Wednesday, November 3, 2010

And Now, The Spin

There are two types of explanations for what happens in elections.  One is an honest attempt to figure out exactly why elections turned out as they did.  For those, there's no need to rush to judgment.  I'll refer you to Brendan Nyhan's quick analysis, but with all due respect to Brendan, we're going to learn more as we go forward.  There are lots of important questions to answer, but don't expect good answers right away.

Then there's the other type of explanation: the spin.  Tea Partiers are going to have their version of why the GOP won, regular Republicans will have their own slightly different version, Democrats will have their own version.  Liberal Dems will say it proves that Democrats aren't liberal enough; moderate Dems will say it proves Democrats were too far to the left.  Then there's the issue groups: whether it's climate, or health care, or foreign policy, or social issues, or whatever, each group is going to claim a mandate that the new Congress and the continuing president should immediately drop everything and do whatever it is that they want.

Which one should prevail?

The spin!

Now, obviously, it's important to also find out why what happened did happen, and not just for curiousity's sake.  But, no, politicians and other political actors shouldn't limit themselves to the actual, factual reasons.  That's not how the system works. 

The way it really works is by everyone involved fighting for what they want, and claiming that The People are behind them.  Of course they're all lying spinning.  Of course they're all claiming mandates that are phony.  Everyone knows (or should know) that. 

So if it's all phony, where's the democracy?  In winning.  The spin that House Republicans use is going to count for more than the spin that House Democrats use not because they're interpretation of voter intentions is (closer to) the truth, but because they have way more seats in the House now.  Barack Obama's spin counts for plenty, too, because he's still going to be in the White House for the next two years.  That's true whether they really believe it, or whether they're just posing for what they think they want their voters to hear.

Of course, just who wins is only the start of it.  The spin is also contested.  The pro-lifers are going to be doing their best to convince Senate Republicans -- and everyone else in Washington -- that what The People were really saying was that every Obama judicial nominee should be filibustered, no question about it.  In this, groups are not equal.  The groups with the strongest ties to the parties, with the strongest relationships, the groups that have convinced politicians over time that they can deliver: those groups will have more weight than others, and that's democratic, too. 

It's not just numbers, either; they're going to put together whatever evidence they can, from polling numbers to individual "representative" election contests, to fragments of campaign rhetoric, to try to convince everyone that they're right.  Because the politicians themselves can sometimes be convinced.  Hey, sometimes the quality of the evidence actually counts.  That, too, is democratic.

I should be clear: this isn't, for the most part, about winning the spin war in simple partisan terms.  Indeed, the Obama crowd is correct that most of the short-term spin cycle isn't really very important. 
I was watching the president's press conference today, and the cable news yakkers were going on beforehand about whether Obama would accept responsibility, and whether he would act sufficiently chastened, and some other junk like that...that's all going to be forgotten in a week or two, or maybe in a day or two. 

No, I'm talking about more long-term effects.  How do the pols themselves, and other political actors, understand what happened?  That's what really matters.  That question might be affected to some extent by what pundits say, but it's also going to be affected by the experiences candidates have on the campaign trail, and what political elites say to each other, and what the leaders of various organized constituencies say.

So as important it will be down the road to figure out why the 2010 elections actually ended up as they did, the effects of those elections aren't really going to depend on that.  The effects are going to depend, first, on the actual numbers (and every seat counts, especially in the Senate); and, second, on how the politicians and political actors interpret what's going on. 

In other words, what's happening today, and tomorrow, and over the next few weeks, as everyone continues to fight the 2010 elections...well, that's  the reality of democracy.  Elections, as important as they are, are only the very beginning.


  1. Well, here is my spin:

    People say that politicians who have political capital should spend it, and Obama and the Congressional Dems did. Progressives will say they were overly cautious, but the stimulus and health care were the biggest, toughest domestic votes Dems have made in my adult lifetime.

    In the short run it did not pay off, for the obvious reason that the economy still sucks. It isn't just that times are (still) bad, it is that the Dems' medicine has not delivered visible improvement. That made Dem arguments awfully unpersuasive with people who don't follow politics.

    If unemployment were 6 percent we'd be having a very different discussion, not just because the general public mood would be better, but because Dems would have had an argument they wouldn't even have to make. As it was the GOP had an argument they didn't have to make: 'If they're so good, why aren't times better?'

    What happens next depends more on the substance than the short term politics. If times are still just as bad, Obama and the Dems will still have nothing to show and will be in a world of hurt. But if the economy is in a more robust recovery, they will be able to take credit for it, and that things would be even better if the GOP weren't kicking gears in the sand.

    The House GOP won't be able to claim credit for a recovery, because nothing of significance will pas in the next two years. Dems will be running on the record of this Congress, not the next one. (Adding to the irony if 2012 is a good Democratic year.)

  2. Interestingly, the Denver ordinance proposal to create an extraterrestrial affairs commission *just* failed to garner a majority in favor. Denver Denver Initiated Ordinance 300 - Results: Elections: The Denver Post

    Maybe next year.

  3. The reason Dems lost is because the economy still sucks and unemployment is still high and the base was not motivated and a bunch of old white people voted and young, brown-skinned, gay people didn't.

    It's a midterm.

    End of spin.

  4. Well, at least one young gay person voted. Maybe that's why Chellie Pingree won? (Perhaps LePage would have lost if I weren't white.)

    In all seriousness, I agree with SB. The economy is in the crapper, and the Democrats' margin of victory last time around comprises a bunch of populations that are inconsistent voters. With these facts in mind, I don't feel the need to add layers of analysis.

    Hey, Jonathan. I have a question for you to consider for a future thread. I reacted to the Iowa judges' electoral removal from office with horror. This has to do in part to my being a Young Gay person who would really like to be able to get married anywhere in the country. (Not holding my breath about Mississippi.) But I also think the judiciary should be insulated from popular opinion to the greatest extent possible. I wonder if you disagree? You seem to view an unfettered democracy as more of a good than I do. How do YOU feel about that result? (I'm interested in an intelligent counter to my own opinion.)

  5. Dan,

    I think judicial elections are a terrible idea.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?