Why D.C. Wants an Election About Nothing

This midterm election matters. But until we demand better from our politicians, they’ll keep pretending that nothing serious is at stake.

10.23.14 9:45 AM ET

Less than two weeks away, the midterm elections seem like an episode of Seinfeld: They’re about nothing.

The most riveting stories so far deal with trivial matters that sound like deleted scenes from a George Costanza fever dream. Did Charlie Crist break the rules by having a fan blowing on his crotch during the Florida guberntorial debate? Is Texas’ Greg Abbott anti-dildo and anti-interracial marriage? Did Colorado Congressman Cory Gardner really play high school football?

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans mustered the strength to articulate a unified vision for the country, and individual candidates are mostly running on a variation of the theme that they’re not as completely contemptible as their opponent. Sadly, but predictably, most of them are lying.

The tragicomedy of U.S. politics is that we really do get the government we deserve. But even a nation of idiots that is paying Social Security to Nazi war criminals deserves better than the content-free snarkfest that will come to a pause on November 4—before starting up again on November 5, as the preparations for the 2016 presidential election get underway.

The general lack of serious policy discussion is inversely related to the contempt Americans rightly feel toward Republican and Democratic politicians. Obama’s approval rating recently hit an all-time low of 40 percent and the Democratic Party’s approval rating is at a 30-year low of just 39 percent. Most analysts now give the Republicans a 55 percent to 76 percent chance of winning the Senate. That’s despite the fact that Republicans’ approval ratings, at just 33 percent, are even lower than Obama’s or the Democrats’.

Given such a multi-vehicle car wreck, voters have understandably tuned out and turnout is expected to be extremely low. According to NBC and the Wall Street Journal’s recent polls, “high interest” in the midterms is actually dropping as the election gets nearer. It’s now at just 50 percent, and a paltry 35 percent among the independents who can swing any election.

Let’s be clear: Blame for this sorry state of affairs rests squarely on the shoulders of the people runnng the show—the Barack Obamas, Mitch McConnells, Harry Reids, John Boehners, and Nancy Pelosis of the world. Toss in Republican National Committee head Reince Priebus and his Democratic counterpart, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, too. But ultimately the responsibility—or at least the price tag—lies with citizens. We deserve better, yes, but nothing will change until we demand better.

When faced with a demotivated electorate, there’s no reason to talk seriously about policy. The smart play is to fire up your party’s faithful and try not to be as hateable as your opponent, which is actually more difficult than it seems for most politicians. Consider fading Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, best known for holding her bladder during an 11-hour, completely symbolic pro-choice filibuster in the Texas Senate and becoming the darling of progressive Democrats all over the country. Her campaign actually sent out a press release hyping an article about her opponent that was headlined “Greg Abbott: Dildos? Against ‘em. Interracial Marriage? No Comment.” Forget that the Anglo Abbot is married to a Latina. This jibe comes after ads in which Davis attacked the paralyzed Abbot for not caring about other wheelchair-bound Texans.

In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Alison Grimes, refuses to say whether she voted for Barack Obama. Her insane and mendacious refusal to give a straight answer almost makes you forget the stupidity of the query in the first place. In Arkansas’ Senate race between Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor and one-term Republican congressman Tom Cotton, the top issue is which of them was a bigger fool in college. Cotton wrote columns while a student at Harvard saying that women’s “greatest fear” was men leaving them. Pryor, it turns out, wrote a 1985 term paper calling federal desegregation of Arkansas schools as a “figurative invasion” similar to occupation by Union forces after the Civil War. Yes, let’s base all elections on student writings going forward.

North Carolina’s Senate race between incumbent Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis is shaping up to cost over $100 million, the most ever. While still lagging a few points behind, Tillis is crowing that he’s gotten Hagan to sign on to his stupid plan to institute a travel ban to contain Ebola. For her part, Hagan’s entire campaign—at least judging from the unsolicited dunning letters clogging my inbox—is that Thom Tillis is secretly the fifth Koch brother.

“It would be a Congressional horror story if the Kochs succeed this year,” reads a Halloween-themed pro-Hagan email signed by New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand. The most serious character in the race appears to be the Libertarian Sean Haugh, a 50-something, beer-swilling pizza deliveryman who says he’s “pro-choice” on everything and “anti-war” on everything (including the war on ISIS, drugs, and poverty). He’s consistently been polling at more than the spread between Hagan and Tillis.

As a group, the Democrats are running not just for office but away from Obama, who is rapidly devolving into the worst-ever two-term president since…George W. Bush. Because they are trying to distance themselves from the president, whose recent and rare appearance at a campaign event sparked an exodus of the audience, Democrats can’t really offer much in the way of an agenda. Obamacare is still unpopular with voters, our foreign policy is in tatters, and the Ebola scare underscores a sense of utter incompetency that is tough to shake. And their Get Out of Jail Free card—“Blame Bush!”—has finally expired.

For their part, Republicans recognize that gay marriage and immigrant bashing don’t bring out the votes like they used to, and they’re worried about saying anything specific they might actually be held to on the off-chance they win big. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) talked a big game with the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, saying that if Republicans control both the House and the Senate, they’ll tackle tax reform, repeal Dodd-Frank, and make Obamacare “optional” if not repeal the whole thing.

That sounds great but when you realize the GOP can’t even commit theoretically to gutting one of Hensarling’s betes noires, the truly indefensible Export-Import Bank, there’s no reason to expect it to do anything. Vows to kill the bank when its charter expired at the end of September softened to talk of reforming an operation that has no business existing in the first place.

For Republicans, the sitzkreig mentality will only grow after the midterms, even and especially if they take the Senate. Most of the party’s big guns in Washington will be jockeying for the 2016 presidential nod and none of them will want to actually defend a specific legislative record (the same goes for GOP governors, who will drop statehouse duties and start hitting the road to build their visibility). The Ted Cruzes of the party will sacrifice substance for showmanship, so expect a couple of years long speeches and short on actual accomplishments.

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The solution to such a dynamic is ultimately as idealistic as it is quixotic, and it rests not with party apparatchiks but voters who refuse to play along with the content-free spectacle currently unfolding. By and large, politicians, like the criminals in old Batman comics, are “a superstitious, cowardly lot” with no internal moral compass. It’s up to us not simply to expect more from them, but to demand more from them, and reward those who are serious about governing and putting forth thoughtful ideological policies.

Because it’s a presidential year, the 2016 elections will automatically have more gravitas and call forth more articulation of large-scale vision by candidates and parties. Presumptive candidates such as Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, and Bernie Sanders won’t shy away from building out large and competing visions of the role of government in our lives. To the extent that they are joined by other office-seekers at all levels, we should reward them with attention, engagement, and ultimately support.

For the rest—the clown-show pols who refuse to give even the most basic answer to the most basic questions and who are thick as flies on shit this election cycle—we need to offer a damning mix of indifference and public derision, of social shaming and a refusal to simply vote for the lesser of two evils. After all, the lesser of two evils is still evil. And elections about nothing are ultimately always about something very important.