On Tuesday, millions of Americans – hundreds of Georgetown students among them – cast their ballot in the midterm elections. Showing their dissatisfaction with the state of the country, they voted out the current majority party in a marked show of protest. Yet the work has just begun for the GOP victors.

Such peaceful transfer of power is the hallmark of our democratic republic. In some countries, a drastic change in government like we saw Tuesday would lead to bloodshed. While the election was in part a correction after the huge Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, as well as a reaction to the poor economy, a 60-65 seat swing is the largest gain for the minority party since World War II.

While our system of electing representatives is institutionalized in the Constitution, the people still need to actively exercise their right to vote to keep the system working. Tuesday’s turnout, while far from record-breaking, was impressive. With high levels of discontent in the country, it was important to see a solid turnout because it means that citizens still believe democratic elections are the way to handle political disagreements. Had turnout been low across the board, there would have been a dangerous indication that the American people did not believe voting was an effective way of expressing individual dissent.

To the distraught liberals among us, fear not – life goes on. Divided government is the standard state of American politics. Only three times since the 1970s has one party controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House. Each time, the majority party has experienced large losses in the midterm elections.

To the thrilled conservatives out there, celebrate and cherish the moment; these changes do not take the place of hard work and dedication to governance. Beware, though, of the curse of actually governing; it is far easier to be a minority party that does not bear the responsibility for tangible achievements or failures. For the GOP, the real work of governing, not merely resisting and obstructing the efforts of others, begins today. While the past two years have produced vitriolic rhetoric and partisan-line votes, forging compromise will be necessary to pass essential legislation like operating budgets.

As the raw emotions of bitter defeat and the exhilaration of a hard-fought win fade away, the focus must turn to finishing the work of this congressional term and begin to focus on the work of the next two years. These coming years, though, will be a critical period leading up to the 2012 election cycle, which, if Tuesday is any indicator, will be contentious. The issues that came to define this past election cycle – mainly the national debt and the economy – are long-term issues. The campaigning will begin again, primaries will start to loom in the distance and the opportunity to cast a vote and change the national government will be here soon enough.

We all need to keep a level head going forward. The balance of political power will always be in flux, but the key institutions of change will remain as long as we have faith in them.

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