Tuesday’s daily cartoon in The New Yorker depicted a traveler perched on top of a mountain speaking to a wise man. The only words the wise man muttered were: “The meaning of life is ‘Repeal Obamacare.’” More than four years later, Republicans and many Americans still fight the measure and use it to inform their voting behavior. This should not surprise anyone; rarely do the American people escape the tendency to vote based on opposition.
It doesn’t take the monumentality of a national election to realize we make the majority of our decisions based not on what we want but rather on what we don’t want. On any given night, for example, it is much easier to say that Chinese food doesn’t sound appetizing than it is to plan the ideal meal. Part of this is due to laziness. Regarding elections, it takes a lot of mental work to conjure up an ideal candidate or party platform. However, laziness does not fully explain our behavior. The tendency toward opposition has long informed American democracy.
This country was born in the fires of opposition, and we will continue to utilize the tool of resistance as long as self-governance proves too much work for the average citizen. Absent a tyrant, we will always be bewildered.
My comments by no means represent a new critique of American society. Walter Lippmann came to the same conclusion one hundred years ago in “Drift and Mastery,” extending this behavior back to Puritan New England and the Civil War. Why, exactly, was the Civil War fought? It’s tempting to say to save the Union and the great American democratic experiment, but that wouldn’t be true in Lippmann’s framework. It was fought because Southerners perceived a threat to their economic and social system built on the subjugation of African Americans. They fought a war of opposition. Similar analyses can be applied to reforms of the Progressive Era, the Civil Rights movement and the gay rights movement until, eventually, we end up at Occupy Wall Street and today. We search for threats as a voting heuristic, and upon recognizing them, try to halt or correct them.
Democracy is hard, and the easiest way to rationalize a decision is to find something you oppose and then vote against it. This is true regardless of party affiliation. Therefore, the results of last week’s elections should come as no surprise, and not just because of the structural forces disfavoring Democratic candidates in a midterm year. Democrats failed because most did not provide a positive prescription for this country’s problems. Absent answers, they allowed opposition to act as a guiding force when voters submitted their ballots at the polls, resulting in the worst voter turnout in 74 years. It just so happened that this cycle, the threat of Obama (even though he wasn’t on the ballot) proved greater than the threat of climate change or of closing women’s health clinics.
Voting based on opposition is not inherently problematic. However, it often can be, as we will get exactly what we vote for: opposition, and not much else. Next year in Congress, we will likely see repeated votes to repeal Obamacare, repeated lawsuits against the president based on claims of executive overreach and repeated blocking of presidential appointments.
It’s always fun to play the blame game in politics. And with Congressional approval ratings hitting all-time lows and productivity the worst since the 1940s, it’s easy to fault our national legislature. We can blame Republicans for making opposition to Obama their central talking point, and we can blame Democrats for failing to offer real solutions during the election. However, over the next two years, America must also blame itself for stalled government. We cannot expect our elected officials to lead when we don’t give them a map to follow. We get what we demand.
I am fairly pessimistic that the nature of political dialogue will change on its own. Luckily, there is a national election every two years in this country. We have two years to think not about what we are opposed to but rather what we want our communities and country to look like. We must take the time to imagine an ideal society, and then demand that the next crop of citizens seeking office implement our visions. This task is difficult to accomplish, but a functional society and government require it. The decisions we fail to make for ourselves today will be made for us in the future. I can’t achieve my ideal future simply through opposition. Can you?
Kyle Tramonte is a senior in Saybrook College. His columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at email@example.com.