Given the recent polls on how little the American electorate approves of Democrats, Republicans and the U.S. Congress, one wonders what the 2010 elections will hold. Perhaps, for the first time in a long time, voters will simply reject the dubious choices they're offered and stay home in droves. Or maybe, desperate for the change they had been promised, they'll decide to explore third-party alternatives. For a multitude of reasons, however, it seems clear that the prognostications for the two parties that have so long dominated the national political landscape are dire. But then again, perhaps the time has come for that to happen.
If you want to start at the bottom of the barrel, you'd be talking about the approval ratings for Congress. Congressional approval cratered to a record low level of 9 percent in 2008, climbed back up to 37 percent after the Democrats took control in 2009, slid down to 21 percent in October and is now holding flat at 25 percent approval, 69 percent disapproval. There are plenty of interpretations for what influenced those polling results, but the basic, undeniable fact is that it means more than two-thirds of adult Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
That shouldn't come as a surprise. Far from what we were promised, Congress is more polarized and gridlocked than at any time in recent memory, with Republicans opposing virtually everything Democrats have tried to do except for increasing funding for the wars started by George W. Bush. Voters, meanwhile, have grown weary of both parties treating the future of our nation as nothing more than a game between opposing teams while true leadership on the issues most important to citizens seems impossible to come by. When asked if they think members of Congress have low or very low honesty and ethical standards, 55 percent, a new high, agree. That ranks congressional ethics, in the big scheme of things, just above car salespeople, but a full 6 points above Senators.
Crawling only slightly up the scale, the next sign of rampant voter discontent would be the Republican Party. After the disastrous Bush administration, only 22 percent of voters were willing to identify themselves as Republicans. Now, however, perhaps thanks to the inability of the Democrats to deliver on their many and varied campaign initiatives, Republicans have gained considerably. The most recent polls show that the Democrats have lost ground and are now neck-and-neck, at 48 percent to 45 percent when voters are asked which party they will likely vote for in the coming year. That result, if you believe the pollsters, is primarily the result of independents abandoning the Democrats, to whom they had given strong support in the last elections and who now say, given the choice, that they will support Democrats over Republicans by only a single percentage point.
Then there's President Obama, who has, like his party, slipped considerably in the polls. He has slid from his post-election high of 68 percent to about 50 percent approval now. The bad news is that fully 44 percent disapprove of the way the president is doing his job. Even worse, now less than half of those who consider themselves independents approve of Obama's performance. To put this in perspective, out of the polling results for the last nine presidents, Obama comes in next to last, behind Ronald Reagan, at this point in the second year of his tenure. But when you think about just how many of his campaign promises this president has already left behind in the wake of perceived political expediency, it's not all that surprising that more than just a little of the steam has gone out of the Obama "Yes we can" balloon.
That loss of enthusiasm, perhaps as much as anything, may well be the determining factor in what happens in the near future—and not just for Obama. When the base of a political party is discouraged, the result is pretty straightforward. They don't go to campaign fundraisers or donate money, they don't get on phone trees, they don't put up yard signs and, as we may see, they may not even bother to go out and vote.
In recent weeks, key Democrats have decided not to run for reelection. In the West, that would include Sen. Byron Dorgan. In the East, Sen. Christopher Dodd abandoned seeking a sixth term. Given the way the Senate has see-sawed and stalled out over achieving 60 votes for measures such as health care reform, the loss of even a few Democrat seats could mean we will see even less progress in the future. Admittedly, that's hard to imagine. But it would be harder yet to deny that the U.S. Senate has slipped a long way from its self-described status as "the greatest deliberative body in the world" to a charade of democracy with nearly empty chambers and hearing rooms. Even worse, the special deals recently cut on health care reform to provide holdout senators with special funding for their districts in return for their votes has left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.
What's lacking, unfortunately, are viable third-party alternatives in most electoral races. When Ralph Nader's followers gave him their votes because they liked what he had to say, the Democrats turned around and blamed him for Al Gore's loss to Bush. What they should have, but didn't do, was spend an equal amount of time in critical introspection to determine why, given Nader's non-existent chance to win the election, their party lost those votes. Had they done that, perhaps many of their recent mistakes and blown leadership opportunities could have been prevented.
Some will say it's too early to make predictions for 2010's political landscape—and they'd likely be right since, after all, it's only January. But one thing seems certain: The discontent with our political system seems, if anything, to be rising. Maybe the two old stalwart parties have nothing to fear. But then again, maybe they do.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.