Editor's note: This originally appeared in the Independent Weekly in November 1994 after the historic midterm election.
The Republican landslide of 1994 will bring consequences less enduring than the fall of Rome in 476 or the assassinations of 1968. A gloating Newt Gingrich or George Will is a spectacle that takes me down with stomach cramps nearly every time. But 17 rounds of congressional elections have come and gone since I graduated from high school, and I've built up an immunity to extremes of hope or despair.
I didn't see it coming, not a mighty continental wind of gratuitous malice that humbled some of our most useful public servants and replaced them, in too many cases, with androids and grotesques. It hit with hurricane force in North Carolina. For me the most painful result was the unexpected defeat of my own congressman, David Price, whom I've come to see as one of the most thoughtful, conscientious, thoroughly worthwhile representatives Tar Heels ever sent to Washington.
No one took his opponent very seriously, until about 20 minutes after the polls closed. Price lost by 1,300 votes to an ex-police chief with no political experience or aptitude. It was a classic example of this inarticulate hostility toward incumbents, Democrats and the White House; there was nothing in Price's record, no state or district issue that appeared to weigh against him in this election.
In addition to The Chief, North Carolina's new congressional delegation includes David Funderburk and Sue Myrick. He's a disabled veteran of the Cold War from Jesse Helms' curious stable of nutty professors, who wrote a book exposing the liberal agenda of George Bush. She's an Amway distributor financed by out-of-state money from Amway and the Christian Coalition.
For minorities, liberals, even moderate progressives, any number of things could be finer than to be in Carolina this Indian summer morning of Nov. 9, 1994. We were blessed with a second Halloween this year, a kind of Dawn of the Dead for half-decomposed Republicans. Every has-been, retread, also-ran and hardly-considered rightwinger on the ballot received the kiss of life from our passionate voters and came lurching up from the crypt in his Sunday best, ready to serve.
The empty coffins were everywhere. Say a special prayer for South Dakota, which resurrected onetime (1978-86) Republican governor William Janklow, the self-styled "Indian fighter" who crushed the last Sioux uprising at Wounded Knee in 1973. Peter Mathiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, first published and suppressed in 1983, accuses Janklow of covering up the murders of Indian activists and of raping a 15-year-old Indian girl on the Rosebud reservation in 1967. George McGovern called him "the biggest dud ever to inhabit the State House."
Don't forget Sonny Bono, either. I could almost cast my lot with fatalists who wish that Oliver North and the Huffingtons (the New Age priestess and her money marionette) had won also, completing such a lurid cavalcade of stiffs that the public would be forced to recognize what it wrought when it bit so hard on the usual fool's-bait of tax cuts, tough-on-crime, etc. But maybe it will be shock enough to watch Jesse Helms—last of the Cold War's back-bench berserkers, champion of a dozen "anti-communist" dictators and death-squad directors in Latin America, staunch friend of South African apartheid--take over the Senate committee on Foreign Relations.
"Lord, let me understand the outcome and deal with it," prayed Mario Cuomo, as the curtain fell on his long reign as governor of New York and spiritual leader of America's dwindling tribe of New Deal liberals.
Does God, with the Christian Coalition clutching at his raiments, still pause to listen to a liberal's prayer? If the governor achieves understanding, I hope he shares it with the rest of us. I'm more bewildered than outraged. The wretched state of the union that mobilized so many conservative voters is an entirely manufactured perception. We're at peace and likely to remain so, the economy is in far better shape than it was two years ago. Violent crime is a fairly contained phenomenon in spite of the rhetoric; more American families are physically and financially secure than at any time in history. Just last year, the Roper Center polled 1,600 Americans and found 89 percent "very happy" or "pretty happy" with their lives.
Yet the New York Times/CBS poll on the eve of the election found voters "disconsolate," "frustrated and cynical," in the grip of "deepening powerless and pessimism," certain that "life has veered out of their control." What's going on? Was this spectacular mood swing triggered by election rhetoric—is it a calculated harvest of misery from seeds sown by attack ads, sound-bite slogans, saturation polling and the outrageous howling of right-wing radio?
Even if voters are impatient with the economy and threatened by this increasingly bizarre society, how can they blame the president and the Democrats, who had only 20 months to reverse 12 years of inertia and gave it a good shot in spite of Republican obstruction?
