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Dan Rodricks: 'Never been so ambivalent about an election'

As expected, other parts of the country had most of the fun on Election Day 2014. In Maryland, the biggest race was for governor, and I wouldn't exactly call it fun.

In one corner, we had the stiff and upright Democrat, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, with little to offer but attacks against his Republican opponent, Larry Hogan.

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And while the more affable of the two candidates, Hogan became Mr. Dreary, asserting repeatedly that life in Maryland is so bad that half of us want to leave.

While both sides stretched the truth, the lieutenant governor set a far more negative tone, a strategy that I'm sure influenced more opinions about Brown than it did Hogan.

"I've never been so ambivalent about a gubernatorial election," was the text message from a friend, a Democrat in Baltimore County. I'm pretty sure he voted for Brown, but he was not excited about it. There was a lot of that going around Tuesday.

Pardon my lack of glee, but I think you know the feeling. The polls say most of us are pretty unhappy with the direction of the country, with Congress and with the president.

I think I know what's eating us — the feeling that the country is not as exceptional as we thought it would be.

Going back 70 years, there was a belief in an American brand of exceptionalism and in eternal progress. This big, strong country saved the world in the middle of the 20th century. It came out of war full of brawn and bravado. The future looked endless and bright.

A big part of that was faith — some of it blind — in public leaders and in the ability of government to solve big problems.

The country had plenty of arguments with itself, but a majority of Americans came to a fundamental belief, born in the dust of the Depression and in the fires of World War II, that government could muster for the good, that it could provide for the general welfare of its citizens. Government could defend the country from its enemies and offer aid to our friends. It could support the education of children and a decent life for elderly citizens. It could build roads, support farmers, master science and put a man on the moon. It could regulate banks and financial markets, protect air and water, maintain vigilance for threats to public health.

Three decades ago, the theme changed. We started hearing that government was the problem, and that message came from the president.

Ronald Reagan took aim at the safety net constructed over five decades by Democrats. His message was simple — that, with the exception of spending for national defense, less government would be better for everyone. Reagan also pushed trickle-down economics, a Republican idea that contributed mightily to the opening of the greatest gap in income in the nation's history and a grotesque concentration of wealth at the top of society.

So now we've entered an era where any remnant of economic populism, once proudly proclaimed by Democrats, has been smothered by the influence of moneyed elites and corporations on the political process. We have a political class — Democrats and Republicans both — that caters to the corporate class, and the rest of us are mere bystanders.

Historians always caution against generalities and premature assessments. But we are in a different place now, with super-partisanship based more on obstructionism than on any convincing ideology, with a Republican Party pushed even further to the right by anti-government libertarians and gun fanatics, and with a Democratic Party afraid to stand up for its ideals, including its only important accomplishment of the Obama era, the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

President Barack Obama's approval before Tuesday's midterm election was 44 percent, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Voters in the survey also expressed general dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and the federal government's ability to deal with major problems.

It's not just Obama driving this.

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We've had a 10-car pileup of failure and crisis, going back to the Bush years, the 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession. A particularly extreme brand of partisanship developed after Obama's election and over Obamacare; it deepened with the 2010 midterms, leading to a partial government shutdown last year. Add the flood of refugees, many of them unaccompanied minors, at the U.S.-Mexico border. Add the rise of Islamic State militants. Add the outbreak of Ebola and its arrival here. And, under all of that, we have the constant ridicule and rejection of government. No wonder a majority of Americans have lost faith in the system and in the big promise of an exceptional society.

What happens now? One party wants to reduce the size of the safety net while recycling trickle-down economic theory. The other party won't embrace, much less fiercely articulate, the economic populism once in its DNA. I don't know where we go from here.

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