Last week's election results had progressives wailing and gnashing their teeth. It was bad enough that the Democrats lost the House — and lost it in the biggest turnover since 1938 — but there were also losses of good political leaders in specific races, such as the defeat of iconoclastic, independent senator Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or a less well-known champion for working-class families, Representative Phil Hare from western Illinois.
But the broad consequences are even more worrisome: Now the country faces a political crisis — a stalemate or worse, a capitulation by Democrats to Republican initiatives — that threatens to extend and deepen the current economic crisis. In the last Congress, Republican intransigence, Democratic disunity, and administration timidity (combined with a naive quest for Republican cooperation) limited the federal response to the crisis. But the ultimate modest plan, expensive as it seemed to many voters or "socialistic" to Tea Party zealots, did not deliver enough stimulus fast enough for many Americans to feel the effects, costing Democrats many votes.
Now, not only will it be difficult for the government to provide fiscal and policy stimulus, Republicans will also be pushing for a new austerity likely to undercut the recovery and job creation and both threaten the country's already meager social welfare system and the future earnings of most workers.
At this point, after taking a thumping, the gracious losing politician says, "The people have spoken." But more than usual, the appropriate rejoinder is, "Maybe so, but what did they say? And what does that say, if anything, about the country's political direction for the next two years?"
As everyone acknowledges, the party of an incumbent president typically loses some ground in midterm elections and also loses when unemployment is high. There's also disproportionate fall-off in voting in midterms, which particularly depresses votes of some groups crucial for Democrats, like young people or minorities. Combined, the effect was devastating. Add to that the increasingly strong Republican preference among older voters, a loss of typically stronger support for Democrats among women, and a strong shift to Republicans among independents.
Despite much vitriol toward Obama from the right, the vote was neither a clear referendum on Obama nor an endorsement of Republicans (who were viewed as negatively as Democrats).
The economy, not surprisingly, was by far voters' main issue, according to exit polls, and many people just voted for "change" this time, with fear more than hope. Ironically, voters from the 31 percent of households where someone had lost a job slightly favored Democrats, while the half of voters who said they were "very worried" voted 70 percent to 28 percent for Republicans.
Many voters obviously felt deep concern about how well Obama's policies created jobs. A Hart Research survey for the AFL-CIO of swing congressional district voters showed only about 30 percent of voters thought Democrats had a clear plan for the economy, but only 35 percent thought the Republicans had an alternative.
Particularly when their effects weren't clear, voters also worried about other aspects of the policies. With widespread public misunderstanding of deficits, the price tag of the bailouts seemed scary, and they seemed to save banks and corporations and not help average working Americans. Also, all "stimulus" and "bailout" activity, even that initiated by Bush, was conflated.
On top of that, the administration did not explain what it was doing effectively or deliver a populist message or policy flourishes, such as some form of discipline for executives. And some policies — particularly on foreclosures, but also on bank regulation and health care — were ineffective and deferential to banks and big corporations.
Republicans see a mandate to "undo" everything Obama has done. But by attacking any trace of social democracy, they're not likely to get anything done. Polling from the Hart Research exit poll, as well as from a September Project Vote survey, shows that significant majorities of Americans want an active, problem-solving federal government that provides economic security, consumer protection, and more, even if they don't always want to pay for it.
What a majority of voters do want, as veteran consultant Vic Fingerhut argues, is for the Democrats to live up to their main and most effective historic claim on voters' support: to stand up for the interests of working people against big business and the rich.
As Obama and remaining congressional Democrats figure out their strategy, they should keep that in mind.
David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times.