Is this the election about nothing?

As the American republic approaches its 57th mid-term elections, it does so in a state of disquiet and anxiety. Although the economic recovery from the Great Recession in the United States has clearly outpaced that of most other developed countries, and while more than a decade of costly foreign engagements seem to be winding down, only about 27 percent of the American public sees the country as headed in the right direction.

While the public’s discontent is palpable, the lack of one or two dominating issues has led some pundits to term this the “election about nothing.” The lack of overriding issues combined with partisan polarization leads a number of experts to conclude that the outcomes, from national to local, will turn mainly on the ability of the major parties to turn out their respective base voters.

Nationally, President Obama’s approval ratings rest at only 41 percent, while those of the Congress have risen in recent months to the lofty heights of 14 percent. Despite the public’s overwhelming disapproval of the Congress as a whole, incumbent members of both the House and Senate will be re-elected in most cases.

With respect to the Senate, however, Ripon College honorary degree recipient Nate Silver’s is predicting about a 65-percent probability that the GOP will pick up the six seats it needs to wrest majority control from the Democrats. That relatively small edge means that Senate control probably will turn on a handful of close races, including possible post–November runoffs in Louisiana and Georgia.

In Wisconsin, the two most interesting races are those for governor and in Ripon’s own Sixth Congressional District. Although Scott Walker was, in 2012, the first U.S. governor to survive a recall election, his inability to make good on his promise to create 250,000 jobs, along with lingering resentment over his treatment of public employees, including teachers, has pushed him into a virtual dead heat with newcomer Mary Burke.

In the Sixth District, Tom Petri’s retirement ended his 35–year career in the House and opened his seat to a competitive race. Although the district last went to a Democrat in 1964, the GOP’s nomination of Tea Party favorite Glenn Grothman has given moderate Democrat Mark Harris and his supporters hope of an upset victory.

Regardless of how all these specific races turn out, however, there is ample reason for serious students of politics to take a careful look at the current functioning of America’s basic institutions. Simply stated, there is a limit to the period of time that a great power can founder with a paralyzed national government before it starts to sink. For example, even if the Republicans were to capture the Senate, it is difficult to see what positive legislative accomplishments would result, given the parties’ inability to compromise and Obama’s continuing veto power. However, the same can be said if the Democrats hold on to the Senate, since the GOP almost certainly will retain control of the House.

Excessive checks and balances, the skyrocketing role of money in politics (much of it now “dark” or secret in origins), the reduction of much political “debate” to the level of crude propaganda blasted 24/7 by ideologically–driven TV networks and websites, and the manipulation of the electoral process through partisan gerrymandering and restrictive voter identification requirements — these are just a few of the crucial issues that need to be addressed if the American republic is to be returned to the robust and effective performance that has been admired around the world for the past 225 years.

By Martin Farrell
Professor of politics and government and coordinator of the Global Studies Program

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