On Nov. 13, the Vassar chapter of Democracy Matters, a nonpartisan student organization centered around campaign finance reform, hosted an event to discuss the midterm elections and the issues surrounding them and their results. The event featured a panel consisting of Director of the International Studies, Timothy Koechlin, and Political Science Professors Sidney Plotkin and Richard Born, who, disheartened by the results, offered their opinions about potential ramifications for and the problems with the political atmosphere that the results of this year’s elections underline.
The 2014 Midterm Elections were, as predicted, a substantial victory for the Republican Party. The GOP added 12 new Representatives to their 33-seat advantage in the House of Representatives and won eight new seats in the Senate, reversing the 53-45 majority that had favored the Democratic Party. Professor Born said of the elections, “Everything that could have gone wrong in 2014, did go wrong, a total disaster in every single regard.”
This year’s midterms have also caused concern over new statistics regarding campaign funds that reached a record high of $3.7 billion and the lowest national voter turnout since 1942, issues which the panel considered highly problematic and symptomatic of problems with the political system outside the realm of partisan dogma. Professor Plotkin said of the campaign finance issue, “Torrents of money [are] washing over the political system whose effect is crippling it.”
Another question that inspired confusion among the paneled professors as to the peculiarity of Republican successes in recent elections despite evidence to support the conclusion that the American people have, in recent years, favored more Democratic policies. “Why do so many Americans continue to vote for Republicans apparently against their interests?” asked Professor Koechlin.
“I’ve spent most of my adult life watching Ronald Reagan and then Newt Gingrich and then George W. Bush, and the Tea Party and Rush Limbaugh, and more times than I can count thinking, ‘Now, surely, the American people get it. Now they know that this is crazy.’ But maybe not,” he continued.
Koechlin criticized the willingness of Americans to vote for politicians that support conservative economic principles which contributed to the financial collapse of 2008 and the perceived inequality between the benefit that the recent recovery has had on the top one percent and the rest of the American people. “Since the recovery began in 2010, the value of the stock market has more than doubled, corporate profits are at an all time high and virtually every dollar of economic growth has ended up in the pocket of the top one percent,” he said. “Not the top 20 percent, not the top 50 percent, the top one percent.”
Koechlin also attempted to demystify some of the alleged failures of President Obama that have swayed voters away from electing Democrats, saying, “I also will point out that, while Obama’s record could be stronger, the unemployment rate under Obama has fallen dramatically, the budget deficit has fallen dramatically and millions of people now have healthcare.”
Born spoke to the background of the elections by characterizing today’s political zeitgeist as one of divisiveness and disparity. He argued, “There aren’t so many moderates nowadays. We’ve polarized. People have moved either to the left or to the right, and moderates are supposed to fulfill this very important kind of function of splitting the ballots.”
He continued, “Also, the idea of the ‘Goldilocks solution,’ of compromises between the two parties and the idea of divided government, more and more becomes apparent [of being] not a recipe for compromise. It’s a recipe for paralysis and stalemate.”
Plotkin condemned the sluggishness that has been the product of polarized politics that, instead of promoting compromise and bipartisan accomplishment, has favored the precedent of waiting for elections to provide the political means to enact policies. He said of the matter, “The United States political system looks to all the world, to me, like a slow motion train wreck. It is, in fact, in my view, in the midst of a slowly developing crisis of default, ineffectiveness and inequity, and we face a serious crisis, an intolerable crisis, of governance failure.”
Plotkin and his colleagues echoed this cry throughout the panel, censuring the modern American political system as one not only willing to contribute to a harmful precedent of gridlock and inertia, but one that does so pridefully. Plotkin said, “I don’t care whether it’s right public policy or left public policy. Make public policy. Do something. But instead of making workable public policies, the political leaders of the country and the major political organizations do nothing more than keep playing for time until the next round of elections, which is all very entertaining for cynical journalists, but is, in fact, pointless.”
President of the Vassar chapter of Democracy Matters Adam Eichen ’15 said, “We were hoping that students would take two things from this event. The first is a better sense of what actually happened during the election (why there was a shift in power and what the consequences of this shift might be). Second, we wanted to show (or perhaps remind) Vassar students just how important midterm elections are and why it is important to vote. An extremely large portion of Vassar students did not vote in 2014.”
Eichen and Democracy Matters were disappointed with student turnout to the election, which, hovering around 20 percent of registered students of Dutchess County, was particularly low this year. “It was extremely discouraging to hear the elaborate excuses for why Vassar students didn’t have time to vote,” remarked Eichen. “Considering there were a couple of N.Y. State races that were decided well within the margin of the number of registered Vassar students, this apathy really made an impact.”