Sort by

How Did Midterms Become So Bad for U.S. Democracy?

David Callahan

It was certainly a nice theory that the Founders had: make Congress more responsive to the people by putting members of the House up for re-election every two years. With so many state elected offices also up for the grabs, and the staggering of Senate terms, midterm elections became even more consequential over time than the Founder probably ever imagined. 

Lately, though, midterm elections have been anything but a constructive moment for popular input. Instead, these elections have morphed into a playpen for the donor class and ideologues while a great many ordinary Americans tune the whole exercise out. 
The last midterm election, in 2010, brought the Tea Party to power -- which would have never happened if the demographics of the electorate that year had been the same as in 2008. Instead, younger voters, people of color, and low-income folks turned out at lower levels than in 2008 while older white voters made a strong showing. Oh, and the donor class spent $3.6 billion in the 2010 cycle -- a figure that doesn't include spending on state elections where the right also won big. 
So just two years after the U.S. election put a president into the White House by a strong margin, another election completely hobbled the same president. Maybe that's what the Founders had in mind with checks and balances, but another way to read what happened is that a popular mandate for change was derailed by big money and a very vocal minority. 
This year's midterm election is shaping up as even less democrats. While 2010 was strongly shaped by a grassroots populist movement, in addition to that $3.6 billion, this time around it's all about the money. Earlier this month, Politico reported:
The Koch brothers’ main political arm intends to spend more than $125 million this year on an aggressive ground, air and data operation benefiting conservatives, according to a memo distributed to major donors and sources familiar with the group.The projected budget for Americans for Prosperity would be unprecedented for a private political group in a midterm, and would likely rival even the spending of the Republican and Democratic parties’ congressional campaign arms.
In case you're wondering, $125 million is the equivalent of 625,000 Americans each contributing $200 -- a sum that would be a lot for many households. 
It's quite possible that this avalanche of Koch spending will put the Senate in Republican hands, bringing even further gridlock to Washington. 
Of course, though, big Democratic money is not sitting still, and new reports have emerged in past weeks of Tom Steyer's spending plans. Last week the Los Angeles Times reported that the California billionaire:
plans to spend at least $50 million of his money to target Republicans running in 2014 who have been skeptical of global warming. (That number would be matched by other environmentalists for a $100-million anti-Republican hit spread across seven states.)
The truth is that we've never quite seen an election like this one, which is shaping up as mainly a contest between super rich donors. Meanwhile, polls suggest that even more people may sit this midterm out than the one in 2010. For example: 
In a poll published on Monday, May 12, Gallup reports that 53 percent of Americans say they are less enthusiastic about voting than they were in previous elections. This is up from 37 percent in 2010. The percentage of Americans who say they are more enthusiastic dropped from 52 percent in 2010 to 35 percent in 2014.
Another poll found young voters particularly disengaged:
less than one-in-four (23%) young Americans say they will “definitely be voting” in November, a sharp drop of 11 percentage points from five months ago (34%).
The poll also found that "18- to 29- year-olds’ trust in public institutions at a five-year low – and their cynicism toward the political process has never been higher."
Yikes. And those findings come on top of findings that I've written about here often, that find that Americans' trust in government is near an all-time.
Big money dominating the playing field, ordinary people sitting cynically on the sidelines. Is that what the Founders really wanted?