After Tuesday's drubbing, Democrats will search for the hidden message of the election. But the message isn't hidden: The decisive blocs of voters that switched from Democrats in 2008 to Republicans in 2010 were angry and disillusioned -- with the economy, with a political system they see as helping banks and CEOs, not ordinary working families, and with both parties, Republicans (exit-poll favorability rating: 41 percent) as well as Democrats (43 percent). They want action to rebalance the economy so it produces jobs and gains for the middle class, not just Wall Street. Unfortunately, they're not going to get it.
That's because these voters have just handed Congress back to a party least likely to heed their call: the party that spent the last two years saying no to Wall Street reform, to an economic recovery package that included major tax cuts, to expanded health insurance and medical cost control, and to extension of the 2001 tax cuts for the middle class; the party that shamelessly courted lobbyists and corporate donors while claiming they were only against reform because it represented a "bailout" of these very same interests.
In exit polls, voters were asked who they blamed for the state of the economy. In order, they blamed banks, then the Bush administration, and only then the current administration. Yet those who blamed banks gave their votes by a wide margin to the GOP. Their votes have made Speaker-to-be John Boehner the second most powerful person in Washington only months after he staged an open rally for bank lobbyists, urging them to block Democrats and their "punk staffers." The rally worked: Wall Street swung toward the Republicans, joining health insurers, big business groups, energy companies, and the rest of the GOP's new money trust.
Midterm election losses are a virtual inevitability for the party of the president. A terrible economy makes them more certain -- and larger. The only thing that would have saved Democrats from big losses this time around was a huge organizational and fundraising edge. Thanks to the Tea Party and billions in outside campaign spending that favored the GOP, the edge was Republicans'.
If there is a hidden message in the election, it's one that we, in our recent book, Winner-Take-All Politics, call the "dirty little secret" of political science: most voters pay little attention to what happens in Washington and have only the vaguest sense of what is happening there. Most are completely unaware of how the filibuster has been used relentlessly to block action on the economy, and a majority mistakenly believes that the astonishingly unpopular TARP legislation passed under Obama, when in fact in was signed by George W. Bush.
We are taught to believe that voters call the shots. And they often do. Yet the vote is a blunt, heavy weapon -- one that voters barraged with negative ads and misleading messages, without strong guidance from grassroots organizations, often wield with little awareness of or regard for the collateral damage that will result. In this case, the damage is likely to be the crippling of goals and policies that most Americans continue to support.
One salient example sums up the whole: Republicans' big gains came with older voters -- in part because they were frightened by GOP attacks on the health care bill. Yet Republican budget blueprints -- from Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" to the GOP "Pledge to America" -- mean even bigger cuts in Medicare and the revival of the GOP's mothballed plans for partial privatization of Social Security and Medicare. Ask older Americans whether they would like to trash their cherished programs in return for massive new tax cuts for the richest of the rich, and the answer will be a resounding no. Only on election day, a strong majority of older Americans, in effect, said yes.
In John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, perhaps the most memorable line was uttered by an angry farmer about to lose his home (sound familiar?). Enraged and despairing but unable to pinpoint blame for his terrible loss, he asks, "Who can we shoot?" That's what voters were asking in 2010, and most had no clearer idea than the farmer of where responsibility for their plight lay.
The 2010 election was the political equivalent of the perfect crime: The GOP vigorously took on all reforms designed to rebalance the economy for the long term, tying Washington up in contorted knots, then were rewarded at the polls by voters dissatisfied with an ugly D.C. culture unable to produce economic renewal.
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson are the authors of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class