Carl Ostrom: Questions – The Pendulum of Power
Why is it that virtually every national election cycle moves away from the party in power?
Every newly elected president has been from the opposite party since Truman, with the exception of George Bush following Reagan — and that only lasted one term. Even in the mid-term elections, the party not in the White House usually increases the number of congressional members, often gaining a majority.
It would appear that the voters give both parties a shot at doing a good job, but are always disappointed in the results, indicating that neither party can sustain acceptable progress. In fact, Republicans and Democrats have had control of both the White House and Congress a number of times. Yet neither party can demonstrate a path forward to the satisfaction of the voting public. It seems to indicate that a strictly liberal or conservative governing strategy might not be capable of being successful and sustainable on its own.
If the political leadership were truly interested in what is best for the country, they might consider a more bipartisan approach to governance, as opposed to the current bipolar mentality. Unfortunately, neither side acknowledges this failure of sustainability but uses it to promote a harder line, preaching that the solution is further away from the middle and toward the extreme.
What makes matters worse is the reality of a widening chasm between the mainstream of liberal and conservative camps, creating a climate less likely to consider compromise and cooperation. This is on display in the primary elections where the candidates open to bipartisan negotiations are often eliminated because they are viewed as not loyal to the party platform. In that regard, the competing realities of the primary and general election create a huge hurdle toward any kind of cross-aisle collaboration.
While on the local and state level there can be a significant majority of either conservative or liberal voters, on a national level the voting public appears to be almost evenly split around 45%-48% for each side, with the Democrats having a slight edge (see past eight presidential popular votes). That leaves about 7%-10% of swing voters who are not entrenched in either camp.
Back in the July column in this series, the question asked was “What is the purpose of government?” How this question is answered is the fulcrum of the seesaw. Hard line conservatives and liberals will each have similar answers to this question among themselves in their own camps. But the reality of political life is that in the main election, it is the candidate who can attract the swing voters outside or on the fringe of their party that has the best chance of winning. It is this voter group that keeps the pendulum swinging. They choose the candidate that appears to them to be the safest risk, but swing back to the other side when that risk does not provide the desired reward. This may be based on unrealistic expectations not being met or a continued frustration with the status quo — hoping the devil we don’t know is better than the one we do.
Democracy does lend itself to faith in unrealistic expectations. It is easy to believe what we want to be true without really understanding either the feasibility or consequences of that belief. If the voting public is swayed by promises of a wonderful life without any knowledge of how that will be achieved or what it will cost, there is no visibility as to if it is achievable or sustainable.
Another possibility is that a certain number of voters specifically choose to bounce back and forth with the intent of keeping one party from getting too powerful and self confident.
What is likely is that a significant number of the swing voters are a hybrid of liberal and conservative and are spread across a spectrum of political perspectives between the two political views. An example of this would be someone who is a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. Neither party gives them all of what they want, so they bounce back and forth trying to find the compromise closest to their values.
Whatever the reason, this pendulum of power is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is the mechanism that keeps the country somewhat balanced. What would be good is if the reality of this phenomenon could be recognized and used as incentive toward cross-aisle collaboration to possibly help establish long-term strategies beneficial to the country as a whole.
Carl Ostrom lives in Grass Valley.
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