POLITICAL ANALYSTS were having difficulty reading any trends or Meaning into the results of the 1982 congressional elections. Vagueness of commentary was the order of the day. Bill Moyers saw the election as reflecting the pragmatism of the voters. George Will called the voters’ reaction a continent-wide shrug.
The Democrats did make sizable gains in the House of Representatives that went beyond the usual mid-term correction against an incumbent president. If that was a rejection of Reaganism, how then to explain the Republicans’ holding on to their 54-to-46 margin in the Senate? The advantages of incumbency at work? The huge amount of money spent? Some losing Democrats spent lavishly as well, such as senatorial candidates Mark Dayton and Jerry Brown.
Money played a major role, certainly, in determining the outcome of some races, like Missouri Republican Sen. John Danforth’s narrow win over Harriet Woods. So did good campaign organization, which led to Legal Services lawyer Bruce Morrison’s upset win over incumbent bent Rep. Lawrence DeNardis, R-Conn.
The Democrats benefited from a return to their fold of voters who supported Reagan in 1980. But it did not appear that the party of Jefferson attracted much positive support for what their party now stands for in contrast to the Republicans. Watching the television coverage on election night, I caught an interview of Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo. charged with not offering a comprehensive alternative to Reaganomics, Hart replied that earlier this year he had and so had a group of House Democrats. He added that a party out of power,however, cannot be expected to have that explicit and visible an alternative plan.’
What about a people out of power? American history demonstrates that before new and basic policies come forward, there either has to be a major crisis, such as a depression, or there has to be a real shift of power from the power haves to the power have-nots.
When farmers at the turn of the last century began to organize new power for themselves, both economically and politically, new policies flowed from state and national governments. These forward steps included election reforms and the constitutional right in many Western states to use voting power via the initiative, referendum and recall.
The 1982 election featured a near-record number of initiatives on the ballot. These included the mutual nuclear arms freeze, bottle recycling and anti-nuclear power initiatives. The nuclear-freeze proposal was not a binding one but an attempt to give public opinion on the arms race a more focused power over the decision-makers in Washington. The other binding initiatives were expressions of voters’ determination, as in the Massachusetts ballot question on nuclear power plants, to give themselves the ultimate right to approve any new power plants and radioactive waste dumps.
When voters find it difficult to discern much difference between the two major political parties, it is because these parties allow themselves to be curbed by the same special interests. There are some differences between many Republicans and Democrats as to matters such as the scale of social services.
But these are not differences about structures-of-power changes in the political economy. Therefore, they rarely pay attention to preventing the nation’s problems by. informing and empowering the victims — be they small taxpayers, consumers, workers or voters. At best, they dwell on palliatives instead.
It has become common to hear liberal Democrats say that they need new ideas. That is not what they need. There are plenty of new and old ideas to make government be more just and efficient. What they and other politicians need is the courage to provide the people with the rights and remedies to make government and business be more responsive.
The Bill of Rights started this process 200 years ago. And the milestones of progress in our country are associated with advances in economic and political democracy which give people the opportunity to promote and defend their interests under law.
The election of 1982, with few exceptions, saw politicians of both parties ignoring the overriding questions, “Who runs this country?” and “Who should run it?” Rule by the few or rule by the many — an old challenge which today’s politicians choose to duck.