The Scientific Activist

With the election results almost completely finalized, it’s time to reflect on what they mean. Make no mistake about it, Tuesday demonstrated a true mandate for the Democrats. The Democrats achieved a majority in both the Senate and the House, picking up 6 seats and 29 seats, respectively. The Democrats did not lose any seats in either house. In total votes, the Democrats had a 13.4% advantage over the Republicans in Senate races and 5.6% advantage in House races (this shows that, in the Senate in particular, the 2 seat advantage that the Democrats hold hardly does them justice). The main question that remains, then, is what is this a mandate for? Also, how will science fare under the new Congress?

The Democrats have lacked a proactive agenda for several elections, and voters in 2006 were clearly voting to a large degree against Bush administration policies (most notably Iraq) and Republican corruption. But, unlike in 2002 and 2004, when Democrats lost in part for trying to emulate the Republicans, Democrats in 2006 won by distinguishing themselves, speaking out strongly against Republican policies, and–for the first time in several years–beginning to articulate their own vision for America. Although the Democrats have quite a ways to go in developing their platform to have success in 2008 and lasting success down the line, this is a positive step forward.

This year, ballot initiatives largely worked in the Democrats’ favor. In Missouri, voters passed an amendment (51% to 49%) to the state constitution protecting stem cell research from attempts to limit it. In the same state, Democrat Claire McCaskill unseated Republican incumbent Senator Jim Talent 49% to 48%. Ballot measures to raise the minimum wage were passed in all six states where they appeared. In all of these states, with the exception of Nevada, Democrats picked up at least one seat in the House and/or Senate. If Democratic leaders have any sense, they will realize that when Democrats offer their own proactive agenda, rather than just reacting to the Republicans, they win.

Most notably, the 2006 election marks the beginning of the end for the dominance of the current conservative political movement in America. The politicians of this movement slowly rose to power over the past few decades, culminating in the 2000 election of George W. Bush. Their agenda has largely been accomplished, though, and they did not have anything new to offer Americans in 2006. For several elections, the Republican Party has depended on turning out a large base of extreme rightwing Christians, rather than appealing to moderates. This year, there was no excitement factor for the base, and the backlash from mainstream Americans to their past victories was intense. There were some minor successes for the Right, though, as 7 states voted to ban gay marriage, but the presence of these ballot initiatives was not a major factor as in previous elections. In addition, one of these measures was voted down for the first time this year, in the state of Arizona. Voters in South Dakota also voted down a proposed ban on all abortions in the state. The conservative movement also lost some of its major players in this election, including Rick Santorum, who lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat to Bob Casey by a sizeable 59% to 41% margin.

So, the Democrats did well and have a positive future. What does this mean for science? The most immediate effect that we’ll see is the shifting of committee chairs. No longer, for example, will global warming denialist James Inhofe chair the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. In these positions, Democrats can finally start pushing a pro-science agenda and, most importantly, Republican attacks on science will virtually cease. On the local level, proponents of “intelligent design” suffered major defeats, something that will also have an immediate impact on science education in Kansas and Ohio.

Unfortunately, some of the largest changes that need to take place are still not possible. Although the Democrats made impressive gains in the House, they are still well short of the votes needed to override a Presidential veto. This means that reversing the Bush ban on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research will probably have to wait until after 2008, when the Democrats can hopefully win the presidency. Most of the Republican attacks on science over the last few years have originated in the White House, and, although the Democrats are now in a position to prevent additional offenses (and call out any new examples of the Administration’s ubiquitous political interference in science), regaining the presidency will be a must for reversing the major setbacks that science has faced during the Bush Administration.

On the other hand, the Democrats are in a position to be more proactive than they have been in a long time. This is particularly obvious when one looks at the overnight change in the Bush Administration’s rhetoric (and the replacement of an extremist Secretary of Defense with a political moderate). In their new position, the Democrats will be able to challenge some Bush Administration attacks on science and at least bring some of these offenses out into the open. Although this also means that it is conceivable that the Democrats could drum up enough support to overturn the Bush stem cell funding restrictions, this scenario is still unlikely.

In the end, the Democrats should be proud of what they have accomplished in this election–and scientists can breath a sigh of relief, knowing that the worst Republican attacks on science are over–but Democrats and scientist should really be looking toward 2008 if they’re interested in real change. In the meantime, the Democrats certainly have their work cut out for them, protecting science and starting to rebuild our nation. In the process, they need to take this opportunity to continue to develop and articulate their vision for America, rather than let conservative Republicans control the political dialogue. This election was quite a mandate, and the Democrats need to do their best to fulfill their potential and build momentum for 2008.


For more commentary, check out The Intersection, Thoughts from Kansas, Mike the Mad Biologist, and EvolutionBlog.