Making sense of U.S. midterm elections

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • November 20, 2006

President George Bush The immediate result in politics isn't always the most important. Sometimes the election of a particular candidate, or the shift of a percentage of the vote one way or the other on the political spectrum is nowhere as vital as what the underlying trend indicates about the future. The midterm elections in the United States may well be an example where the clear result becomes murkier the more analysis applied and the more time unfolds.

The vote must be seen as a referendum on the Iraq war. The Bush administration's execution of the war was repudiated. That may be the only thing the overall result tells us. That and that the next two years leading up to the presidential elections of 2008 are going to be fraught with conflict.

Politics is rife with code words and phrases and U.S. politics is the exemplar of that reality. Wedge issues, triangulation, special interest groups and red/blue states are all examples of shorthand that is packed with meaning and often subtle or overt invective. In all of that, faith and religion are two of the most powerful codes alive in American politics today.

The repudiation of the direction of the war was not the endorsement of any particular platform. The polarization of the American political scene remains and is perhaps deepened. Moderates in both the Democratic and Republican camps lost and the Democrat takeover of Congress rode on the change of a few percentage points in voting patterns.

Issues of import to religious groups had a mixed result. Stem-cell research measures on ballots in two states passed. An abortion ban in South Dakota failed. Gay-marriage ban initiatives passed in seven states. Some of the new Democrat members of the House of Representatives are nearly identical to the Conservative evangelical Republicans they replaced. It wasn't so much that the religiously motivated failed to vote; they simply voted on other grounds, notably the war, the economy and corruption, as exit polls indicated.

As one analyst put it, voters didn't necessarily reject the Republican conservative agenda so much as they punished the Republicans for failing to implement their conservative agenda. Most of the exit polling data seems to indicate that the so-called "God Gap" between Republicans and Democrats disappeared in 2006. The issues didn't go away; rather, they were put on hold. For this election, Republicans and Democrats pretty much divided the Evangelical and Roman Catholic votes.

In fact, the consensus in the "talk-nice" period immediately following the election emphasized the need to drop partisanship and avoid gridlock. The op-ed pieces and the editorials called on both parties to work on issues relating to the economy, health care, resolving the war in Iraq together, without the sniping and fierce oppositional politics of the red-blue divide that characterized the last six years.

Ironically the conventional wisdom during much of 2006 was divided over what impact religion would have on the midterm elections. Publishers released a plethora of books dealing with the intersection of religion and politics. Andrew Sullivan, a prominent conservative thinker, blogger and Catholic set the tone with his book, The Conservative Soul: How We Lost it and How We can get it Back, which is largely about the role that fundamentalist Christians play in the Republican Party to the detriment of the Conservative cause. On the other hand Andrew Greeley's new book, The Truth about Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe, was and is probably the more prescient and accurate account. Greeley argues that for at least six years Conservative Christians have got a bum rap and that for the most part they are not the Republican storm troopers the media and pundits like to portray them as. He documents how the Conservative Christians have let class and income trump moral questions on numerous occasions, as for example with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

For Canadians trying to understand what, if anything, the U.S. election means for us, two things stand out. The new Congress is more inward looking on issues of trade, so it is possible that the occasional free trade flare-ups such as softwood lumber may be exacerbated. Secondly, media hype about the danger of mixing religions with politics is potentially just that — hype which needs to be read in conjunction with a number of other factors.

(Kavanagh is a senior producer with CBC Radio in Toronto.)

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