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Are Colorado Voters Paying Attention?

The 2014 election proved that our political process has to change. But the part that needs a makeover might not be what you think.

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During 2014 midterm-election postmortems, politicians everywhere—including President Barack Obama, newly re-elected Governor John Hickenlooper, and freshly ousted U.S. Senator Mark Udall—recapped the events with one of the stalest clichés in the electoral universe: The voters have spoken.

As politicians head back to work in Congress and the state Legislature this month, the lingering question is whether we actually said anything. For the third straight midterm election, American voters handed political power to the opposite party, a ritual that’s becoming as mindless as factory workers punching time clocks. Although we elected a host of Republican candidates in Colorado and nationally, we also affirmed our staunch support for liberal policies such as minimum wage increases, legalized marijuana, and women’s reproductive rights.

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Elections are supposed to illuminate the path we want our communities, our states, or our country to travel. But after a tedious and protracted campaign season—a time that promises to get even more tedious and protracted in future election years—we’ve instead created a pernicious loop. We elect some legislators, usually in clusters from one party, and when that party overreaches or fails to make our lives better (whatever “better” might mean), we drum them out and welcome the other side. We keep saying these bums can’t do anything right, yet in 2014, King Solomon himself couldn’t have divined what we, the people, really wanted from our leaders. That’s why, perhaps, it’s time to consider that maybe the politicians aren’t the ones to blame—and that maybe we, the voters, are.

If Coloradans can take one lesson from the 2014 midterms, it’s that we can probably expect our state to remain permanently purple. Unless certain secessionist fantasies unfold, Colorado will forever be comprised of primarily conservative-leaning citizens in or near all four corners of the state, cleaved right down the middle by a densely populated swath of liberals.

Consider: We elected Republican Cory Gardner, the poster child for a conservative in moderate’s clothing, to the U.S. Senate. We re-elected Republican U.S. Representative Mike Coffman by a surprisingly wide margin over Andrew Romanoff. We handed the state Senate to Republicans for the first time since 2004 and chose several state legislators supported by the notorious Dudley Brown, whose no-compromise brand of conservatism has been widely considered to be poisonous, even by the mainstream GOP.

We also kayoed a personhood amendment for the third time. We left the state House majority in Democratic hands. And while several blue states jettisoned their Democratic governors, we re-elected Hickenlooper by a slightly wider margin than we voted in Gardner.

There were similar head-scratchers nationally. Minimum wage increases won easily in four fire-engine-red states. Another personhood measure lost handily in conservative North Dakota. Marijuana legalization passed in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. Pro-environment bills passed in Florida and New Jersey (a traditionally blue state run by a Republican governor). And in Washington state, whose geography and demographics are similar to Colorado’s, voters overwhelmingly approved fortified background checks on gun purchases.

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These results strongly suggest that despite the many ways we now have to learn about a candidate or issue—from social media to the 24/7 news cycle—our electorate may be more misinformed than ever. How else can you explain the thought process of citizens who, time and again, approve progressive-minded causes while anointing conservatives to administer them?

In Colorado, the implications are dire. If our purpleness is indeed permanent, we’ll perpetually be a battleground state viewed as a bull’s-eye by both parties. This means that every two years, from now until forever, our airwaves, mailboxes (both snail- and e-), and general consciousness will be cluttered for months with intentionally misleading political noise. (If you don’t consider a boundless stream of virtually meaningless attack ads to be a problem, you’re probably profiting off them.) In 2014, the tsunami began in June, far earlier than usual, and by Election Day, overall TV spending topped $105 million, producing almost 123,000 ads. That’s only in Colorado—which hosted the second most expensive Senate campaign in the country—and that’s only on “traditional” TV stations, not cable or satellite outlets. Unless something changes, this nonsensical noise is only going to get louder.

(Read more about the 2014 midterm election)

After the West Coast polls closed on Election Night and the GOP romp had been confirmed, without even cutting to a commercial break CNN’s analysts pivoted seamlessly to What It All Means For 2016. To an outside observer of our democracy, the notion of discussing, launching, and even funding the next election while the ballots are still being counted for the last one should seem fundamentally absurd. Today, in America, we accept this timeline the way a cow accepts the slaughterhouse: We may fuss a little now and then, but eventually we get in line and shuffle toward the blades. Since 9/11, our media and public figures have often invoked and debated “the biggest threat to our democracy.” Whatever this phantom menace might be, it surely stems from our willfully disengaged electorate—only about half of which even bothers to say anything at all.

Take, for example, the Centennial State. Hickenlooper won almost 999,000 votes in his race, and Gardner landed more than 980,000. Each figure represents barely one-quarter of our state’s registered voters; although Colorado’s voter participation climbed by about one percent over the 2010 midterms, it still was in the dismal low 50s. When a politician needs to appeal to just 25 percent of the voters to win an election, it doesn’t mandate or inspire them to do much of anything besides try to win the next contest.

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Conservatives love to frame their pick-me arguments by decrying the “nanny state” mentality that coddles the poor, erodes individual freedoms, and blunts people’s motivation. They also love to skewer officials such as Obama and Hickenlooper for a perceived lack of leadership when they do anything other than act firmly, authoritatively, and quickly—regardless of what the problem is or how much deliberation or nuance it might require. They’ve applied it to the governor over his stances on Nathan Dunlap and the fracking compromises; they’ve applied it to the president on virtually everything. Still, while the right loathes the nanny state, it’s positively smitten with the “daddy state,” the idea that leaders must always be iron-fisted and resolute, consequences be damned.

In 2014, even though some nanny state measures won, the daddy state ended up with most of the seats. In Washington, this means Gardner now gets the opportunity to prove he’s not as conservative as his congressional record demonstrates and that he can work with the president and Democrats to pass gridlock-relieving legislation on issues such as immigration, tax reform, and oil and gas exploration. In Colorado, Hickenlooper’s challenge is to work with an emboldened Legislature, in which the Senate is now narrowly controlled for the first time in a decade by Republicans who could try to rewrite some of our recently passed gun laws, expand fossil fuel exploration, and resist measures that are more welcoming to undocumented immigrants. They may also push back on social issues such as gay marriage and legal weed.

By voting largely for progressive policies yet installing large numbers of conservative politicians in 2014, we the voters demonstrated a strange incoherence about what we want and expect our leaders to do. That’s why, 24 months from now, we’ll probably be right back here, waiting once again for the newly installed other side to fix everything.

A flimsy mythology paints Americans as rugged individualists, free and tough enough to accomplish whatever we desire. Yet increasingly, whether it’s budgets or policies or elections, we’ve been unable to make the most basic administration of our society work. Until we, as citizens, can rise above our craving for constant gratification—this infantile need for both a nanny and a daddy—nothing will change. Until we take the initiative to truly understand the issues in all their complexities, nothing will change. Until we “speak” by using informed votes to neuter sound-bite politics and demand accountability, our politicians and their minions will keep delivering this unproductive and cynically bastardized version of public policy. Until then, we’ll keep getting exactly what we deserve.

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