2011: a Tea Party mandate?

T.A. Barnhart

Happy New Year and welcome to the Year of the Tea Party Nation.

Two months ago today, Americans went to the polls and voted out every single Democrat, every middle-of-the-road Republican, and replaced them all with Congressmen (some of whom are women) who believe in the Constitution, states rights, individual liberty, a world without taxes, and the affirmation that evangelical Christianity is the official nation of God’s chosen people, all of whom speak English and trend towards the pale end of the color spectrum.

It’s not merely morning in America, again; it’s freaking midnight. That’s how morning-in-America it is. And as we know, it’s always darkest when the lights go out.

Ok, so I may not be taking the Tea Party victory as seriously as they would want me to. I have my reasons. For one thing, America did not vote for the Tea Party. The majority of those who bothered to voters did not vote for a Tea Party candidate; four or five dozen TP-backed Representatives and Senators do not a majority make. Fix that fact in your mind and hold tight to it: The majority of American voters did not vote for a Tea Party candidate. More importantly, the majority of Americans did not even vote. You don’t have a mandate when your party or candidate wins only a minority of the potential votes. Hell, the Tea Party didn’t even manage a plurality. They can rightfully claim the backing of millions of Americans, but to speak for “the American people”?

The majority of the American people say, No.

(And some of us say, Kiss my ass.)

Despite great enthusiasm and predictions of higher voter turnout, 2010 midterm elections were only a slight improvement from the 2006 midterms, when just over 40% of voters headed to the polls. This time around the total was 41.5% according to Michael McDonald at George Mason University. whytuesday.org Young voters stayed at home in greater numbers than in recent elections, and an entire third of voters who came out in 2008 didn’t show on Tuesday. whytuesday.org

And here’s the breakdown of that 41.5%:

United States40.80%Kansas42.00%North Carolina39.30%
Alabama43.20%Kentucky42.40%North Dakota48.10%
Colorado50.00%Michigan44.30%Rhode Island45.30%
Connecticut46.00%Minnesota55.50%South Carolina39.80%
Delaware48.70%Mississippi37.00%South Dakota52.80%
District of Columbia28.20%Missouri43.80%Tennessee34.40%
Idaho43.00%New Hampshire45.20%Virginia38.50%
Illinois41.80%New Jersey36.50%Washington53.10%
Indiana37.30%New Mexico42.40%West Virginia37.40%
Iowa50.30%New York34.90%Wisconsin51.70%

Only eight states had voter turnout of at least 50%, with Minnesota leading the pack at 55%. Even Oregon and Washington, with vote-by-mail making casting a ballot even easier then sending in your mortgage payment, barely cracked the 50% mark, and both states had a major statewide race that apparently did little to compel turnout. Many of the states one would consider Tea Party-friendly were marked more by apathy than outrage: Kansas, South Carolina, Utah (the TP did its damage in the primary), Indiana (you go, Mike Pence), Arizona (there’s some maverickiness for you), Ohio and Pennsylvania (both of which replaced Democratic governors with Republican). Wisconsins dumped Sen Russ Feingold for a self-financing zillionaire, but at least they could say the majority voted. Not so much many of the states which sent TP-backed candidates to Congress on behalf of “the American people”. One of the few states that did get over half its voters out was Alaska, and they refudiated the Tea Party Senate candidate the hard way, writing in Lisa Murkowski.

Among the missing voters: young adults. Only 21% of those in the 18-29 age group bothered to vote. Given the key role they played in electing Barack Obama and giving him a Democratic Congress, their absence was huge and represents, I believe, the real mandate from November 2nd: disappointment. The election cycle was full of anecdotal evidence of both disappointment and anger across the nation, from liberals/progressives upset with Obama to TPers really upset with Obama. Everyone, of course, hated Congress. Mid-term election turnout rarely exceeds 40% — national turnout was 40.6% in 2006 when us lefties were fired-up and 39.5% in 2002 — so any party claiming a midterm mandate is blowing smoke. But given turnouts of 60% in the last two general elections, the backsliding in 2010, especially among young voters, along with polling data, indicates that more than normal midterm apathy, this election involved many people using non-voting as an active means of messaging.

