PLEDGE NOW
Why More U.S. Wave Elections?: Historians Kennedy, Norton Smith

Why is America seeing more “wave” elections?

Historians Richard Norton Smith and David M. Kennedy — scholars from different sides of the political aisle — agree it’s a combination of instability, deep problems, and a lack of effective leadership. The two appeared with On Point Wednesday to put the 2010 midterms in context.

Norton Smith, who leans right, says it’s because “neither party thus far has demonstrated a willingness to grasp the nettle, to do the really difficult things.” And Kennedy, who leans left, agrees: “[N]o real effective national spokesman so far, including President Obama, has really put together a narrative that has sufficiently convinced the American people of the necessity to…grasp this nettle, this set of nettles.”

The historians also discussed whether or not America may be in for a “ping pong” period, where the political parties continue to switch power rapidly over the next decade.

You can listen back to the full show. Below are excerpts from the interview transcript:

TOM ASHBROOK: Richard Norton Smith, let’s just look back, a broad stroke for a minute here, at what happened yesterday. Here we are, it’s 2010 now, a lot of American history under the bridge, and Republicans take it in what’s being called a “wave.” Through the eyes of history, how do you see what just happened?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: …The idea about wave elections – the nature of waves is they come in and they go out — and there is no doubt that in recent years they have been doing so with much more frequency. You played the quote from Lyndon Johnson after 1966. The fact is that the Democrats would retain the House of Representatives until 1994. It was a period of extraordinary political stability, even in the midst of external instability – the Civil Rights revolution, Vietnam, the Womens’ Rights revolution, and all sorts of other changes. And then, of course, more recently you’ve seen the parties almost flip-flop. The Republicans took over in ’94. They had a twelve-year run. They lost in 2006. The Democrats have had a four-year run. If you do the math, it’s entirely possible if we had this conversation two years from today, we might be talking about another wave sweeping out this one.    

TOM ASHBROOK: David Kennedy, how do you see what’s going on? I mean, we can all recall, or most people anyway, except the very youngest voters, those many decades in which it was Democratic majorities. Republicans had long periods of Republican majorities in Congress. Now the waves seem to be coming faster, almost light-speed, it can seem, compared to history. What’s going on, David?

DAVID KENNEDY: …If I looked for a basis for historical comparison, really I go back to the late 19th Century, the so-called Gilded Age. The period between roughly the end of Reconstruction and the opening of the 20th Century, when there was a long period of political instability at the federal level, the national level, neither party controlled the House, the Senate, and the Presidency for more than six, or maybe eight years, in that whole twenty- or thirty-year period. It’s a period that, in many ways, I think suggests some disturbing parallels to our own when there were major issues that were brewing on the national political agenda, having to do with industrial growth and regulation, immigration, foreign policy, all of which went largely unattended to because of the incoherence and instability and indecisiveness of that national political system.

TOM ASHBROOK: Where do you think, Richard Norton Smith, that we are? I mean there are the waves themselves and their period. They seem to be coming more and more frequently. What about in the substance of what Americans are voting for, looking for?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: …The fact of the matter is, we are at a crossroads…The fact of the matter is, as David suggested, we are confronting very large, difficult issues that are not going to go away. And one reason why I suspect the waves are coming more frequently and why it’s risky to make predictions, but why one can imagine this pattern ping-ponging for the next decade or so is because neither party thus far has demonstrated a willingness to grasp the nettle, to do the really difficult things…I’m not aware of anyone, with the exception of Paul Ryan, Congressman from Wisconsin, who has actually come forward yet, had the audacity, if you will, the courage, to come forward with anything like a specific program.

TOM ASHBROOK: David Kennedy…you said earlier there were some disturbing parallels between the moment we’re at now and the late 19th Century. What’s disturbing about it?

DAVID KENNEDY: Well, I think Richard Norton Smith identified some of the same kinds of issues…Neither party, and no real effective national spokesman so far, including President Obama, has really put together a narrative that has sufficiently convinced the American people of the necessity to, as somebody said earlier, grasp this nettle, this set of nettles.

-By staff intern Jessica Willingham.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
ONPOINT
TODAY
Feb 8, 2016
Sign stands outside property for rent Friday, Nov. 20, 2015, in south Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

If it feels like rents are sky-high, you’re right. Some now paying more than half their income on rent. Some say crisis. We’ll dig in.

Feb 8, 2016
Legendary film critic  Roger Ebert in an archival image from his early days at the Chicago Sun-Times. (Flickr / WikiCommons)

The critic speaks. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott on how to think about art, pleasure, beauty and truth.

RECENT
SHOWS
Feb 5, 2016
A portion of the cover of Ben Ratliff's new book, "Every Song Ever." (Courtesy Farar, Straus and Giroux / The Publisher)

How to choose music in an age when everything is online and always there. New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff shows the way.

 
Feb 5, 2016
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas mingles at a campaign event at Robie's Country Store, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Hooksett, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Ted Cruz, Clinton and Sanders out of Iowa. Zika panic. Syrian peace talks fall apart. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Notes From New Hampshire, #5: Ted Cruz — The Advocate
Monday, Feb 8, 2016

Texas Senator and Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz is an impassioned advocate, Jack Beatty writes — but mostly for himself above all others.

More »
Comment
 
Notes From New Hampshire, #4: Donald Trump — You Heard It First!
Friday, Feb 5, 2016

Jack Beatty recounts an evening rally with Republican Presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, and wonders if the billionaire businessman is really looking for an exit.

More »
Comment
 
Our Week In The Web: February 5, 2016
Friday, Feb 5, 2016

Spread the word — we FINALLY have both a new website (in beta) and a new newsletter. Sign up, visit and see what’s happening in the On Point digital universe.

More »
Comment