WASHINGTON, D.C. - This is at least the third time that a midterm election has been labeled a “Seinfeld Election” – an election about nothing.
The first time was 2002. A fleeting sense of civic spirit after 9/11 had calmed some of the fractures from the disputed 2000 battle between George W. Bush and Al Gore. There wasn’t one giant bone of contention or angry clash ideologies. It was a tepid contest.
The same was said in 2010, the first midterm of Barack Obama’s administration. It was kind of a referendum on Obama and Obamacare but, again, no great debate, no great energy.
And it is being said again this year. This is an election of tactics, small ball and small ideas.
But that is actually wrong. This election has a clear theme. This is an election about fear, pessimism and anxiety.
It isn’t the Seinfeld Election at all.
It is the Costanza Election – an election about what’s wrong and how it’s all going to get worse.
George Costanza, if there is anyone who needs a refresher, was Jerry Seinfeld’s short, bald, usually unemployed, hapless but hysterical sidekick played by Jason Alexander. George relishes his misadventures, his doom and gloom, his faith that the stars will always be aligned against him.
“I feel like my old self again,” he says, after he gives up trying to sport a toupee. “Neurotic, paranoid, totally inadequate, completely insecure. It's a pleasure.”
The American electorate, not living in a sitcom, is not taking pleasure in its anxiety, but is stuck there. This year’s elections are all about anxiety and disapproval. It’s the disillusioned, jaded opposite of hope and change.
This has been evident in the polling all year and is reconfirmed in the most recent national poll for The Washington Post/ABC News.
President Obama’s approval ratings are well below 50 percent, near the low point of his presidency (following the same pattern of the last two-term presidents, Bush and Clinton). The Gallup poll puts approval of Congress at only 14 percent.
A vast majority on the Post/ABC poll, 68 percent, thinks the country is headed on the wrong track. And the idea that an election can address this kind of Costanza-esque pessimism seems almost absurd.
Why is that? Well, just like no girl is actually good enough for George, no poltical options are good enough for Americans. Sixty percent don’t trust “the government in Washington to do what’s right” (and that is lower than many recent polls). Only 11 percent think that the government’s ability to deal with important problems has improved in recent years.
This recent poll is a snapshot of larger trends: trust and confidence in the institutions of government – Congress, the presidency, the political parties and even the Supreme Court – are all at historic lows. Partisans blame one party more than the other, but a giant silent majority, probably more than 60 percent, blame both sides.
This is a combination punch: voters have deep, entrenched negative feelings about circumstances and the institutions and leaders selected to deal with those circumstances. It’s a full Costanza.
The big news stories of recent months exacerbate the sense that things are out of control (which of course they always have been): ISIS and Ebola, Ferguson and child refugees coming in over the border.
William Galston, a political theorist at the Brookings Institute who was a domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton, calls the 2014 midterms the “Chaos Election.”
“Today’s politics of anxiety has replaced the politics of complacency of an earlier era. Recall the pre-9/11 period of the 1990s. We had won the Cold War, the Soviet Union had collapsed and democracy was on the march. American rules and norms, we believed, would be at the heart of a new world order, which we believed we could shape. To be sure, globalization and technological change presented challenges, but we were confident that these tectonic forces could be made to work for American workers. The steady, broad-based increase in wages and incomes reinforced this confidence. Trust in government rose significantly.
“Only 15 years separate us from these sentiments, but they seem very distant. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shattered our sense of invulnerability, of course, but many other developments have contributed to today’s pervasive anxiety as well. More than five years after the official end of the Great Recession, Americans do not understand why their wages and incomes continue to stagnate. If globalization and technological change are good for our country, why have so many good jobs disappeared, replaced with worse ones?”
Campaign 2014 is not “about” these large, looming issues in the sense they are not what candidates are talking about. Most voters come into contact with this year’s elections primarily through a record-setting, multi-billion dollar level of TV advertising. This is a lousy prescription for a condition of acute anxiety.
In classic fashion, George Costanza once proclaimed, “My father was a quitter, my grandfather was a quitter, I was raised to give up. It's one of the few things I do well.”
Americans are quitting on elections in a quiet way. Turnout may be up or down a little bit from past years, but that isn’t the key thing. It’s the anxious lack of faith and trust in both teams, the Democrats and the Republicans, and the government as a whole that makes this the Costanza Election.
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