The new post-Cold War ethic helped to animate the throngs who supported Barack Obama's candidacy for president. The viral response among young people was driven less by his promise to deliver on some sort of ideological dogma--he explicitly distanced himself, in fact, from the partisan battles of the past. He was their champion because he promised to change Washington--to rescue the ship of government from the failed foreign policy and abysmal economic strategy that had doomed the previous administration.
Today, the sense that incumbents will suffer in November's midterm election is driven by a recognition that voters remain frustrated. Whatever Washington's successes, in the eyes of a public beleaguered by a slowly recovering economy, the continued bickering and lethargy of the legislative process is simply unacceptable. Unencumbered by the big ideological debates which defined the 20th century, the emerging electorate just wants government to do its job, and to do it well. No competent corporation would abide the dysfunction so plainly evident when Americans flip past C-SPAN on the dial. And, in turn, many must conclude, no bureaucracy answerable to that silliness should have a claim on their tax dollars.
Two decades ago, the end of the Cold War marked a sea change in the world of international relations. But it also began to change fundamentally the way Americans think about Washington. Animated by the mission of winning the battle for history, Americans had a different view of American democracy. Today, absent the specter of communism, Americans have begun to apply a new standard of competence when they judge government. And incumbents have every reason to beware.