The Republicans had yet to concede Virginia and there were around a dozen House races still too close to call when New York magazine hit the stands the week of the midterm elections. It featured a picture of Hillary Clinton and the words: "And now the real race begins."
Elsewhere CNN had already designed a banner for the bottom of the screen that read "America Votes 2008." The Economist ran a cartoon of Clinton and John McCain on horseback with the headline: "And they’re off! The real election campaign gets under way."
November’s elections, which saw both houses of Congress switch sides, were, it appears, at best symbolic and at worst meaningless. For a substantial vote with real results we must wait two years–2008, it seems, is the new 2006.
The indecent haste with which the punditocracy shifted its attention from the elections that were not yet over to the elections that have not yet begun was instructive. It is not difficult to see why some might disregard the midterms. The President has the power to start wars, withdraw troops and veto legislation. Look at the amount of damage Bush has done this past six years and how little the House and Senate have done to stop him, and you would be forgiven for thinking Congress exists not to further democracy but simply to administer its orderly demise.
Moreover, 60 percent of the people did not vote. Thanks to gerrymandering, roughly 10 percent of the House seats were truly in contention; 8 percent were not contested at all. So in the vast majority of races, that people voted at all owed more to ritual than to any hope of effecting change.
These are all reasons for Americans to ignore elections altogether, not to follow each campaign obsessively only to move on to the next one without stopping to understand what just happened. But given the manner in which the political class views elections–in terms of polls, personalities, cash and coverage–such a seamless transition is not only inevitable but entirely logical.
Elections are big business. This year the parties spent $2 billion on ads alone. Throw the thousands of lobbyists, consultants and fundraisers into the mix, and the electoral-industrial complex starts to develop a momentum of its own. Clinton, who faced only token opposition in a Senate race she won by thirty points, still spent $27,000 on valet parking and $13,000 on flowers.
The mainstream media are complicit in all this. The permanent campaign allows them to transform politics into a never-ending soap opera–a staple diet to feed twenty-four-hour cable news programs and keep the Congressional press corps focused on the race rather than what change might come beyond the finish line.