Panel agrees on volatility of US politics

Don’t read too much into this fall’s midterm elections results.

That was the consensus among the distinguished panel gathered Saturday at the Sanford School of Public Policy to discuss the midterms and their coverage by the media. John King, CNN’s chief national correspondent; John Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico; and Sunshine Hillygus, associate professor of political science, took turns analyzing the Republican Party’s extraordinary resurgence, breaking down the GOP’s net gain of more than 60 House seats and its broader implications in an uncertain political landscape.

Although the panelists differed somewhat on their assessment of the elections’ greater significance, they agreed that in a highly polarized political climate fueled by a media prone to sweeping pronouncements, the nation must keep the results in perspective.

“There’s a great volatility in the American electorate right now,” King said. “As we discuss what just happened, I would not pour any cement—there’s a restiveness in the country.”

Harris described the electorate as “chronically disaffected” with a political discourse that, shaped by an increasingly sensationalistic press, has come to resemble a “freak show.” As such, he said, the American people’s political allegiance is largely up for grabs in each midterm.

The panel agreed that it is unsurprising that the Democrats, as the party in power, lost big at the polls. Still, Harris believes that President Barack Obama fundamentally misread the American electorate in pushing an aggressive domestic agenda in a recession. Obama, he argued, incorrectly interpreted the 2008 election results as a sign that the ideological center of the country had shifted to the degree that his “unique personality” could transcend the “freak show.”

This panel was invited to the University for the Zeidman Colloquium, a seminar dedicated to examining the interaction of politics and press. The colloquium was established in honor of John Zeidman, a politically-active Duke student who died of encephalitis in China in 1982. The afternoon’s discussion was moderated by Phil Bennett, the Eugene C. Patterson professor of the practice of journalism and public policy.

Facing questions from both Bennett and the audience, the panel heavily criticized the media for giving in to incentives that increase profit but undermine journalistic integrity and quality.

“[It’s] publicity and money,” Harris said, noting that extremism—within both the media and the political system—is too often rewarded with both. He cited Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during Obama’s speech to Congress outlining the health care reform bill—in which Wilson interrupted the president by shouting, “You lie!”—as a prime example of the power of these toxic incentives. Before the incident, Wilson was a little-known congressman from South Carolina. Afterward, he gained international media attention and his campaign coffers swelled with donations from indignant conservatives across the country. The media too, Harris said, stands to gain revenue by playing up such outrageous, eye-catching content.

As the sole academic on the panel, Hillygus relayed some of her own work analyzing the influence of money in an election that saw unprecedented levels of outside campaign contributions. Although many feared that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission—which held that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in elections—would fundamentally alter the election landscape, Hillygus tempered those assertions.

“The spending by outside groups was fairly even between the two parties and [the majority of the money] was spent in races that were already saturated,” she said. “It is unlikely that [the money] had a tremendous influence.”

Instead, Hillygus said, the primary indicators in predicting the results of midterm elections continue to be the state of the economy, the president’s approval rating and the number of seats held by the majority. Looking forward to 2012, the panel agreed that Obama’s chances of re-election hinge more on the health of the economy than any other factor.

The discussion took place in Sanford’s Fleishman Commons, which was packed with both professors and students.

“I thought it was interesting seeing three people from three different backgrounds and their different takes,” sophomore Jordan Leonard said. “They get their information from different sources, so it was interesting to hear what they agreed on.”


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