Has “Lesser of Two Evils” Stopped Working (for Democrats)?

Thoughtful analyses on these pages have attended to the alarmingly low voter turnout in our recent election. By some counts, the last time an election was decided by so few was 1942, when many Americans were busy fighting World War II.

Strict voter ID laws and new limits on early voting, uniformly sponsored by Republicans, may well have contributed to their sweeping victories last Tuesday. Voter suppression worked, and people are talking about it. Less understood and little noticed is voter self-suppression. Why did so many voters — disproportionately urban, young, and minority voters — stay home?

We know that a constant barrage of negative campaign ads can leave voters disgusted enough to not bother, but we’ve assumed that disgust will be evenly spread across the electorate. We may be living inside an experiment that proves that assumption wrong.

But before we get there, let’s back up. The “horse race” captivates us, but the groundskeeping of the track itself might have had more to do with the outcome than the horses themselves.

U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell made headlines in late 2010 when he told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that his party’s “top priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.” Until that moment, electioneering and governance had been kept politely separate, at least in the public eye.

Republicans didn’t succeed in denying Obama a second term, but their strategy has certainly gummed up governance since. Collaboration between the two parties collapsed and we ended up with a governing model that lacks the nuance and balance that comes from considering the minority’s views.

Conservatives have traditionally done what they can to rein in liberals’ worst governing instincts. As skeptics and watchdogs, the political right warns against bureaucratic groupthink and hubristic excess. Unfettered government has no natural predator between elections, so the daily refinements and alternatives offered by contrarians are essential to success.

This new strategy is different. Bystanding Republicans simply smile, shake their heads, and wait. When the next election rolls around, they trot out all the ways government has botched things and said, “See?”

Citizens don’t necessarily dislike government. But they deeply dislike government overreach and clumsiness. Whether you like the idea of Obamacare or not, there was nothing to love about how it was rolled out. Republicans kept their distance as things fell apart, so there was no “government stink” on them when the election campaigns began.

Government is not efficient, competent, or lovable when left to its own devices. Voters welcomed the opportunity to register their lack of love last Tuesday.

Getting Republicans to the polls was one way to win the election. Convincing Democrats to stay home was another. This midterm campaign accomplished both, with a powerful assist from Democrats.

Back to the race track analogy, Republicans are better “mudders.” They believe government should be used only where necessary, and as sparingly as possible. A fast track frightens them. Watching government work, in their view, should be painful and plodding, not a sunny afternoon in the park. Negative political ads fit better their world view that government intervention should always be the least bad option.

Attack ads proliferate because they work. Their short-term effects have been well-documented, but what about the long-term consequences on society? What if voter apathy affects liberals more?

It stands to reason. Since liberals have a higher view of government, they have further to fall. Here’s where liberals have been unwittingly hurting themselves. By emphasizing the worst characteristics of their opponents, they are also tarnishing the image of government itself. They may have been winning their battles but slowly losing the war.

Candidates can win elections as the “lesser of two evils,” but maybe not perpetually. Institutional trust diminishes slightly after and because of each negative campaign. It doesn’t matter if the majority of Americans favor your policies if large enough numbers of them fail to vote.

At some point, each voter recognizes a third option when choosing between two evils. You can always put a pillow over your head and wish they’d both go away.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs