Still don’t know what I am waiting for,
and my time was running wild,
a million dead-end streets and
Every time I’d thought I got it made
it seemed the taste was not so sweet
–Changes, David Bowie
Change. Four years ago voters demanded it and they ousted the Republicans from Congress. Two years ago they demanded it and pushed Obama into office along with huge congressional majorities. Now change may do Democrats in, producing a GOP House and perhaps, but less likely, a Senate.
What is certain is that whatever voters do this fall, change will not be the result. If Democrats retain control of both houses of Congress it will be by the narrowest of margins, guaranteeing gridlock for two more years. The same is true whether the GOP takes both houses or the parties split. The voters will get more of the status quo. The desire for change will produce its opposite. How Orwellian.
But what is change and what do voters want? These two questions have always perplexed me. When I teach my undergraduate Intro to American Politics class I often begin the class with a discourse on change. I point out first that there is a perennial demand for change among the American electorate along with an equally perennial frustration that change did not occur. I then point out that a defining characteristic of American politics was how the constitutional framers designed a political system that was meant to frustrate and slow down political change.
Checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism, bicameralism, and staggered elections were all designed to break up political power and slow down political change. As James Madison pointed out in Federalist 10, the main threat to popular government was the danger of majority faction–the tyranny of the majority for Alexis deTocqueville. The best thing about a popular government is rule by public opinion, the worst is the same. Madison and the framers sought a system to slow down political change to frustrate the ability of the majority to trample on the rights of the minority. For good or bad, change is meant to be slow or incremental. This is the reality of American politics by design. Americans who do not realize this are frustrated because of logic of our political process.
But institutional design has been compounded by other problems. For example, in the Senate the filibuster makes it impossible to get work done, allowing 41 senators who could represent less than 11% of the population to halt change. One of the biggest mistakes Democrats made in 2009 when they had 60 votes was not to abolish the filibuster rule. Instead, they let themselves be held hostage to Ben Nelson, Blanch Lincoln, and other Democrats who are barely in tune with their party. Thus, lack of party discipline also hampered the Democrats during the Obama years.
Additionally, Obama’s lack of leadership–a failure to take control of the agenda and cede it to Congress–was a major problem. Can anyone ever imagine a Lyndon Johnson letting a Ben Nelson toy with his party over whether to vote for health care reform? Conversely, what has really struck me about Obama is the timidity of change. He has done so little with so much promise. Yes a health care bill but mediocre. Yes financial reform, but mediocre. Yes a stimulus, but mediocre. He has delivered on major promises but the scale of change or reform was quite minor.
But finally, the problem of change resides with the voters. What do they really mean or want when they say change? Real change is what happened when in the early 1990s people walked out of their houses in Eastern Europe and brought down the Berlin Wall. Or in South Africa when they ended apartheid. I doubt that is what American voters want.
Change in the last few years might have been "out with George Bush." End the wars, end the squabble in Washington, or something else. I just do not know. Change seems more negative than positive–voters know they do not like the status quo but do not know what they want. They want something to change for the better but seem blind to what it is they want. Moreover, voters are not of one mind. For those who are angry and demand change this year, are they the same ones who wanted it two years ago? Maybe yes, but the American electorate is so fragmented that there is no real consensus on what change is supposed to be.
“Still don’t know what I am waiting for.”