As Jimmy Buffett sang, If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.

Compare the non-turnout of November to what we recently experienced with the lame duck session of Congress and the amazing number of bills passed by the Congress, bills that have angered the Tea Party, stunned GOP leaders of Congress (“Harry Reid ate our lunch”), and garnered a big thumbs-up from voters. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll released Dec 22 showed that 56% of Americans approved of Pres Obama’s handling of the lame duck Congress while 42% disapproved (approval for Congress: Rs 42%, Ds 44%).

Here’s the lesson to take away from late December:

Progressive action => voter approval.
Cynical obstructionism and political cowardice => voter anger and non-participation.

The same CNN poll has this little tidbit, just to drive the point home: In 2010, approval of the Tea Party went from 33% (in late January) to 37% (late December). In that same period, disapproval of the TP went from 26% to 43%. The Dems’ numbers, by contrast, remained constant, with both favorable and unfavorable moving from 46% to 47%; by December, fully 50% of those polled had an unfavorable view of the GOP (and, the poll shows, gives them far more blame for Congress’ dysfunction than the Dems).

So there’s your mandate for you: not to remake the nation and the Constitution, in the right-wing, me-first/me-only, Bible-and-money drenched vision of the Tea Party; but passage of legislation that is built on compromise and achieves accomplishments the American people believe to be important. End Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell so that all patriots can serve their country? Approval. Keep Russian nukes away from Al Qaida? You betcha. Tax breaks for everyone? Cha-ching. Stop fighting like 3-year-olds and act like adults? Please; you have to ask?

So here’s to a great 2011 for the liberal/progressive center of American politics, because that is what the center is. Americans do not want the Tea Party, and they don’t want partisan obstructionists. They want results, and the results they want are pretty simple to define: jobs (ie, income), security, justice and those jerks in Congress to take care of business, not politics. When we have outcomes like the lame duck session, Americans are happy — and they are happy with the President. This is our path to success in 2011: find the compromises that advance the values and programs we believe in. Compromise, by definition, means we’ll have to swallow some things we don’t like; after all, 40% of America is conservative to one degree or another. They have a right to see their values incorporated in government, too. Compromise is about finding optimal solutions within a diverse democracy. Tax cuts for the rich? Ugh, but it got us the rest of the deal. In 2012, we’ll deep-six it — and use right-wing support for “the wealthy” to pummel them at the polls. In the meantime, the more Obama and the Dems demonstrate their willingness to compromise on behalf of the nation’s common good, and the more the Tea Party shows its opposition to the majority of Americans — after all, they opposed everything in the lame duck session, proving where they stand in comparison to “the American people” — the better our electoral chances in 2012. 2011 won’t be an easy year, but rather than the anger and despair many on our side were feeling at the end of 2010, we can take heart knowing that we are right on the issues, that Obama was right on the process, and that the American people agree with us.

And, best of all, that the Tea Party is wrong on just about everything. Including their non-existent mandate.

T.A. Barnhart writes regularly at tabarnhart.net and less frequently at Left Coast Foodie. And he’s on Facebook a lot!

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    The Tea-baggers think they got a mandate to be really,really ugly. And they will be. Shut down the government. Secede from the Union. Declare Soc. Sec., Medicare, Medicaid, Environmental Protections, and Unemployment Insurance unconstitutional. They will claim a mandate to do all of that, and they will try, and get a resounding raspberry in return.

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    To believe the last election was a mandate for the Tea Party requires one to believe that the same country that elected Barack Obama in a near-landslide in 2008 did an ideological 180 two years later. What happened in 2010 was that the economy was in bad shape and the voters punished the party in power, as they almost always do.

    Incidentally, far more Americans voted in 2008 than in 2010, which further taints the Tea Party's "triumph."

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