One of my mother’s favorite aphorisms is that one should never fight against things one doesn’t like; she only fights for things in which she believes. Growing up, I struggled with this because it is often hard to become passionate about an issue or a candidate without having some level of distaste for its alternative. A common reaction is to take no stance at all, as much of the American electorate did this past Tuesday when deciding whether or not to make the effort to vote.
Thanks to modern polling, we had a pretty good idea of who would vote and for whom they would vote before a single ballot was cast. Despite this knowledge, as the numbers came in, it was hard not to be a little bit stunned by the results.
Under President Barack Obama — a Democrat — and laws passed by the current Congress, the economy is better than it has been since before the recession, gas prices are down and more people receive health care through Medicaid and private insurance than ever before. However, no one turned out to vote in favor of the lawmakers who wrote the laws that made these things possible.
According to exit polls, the sentiment that voters most identified with was that the country is on the wrong track. They expressed dissatisfaction with leaders on both sides of the aisle. The Republican Party saw this dissatisfaction and ran with it, winning votes based almost solely on negativity.
They touted their “no” votes on the Affordable Care Act as well as their opposition to women’s economic equality, environmental protection and — most importantly — the president. However, none put forward any bold new ideas for the future of the country.
Republicans exploited the fact that many voters pointed to the gridlock and partisanship of Washington as a need for change, despite the fact that this view fails to adequately recognize why Congress is so dysfunctional. The change we need would come from politicians on both sides working together for the good of the American public. If both parties could shift the focus from what the other side is doing wrong to how they can work together, everyone would be better for it.
The Democrats did a better job than the Republicans this election cycle of articulating policies that would improve the lives of Americans. Most Democratic candidates supported a higher minimum wage, safe and legal access to contraception and abortion, more compassionate immigration policies and the expansion of Medicaid. These are stances that are overwhelmingly popular. Unfortunately, we saw a disconnect between voters’ beliefs and their loyalties, leading the electorate to pass ballot issues on liberal policies, but elect candidates who oppose these same policies.
Part of the problem was that candidates tried to distance themselves from progressive issues. The Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate from Kentucky, Alison Lundergan Grimes, failed to communicate why voters should vote for her. Despite being pro-choice and pro-health care expansion, she spent her time avoiding telling voters if she voted for President Obama and not enough time telling them why insurance expansion, environmental protection and bank regulation would benefit them. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), her opponent, mostly discussed his opposition to the ACA.
In Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) did actually take progressive stances on issues, but was unable to motivate apathetic voters to express their support for these issues by voting. The same was true of Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) in North Carolina. Warner won by less than a percentage point in a state that was expected to vote blue. Hagan was not so lucky.
We should demand more from their candidates and elected officials. Liberal politicians and pundits have spent too much time playing defense against opponents who do nothing but find loopholes in their arguments while doing little to outline alternatives. This election should serve as a lesson.
Hopefully, the Republican Party will feel the pressure of what it takes to be a strong electoral mandate and respond by articulating their policies and beliefs. Democrats, even in conservative states, should take a firmer stance on the issues important to them.
Not only would this give voters on both sides of the aisle a true choice in the 2016 elections at the federal level, but it would make it easier for them to voice their beliefs through the ballot box in local and state elections leading up to then. The country needs voters and candidates to step up and fight for what they believe in as opposed to falling prey to the politics of fear and opposition.
Betsy Johnson is a junior in the College. She is vice chair of the Georgetown University College Democrats.