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The Message of the 2006 Midterm Elections

Originally published January/February 2007

I took one sociology course in college, and remember little that the professor said (a failing memory, plus 40 years of time, will do that to you). But one of his points did stick—it surprised me at the time, but now seems very insightful:

The American people aren’t very ideological, he said. Pundits and party leaders want us to believe that ideology is a major factor in our voting behavior, but he believed that we are in fact a most pragmatic tribe. We want our leaders to be capable, to find a way to solve problems and get things done. Few of us, he argued, wake up in the morning, brush our teeth, and wonder whether conservatives or liberals are winning today.


Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, wrote an analysis of this year’s elections (The Real Message of the Midterms, November 14, 2006, on the Pew Research Center website). His bottom line: it would be a mistake to read this election as an ideological move to the left, or even as a resounding affirmation of Democrats over Republicans. This election, like most, was decided by moderates and independents, according to his polling data. Republicans voted for Republicans, Democrats voted for Dems. But independents swung strongly to the Democratic side, and that’s what led to the sweep at the national and state levels.

And what were moderates and independents most concerned about on Nov. 7? Kohut writes, “This year’s midterm elections were a referendum on Bush and GOP control of Congress, a judgment about performance, not ideology.” His data show that, more than terrorism, moderate voters reacted to the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina. They were responding to corruption, far more than to the economy. They were concerned much more about Iraq than about immigration issues. Remember Kohut’s conclusion: “this year’s midterm elections were a …judgment about performance, not ideology.”

During the 1988 presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis said that the election was about competence. He was wrong, at least in that election, and George H.W. Bush defeated him by almost eight points. He would have been right about the 2006 election, however. Voters today are hungry for leaders who produce results, who get things done. They want pragmatic solutions, not ideological ones. Some want smaller government, some want a larger government, but the great majority wants a more effective government.


Some elected officials will welcome this conclusion. Others are already working hard to spin the Nov. 7 results to support their ideological views (conservatives note that all but one proposed ban on same-sex marriage passed; liberals point out that minimum wage referendums passed in every state where they were on the ballot). Those with a vested interest in defining the ideological direction of the country will continue to pontificate. I’m more interested in those whose who choose to work, everyday, to give the voters what they clearly are demanding: to make government work effectively.

What are the lessons of the midterms, for civil servants and elected officials? I’d suggest these:

  • See this election as a real opportunity. Politicians have been making political points since the late 1970s by bashing government and criticizing bureaucrats. But this election emphasized that Americans of all philosophies want their government to work. After the horrors of Hurricane Katrina (which revealed incompetence at all levels of government), it’s not in vogue today to argue that government doesn’t matter, or that “the answer” is to radically reduce the size of government, or to contract everything out.
  • Americans are leery of those who promise transformative change through government. That’s one of the lessons of the failed health care initiative pushed by Bill Clinton during his first term. He saw a problem that most Americans agree needs to be fixed: that over 47 million Americans lack health care insurance (and that it is far too costly and inefficient). But Clinton couldn’t convince the country that his solution made sense. George W. Bush made the same mistake in claiming that our invasion of Iraq would easily lead to democracy there, and that a democratic Iraq would transform the entire Middle East.
  • The flip side of the last point: Americans are often quite supportive of smaller, focused government programs that demonstrate results. In recent years, tens of thousands of Virginia’s children have gained health insurance because of our state government’s actions, and most Virginians support that. The same is true for targeted programs that aim to reduce crime in our cities, and for setting standards for high expectations in our public schools. Big city mayors everywhere have learned this lesson, and they are usually returned to office when they deliver such results.
  • Management matters. That’s not only the name of my column, it’s a reality that many elected officials don’t get. Most politicians care far more about certain policy issues than they do about program management—that’s why they ran, to promote their policies. The country’s mood today, however, gives civil servants the opportunity to demonstrate the vital linkage between good management, solid performance, and achieving those policy initiatives that our elected officials desire. And our elected officials are more likely to be rewarded by the voters at election time if they see that connection and support programs that are based on good, sound, management principles.

My former sociology professor believed that Americans are basically a pragmatic lot. That was probably true in the 1960s, and it’s clearly true today. Will we finally heed that message?

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Russ Linden is the principal of Russ Linden & Associates, a management consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA. He is a management educator and consultant, specializing in organizational peformance and change methods for those in the public and nonprofit sectors.

He has written four books; the most recent is Working Across Boundaries, which you may order by clicking here .