Have we entered an era of seesaw politics?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 3 2010 6:23 PM

The Permanent Temporary Majority

Have we entered an era of seesaw politics?

Read Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 midterm elections.

Nancy Pelosi. Click image to expand.
Nancy Pelosi

According to the conventional wisdom, we've now seen three "change" elections in a row. The first was 2006, when Democrats wrested both the House and the Senate from Republican control. In 2008, Democrats overthrew the Republican executive. And on Tuesday, American voters elected the same Republican bums they'd just recently thrown out. (In a two-party system, there's only so much change to go around.)

We've heard a lot over the years about the coming [insert party here] majority. The ur-text was The Emerging Republican Majority, a 1969 book by Kevin Phillips that popularized the "Southern strategy" that got Richard Nixon elected. After 1972, Republicans predicted a broad political realignment that would keep them in power. Same in 1980. The Weekly Standard revived the claim in 2003, arguing that "Realignment is already here, and well advanced." The same idea manifests today in claims that America is fundamentally "center-right"—and therefore inherently Republican. Democrats, too, have declared permanent victory. In 2002's The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued that demographic trends are turning the country increasingly blue.

These claims weren't crazy—they were grounded in a history of longstanding partisan majorities. Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress for the entire span between 1955 and 1994, except for a Republican control of the Senate between 1981 and 1987. After 1994, Republicans then controlled the House for a solid 12 years. The Senate flipped back and forth during that period, but mainly because of a defection and a special election, not because of wave elections.

But the last few years should put predictions of permanent anything to rest. The key data point: Voters appear to have voted Democrats out for the same reasons they voted Republicans out before. And those reasons don't appear to be going away. Foremost is the bad economy. (As we constantly reiterate but never seem to process, the economy is the No. 1 factor in electoral outcomes.) Voters didn't examine Bush's economic policies and dismiss them, only to examine Obama's economic policies and dismiss them. They're just responding to hard times. As long as times stay hard, voters will punish incumbents. The economy may recover in the short term, but the need to address the long-term national debt means that future presidents and Congresses will have to make much more difficult decisions than the current leaders—and will probably be punished for it.

Have we entered a new era of seesaw government, constantly switching back and forth between parties? It seems likely: The speed of the media makes voters impatient about how quickly politicians can get things done. The spike in partisanship—just look at filibuster usage over time—makes it harder for the party in power to pass legislation. Voters are therefore more likely than ever to dismiss a president as ineffectual and a Congress as "do-nothing"—even if they've done quite a bit.

What would that mean for how the parties behave? Two things, both bad. It means the party in power will be less ambitious, since it knows the opposition will misrepresent any accomplishments and a fickle public will punish them for it. (Exhibit A: Harry Reid saying he's open to trimming back parts of health care reform.) And it means the minority party will resist cooperation so as to take advantage of voters' discontent with the majority. (Exhibit B: John Boehner's speech Tuesday night, in which he declined to name concrete goals.)

David Brooks argued recently that because control of the House is likely to flip back and forth, "lasting change has to be firmly implanted and gradually absorbed." Whatever that means, it sounds unlikely. Voters are fickle enough, and partisan divisions are stark enough, that the chances of lasting anything—except, perhaps, temporariness and contingency—seems remote. The only sure thing is that there are no sure things.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.