Being in political science and watching Election Night coverage makes me feel how I imagine doctors must feel when they watch ER. The temptation to yell, "That's not how it works at all! This is ridiculous!" at the TV is occasionally overwhelming. In the end we have to remind ourselves that the viewing public doesn't care if what they are seeing is realistic or accurate, only that it is entertaining. They only care that House comes up with a mystery diagnosis or that Sam Waterston wins over the jury or that the barking pundits explain the election results in unfathomably simplistic terms that happen to coincide with our own beliefs.
Watching CNN's gaggle of idiots – and I do mean gaggle, as there were at least 15 of them rotating through an archipelago of tables while Anderson Cooper was forced to play ringmaster – "explain" the election last Tuesday was enough to drive me to drink. They were absolutely obsessed with thematic explanations and sweeping claims of mandates and referendums. A referendum on health care reform. On Obama. On government spending. A mandate for Change. For the Tea Party. For John Boehner. A sign of voters' anger. Or their fears. Or their desperation. Or their impatience. Basically they did what the media do best – vomit a dozen explanations at the camera and let viewers pick whichever they most prefer.
Of course this simple chart by political scientist John Sides provides a more satisfying explanation of the results than any lame (and inevitably inaccurate) attempt to read the minds of voters could:
So here's your explanation. Democratic House candidates in districts where Obama received less than 55% of the vote in 2008 were more likely than not to be defeated in 2010. In districts in which Obama got more than 55% in 2008, Democratic candidates were almost unanimously safe this year. Why? Most likely because turnout fell 18-20% compared to 2008. Some people who showed up just to vote for Obama did not show up again, and some people who voted for him decided to vote Republican this time. How hard is that to explain?
Oh, I forgot. We need a "mandate" or some dreck about voters "sending a message to Washington." I am reminded of my mentor who once said that elections are to Americans what the Oracles were to the ancient Greeks; everyone agreed that the Oracle was the voice of a god, but only some admitted that its messages were not as intelligible as might be desired. Rather than admitting that we don't really know what was on the minds of the 100,000,000 people who voted or sticking to an analysis of the numbers, our brave media insist that they alone possess the power to read the Oracle clearly.
Personally, I believe that the argument in Sides' data is an adequate explanation of the outcome inasmuch as one is necessary. But for those who need the grand explanation, the sweeping conclusions drawn from limited data, the themes that allow us to boil elections down to slogans, I humbly submit the following. The 2010 midterm elections were a mandate for the new GOP sorta-but-not-really majority in Washington. The American voter has clearly demanded:
1. Social Security reform that guarantees my current level of benefits, alters someone else's, and cuts everyone's Social Security taxes to boot.
2. A world-class national infrastructure that can be built and maintained without tax dollars.
3. A balanced budget that doesn't sacrifice any of the government programs – especially the sacred military-industrial complex and the various old age benefits – that we like.
4. Clean air without pollution controls, clean water with a neutered and underfunded EPA, and businesses that do socially responsible things without any regulation whatsoever.
5. Consumer goods at Made in China prices that create high-paying jobs in America.
6. Giant trucks and SUVs that drive like Formula One race cars, look cool, fit into small parking spaces, cost under $18,000, and get the fuel economy of a Toyota Prius.
7. Complete freedom and complete security at the same time.
8. An America that acts like a swaggering, sociopathic asshole on the global stage yet is beloved by all the nations of the world.
9. Wars against every enemy, real or imagined, all of the time, with no U.S. casualties and no effect on the budget.
10. Incredibly rich and rewarding professional lives while supporting our employers' right to do whatever they want to us without recourse.
11. A vibrant, consumption-based U.S. economy with good jobs for anyone willing to look for one resulting from free trade policies that encourage money and capital flows to cheap labor markets.
12. A highly educated workforce produced by a school system that requires no tax dollars to achieve excellence, students who have no interest in learning, and a virulently anti-intellectual society.
13. Closed borders and an endless supply of cheap labor to keep prices low.
14. To buy whatever we want irrespective of what we can afford while maintaining the drumbeat of personal responsibility.
15. Health care that is cheap, superior, and readily available to me without the danger of the same being enjoyed by anyone I deem undeserving.
It couldn't be any clearer: we want a government that will resolve every problem we currently face with solutions that require no effort, no sacrifices, and no money. And I have no doubt that we have elected a group of people brave enough to promise exactly that.