For the next several days and weeks as we sift through the aftermath of the great midterm elections of 2010, the next partisan battle will play out. In this case, it won't be about elective office since those races have been decided. Instead, this war for hearts and minds will be about whose post-election narrative prevails. Beyond the specific body count, who will win the competition to convince us how we should think about what just happened?
I can barely bring myself to read or listen to the incessant spinning to which we're now being subjected. Everyone, at least everyone on TV, radio, and in the blogosphere, seems to speak for the "American people." Voters rejected the Obama big government agenda, unless they didn't. Republicans have a mandate! Or is it a short leash? Maybe both? It was about the economy, the Tea Party, too much corporate or foreign money, not enough money, a failure to listen and/or communicate, motivated and angry old white guys, unmotivated and not angry enough young people, etc., etc., etc.
Everyone has a story to tell, and it's not surprising that in most cases the narrative presented affirms the storyteller's particular world view. In many cases the assumptions and conclusions sound reasonable, while others fall clearly into the self-serving spin category. But here's the kicker. Even those spinning the most compelling and convincing tale about what the American people's message sent via the ballot box was are doing so with a potentially inadequate sample.
According to still preliminary numbers reported by Karl Rove & Co., 41.4% of the voting-eligible population cast votes this week. That's the highest midterm turnout percentage since 1982. And yet, almost 60% of those eligible to add their voices to the American people's message decided to sit this one out. For the sake of discussion, let's assign 55% of the overall vote to the GOP, in which case the new House majority's mandate is provided courtesy of about 22% of the eligible electorate.
How does this math factor into the avalanche of analysis attempting to define THE one true narrative? Since I don't partake in such punditry, I'll leave most of the answer to others. But as someone who has committed big chunks of my professional and personal life to encouraging civic involvement, I will offer three observations:
1 - Whether you are licking your wounds or celebrating victory, you might spend a little time thinking about why the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Democracy," during a year of fierce partisan competition over important issues, couldn't even break the 50% turnout level. If the future is at stake, why do younger voters seemingly not care enough to vote in significant numbers?
2 - With roughly 22% of the voting population providing the margin of victory, we really don't know with certainty what the American people think. Sure, there are significant hints. But a heaping helping of humility, instead of a litany of assertions that can neither be proved or disproved, might lead to a more realistic assessment of where we sit on the morning after.
3 - Finally, those of you who care about civic participation, and I count myself among your ranks, still have lots of work to do.