Is the world as we know it coming to an end because Scott Brown, a Republican, won the special election in Massachusetts for the Senate seat of Edward Kennedy? You can actually make the argument. To wit: Brown campaigned as the “forty-first vote,” meaning that with his arrival in the Senate, the Republicans would acquire just enough seats to defeat cloture of filibusters, by which, under Senate rules, they can kill any piece of legislation. The legislation on most people’s minds these days is the healthcare bill, which Brown has specifically vowed to reject. But the threat, as everyone knows, extends beyond that bill to any bill that the Republicans choose to defeat. If the Republican Party were a diverse or open-minded one, the threat would be only theoretical, but in fact it has voted in lockstep against most major bills proposed by the majority, including the stimulus package earlier last year. Thus, Brown’s self-designation as the forty-first GOP vote carries within it a threat to hamstring legislation across the board. And since the world needs American cooperation to cope with the expanding array of dangers it faces, a hamstrung United States means a hamstrung world. The most consequential business before the world is probably halting climate change, but for this to happen the United States must participate. The election of Brown, who opposes cap and trade, could kill that hope, and with it the hope of a serious global agreement to curtail greenhouse gas emissions. All of which is how his election could end the world as we know it.
Of course, that chain of consequences could be broken at many points. For instance, some Republicans may break ranks on the climate change bill, or the rest of the world may proceed without the United States, as the European Union is doing. On the other hand, the Republican paralysis of Congress is likely to stall a long agenda of other urgent business, and it is sobering that in this and in so many other matters, American politics appears to have drifted so far from facing the real business of the country and the world. (The words “global warming” did not appear on Brown’s campaign website.)
How has it happened? How have politicians and voters apparently detached themselves so thoroughly from the actualities of the times we live in? It’s not so easy to determine. The Brown voters were rebelling against something, but what was it? It’s evident they were not thinking of climate change. Were they rejecting Obama? The healthcare bill in the Senate? Too much “change”? Not enough change? The wrong change? They were allegedly angry, but at what? Was it big government? Big business? Both? President Obama intriguingly but rather mysteriously said their anger was the same anger that propelled him into office a year ago. But how could that be? The polls didn’t do much to clarify the situation. A Washington Post/Harvard/Kaiser Family Foundation poll right after the election found that by 63 percent to 31 percent, the voters of Massachusetts thought the country was “seriously off on the wrong track.” Brown won two-thirds of these voters–whereas Obama won more than 80 percent of them in the fall of 2008. And what was the “right track”? The numbers were murky. On whether the government should do more to solve problems, the voters were split, with 50 percent thinking it should and 47 percent thinking otherwise. The public professed discontent with the Democrats’ plans for healthcare, but only by 48 percent to 43 percent. Massachusetts has a healthcare plan not unlike Obama’s, which the public approves by 68 percent. And Obama himself had the support of 61 percent of the state’s voters. And Republicans in Congress were rejected by 58 percent and approved of by only 40 percent.