BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Remember that election that happened this week? The one that most of you weren't paying attention to? Well, you've probably heard a little something about it by now.
News Tape: Republicans win big in the US midterm elections, sweeping to a majority in the senate and taking full control of congress….
News Tape: the faces of certain Democratic analysts were melting off over big losses
News Tape: it all added up to a very very bad night for the Democrats and one that will have great impact on the 2016 presidential race
What had in months prior been called the Seinfeld election -- the election about nothing -- has surely become about one thing: the demise of the Democrats. But in the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote, as pundits digest what happened and pontificate about why, Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox-dot-com, has identified 5 prevailing narratives - he calls them myths. Here’s a sampling - we’ll walk you through them all in a moment.
News Tape: Democrats tend to vote in Presidential elections, not so much in midterm elections.
News Tape: Democrats are maybe having the worst year: the Senate map isn’t good for us...
News Tape People are disenchanted with both parties in Washington. And I think incumbents in both parties are in trouble.
KLEIN: says that such narratives, often misleading and always simplistic, can have an outsized impact.
KLEIN: Elections are a kind of information signal to politicians. They are a message from the electorate that 'this is what we want' and 'this is what we don't want' but because the signal is binary - 'we voted for you or we didn't' - the signal has to be interpreted. It does not come with a, you know, detached essay component where folks say, 'well, we like the healthcare bill, but we don't like the foreign policy. Or 'we like the foreign policy, but we don't like the healthcare bill.' So there is a deep competition to define what the narrative was and what the conventional wisdom ends up settling on -- often end up dictating political behavior in the months and even years to come.
BROOKE: Let's go through them. Myth number 1: The democratic coalition just doesn't do midterms. Republicans have a structural advantage based on the demographics of voter turnout. They're whiter, they’re older.
KLEIN: You here Democrats saying, well, 'we lost, but we really lost simply because our folks don't come out in midterms.' This doesn't explain anything though, this simply restates the problem. If your voters don't come out for midterm elections, if you've not persuaded them that you have an agenda for them that needs to go thru Congress. Then that is a tremendous failure of persuasion. The other point -- it only explains two recent midterm elections, really. Democrats made tremendous gains in the 06 midterm elections. So it is clearly not the case that in modern American it is impossible for a Democratic Party to win a midterm election. They just haven't done it in the Obama era.
BROOKE: So myth number 2: 'Because Obama is a liberal, and liberals lost, therefore the election was a referendum on liberalism.'
KLEIN: For one thing, Obama hasn't done anything much since 2012. He's not passed major bills since the 2012 election. So for Obama to win in 2012 and the Democrats to lose in 2014. There isn't some intense liberal accomplishment that interceded there. A friend of mine at the Washington Post -- Zach Goldfarb -- had this great graph that showed, the public agrees that we should raise the minimum wage to $10.10, that illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship, that the government should limit greenhouse gases, that rich people pay to little in income tax, that corporations pay too little. That gay marriage should be legal. You can't look at those polls and say 'this is an electorate that disagrees with the Democrats on everything. You can frankly look at them and the subsequent success of ballot measures around the minimum wage and around pot legalization and around gun control, in this election. You look at what happened in the ballot initiatives and you look at the polling and then you just look at what Washington has or has not accomplished in recent years and rendering a verdict on liberalism is just incoherent.
BROOKE: Myth number 3: 'That the 2014 wipeout just reflects a bad Senate map for the Democrats. A mean, more Democratic seats were at risk election.'
KLEIN: Absolutely. The problem there is that Republicans also made big gains in the house and they also made big gains in the governorships and they also made big gains in state legislatures. And even in the Senate map -- they won elections in Iowa and Colorado which are by no means very red states. So while it' s true that the Senate map made Democratic outcomes worse than it would otherwise have been. You can't just look at the totality of the Republican sweep and say that this was about the map. Because Republicans won huge elections in very blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland. And they won national elections, like in the house.
BROOKE: What about Myth number 4: 'This was an anti-incumbent wave, not an anti-Democratic one. Even John Boehner said "the public's in a firing mood." '
KLEIN: Right. There was polling prior to the election to back this up showing really, really unusual numbers of people saying they didn't want their Congressman re-elected. But here, what you would have seen if this was truly and anti-incumbent election would have been Democrats losing at the Senate level. But making gains at the House level, where there are more Republicans than there are Democrats. Right, if it's anti-incumbent, whoever has more incumbents is going to lose. But that of course didn't happen. Democrats lose further ground in the House. You can't look at that and say that was an anti-incumbent wave. That was voters decisively rejecting Democratic incumbents but not Republican ones.
BROOKE: Well, let's go for the silver lining, the 5th Myth: 'Bi-partisanship is back, because Republicans are not looking forward to a 2016 President election they may be more willing to come to agreements in order to court younger voters who are on the fence and the generally disgruntled electorate who's sick of gridlock.
KLEIN: The other piece of this argument that you hear is that now that Republicans have the Senate and so they're not trying to win it back -- they're going to be in better shape to make deals with Obama because they'll feel the responsibility they didn't feel towards governing. To which as the kids would say, LOL. That is just not the nature of the gridlock we've that we've had. The problem is that President Obama and the House of Representatives are very, very, very far apart. And the simple fact of this election is that you took more moderate Democrats and replaced them with more conservative Republicans. What you have happen, in say Arkansas where you take Mark Pryor who's a very moderate Democrat and you replace him with an extremely conservative Republican is you make the Senate much more polarized -- so you make the Senate a little more like the House. And so, there is no reason to look at these results and say, 'This will somehow give Republicans reason to make compromises that they weren't otherwise willing to make. Or for that matter give President Obama a reason to make compromise he wouldn't otherwise make.
BROOKE: I'm really confused, though - and maybe that's the point. Because as you note, in many states including swing states, there have been successful Democratic initiatives, you know the minimum wage being raised in Illinois and Nebraska, personhood ballot indicatives, which are essentially anti-abortion initiatives losing in Colorado and North Dakota. If this election wasn't a defeat for liberalism, and you don't see any more agreement happening, and the voters seem to be prefer Republicans to Democrats, what's going on?
KLEIN: The thing that I think is the biggest truth about elections in recent years is that they are volatile in a way that we haven't seen in decades. So the 2014 defeat for Democrats is preceded by the 2012 very big win for Democrats at every level of government including winning Senate seats that frankly they had no right to capture. Before that you have the massive Republican gains in 2012, before that that massive Democratic gains in '06 and '08. The voters keep voting people who they think will solve their problems. And then they don't solve their problems. And so in the next election they voters who really only have two choices, they swing back to the other choice. If, I kinda want to argue anything, it's that there aren't easy stories that we can just tell. We want that in media and frankly politicians want that too. But people in different parts are angry for different reasons. We're in a bit of a hole, and the American people are not happy with the government they have nor the governments they keep getting. And until that changes we're going to have a pretty volatile political system.
BROOKE: One thing that is clear is that the media by repeating these easy narratives muddy the waters.
KLEIN: I think we give the American people a very impoverished understanding of how American politics really works. We focus so much on personalities and in particular I think we focus so much on the Presidency that people end up very confused about why things in Washington don't work better and what is the right way to change it. People see Presidential elections as kind of a salvation. 'We're excited that person will come in and be a uniter and not a divider. Or come in and make us a United States, not red and blue states. And then they're not able to do it. And Congress gets their hands on everything and hope becomes depression. And I think that in long-term, for American politics to work better, a lot more focus is going to have to be on Congress. And there's going to have to end up being more excitement around things like midterm elections. We have to stop telling the story of American politics as if it's an episode of the West Wing and the President is always and everywhere the main character.