late 1940s until the election of Barack Obama and Democratic congressional supermajorities in 2008, Americans were not presented with a clear-cut effort to vastly expand the size and scope of government. Even Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which gave us Medicare, was directed more at expanding welfare programs that were rolled back in the 1990s.
On Tuesday, Americans gave their verdict on the Obama Democrats’ sharp increases in government spending and Obamacare. It was as resounding a “no” as their forebears delivered to the postwar Democrats’ welfare state vision in 1946.
In particular, voters in the industrial heartland, states which trended Democratic in the postwar recession years of 1958, 1970 and 1982, this time trended Republican. They evidently see government spending programs as the problem, not the solution, to a stagnant economy.
In 2008, Barack Obama and congressional Democrats won with a top-and-bottom coalition, carrying voters with incomes over $200,000 and under $50,000, while losing those in between. In 2010, that coalition has contracted. Turnout among low-income voters was down, while Democratic support among the affluent seems confined to those on public sector and university payrolls.
Democrats and their cheerleaders in the press will trot out alibis and rationalizations, blaming the result on ignorance, selfishness or racism. But voters this year were better informed about the intentions of the Obama Democrats than they were in 2008 and no more racist than the electorate that gave Barack Obama 53 percent of the popular vote, more than any other Democratic nominee in history except Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
The implications for public policy and for the 2012 presidential election remain unclear. Republicans could fail to offer attractive policy alternatives or a viable presidential nominee.