Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, the election we just witnessed was nothing if not sweeping in its effects. The Republicans retook the House, gained a net six seats in the Senate and at least seven governorships (pending disputed races). The GOP is buoyant, if publicly measured. Democrats are despondent, if a bit relieved that the damage wasn’t worse. Tea-partiers are emboldened by their newfound legitimacy. But in a larger sense, no one is really happy. People of all political persuasions are still angry about unemployment, taxes, the national debt, the smoldering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of terrorism—the list is long. Read one way, last week’s election was as much a repudiation of our dysfunctional political system as a rejection of President Obama and the Democratic Congress. Two years ago, the American electorate threw out the previous group of incumbents; last week, they threw out the most recent bunch. In 2012, if the world doesn’t look substantially different, chances are we’ll send this bunch packing, too.
The first decade of the century has been especially difficult. We have endured the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, two subsequent wars, and a financial crisis second only to the Great Depression. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that 65 percent of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction—and, paradoxically, don’t have high hopes that the power shift will redress that. The idea that America’s best days are behind it is no longer just a rhetorical device: It’s conventional wisdom.
But is it true? America is characterologically, almost definitionally, optimistic. The country, after all, was founded on the idea that anyone could come here and make a better life for himself. And for 234 years and counting, millions of people have done just that. My own family arrived in the U.S. in 1992, landing in Cleveland at what we didn’t yet know was the bottom of a recession. This July, my wife and I found out we’ll be having our first child—a daughter—in the spring. I want to believe that the future is bright enough for her. We all want to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. And, according to an assortment of economists, historians, and analysts of all stripes I consulted in order to convince myself that all was not bleak, it will. Here, then, is a selective, definitely myopic, but ultimately reassuring case for optimism.
Like it or not, we live in a divided country. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Having the presidency and the Senate in the hands of one party and the House controlled by the other is an expression of the American people’s will, at least at this moment in time. “It’s the norm in the modern era,” says former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala. “On some level, the voters must want it. We have these checks and balances in our cultural and political DNA. I wonder if, on some deep level, we get nervous when one party controls everything.” Besides, there’s no changing it, at least not until 2012. That’s democracy.
As an unalloyed liberal, I sought assurance against regression. Will the Republican rout spell the undoing of some of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments? It certainly could. But repealing health care and financial reform is apt to be a lot harder than talking about repealing them; the Democrats still control the presidency and the Senate. And the Republicans undertake a wholesale rollback of such measures at their own risk. American voters may be angry and frustrated with Obama and the Democratic Congress, but do 30 million people really want to give back their promised health-care coverage? Do most Americans really want to deregulate Wall Street? Yes, it’s likely that certain measures will be watered down, but it’s by no means clear they’ll be obliterated.
Will the Republican victories usher in a still greater level of Washington gridlock? Absolutely. But even paralysis has its upsides. On the simplest level, if you’re a Democrat, it means the Republicans can’t, in fact, enact their agenda. And there are certain political advantages. If the economic policies that the Obama administration has put in place are working by 2012, the president will get all the credit. If they’re not, he gets to spread the blame. “From a crassly political standpoint,” says Robert Reich, a secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton who worked with a GOP-controlled Congress (and, obviously, a Democratic partisan), “Republican control of the House gives the president a foil against which he can more easily define what he’s for and against.” Recall that in 1994, the GOP took over the House for the first time in 40 years; in 1996, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic second-termer in 28.