Politicians on both sides of the aisle are criticized for using fear to achieve their policy goals. The financial crisis, climate change, the list goes on. The beautiful thing about creating fear is people will not only accept that something must be done, but – if enough fear is created – they're usually willing to act without even contemplating or debating the direction.
The Massachusetts election for Ted Kennedy’s old seat started out much that way, with politicians and pundits working more to create fear about their opponent than enthusiasm for themselves. But, somewhere along the way, the contest evolved from a referendum on the politicians to a referendum on the direction of the country and the way Washington, D.C. has been conducting itself.
It was the perfect storm. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) had just sold his “yea” vote on the health-care bill for several hundred million dollars – at a time that voters were concerned with record deficits and spending. In addition, the promises of change, bipartisanship and transparency were not just broken but flagrantly disregarded. Even though national polls indicated that the health-care-reform bill was overwhelmingly unpopular, it was still being pushed forward aggressively.
The Massachusetts special election also had the extra drama of the result potentially reducing the Democrats’ 60-vote super majority, even though the Bay State is the bluest of blue states and Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat had been in Democratic hands for nearly a half century. Up until two weeks before the election, everyone regarded the result a foregone conclusion – another Democratic victory. But it somehow became a national referendum that gave voters an opportunity to send Washington, D.C. a message.
It was a message sent so loud and clear that even the elitist establishment in D.C. can’t ignore it, even though they might claim it doesn’t matter.
It is moments such as these that make even those most cynical about the political process stand up and cheer. The message is that the advantage of incumbency won’t be very strong in the upcoming cycle, and politicians will be held accountable to the electorate.
We can expect the deficit, jobs, the economy and the like to move toward center stage and the restructuring of our economy and society to be drastically slowed. Health care, energy, climate change and education are issues that ultimately need to be addressed, but not behind closed doors, and with facts not ideology and partisanship.
The politics of fear are still in place, but the fear today is more properly placed. It’s the politicians in Washington, D.C. who are fearful that if they don’t listen and provide solutions to what really matters to their constituents, they may find themselves to be a constituent themselves once again.
No one would dare suggest that this election result will change ideologues into pragmatists, replace partisanship with harmony, or turn politicians into statesman, but it was a big reminder that the American people truly aren’t happy, and that we still hold the ultimate power, if we elect to use it.