I remember my first editor laughing at me because I seemed to require logic in my politics. But can you deliberately block your opponent from achieving anything, then ask the voters to sack him for his lack of achievement? Can the same conservatives who preach tax cuts and minimal government turn around and pretend that our problems can be solved by a government of Christian activists legislating "family values"? Can they pamper gun manufacturers until the country is an armed camp, then scream for more jails and more executions?
They can, they did. They got away with it. George Will sees an energized electorate with "an ideological vision"; what I see is some huge, dazed animal, poked and prodded to distraction, that no longer responds to stimuli in any predictable manner.
The stuff that animates rightwingers in my part of the world is so inchoate and simplistic you couldn't accurately call it ideology. My guess is that neither ideology nor widespread misery derailed the Democrats, and that even the vilified Clintons were a secondary factor. Throwing out some of the best politicians along with some of the most expendable was a voter's irrational reaction to a profoundly irrational system.
The one thing in this country that's indisputably wretched is the way we conduct our politics, and the way we govern ourselves as a consequence of those politics.
"Every Senator who participates in it knows this system stinks," says the retiring Senate majority leader, George Mitchell. "What matters most in seeking public office is not integrity, not ability, not judgment, not responsibility, not experience, not intelligence, but money... Money dominates this system. Money infuses this system. Money is the system."
America has just absorbed $800 million worth of political advertising without 80 cents' worth of content. One night on CNN they aired a batch of new ads produced by the Republican National Committee; even with the lowest of expectations I was stunned. These network spots, produced by the first team of GOP strategists, targeted a hypothetical voter whose selfishness, intolerance, narrow perspective, ignorance and slogan-driven thought processes were taken for granted.
It was baby talk, empty images and sound bites too repetitive to hold the attention of a bright first-grader. On Election Day I met with a group of high school students whose reaction to political advertising was exactly the same as mine. Some of them were 14 years old. If you can't fool a 14-year-old with this dismal material, how is it that you can fool millions of adults?
These kids unanimously disparaged negative advertising and party politics in general, dismissing them as "scary," "pathetic," and "absurd."
"It leaves me feeling thoroughly disgusted," says Alice Toher, a freshman; "It frankly makes me sick," agrees Rajeev Dassani, another.
That goes double for the recent high school students now designated as Generation X.
"We think the diametrically opposed party system is an absurd joke," one college student told The Washington Post. "We're just watching the whole American experiment and wondering 'Can this go on?'"
"The young voters say this party stuff is getting in the way," said Gwen Lipsky of MTV, who polled the under-29s in September. "They're tired of the fringes of both parties tearing the system apart."
Do Americans grow dumber as they grow older, through some insidious process that probably involves television? Is there intelligent life after 30? Trust the young people. If the two-party system isn't dead already, it smells pretty funny to me. Resisting even the most basic campaign reforms, perpetually posturing and positioning themselves for elections years away, the Democrats and Republicans have reduced democracy to a rowdy, childish tug-of-war that provides almost nothing but expensive entertainment.
Old-timers insist that it's always been so. But not with e-mail, faxes and direct-mail video, not with TV and radio networks fine-tuned to Pavlovian theories of voter manipulation. The sheer noise of it shuts off sane public discourse for months on end. It's time to drop that last tired line of defense--"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others"--and notice that our children are laughing at us, like the child who said the emperor was naked.
We're way past due for some centrist third party with a national organization, creatively conceived and financed. If both parties are mean to their moderates, it's time those moderates sat down together. Nearly 60 percent of the voters in the Times/CBS poll said the country needed a new political party.
Any third party faces a brutal uphill battle. But party loyalties aren't what they used to be; the victorious GOP is stitched together with cobwebs. Americans in the middle—Americans who support compassionate government that can pay for itself—probably make up 50 percent of the electorate. In the meantime, voters with a bellyful of the two-party system protest in different ways. One irrational response is to sack every incumbent in sight, one is to make the president a scapegoat; another dubious response is to refuse to vote, like the liberal cartoonist Ted Rall, who sees no difference between the warring parties.
Catatonia is a liberal strategy I can't endorse. And I've grown very weary of nitpicking, all-or-nothing liberals who in their own rigid way are almost as scary as the reborn right. I think a grieving liberal can take a lesson from a lame-duck congressman named David Price, who knows that the meantime can be a long time--a long time while people shoot each other, cities crumble and children go without meals. Criticized from the left and the right—and on occasion by me—he's a politician who devoted himself to the art of the possible, and tried to earn his salary while the howling went on all around him.