Certainly, there is a long litany to choose from: foreign wars, corrupt politicians, out-of-control spending, a dysfunctional Congress, educational inequities, a broken political process, uncontrolled gun violence – the list goes on.
But there is a compelling argument to make that – while all of these are serious issues – they are more symptoms of the biggest problem facing America today than the problem itself. In fact, America’s biggest problem – the one that stops us from solving all the others – is the apathy, alienation and anger that have pervaded the national political psyche. In sum and substance, America’s national mania to turn off and turn away from our political problems has itself become the problem.
We don’t like Washington; we don’t like Harrisburg; and increasingly we think we can’t do anything about it.
No better example illustrates this apathy and alienation than the ongoing 2014 midterm elections – an election that might be called the 3-D election, for as polls ceaselessly remind us: “distrust, dismay, and dissatisfaction,” are the three words that best describe the electorate as Election Day approaches.
To be fair, there is nothing novel about Americans expressing discontent with American politics and politicians. Indeed much of the nation’s history features successive generations of American’s displeased with their government – wanting and expecting change.
What is disturbingly different now is not the complaints voters make, but the voters growing sense that they are powerless to be heard, to make any difference or to see much change.
Even as poll after poll reports record levels of distrust and dissatisfaction with government, voters are concluding that little can be done to make things better. Sadly, too many voters are giving up on the system.
This is in sharp contrast to earlier periods in our history. Back to the Civil War and beyond, periods of widespread discontent such as we are now experiencing have given birth to social and political movements that engaged and animated the electorate. “Yes thing are bad,” voters collectively said, but that can change.
In earlier periods, protest movements often crystallized into third parties. As recently as 2010 the tea party movement played this role The Green Party in the 1980’s and Ross Perot’s Reform Party in the 1990s are other examples.
But 2014 stands as a foreboding and portentous exception. Despite the pervasive and widespread dissatisfaction, all indications point to continuing voter apathy producing a status quo election – one in which no change is expected and almost no change will occur.
Turnout has already been an early causality of the voters mood in the vigorously contested Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial primary. Only a paltry 20 percent of voters turned out. GOP turnout lacking a gubernatorial contest was even worse, coming in at an embarrassing 17 percent. For the November 4th general election all the evidence suggests an abysmally low turnout, perhaps hovering around the 40 percent mark.
Not that higher turnout would matter much. The lack of true competition in today’s elections precludes much voter choice. Consider just Pennsylvania candidates. Sixteen members of the state’s congressional delegation, both Republicans and Democrats, are seeking reelection. Not one lost in the primary, and national forecasters expect none of them to lose in November.
Likewise, the state legislature is holding a coronation rather than an election. In the House, more than half of incumbent state lawmakers are running unopposed. In party primaries in May only four of 186 state House members seeking reelection lost – and that included one House member under indictment, and two sets of Democrats forced to run against each other in redrawn districts.
In the state Senate, that body should remain firmly in Republican hands. State Democrats have only an outside chance to win the three seats needed to give them outright control.
Nationally, it’s more of the same. The federal House will remain firmly in Republican hands with perhaps a Republican net gain of three to six seats. In the Senate, Republicans could pick up the six seats needed to switch party control. But most independent assessments rate the odds of that occurring slightly more than 50 percent, despite President Obama’s feeble job approval rating.
What is wrong with this picture? A massive political disconnect of historic proportions. Voters are as discouraged, frustrated and disconsolate as any time in recent memory – yet a looming midterm election excites few and is expected to bring no real change.
Clearly the system isn’t working and that’s not good news. But it’s also old news. The system hasn’t been working for a while. The really bad news is that more and more voters don’t think anything can be done to fix that broken system.