Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Election and the Right

Published in National Review Online on November 8, 2012


Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.


As we seem to be well into the “if only they had done what I would have done” stage of post-election analysis, I’m happy to admit that I believe that if the Romney campaign had offered a more coherent agenda and case regarding our economic predicament and positioned it within a broader argument about the nature of American life they could well have had far more success with the voters they didn’t effectively turn out on Tuesday. I’d like to think that view is probably not much less (though it is certainly not much more) plausible than many of the various “if only” arguments of the past few days. But I would acknowledge it is also not self-evidently more or less plausible than the strategy the Romney team did pursue given the circumstances they were in.

What matters more is what happens next. Some reflection on the implications of the election is certainly necessary for answering that, but it is not the only necessary thing.

The implications of the election for the things we as conservatives care about (and therefore, in this conservative’s view, also for the country) are very grave, and there is no getting around it. That this was in effect a status quo election (retaining a Democratic president and Senate with a Republican House) should not blind us to what the electorate on Tuesday abided and accepted, and even actively endorsed. The Republican House of Representatives survived this election remarkably intact largely because Republicans did well enough in 2010 to control the redistricting process in a lot of places, and they used that power intelligently and well. The 2010 election seems likely to enable Republicans to do pretty well in House elections throughout this decade. Thank God for the Tea Party. But that’s about it for silver linings. In essentially every other way, the electorate that turned out for this election was not the sort of center-right electorate that Republicans have assumed in most recent elections, and that has often forced Democrats at least rhetorically to tack to the center.

On this much, everyone probably agrees. But it seems to me that a lot of people, including perhaps some on the Right, risk drawing the wrong lessons from this election and this electorate. Above all, the notion that Republicans must now adjust their positions to make an essentially race-based appeal to Hispanics and craven interest-group appeals elsewhere strikes me as very wrong-headed–both as a reading of the election and as advice to the losing party.

First of all, the figures we have so far (even acknowledging that the exit polls were incomplete and imperfect, and that there are still some votes here and there to be tallied) suggest to me that the story of this election is not massive turnout of the Democratic base but exceptionally depressed turnout of a portion of the electorate that, when it votes, tends to vote Republican. Those were after all the two parts of President Obama’s cynical and substance-free campaign strategy: to work the most intensely committed and reliable parts of his base into a frenzy while persuading the least committed and reliable part of the Republican base (white working-class voters) that Mitt Romney didn’t deserve their support so they should just sit it out. Much of the post-election analysis has focused on the sophistication of the former effort–finding every last tiny niche in the patchwork of clamoring interest groups that makes up the Democratic coalition and telling it exactly what it wanted to hear. But the election returns suggest the latter effort–using any low and mendacious tactic required to tell working-class voters (especially white, Midwestern ones) that Mitt Romney was an evil and uncaring plutocrat–was by far the more successful and important. Those voters were not going to support Obama, but they could be kept away from Romney, and evidently they were.

The full crosstabs of exit polls are not available yet (or at least not to me), but the information we do have allows for a fairly clear picture of this. As Sean Trende points out today, the lower turnout in this election was driven almost entirely by lower turnout among such voters. “The increased share of the minority vote as a percent of the total vote is not the result of a large increase in minorities in the numerator,” he notes, “it is a function of many fewer whites in the denominator.” And as he further shows, these seem to be lower middle class white voters–precisely the targets of the Obama campaign’s effort to keep Romney’s marginal voters at home. The change in the makeup of the electorate thus seems to be far less a function of demographic shifts than of a failure to turn out potential Romney voters. It would seem that the commonly voiced concerns that Romney would have trouble connecting with working-class voters and that the attacks on him as a vulture capitalist might work were basically right.

This is both bad news and good news: It means Republicans are indeed vulnerable to attacks that paint them as plutocrats, but it also means that the demographics of the electorate have not turned decisively against them. The voters that could carry Republicans to victory are there, but far too many of them did not vote this time. If we must look at it through racial categories (which the exit polls encourage, alas), it’s certainly true that a significant gain in Hispanic votes (rather than a 3 point decline from McCain’s percentage of the Hispanic vote) would have helped Romney some, but there was no plausible path to increasing it enough to overcome the decline in the white vote (of which Romney won 72%). Trende estimates that there were 6.7 million fewer white voters at the polls in 2012 than in 2008, which is more than half of the entire Hispanic vote. Whatever you think about immigration, if poor turnout among working-class whites is the Republicans’ key problem then it would not be easy to argue that a more liberal immigration stance would help them. (Indeed, with these voters such a move would likely do more harm than good.)

But that is only the less important reason not to start shifting policy positions based on the demographics of election returns. The more important reason is that this is simply the wrong way–and especially the wrong way for Republicans–to think about how to win over voters, regardless of their race. And this applies to more than just immigration and the Hispanic vote, but to the larger lessons conservatives and Republicans should draw from an election loss.

