According to the bylaws of the Columnist’s Guild, this week all pundits must write about reasons for gratitude. But the state of American democracy in 2014 makes composing the annual Thanksgiving column as daunting a challenge as penning an ode to the global statesmanship of Vladimir Putin.
Voter participation in the 2014 elections (36 percent) hit its lowest ebb since 1942, a World War II year when a significant fraction of the electorate was overseas or headed in that direction. Put another way, turnout among eligible voters in 2014 was the fourth lowest in any midterm election in more than two centuries.
These lamentations are familiar to anyone who follows politics. But viewed from a different angle, the stubborn insistence on voting by that 36 percent of the electorate should be a cause for celebration. Without the eyes of the world on them, without uplifting news footage of them holding up ink-smeared fingers to symbolize their love of democracy, the 36 percent still cast ballots in one of the most dispiriting elections in American history.
Just consider all the obstacles to voting in 2014:
Pre-Determined Elections: All the rhetoric about every vote counting had little connection with reality in the three states with the largest congressional delegations. Incumbent governors in California and New York (Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo) were so confident of reelection that they barely campaigned. In Texas, Republican Greg Abbott romped home with a victory margin of more than 20 percentage points.
Nearly three quarters of the congressional contests in these states (116 House seats and a Texas Senate seat) were non-competitive with the winning candidate garnering more than 60 percent of the vote. The motivation to vote was particularly weak in 36 House districts where the winning candidate was rubberstamped with more than 80 percent of the vote or was unopposed. There were, in fact, more landslide elections in these states than races in which a voter might have a chance to determine the outcome.
Smaller states were sadly similar. In Indiana, which had the lowest turnout in the country (28 percent), only two of nine House were remotely competitive. The same two-of-nine proportion held in Massachusetts, which again sent an all-Democratic House delegation to Washington.
No-Hope Candidates: What was striking about these congressional elections was that neither party offered a whiff of optimism about the future. In prior years, the Republicans courted voters with the promise of tax cuts while Democrats countered with talk of new social programs.
This time around it was fear versus fear. The Republicans played on the unpopularity of the president—and insisted that nothing mattered more than repealing Obamacare, although few GOP candidates bothered to offer an alternative health care plan. Democrats direly warned voters that a Republican Congress would jeopardize Social Security, Medicare and women’s reproductive rights.
Nattering Nabobs of Negativism: In the 1960s, there was a brief fad for airing slick 30-minute TV documentaries boosting candidates. Democratic filmmaker Charles Guggenheim pioneered this approach with gauzy classics heralding the virtues of now-forgotten candidates like would-be Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp (“The Man Against the Machine”).
Voters in North Carolina could only wish that this accentuate-the-positive trend had taken hold in American politics. Fueled by Super PAC spending, more than $100 million was spent on TV ads in the Senate race in which Democrat Kay Hagan lost her seat. And it was almost all negative: During a single week in mid-October, more than 10,000 negative spots were aired on North Carolina television. That worked out to be one attack ad per minute.
The same pattern held in any state blessed or cursed with a scorched-earth Senate or gubernatorial race. It is hard for voters to maintain even a shred of idealism about democracy when they are subjected to a barrage of TV commercials bellowing that the candidates on the ballot are either knaves or fools.
Caught in this crossfire, voters tune out politics for their own mental health. Pretty soon, a sense of civil obligation begins to give way to the cynical notion, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.”
The Politics of Joy: Voting may be the essence of democracy, but for too many Americans it more resembles a trip to the Motor Vehicles Department. Even in states without punitive voter ID laws like Texas, voting in person often means enduring long lines and well-intentioned chaos from ill-trained election workers. While voting by mail is less time-consuming, it is hard to find patriotic poetry in walking to a mailbox in advance of Election Day. All this gives rise to the supposition that more Americans enjoyed the act of voting 30 or 40 years ago when lever machines punctuated electoral choices with a reassuring clank.
The Polls That Pall: Since the days of Harry Truman, the news media has tried to use polls to drain the suspense out of election campaigns by all but declaring a winner before anyone votes. In 1984, New York Times humor columnist Russell Baker wrote, “The highly advanced state of public-opinion polling technology already has made most elections unnecessary.” He went on to puckishly suggest that “voting might be limited to sample people whose statistical profiles give the pollsters the measurements they need to achieve accuracy.”
But, until recently, Americans nurtured just enough skepticism about the polls to allow underdog candidates to liken themselves to Truman in 1948. But the 2012 election marked the rise of polling analysts like Nate Silver who claimed unprecedented accuracy in using survey data to predict electoral outcomes. When Silver got all 50 states correct in the 2012 presidential election, he ushered in the era of polling certainty that Russell Baker had anticipated three decades ago.
The problem is that voters are more persnickety than the algorithms favored by Silver and his competitors. This time around, almost all pollsters and polling analysts missed the size of the late-developing GOP wave. (Silver, for example, got two key Senate races wrong this year). What this meant is that Virginia voters, for example, were repeatedly told by the media that Mark Warner’s reelection was assured. In reality, Warner won by a mere 17,000 votes.
Yet despite all these provocations (from negative TV spots to bum media predictions), more than 82 million Americans cast ballots in a midterm election that too rarely gave them a choice or an echo. That is right—82 million Americans took the worst that 2014 politics could offer and they still voted. As Woody Allen said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” The persistence of these 82 million Americans in showing up is what makes me grateful during this Thanksgiving week.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.