Revolution? Not In The Sedated States of America

In psychology, the “von Restorff Effect” is a basic insight into human cognition: We tend to notice and remember what is unusual or what has changed, while paying much less attention to what is usual and unchanged. We saw a mass demonstration of the “von Restorff Effect” this week, as political commentators waved their hands and shouted excitedly about the midterm elections in the United States.

“This was not an ordinary midterm congressional election,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Shribman wrote in the Globe and Mail. “This time, the American people pushed the ‘shift’ key and left almost nothing unchanged.”

It was a political earthquake. A tsunami. Nothing will ever be the same! And so on.

This was the standard line of observers and it marked the culmination of a narrative the media had been developing for months. The people are angry. Incumbents are running scared. The Tea Party is coming to Washington to throw the bums out. It will be nothing less than a revolution.

And so the election brought a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion: The Republicans won control of the House of Representatives by grabbing 60 seats. It was the biggest such shift since 1948. Even the rate at which incumbents were re-elected was the lowest since 1948. Wow. Spectacular. It really was a revolution and everything has changed. Right?

Not quite. Remember the von Restorff Effect.

While the rate at which incumbents were re-elected was relatively low, it was still, in absolute terms, astonishingly high: 85.6 per cent. And it was only a little lower than the mid-terms of 1994 and 1982: in both those years, the rate of re-election was 90 per cent.

And notice what hasn’t been mentioned so far: the Senate. Incumbents were reelected in 84.4 per cent of Senate races, which is actually a little higher than the rate of return for incumbents in the last midterm in 2006.

What’s remarkable about these results, and the results of every congressional election in modern American history, isn’t how much changes. It’s how much doesn’t.

Year after year, decade after decade, the overwhelming majority of incumbents are returned to office. Even now, when seemingly everything is going wrong for the United States and there’s little prospect of things getting better any time soon, the two parties that lead the country do not face any serious challenge and the vast majority of incumbents have been sent back to Washington yet again. Genuine electoral tsunamis of the sort that occasionally sweep other countries — like the one that all but extinguished the Progressive Conservatives in 1993 — simply do not happen in the United States.

Much of that stability is due to the nature of the American political machinery. But it also reflects real stability in American society. Americans’ self-identification on an ideological scale hasn’t budged since the Reagan era, with most Americans putting themselves smack in the middle. Surveys on policy preferences bear this out: Even on contentious issues like abortion, most Americans consistently cluster around the moderate middle.

Americans’ political values are also remarkably stable. Political scientist Michael J. Robinson noted in a recent Pew report that on 33 questions about underlying political values, there is a shift of six per cent for all the values combined over a period of 22 years. Four of those six percentage points show a shift to the left, while two are a shift to the right, which means a net shift of two percentage points to the left in 22 years. Which is basically no change at all.

Allan Fotheringham likes to call our southern neighbour the “Excited States of America.” But given the fundamental stability of the American political system, it might better be called the Sedated States of America.

I know this is radically at odds with the narrative that underpins virtually all reporting about American politics. And I know that it is, for that reason, jarring. And difficult to accept. I know all this from personal experience.

In 2004, at the height of a furious presidential election, I drove across Kansas and Missouri, talking to everyone I met about the election. I expected that people would want to talk. Everything I had read about the election said Americans were in the grip of a political fever. It was Red States versus Blue States, a virtual civil war, and Americans were engaged in the political fight like never before. So of course they would want to talk to me. They were engaged like never before, weren’t they?

As it turned out, people did want to talk. About football, mainly. Everyone I met was friendly and chatty and they loved football. They would happily talk about it for hours. But the election? They’d smile and shrug and try to say something about it. But they were just being polite. With only a few exceptions, people weren’t engaged in the slightest.

This was startling. I had believed the established narrative. After all, the news was absolutely stuffed with stories about Americans who were engaged like never before. How could that not be true? Only after my drive across the Midwest did I realize that journalists looked for the change that fit the established narrative and ignored what had not changed and did not fit the narrative — namely, the apathy that I found in such abundance. Hence, they created an image of American politics which was deeply misleading.

Admittedly, one guy driving around the Midwest talking to strangers is hardly a scientific polling method. But consider the data. In the presidential election of 2000, which was a snoozer, voter turnout was 51.2 per cent. In 2004, it surged all the way up to … 56.7 per cent.

Of course, turnout is always lower in mid-terms. But as we were told for months, this week’s election was fuelled by unprecedented anger and excitement. And so turnout soared all the way from 37.1 per cent in 2006 to … 42 per cent.

If the Apathetics were a political party, they would have swept the Democrats and Republicans from Congress. And pundits would have had something worth shouting about.