The end is near. Candidates are hoarse and woozy; the public recoils in exhaustion from a final assault of candidate mailers and attack ads; the cable punditry contemplate mid-November Caribbean getaways. A good number of pollsters and commentators have already predicted the outcome of these 2010 Congressional elections, but the vote itself, the only poll that matters, still remains to be actually taken by actual people: Tuesday, Nov. 2. Will you be joining your fellow citizens in the voting booth?
Past performance suggests probably not. Mid-term races are notoriously poor draws—historically less than 40 percent of registered voters bother to mark a midterm ballot—and if members of the chattering class can be believed this year, many Americans are so turned off by the state of our electoral process that they will surely sit this one out. Young people, African-Americans and Latinos who enthusiastically ushered the Obamas into their historic White House residency in 2008 are showing significantly less interest in this race. Will America’s crucial independent voters head to the polls, or are they too falling into the “enthusiasm gap” that is swallowing so many? The only apparently dependable voting bloc this year may be the members of the emerging demographic of the disgruntled—especially the hyper-motivated, if anarchic and unpredictable, members of the Tea Party movement. These are the folks hurrying to get government off our backs by propelling their candidates into it. Partisans on the left appear equally eager for the first Tuesday of November.
If the nation’s political extremes swarm voting booths while the befuddled, exasperated moderate middle elects to stay home and watch television reruns, we will once again achieve the government we deserve. A motivated minority will set national policy for the rest of us who were too uninspired, too tired, too turned off and tuned out to vote. That is, in the best of times, merely an unworthy outcome for a mature democracy. In this accidentally crucial election, it proposes to become a tragedy.
The Tea Party has driven out Republican moderates—a problem for the G.O.P. no doubt, but also a disservice to the nation. If the moderate center cannot hold, things fall apart in America. Little legislative progress will be achieved during this time of profound national uncertainty and civic crisis if a hyperpolarized Congress becomes a bar-room shouting match instead of a legislative forum that remains somewhat familiar with the concept of compromise.
But despite the relentless anger depicted on cable news, this year’s vote may not prove as extreme as many predict. A Newsweek poll reports that “angry” voters are no more likely to vote than more even-tempered folk. Hot-button social issues that turned heads in previous elections or the Islamophobic distractions churned up earlier this year turn out to be of little interest to 2010 voters. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, voters are focused on two issues: an economy on life support and an unemployment rate that has turned obstinate. That is not surprising after an unprecedented 17 months of stagnant employment figures that threaten a generation of workers and their children.
Catholic voters need to be mindful that the economy is not the only issue that should direct their decisions in the voting booth. Our comprehensively pro-life camp needs to make decisions that are based not only on what is best for the economy but also on what will do the most to protect the most vulnerable among us during this especially dangerous time, to safeguard what is left of our social safety net during a period of accelerating poverty, to bring an end to overseas conflicts that squander human lives and increasingly scarce national resources, and to interrupt the collusion between corporate interests and government agencies that threatens our democracy and our environment.
Owing to the many geopolitical and economic hazards of our times, this is no throwaway election. It will determine the fate of a nation at war and struggling with a fragile economic recovery that could at any time relapse into something far worse. It is a nation finally facing up to the ethical necessity of a health care system that protects instead of bankrupts its citizens. There is cause, through the murk of the season’s ceaseless prognostification, to make out some signs of hope. According to a recent Pew poll, 70 percent of all likely voters say they plan to take part in our democracy on Nov. 2. If it is true, as Woody Allen once said, that 80 percent of success is just showing up, that figure suggests we may have a decent chance this year of voting in not just the government we deserve, but the one we need.