Election day hubris?

Today, news of the impending “Democratic wave” – a big nationwide electoral sweep – surrounds us. But if this victory comes, what will it mean? My biggest fear, and greatest hope, is that Election Day hubris isn’t the ultimate victor. Remember the 1994 mid-term elections when Newt Gingrich swept into office with his Contract with America? I wrote at the time (I believe for MSNBC.com) that Gingrich had sorely misread the American electorate. While people didn’t like how President Clinton was governing the country, they didn’t intend for Gingrich to grab control of the steering wheel, change the direction of the country 180 degrees, and floor the accelerator. Soon enough, Gingrich would learn this ugly lesson.

I remember 2004 as well. The day after the election I sat in a small conference room in Madison, WI waiting to go on Wisconsin Public Radio for post-election analysis; there I watched President Bush give his post-Election Day victory speech and claim a broad and deep mandate for his second term. Enough said.

My travels across the nation tell me that people want change; just not the kind our politicians so arrogantly claim. The desire for change Americans’ seek does not fall along partisan lines.

Instead, go into any community and talk to people about the issues that concern them, and usually you cannot tell the difference between who is a Republican and who is a Democrat; in fact, lots of people don’t even identify with either party at all!

Thus I believe that while our politics is polarized, people are not. There is much more that binds us together than that which divides us. Many pollsters are even reporting this week that a broad swath of the American electorate still hasn’t made up its mind about tomorrow’s election.

So, beware Democrats. While you may pick up control of the House of Representatives, and maybe even eek out control of the Senate, don’t misread the meaning of this election.

It’s not simply that many people are upset with one issue or another, or that they support one political party over the other, or that they are unhappy with current conditions. No, the origins of people’s misgivings about politics and public life go much farther back.

People’s concerns have been bubbling up and taking shape for over fifteen years now. These concerns go to the heart of the meaning of politics and public life in people’s daily lives – whether it reflects their reality; whether it provides any sense of possibility; whether it engages people as citizens who belong to something larger than themselves who can focus on the public good, or are they simply isolated consumers merely concerned about their own good.

My most recent travels for the Hope Unraveled book tour have taken me to Topeka, KS and Binghamton, NY – two relatively small to mid-sized regions, one supposedly in a “Red State,” the other a “Blue State.” But when I sit back and replay the voices of people I met in those communities, I don’t hear the polarized politics we’ve been seeing lately. Instead, I hear people who want to improve their local public schools, revitalize neighborhoods and downtown areas, and deal with the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.

So, let’s hope that when the election results are tallied, a touch of humility and authentic hope is the order of the day. There’s been enough hubris already.