There is much to-ing and fro-ing this post-election season as the thousands, no millions, of people with opinions about “what it all means” have their say. As they like to say in Washington: Everything’s been said. Sadly, not everyone has said it.
The conventional wisdom appears to focused on two aspects of the election that run counter to what everyone has “known” until now. More conservative Democrats did better in this last election than liberals: Sen. James Webb is the poster boy here. And many of those voters who were once Republicans now appear to be headed to the Democratic party, as long as Democrats hew to the right. That’s how Sen. Joe Lieberman got re-elected. So, say the wise men of the pundit class we are witnessing a re-alignment in party politics, as moderate Republicans move to the left and Democrats shift to the right.
Maybe. But we’re also witnessing proof positive of just how horrible – truly, starkly horrible – a presidential candidate John Kerry was for Democrats. And we’re seeing a frustration on the part of average voters – as well as business and corporations – with the partisan bickering that’s been keeping Congress from actually doing anything for the past four years.
Those are the short takes, early in the game. But it might also be that the flux between parties – the constant search for the next thing that works and works well – is the new status quo and the attempts to put voters in neat little party boxes is what’s going away. It may well be that U.S. voters are settling in for a generation of non-aligned politics and constantly shifting coalitions. It’s kind of how singles use Match.com: They’re always looking – consciously or not – for the next thing, the one that’s perfect. Why? Because they can. They just know it’s out there and with a couple bucks and a nice photo, they might just find exactly what they want. Unrealistic? Sure. But now a part of modern life.
Slate’s Mickey Kaus, disgusted with Democrats, annoyed by sanctimonious Republicans, used to talk about a political “party in your laptop.” His hope was for the rise of a third-party that would be organized on the Internet and support non-affiliated candidates who don’t need the party machinery to get elected. Kaus hasn’t been down this road since the summer and that’s too bad because he was on to something. It’s just not as permanent or as well-organized as he and others think it is, could or should be. And it may never be. But that’s kind of hard for many folks to see. Why? Pundits – at least the current generation – like things orderly and neat and classified. It makes their lives much easier.
But just as Match.com turns an incurably wandering eye into an effective “dating strategy,” we’re fast leaving the days when making things easy for Big Media is the order of the day. Information, the mothers’ milk of politics, is easier to come by and easier to distribute than it once was. That means that voters are awash in things they need to know, things they want to know and things candidates think they should want to know. And it’s not going to change. What is going to change is that voters are going to get used to having lots and lots of information. And they’re going to make use of it – for better or worse. Which means they’re less like to stay party loyal and they’ll be harder to organize.
I’ve talked a lot on this site about the movement of what I call “Progressive libertarians.” One characteristic of this group is the belief that loyalty to any large organization is silly, if not often counter-productive because large organizations – political parties, philanthropies, corporations, newsrooms, consulting shops – can’t react as fast or as well as the individual. For Progressive libertarians the power of the individual is supreme. In this last election, Here in California, Progressive libertarians voted for Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Republicans like Arnold Schwarzengger at the same time. In Connecticut, they backed Lieberman because he’s pro-business and experienced. They put Silicon Valley tech exec Steve Poizner in his first public office but elected Gov. Moonbeam – our own Jerry Brown – state’s attorney general. And Republican Richard Pombo was defeated. It’s mix and match politics.
Which brings us back to Match.com and a question no one seems to be able to answer or want to ask: If voters can be fickle, will they be fickle? I’m betting yes. For a few reasons, not the least of which is the enormous frustration out there right now. John Kerry wasn’t just a bad candidate because he couldn’t tell a joke or didn’t understand the Internet, he was a bad candidate because he had no real ideas about what the Democratic party should do to help the people whose votes it was soliciting. He’s not alone in that as my Spot-on colleague Mike Spinney observed last week. His comments were underscored by the House and Senate leadership elections which effectively demonstrated that neither political party wants much of a change going forward. Just about he only politician articulating this frustration is Barack Obama, which explains why his popularity, despite a certain show-boat approach to polticking, is proving durable.
The new prestige given inside business-as-usual backroom pols like Rep. John Murtha and John Boehner shows that neither party is really interested in doing things differently. Party leaders don’t seem sure what to do, so they’re doing the same thing. All over again. Which doesn’t mean voters will stay loyal – it just means they’ve decided to have coffee.