Sunday, November 9, 2008

Post-Election Musings - Part II

You didn't ask me, but I have read several things this weekend the causes me to pause in the continued celebration of Barack Obama's election and wonder what it really means vis-a-vis real political change.

First, even though a record number of people voted this election, somewhere around 127 million, the percentage of eligible voters who actually showed up remained relatively the same as in 2004 - approximately 61%.

This raises many questions. Like, what does it mean in a participatory democracy when almost 40% of the eligible electorate sits on their hands and refuses to vote? How many of those were Republicans who found zero appeal in their candidates? What kind of mandate is it really when a candidate is elected with such a relatively slim plurality?

David Paul Kuhn has an interesting post up on Politico about this. In his piece Kuhn interviewed
American University political scientist Curtis Gans, an authority on voter turnout.

Gans said that record disapproval of President Bush, the global financial crisis and surveys showing that three in four Americans believe the nation is on the “wrong track” contributed to the relatively high turnout this year.

And, extremely important to the question of "where do we go from here?" Gans said...

“When you have that backdrop, you will get a rise in turnout, but it’s not durable,” Gans said. “We have a long-term disengagement problem that will not be solved by a singular election.”

Secondly, I began reading Rick Perlstein's much-discussed book Nixonland (here's a fascinating review from conservative columnist George Will in The New York Times.)

In the book, Perlstein makes a couple of chillingly resonant comments that underscore the political reality of my adult life.
  • "It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason."
  • Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California because he provided “a political outlet for the outrages that, until he came along to articulate them, hadn’t seemed like voting issues at all.”
That second point sounds a bit like Obama 40 years later, doesn't it?

Will our political future repeat the political past in predictable 8-year cycles?

I think we need to read all these things as cautionary tales and set to work on how we make Obama's victory and the promise that it holds a lasting political trend in this country.

And if that happens, it will be for the first and only time in our history. And if that happens then we can give real meaning to the word "transformational."