Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year

A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)
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4. Elections Work

Gwen Ifill
Moderator and managing editor,
Washington Week

As the junior member of The Washington Post’s political team in 1988, I was naturally assigned to cover the candidates least likely to win. That task took me to campaign rallies headlined by two ordained ministers—the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson. These two had little in common. One occupied the left fringe of his party; the other the right of his. But when I arrived at their campaign events, I discovered something I did not expect: aside from skin color, their supporters were shockingly alike. The conservative evangelicals backing Robertson wanted jobs, economic reassurance, and a guarantee that their children would fare better than they had. The liberal Democrats backing Jackson mostly wanted the same things. The solutions they proposed were different, but the problems they identified were similar. In essence, each group was seeking someone who would listen to them, and speak for them—and both groups were frustrated that as yet no one seemed to be doing so.

That same frustration and desire to be given a voice accounts for the Tea Party wave that swept over last year’s midterm elections. Anyone who thinks that that wave has crashed is not paying attention. Fifty-nine percent of the Republicans responding to a CBS News/New York Times poll this past spring said they had favorable views of the Tea Party. Some people on the left, alarmed at the Tea Party’s rise, vowed to flee to Canada.

None of this troubles me. I like it when we’re reminded that our actions at the polls have meaning, and that we have to pay close attention before we cast our votes—or fail to cast our votes. (That means you, Wisconsin union members.) Neither Jesse Jackson nor Pat Robertson came close to claiming his party’s nomination in 1988, but their presence in the political conversation ensured that their disaffected supporters got heard. And, as the Congress members displaced from office by Tea Party candidates learned last fall, those who discount the power of voters to talk back do so at their own peril. Elections matter.

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