November 9, 2022

The Election’s Biggest Winner? Incumbency.

Americans routinely tell each other how fed up they are with their politicians but they never do anything about it.

It was the latest version of “the most important election of our lifetimes” and everything was said to be at stake. Democrats hollered for months about the imminent loss of abortion rights and the end of democracy as we know it. Republicans bewailed the crisis at the border and the violent crime spiking in many American cities. If Republicans weren’t defeated, President Biden warned, the nation would be devastated by their “semi-fascism.” Americans’ rights and liberties could be preserved, former President Donald Trump declared, only by delivering a “humiliating rebuke” to Democrats. From both sides of the spectrum, voices roared that the bums must be thrown out.

So Americans went to vote and kept nearly all the bums in place.

I spent most of Tuesday night scrolling through election updates online, and over and over the same word reappeared: “reelected.” From coast to coast, governors, senators, and representatives were rewarded by voters with another term in office. Republicans like Governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Brian Kemp of Georgia, as well as Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, easily prevailed over their challengers. So did Democrats like US Senators Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Governor Kathy Hochul of New York. With the exception of a tiny handful of House members, such as Democrat Elaine Luria of Virginia and Republican Steve Chabot of Ohio, incumbents who were supposed to be at risk ended up doing just fine.

Some House and Senate races are still too close to call, but as of this writing it seems clear that voters were not in a firing mood.

Are they ever?

Americans routinely tell each other how fed up they are with their politicians — Gallup reported in June that Congress’s approval rating had dropped to a near-microscopic 16 percent — but they never do anything about it. A lopsided majority of the public is convinced that the country is on the wrong track, most voters have an unfavorable view of both parties on Capitol Hill, and neither the current president nor his predecessor is regarded with respect or affection by most Americans. But it doesn’t matter. Nothing changes. Election after election, roughly 9 out of 10 members of Congress who run for reelection are returned to office. Nearly as high is the reelection rate for governors. Voters ignore the apocalyptic rhetoric that so mesmerizes the chattering classes and let officeholders hang onto power for as long as they like.

Vanishingly few American politicians can bear the thought of giving up the power with which voters cloak them. And voters, to their discredit, are almost never prepared to take it away. If you thought 2022 was going to be the year that would change, you were fooling yourself. For all the huffing and puffing, “democracy” wasn’t on the ballot, incumbents were. As usual, they won.

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