The Democratic Party is mostly an incoherent amalgam of interest groups, most of which are vying for benefits for themselves and their members at the expense of other Americans. This kind of party is why America’s founders worried about partisanship and were, at least at first, eager to avoid a party system. It is a bunch of factions more than a party. The basic distinction between a faction and a proper party–a distinction proposed by Edmund Burke, among the first positive proponents of parties in the Anglo-American tradition–is that a faction seeks power over the whole for its own advantage while a party seeks power to advance its own vision of the good of the whole. “A party,” Burke wrote, “is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavor the national interest upon some principle in which they are all agreed.”

Some of today’s Democrats do advance such a view of the good of the whole–a progressive view by which the national interest is served by replacing traditional mediating institutions with the more rational and technocratic public institutions of the welfare state, replacing what they take to be a stifling combination of moral collectivism and economic individualism with what they take to be a
liberating combination of moral individualism and economic collectivism. It is this view that conservatives call “the Left” and which we oppose and resist. But the Democrats are not united by this view and are by no means all agreed in it. The party’s electoral strength is not a function of its commitment to this view or of the public’s acceptance of it. Its electoral strength is a function of a coalition of special-interest groups that provide both voters and activists in return for the party protecting their interests at the expense of those of other Americans when it is in power.

The Republican Party has its own interest groups too, of course. It has often been too protective of big business, above all. But interest groups of this sort in Republican politics play nothing like the role they have in Democratic politics. The Republican Party, for good and bad, is much more of a real party–largely united and moved (and increasingly so) by a complicated and often contradictory but at bottom very coherent worldview we call conservatism which, to vastly overgeneralize, argues for traditional morality, free enterprise, and a robust national defense. The party’s electoral strength is without question a function of this view and of the public’s acceptance of it (or lack thereof). Its electoral fate therefore depends on its ability to lay out this vision of American life (at least in part translated into concrete policy) for voters in an appealing way and to persuade them of its virtues and its value to them and their country.

This can of course involve explaining to specific groups why a more conservative government would be better for them in particular, but it generally should not mean offering certain groups benefits or protections at the expense of others for the sake of their votes. I do think there are some parts of our society that deserve special consideration and special treatment. I would favor a tax code designed to be more supportive of middle-class parents, for instance–but that’s because I think it would be good for America, strengthening us where we are weak and helping to redress the mistreatment of families in our current tax code. I favor benefits and protections for the poor and the vulnerable, provided they are designed to encourage independence and to lift people out of poverty wherever possible. But those are, at least as I understand them, outgrowths of a broader conservative worldview–they are my conservatism applied to specific instances, and I think they should be persuasive to everyone, not just to people in the groups that might benefit, because I think they would be good for the country. I don’t think I would change my mind about them if an election went poorly, though I might change which of them I emphasize in response to the needs of the momentor I might change the way I argue about them to try to be more persuasive to one kind of fellow American or another.

There is much legitimate room for debate among conservatives about immigration, for instance. I probably fall on the less restrictionist end of that spectrum on the right. But I would not suggest that the Republican Party should move my way because there are more Hispanic voters in the country. I think it should move my way because I think that way is right for our country, and it’s my job to persuade other people of that.

And that, at the end of the day, is the challenge for conservatives in the wake of this election. The argument that any individual (and therefore party) should just change substantive positions (especially on crucially important issues) because there is more of one kind of voter or another than there used to be is just not a serious argument. It suggests that the substance of our politics is nothing more than cynical electioneering. Republicans tend not to believe that, and even those who do could never hope to compete with Democrats on that front. They should instead offer the country an applied conservatism.

The job of conservatism, and to the extent that it is a conservative party then also the job of the Republican Party, is to lay out its vision before voters in an attractive and serious way, to show them how it builds on America’s strengths to address America’s weaknesses, how it enables human thriving, how it could be applied to the particular problems we face today in ways that would help solve those problems, and why it is good for each and all of us Americans. That means we need to speak to a coherent and appealing understanding of American life today, and that we need to translate our ideas into very concrete policy particulars that would advance them.

That’s why, to return to where we started, I think the Romney campaign would have been well served by a more coherent agenda and case regarding our economic predicament positioned within a broader argument about the nature of American life. Such an agenda and such an argument are what the next Republican presidential contender will need too, and what conservatives will need in the meantime as we work to move America our way in a divided Washington in the aftermath of an election that has gone very poorly.

That means that conservatives need what conservatism says societies always need: to be ourselves but better. When the smoke clears, I’m confident we will see that, and will comport ourselves accordingly in the political struggles of the next four years. If we do, and if we help voters understand that reasonably well, we can and will get a shot at fixing what the Left is now so badly getting wrong and at advancing our agenda for a while.

We do have what this moment requires, and with the right mix of well-conceived policy and smart and savvy argument we can show American voters as much–whatever their ethnicity.

Yuval Levin is Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.

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