THE CONGRESSIONAL VOTE AND POPULAR MYTHOLOGY

In a democracy, election outcomes are presumed to express the collective will of the electorate. Political interpretation should follow this assumption.

In a democracy, election outcomes are presumed to express the collective will of the electorate. Political interpretation should follow this assumption.

Nowadays, however, political interpretation swerves toward popular mythology, the instant wisdom manufactured by public relations specialists instructed by focus groups, telephone surveys, and what their clients want. The will of the electorate and the popular mythology do not always coincide.

A case in point is the congressional outcome of November's election in the US.

For the Republican Party, that election was a disaster in the Senate and much less so in the House of Representatives.

The party held control of the Senate by the narrowest of margins. Depending on results of multiple recounts and associated litigation in the presidential race, that control might become nothing more than the tie-breaking vote of the vice-president.

The story is much different in the House, where Republicans lost a few seats but retained an unambiguous majority.

Imbalance of the Republicans' fate in Congress does not reflect the down-the-middle split that wisdom of the day presumes to have been the main election result.

A question ripe for political analysis, therefore, is why Republicans fared so much better in the House than they did in the Senate. To the extent the question has been asked at all, the consensus has been to attribute the outcome to mixed political leadership.

Maybe.

But there's another interpretation that runs somewhat deeper but that clashes with popular mythology.

It goes back to the scandal surrounding indiscretions of outgoing Pres. Bill Clinton.

The House impeached him. The Senate refused to convict.

According to popular mythology, the Senate did what the public wanted, which was to sweep Clinton's on-the-job sexual escapades and subsequent prevarication as quickly as possible under the rug.

The source of this wisdom? Polls and public relations.

During the national embarrassment occasioned by Clinton's dalliance with an intern, White House spin wizards manufactured the popular myth that the electorate wanted to forgive, forget, and move on.

Yet the electorate just upheld the political body that impeached and punished the one that flinched at the first sign of trouble in the polls.

In this case, the political outcome deviates from the popular mythology.

Political interpretation should follow.

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