of a nation
by Adam Tanous
grand truths from the recent election is tricky business. Knowing who
voted which way tells us a few things, but it does nothing to get at the
why and how of it. Exit polls and interviews are an attempt to get at
the all-important question of why people voted the way they did, and the
system for gathering that data, a consortia called VNS, failed rather
famously in Florida in 2000 and nationwide this election.
is that while the consequences and effects of the election may be
profound, the election itself marked a very subtle change in the
electorate. The differences in the key elections that shifted the
balance of power were measured in thousands of votes, fractions of
shift there was.
number of years now, both parties have been moving to the political
center. It’s where the votes are, and what’s more it’s safer.
Politicians have become more and more risk averse in time. A commentator
on National Public Radio the other day pointed out that in many races
voter turnout is often around 30 percent. So a candidate really only has
to garner 16 percent of the registered voters to win. Why be a bold
visionary when winning might just be a matter of holding on to sure bets
and motivating one’s political base?
Republicans are inching towards bigger government—witness the Homeland
Security Act—while Democrats are moving right in fiscal matters. The
Republicans are starting to give more attention, and money, to
education, while Democrats made a stab at welfare reform.
differences, it seems, will play out mostly in the courts and in foreign
policy. The former is where social issues and values are hashed out and
I think where the true effects of the election will be felt.
Democrats controlled the Senate, they used their majority and Senate
rules to keep those they considered from the far right off the district
court and appeals court benches. Two recent examples are Priscilla Owen
and Charles Pickering. With the power shift in the Senate, President
Bush will no doubt get more aggressive in his nominations. They will
certainly be more conservative than in the past. And in the courts is
where social policy will be set.
in the last 20 years, perhaps longer, politicians have figured out that
stacking the judiciary in one’s favor is a much more effective way to
instigate social change than through a strictly political process. In a
sense, they can get judges to do their controversial, read dirty, work.
At the same time, political opponents have no recourse except in
appealing to the Supreme Court. Judges at that level can’t be voted
out of office.
electorate focuses in on every word politicians say, it pays little
attention to the 13 very influential circuit courts. People do pay
attention to the Supreme Court, but the number of cases it deals with is
minuscule compared to the circuit courts. The latter take up thousands
of cases each year—30,000 to be more precise. These are cases
involving abortion, environmental law, civil liberties, free speech and
occupational safety and health. All are issues people care about
passionately, but once in the judiciary branch are not really subject to
debate by the general public.
reason the circuit court appointments are so critical is these judges,
in general, comprise the recruits for the Supreme Court. While the
current court is generally considered to be split 5-to-4, conservative
to liberal, several seats will likely come up soon. Chief Justice
Rehnquist, who has expressed the desire to retire, is 78; John Paul
Stevens is 82; and Sandra Day O’Connor is 72. And should a major shift
in the makeup develop—a 6-to-3 court or even 7-to-2 court in either
direction—many previously decided but controversial cases may be
revisited. New incarnations Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education,
and several church-state separation cases would be fair game.
arena for dramatic change as a result of this election is in foreign
affairs. President Bush is staking out new territory in his approach to
foreign affairs. With stated objectives of maintaining our world
dominance and to use military force against anyone who challenges that
dominance, Bush is departing quite dramatically from decades of U.S.
foreign policy. And further his bifurcation of the world’s nation
states, as being either "with us or against us," is a dramatic
departure from a more nuanced vision of the world.
seem to be reflected in the midterm elections is the public’s sympathy
for this realist approach, an inclination toward power politics. Such a
trend seems perfectly understandable given the events of the last few
years. With the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the anthrax
killings, sniper killings, threats from Saddam Hussein and North Korea,
the possibility of biological agents being unleashed by just about
anyone with a grudge, suddenly the world seems a much more sinister
really at the base of Bush’s policies and the apparent tide of public
support for him, especially in the areas of foreign affairs, is a
growing pessimism about the world and its people. One way of looking at
the swing of power to the political right is as a reflection of an old
tug of war, that between nature and nurture. Whereas Republicans have
always been somewhat inclined towards the nature argument—that human
nature is to a larger degree than not determined by genetics and
therefore less malleable than we assume; Democrats have always put more
faith in nurture—the power of environment and context to effect
change. One can trace these philosophies through Republican and Democrat
approaches to not only world politics but to crime and punishment,
welfare policy, education and a host of other social issues.
to know who’s right? Scientists have been arguing about human behavior
in this context since Darwin and Mendel were on the scene and still
there’s no definitive answer. What does seem clear is the darkening
mood of the electorate. With our votes we have weighed in on an old
question, moved ever so slightly towards a realist approach to looming