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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.

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