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November 04, 2013 4:36 PM No Such Thing as a Bipartisan Anti-Incumbent Wave

By Ed Kilgore

I don’t want to spend a lot of time swatting down a ridiculous proposition, but The Guardian’s Harry Enton is right: there is a persistent media myth that any period of hostility toward “Washington” and “politicians” means we are on the brink of a bipartisan anti-incumbent wave or the emergence of a third party.

There’s only one problem with the idea of a “throw the bums out” election: it’s never happened:

The only year [since 1954] in which ten or more incumbents of both parties were defeated in the general election was 2012. Seventeen Republicans and ten Democrats went down. That’s what you’d expect when there is a lot of redistricting going on around the country. Of the 17 Republicans who made it to the general and didn’t win, at least 11 were likely because of redistricting. Of the ten Democrats that bid farewell in the general, at least six were likely because of redistricting.

History can certainly be defied, though there needs to be better proof - especially in a non-redistricting year.

As for third parties, the frequent alarums (or cheers) we hear about some “centrist” third party emerging that will toss aside the rigid partisans of Left and Right and make the compromises the country needs also lacks any historical resonance. Totally aside from the vast institutional barriers to the emergence of a true third party, they have almost invariably emerged from the left or right, not the “center.” In Democracy back in 2011, Mark Schmitt summed up the constituency for Governments of National Salvation:

Political consultants and lobbyists aren’t the only base these imaginary third parties have. Political reporters are strangely gullible to their attractions as well—and the more insider-ish the reporter, the more likely he is to swoon. The late David Broder of The Washington Post, for example, never met a centrist third party that didn’t cause him to lose all pretense of objectivity, predicting in 2006 that Unity08 would address “a hunger in the land for consensus and an end to partisanship.” Mike Allen of Politico, whose daily “Playbook” e-mail is the in-house newsletter of the political ruling class, on September 27 declared a complaint about taxes from the CEO of Coca-Cola to be “a massive wake-up call” about discontent among business leaders that “explain[s] why an independent presidential candidate could have historic support.” Politico even launched its own Americans Elect-style online primary for its insider readers, in which Hillary Clinton defeated several other D.C. insiders, including runner-up David Walker of the deficit-obsessed Peter G. Peterson Foundation, who ran an actual campaign, promoted by No Labels. What leads these otherwise jaded reporters to fall, repeatedly, for such implausible scenarios as the idea that the anger that has motivated the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street could be channeled into a centrist candidacy by a Washington insider, or that discontented corporate executives represent a significant new voting bloc? That’s a question worthy of a book of its own, one that would reveal much else about the faulty vision of the elite political media.

Whatever happens in 2014, it won’t be a bloodbath for incumbents in both parties, and unless something entirely unexpected emerges, the birth of a major third party. So lazy columnists are kindly requested not to predict either henceforth.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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