An amazing era in American politics is ending.
Since roughly 9/11, American politics has been remarkably consequential. The terror attacks begat the Afghanistan War, and then the Iraq War. Then came the financial crisis, and the bailout of the banks, and the bailout of the auto industry, and the stimulus bill, and the Federal Reserve's extraordinary measures to kickstart the economy.
The first black president was elected, and after 80 years of attempts, Congress passed a near-universal health system into law. For a few months after the 2008 election, Democrats secured a filibuster-proof Senate majority for the first time in decades — and then, after the 2010 election, lost the House so decisively that they probably can't regain it until the 2020s.
And those are just the peaks of the mountain range. A more complete survey would include the near-catastrophe of the debt-ceiling fights, and the creation of the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, No Child Left Behind, and the Bush tax cuts. It would have to mention the President of the United States endorsing gay marriage, the Department of Justice backing off as states began to legalize marijuana, and much more.
This list has its triumphs, its disasters, and its depressing omissions. But what it has above all is consequence. The stakes in Washington were higher than they had been in decades. The daily decisions mattered. The country was watching — not because it wanted to, but because it felt it had to.
The end of the era of extraordinary measures
When historians look to mark the end of this era, they may choose Wednesday as its terminus. It didn't attract much notice outside econ-wonk circles, but the Federal Reserve announced the end of its QE3 bondbuying program.
It wasn't a surprise; markets knew the announcement was coming, and they shrugged in response. A shrug is pretty much all anything in Washington gets in response these days. But QE3 was the last vestige of Washington's truly extraordinary measures. Everything else — the stimulus, the bank bailouts, even the payroll tax holiday — has already shut down. In that, QE3's quiet end was fitting: it was part of the era of extraordinary measures that the Federal Reserve led the front page so often; it is much more ordinary for the Fed's actions to be mostly ignored by the public.
The public isn't just tuning out the Fed. The 2014 election is mere days away, but few seem to care. The pollsters at the Pew Research Center have nicknamed this the "meh election," and it's living up to its title. Fewer people are paying close attention than in past elections and, incredibly, the numbers haven't really budged as November 4th approaches. Even though the two sides are spending more money than in any previous midterm in American history, they just can't get the general public to care.
Elections tend to feel consequential because the political parties can make the case that they are consequential — that the outcome will change something real, tangible, and obvious. Democrats really could have defunded the Iraq War if they won in 2006. Republicans really could — and did — freeze Obama's agenda after winning in 2010. But neither Republicans nor Democrats have been able to make the case that the plausible 2014 outcomes will change much.
Democrats won't take back the House, and without the House, they can't kickstart Obama's agenda. Republicans might win the Senate, and that'll give them the leverage to block Obama's agenda...which they're already doing. There's always the chance of a Supreme Court retirement, or some other surprise, but it's hard to excite voters by talking up what-ifs.
The era of extraordinary inaction
After 15 years in which even Washington's most ordinary tasks — raising the debt ceiling, say — took on extraordinary significance, we're entering a period in which extraordinary events feel too ordinary for voters to take much notice.
The torpor extends to the truly unprecedented: over the last few weeks, the Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage in 11 states and President Obama said he thought the Constitution guaranteed a right to marriage equality — and the country and the political system reacted with a shrug.
Washington hasn't solved all America's problems, or anything even close to it. But now it's stopped even trying. That isn't to say nothing will get done — the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed carbon regulations might prove enormously important, for instance — or to deny the possibility of terrible events forcing emergency actions. There was a time, after all, when pundits said the 2000 election was one of the least important in decades.
But both parties know that, barring the truly unexpected, they can't get anything big done for at least the next few years — and the American people have caught on, too. If there's anything extraordinary about Washington today, it's the levels of polarization and gridlock. This is the least productive Congress since we began keeping records, and one of the most unpopular, too. After an era of extraordinary action, we're now entering an era of extraordinary inaction.