Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

'Bloodbath' theory of the midterm elections misses the truly extraordinary events

By Robin Lakoff

If you want to succeed as a pundit, first of all you have to man up: eschew wussy ambiguity and make flat out all-or-nothing statements. So it is not surprising that the election has been described, pre- and post- variously as a "bloodbath," a "cataclysm," and a "shellacking" for the Democrats -- and in some quarters, even worse.

Absolutism works for the pundit class. It makes them sound clear, authoritative, and knowledgeable. Although traditional oracles specialized in ambiguity (and therefore never made a false prediction), their modern descendants try to look as if they know what they mean and say it. This may sound like a dangerous game, since predictions are so often wrong. But in the world of 24/7 wraparound media, the very proliferation of punditry offers protection. Who remembers what any authority said about anything a year (or, all too often, a week) later? There's just too much else going on. The poor sibyls and Delphic oracles had it much harder, since at any one moment there were only a few people in the game. So people remembered what they had said, and a wrong prediction or two could be very bad for survival (literal or figurative).

Modern pundits -- not too differently from their Classical peers -- want to be the creators and bearers of meaning; they want to extract "the meaning" from an event, like marrow from a bone. But as desirable as this seems, reality dooms it to failure: events seldom have a single meaning. Sometimes, heaven help us, there may not be any meaning at all. But a pundit who understood these precepts and uttered punditries accordingly would not be in the game for very long.

So the "bloodbath" theory of the 2010 midterm elections is satisfyingly sharp and clear. But what it sacrifices for clarity may be truth.

The '10 elections are being discussed in a vocabulary that brands them as exceptional. But their outcome may have been less extraordinary than the events that preceded them over the last few years, and which led inexorably (though typically unwittingly) to their outcome: the decision by Rahm Emanuel and Charles Schumer to encourage conservative and moderate Democrats to run for office in 2006 and 2008, in districts that were not in any real sense Democratic. Those who -- surprisingly -- won, won not because the voters in those districts suddenly turned liberal, but because these Democrats were really Republocrats and DINOs, and because in 2006 even many Republicans were sick of the Bush administration, and 2008 saw the extraordinary moment of the Obama candidacy. So voters who were essentially Republicans, then and now, didn't really have to change their spots; the Emanuel-Schumer candidates obligingly changed theirs.

But in 2010 voters in these districts no longer had a need to express anti-Bush sentiment, so they returned to their normal, Republican selves. If we subtract the losing Democrats from these districts from the 60+ total that is considered the Democratic "bloodbath," the total becomes much less terrifying: more like somewhere in the 40s.

Secondly, the "cataclysm" theory depends on a peculiar notion of "normal": that the Democrats lose no seats, or even gain them. In part, this implicit belief is fueled by the outcomes of the 2008 and 2006 elections which, as we have seen, are the true aberrations. But the norm is for the party of the president to lose seats in midterm elections even when things are not too bad. The voters seem to have an innate preference for those constitutionally mandated checks and balances. When a single party controls both executive and legislative branches, the checks and balances tend not to operate very well, and people start to see the government as an unstoppable juggernaut -- precisely the rhetoric we have been hearing. When both houses are controlled by the party of the president, the impetus to shake things up gets very strong.

And it is also true that when the economy is in tatters, people get edgy and dissatisfied and want change. So it is unsurprising that they voted for it this year.

Then if the Democrats had lost no -- or even only a few -- seats, that would have been the exception -- indeed, the miracle. But no (or few) losses should not be rhetorically constructed as the norm, against which Democratic losses in this election can be reasonably labeled a "cataclysm." The results of this election, which we will have to live with for at least two more years, may turn out to be cataclysmic. But the election itself is no such thing. And, as others have noted, the loss of Congress may be beneficial to the Democrats in many ways, and may position the President for victory in 2012.

In other words: President Obama may have to eat crow, but it comes with a dollop of Sauce Bearnaise.

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.