How We Ended Up Passing Minimum Wage Laws And Electing A Republican Congress

One of the most confusing things about the 2014 midterms, explained.
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s.e. smith
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One of the most confusing things about the 2014 midterms, explained.

I am a full-bore, hard-core, no-holds-barred election nerd. I have voted in every single election since I was eligible to vote, I hosted our 2014 midterms open thread (as you may recall), and every year my house plays host to a bitchin' election party. (Now that it's not the polling place and we're allowed to be as partisan as we please.)

I'm actually one of those people who gets excited about the midterms, which many people view kind of apathetically, but this year's were particularly notable. Many people regard the midterms of a President's second term as a sort of referendum on how things are going, and if the fact that we collectively elected a GOP Congress is any sign, people are pissed at the Democrats. 

But the thing is, honestly, voters are pissed at everyone. The economy still sucks, we're still at war, despite some gains we don't really seem to be progressing socially, Congress and the White House can't seem to play nice (and that's not going to get better), and everything kind of feels like it's in the toilet right now, honestly. Which is not a great way to set up for an election, since voters are pretty much guaranteed to vote their guts, instead of their heads. 

And when voters make decisions based on short-term gratification and immediate needs, you get totally wonky, confusing results, which is exactly what happened on Tuesday night, when voters approved a ton of progressive stuff (minimum wage laws! marijuana!) spanked down some regressive nonsense (personhood!), yet still managed to elect a bunch of Republicans. In some cases, they actually elected Republicans who had opposed the very same issues they were supporting. Like, Ima let you finish, bro, but you do realize how logically inconsistent this is, right?

A caricature of the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey

Illustration: DonkeyHotey, Flickr (Creative Commons)

Or is it?

So the good news, in terms of what happened on a state level, is that a number of states passed progressive ballot initiatives, including my personal favorite, minimum wage hikes across the nation. Apparently people are tired of living below the poverty line and working six million jobs. Who knew. 

Colorado and North Dakota both said "no thanks" to personhood, and personally, if I were voting in Colorado, I would be tired enough of this issue coming up on the ballot that I'd propose a constitutional amendment to bar it from ever being discussed again. 

A bunch of states (and DC) said yes to the devil's weed, if you're into that kind of thing, and we upped the representation of ladies in Congress, which is pretty great. 

There were some definite misses. Alabama is apparently deeply worried about sharia mysteriously being imposed on its residents while its guns are taken away, so it voted overwhelmingly against "foreign law" and pro-gun. Arkansas decided to cling to its weird alcohol laws. Montana voted to end same-day voter registration, and abortion restrictions squeaked by in Tennessee. 

But overall, the tenor of the states in terms of how people were voting on a local, immediate, personal level tended towards the liberal. (My own county, being the sort of place that it is, of course had a fracking ban on the ballot, which of course passed by nearly 70%.) 

But here's the thing. All of these issues had two important characteristics: They provided immediate benefits, and they represented increases in personal freedoms. This is important, because this is exactly what many GOP candidates were promising. Republican voters were already pretty on-board with the plan, and so were some Democrats who felt frustrated with the somewhat rudderless direction of their party (for the record, if you're wondering, I'm registered nonpartisan, and couldn't give a fig for either party, I think they're all a bunch of weasels). 

Point being, though, is that Democrats made a number of promises that involved ominous vague things like spending money, and possibly increasing regulations, and perhaps disrupting the general order of things. Republicans, by and large, promised two things: They wouldn't cost us money (in fact, in some cases, they would free us of the tyranny of the tax system and its unreasonable demands for funds to pay for things like schools and firefighters) and they would basically leave us alone. 

A huge array of election signs

Photo: WAMU 88.5, Flickr (Creative Commons)

For people who want to keep their money and be left alone, it's pretty hard to see where the disadvantage is here. The larger picture, of course, is that when you want liberal things -- like, say, higher minimum wages, or the ability for children to go to school and actually get an education, or for people to show up when your house is burning down, or access to, like, hospitals -- you kind of have to pay for them. That's the tradeoff we all make, socially. 

"This is why we can't have nice things," as the Internet likes to say, and fundamentally, money is behind the reasons we can't have nice things. As a nation, we really hate spending money, our money in particular, and thus we end up voting really paradoxically in situations like this, because while our hearts are liberal, our hands are greedy capitalist pigs desperate to hold on to their tax dollars. 

So it's easy to vote locally on issues that don't directly affect our wallets; smacking down yet another annoying attempt at a personhood amendment doesn't actually result in any major net changes to our economic situation. Likewise, legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana doesn't seem to have any immediate economic costs. Raising the minimum wage, obviously, benefits low-wage workers. 

But on a federal level, electing people who promise to do things that will cost money, even if those things sound appealing, is not really something that voters want to go for. Which is how you end up with situations like this year, where Republicans beat out Democrats even in some surprising places, and why some races were extremely tight -- I'm looking at you, Scott Walker. Clearly not everyone in the country thinks in immediate and limited terms when it comes to money and elections, but enough people think that way that it made the difference this time around. 

This election really highlighted the need for Democrats to organize and communicate more effectively if they want to capture voters who are undecided, but it also highlighted the need for people to get out and, pardon my French, fucking vote. Voter turnout this year was absolutely abysmal, in part because so many people feel so jaded by, done with, and burned by politics. Turnout hovered around 30-35% (and seriously, go check that article out, it has graphs and everything), and that's just for registered voters; some 70 million people who are eligible aren't registered, which, don't even talk to me. Do not even. And I get it. Politics is really not much of a fiesta these days. 

But here's the thing: Politics, like a box of chocolates, always turns up a few specimens that just aren't very good. So you just eat them and move on, because if you don't, your entire kitchen will be overrun with ants. 

What happened this year is something we brought upon ourselves as a collective, and if we don't get it together in 2016, it's going to happen again. Between now and then, we need to do a number of things, but the most important, in no particular order, are: 

1) Get people to register to vote already. I don't care which way people vote, they should be registered. Additionally, people need to remember to update their voter registrations when they move. 

2) Get people to commit to voting, and create incentives for doing so. Some friends of mine and I are starting an informal pact with each other where everyone has to chip in $50 and whoever doesn't vote in 2016 has to pay double, with the resulting pool of funds being invested in the charities of the voters' choice. Given that we're pretty much all election nerds, it's probable that few people will be paying the punishment, but it's a good example of a way to commit among friends. 

3) Facilitate the ability to vote so that every voter who wants to play a role in the democratic process instead of whining incessantly about social problems while doing nothing to fix them can actually vote -- that means demolishing voter ID laws, making polling places accessible, protecting early and absentee voting, defending same-day voter registration, and ensuring by every means possible that every vote will be received and counted. 

Is voting the only way to make a difference? No, of course not. But participation in the electoral process is still important, as illustrated by what happened on Tuesday. We're going to be reaping what we just sowed for a good long while, because while many of us passed liberalized laws, all of us will be living under a conservative Congress that can't wait to start cutting social services, rolling back progressive legislation, and being a big ole pain in the President's patootie. 

Not all of us voted for that, but it's what we got anyway. 

Now, let's all go have a good hard bitter misandrist laugh at Scott Brown, who bears the delightful distinction of having had his arse handed to him by not one but two ladies in two different states, and then let's get to work. Because I don't know about you, but if we end up with a Republican controlled Executive and Legislative in 2016, I will flip a table, and my wrists are too feeble for that. 

P.S. It's the Democratic Party, not the Democrat Party, and Hillary Clinton, not Hilary Clinton. Stop being brats, Republicans.