Graduate Postcard from Abroad: Chicago and The US Midterm Elections

 
 

The Midterm congressional elections mark a time where America reflects on its political climate. Francis McNamara reports on the election season from Chicago

Chaos reigns in American politics. The two U.S. Houses of Congress are gridlocked, refusing to work with each other. Both parties spend more resources trying to defeat each other than actually trying to govern. People are tired and angry; faith in democracy is being severely tested.

This U.S. Congress (elected in 2012) is the least productive Congress, passing the fewest laws, in modern history. It is the most dysfunctional and unpopular Congress since the American Civil War with nine out of ten citizens unhappy.

When I watch television Senators and Congressmen are constantly making powerful statements on how America should proceed. Yet their words are not followed with action. We have realised that Congress isn’t actually going to do anything. This depressing situation means that Congressmen have the ability to make extravagant statements and big promises knowing full well that they will never need to deliver on anything.

The political divides are made even worse by the American media. Different stations, with various political agendas, report different facts to the American public. People can choose whatever truth they want to believe. America’s two-year Congressional election cycle means that Congressmen are constantly fundraising and campaigning with almost no time left to govern. Their role more closely resembles that of a media personality than a public representative.

Republicans usually receive large donations from millionaires and companies to fund their campaigns. Democrats receive fewer donations from millionaires and companies (many companies donate millions to both parties to be certain of a friendly congress) and Democrats rely on small donations from people like me. I’m a member of the Democratic Party and as a result my email inbox is clogged with automatic emails asking for me to donate. “Hi Francis” an email reads, “Are you in? This could be the most important election of our lives.”

Donation fatigue has set in among low income Democrats like me, who already donated a lot in 2012 and are weary of being asked to donate more, particularly given that this is not a Presidential election year.

So, given that 90% of Americans hate Congress, how is President Obama’s approval rating? Not good! Partly, the problem is that Americans feel that Obama is not doing enough to fix the dysfunction in congress. In truth, I think that this is unfair given that Congressional politics’ evolution towards non-stop total war has been growing steadily since President Nixon. Obama has failed to fix this enormous problem but he didn’t create it.

But mostly Americans just feel unloved by Obama and it’s easy to see why. Americans want to be swept off their feet by a dashing Kennedy or a charming Reagan. In 2008 Barack Obama promised a romantic soprano but delivered a constant monotone. On television, he comes across as detached and narcissistic. When he speaks he sounds like a university professor who believes that he is lecturing to a group of idiots. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that President Obama is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. He’s not perfect, but I never expected him to be. But I do miss the time when it was cool to like Obama.

Most Americans, from both parties, believe profoundly that they live in the greatest county in the world. There is a powerful emotional connection to the notion of America being the leader of the free world. Americans have a nostalgic desire for President Reagan on the Berlin Wall thundering “TEAR DOWN THIS WALL.” No one sees Obama filling this role. The tragic fact is that Americans disliked six years of Bush’s thoughtless action, and now Americans dislike six years of Obama’s thoughtful inaction.

The 2014 election hinges on the Senate, currently controlled by the Democrats. The Republican Party, due to gerrymandering, controls the House of Representatives. The Democrats received more votes than Republicans in 2012 yet the Republicans enjoy a comfortable 33-seat majority in the House of Representatives. Each individual state government redraws the House election districts every ten years, so gerrymandering has been common throughout US history. But, in U.S. Senate elections, one Senator is elected by each state and because state borders are fixed gerrymandering is impossible. As a result, the Senate elections are now the only competitive elections in the USA.

Despite the fact that a Senator for Illinois is up for re-election in 2014, there’s not much campaigning going on where I live in Chicago. This is simply because the incumbent Democrat is guaranteed to easily win re-election and is running against token opposition. The Democratic Party machine has dominated Illinois since the fifties, and it has mostly been a one party state.  Machine politics always breeds corruption and four of the past 7 Illinois Governors were convicted of corruption and put in prison.

In contested swing-states across America, the result hangs on a knife-edge. The Republicans need gain six Senate seats to win control of the Senate. Current opinion polls have the Republicans ahead and Democrats are very worried. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority leader, is flying from state to state, from fundraiser to fundraiser, trying to keep up Democratic momentum. These could be the final weeks of his political career. In one rare happy event, former President Clinton missed a fundraiser in Colorado to be present at the birth of his granddaughter in New York. Nevertheless, Clinton Skyped himself to the fundraiser from the hospital.

In an unlikely twist, the most important state election is Kansas, the Republicans need to keep Kansas to win a Senate majority. They have won every election in Kansas since 1932, and it is historically the USA’s most Republican state. But the re-election of Senator Roberts, which was originally taken for granted, seems less likely every day. Roberts is 78 years old and doesn’t even own a home in Kansas, he fulfils the residency requirement by renting a room in the state. Young millionaire businessman Independent Greg Orman is running an energetic campaign that portrays Roberts as grouchy an out of touch. If the Republicans lose Kansas they will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

It really is too close for anyone to know which party will win control of the Senate. The media talks about the election incessantly. How does the exhausted American public feel? . To quote Shakespeare “A plague on both your houses!”

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