Published November 1, 2010
For Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, it’s fitting that Election Day comes two days after Halloween, running as he is against that sometime dabbler in witchcraft, Christine O’Donnell. For hundreds of his partisan brothers and sisters, however, another holiday reference is more appropriate: Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Today, our neighbors to the south will begin celebrating the memories of their deceased family and friends. Tomorrow, our neighbors to the left will mourn the demise of hundreds of candidates whose careers will be consigned to the political graveyard, few of which will rise to take bodily form again.
How did it come to this? Just two years ago, all things seemed possible for Democrats. In possession of congressional majorities larger than any since 1980, led by a seemingly historic figure who had just won a larger share of the popular vote than any non-incumbent Democrat since FDR in 1932, Democrats forecast an American political sky that would remain endlessly blue. Today, Democrats are headed for a reversal of fortune of proportions not seen since the landslide elections of 1946 and 1948.
How strong will this reversal be? I predict that Republicans will gain between 55 and 72 seats in the House; my best estimate is 64. That will give the GOP 243 seats, its highest total since the election of 1946 and the second highest since the Great Depression. No living Democrat has served in a House of Representatives with as few Democrats as will inhabit that body come January.
Furthermore, I predict that the GOP will gain nine Senate seats, giving it 50 members. That means the Republicans will nearly capture the slate in the seats up for grabs, losing only West Virginia in a nailbiter among the close seats in the polls. I would not at all be surprised if one Democrat–perhaps Jim Webb of Virginia–subsequently switches parties or changes which party he caucuses with to give the GOP operational control of the Senate.
Many will blame the economy for this situation, arguing that no party in the midst of the worst economic crisis in at least 30, and perhaps 80, years could have satisfied the electorate. There is truth to this, as the party in power always suffers at the polls during a significant recession.
But this explanation goes only so far. The anger, disappointment, and disgust that the voters will shower on the Obama administration and the Democratic congressional leadership is unusually deep. The electorate is reacting at a much more visceral level.
In my private election-prediction memo two years ago, I wrote the following words: “Democrats are split between progressives, who seek a radical and swift move to the economic left, and centrists, who want to re-regulate and ‘spread the wealth around’ but nowhere near the degree of the progressives. . . . Who will win these intra-party fights? We don’t know, and which faction wins and to what extent will largely determine both the health of our nation and the possibility of a quick Republican resurgence.”
We now know that the progressives, despite their dissatisfaction with many elements of President Obama’s agenda, largely won those fights. The result is that large segments of the American electorate feel that the administration and Democrats in Congress don’t understand and don’t care to understand their aspirations and fears. This sentiment is most keenly and strongly felt among conservative Republicans, but it is shared–for different reasons–by many nonconservatives. This sentiment is particularly strong among the white working class and among Catholics.
The development of this sentiment was not inevitable. President Obama took power with the strong support of most Americans, who hoped and believed he could make America whole again. Instead, in his deeds and in his words, in what he has done and in what he has failed to do, he has alienated the vast American middle.
Why did he do and say what he did? Why did those words and deeds alienate the American middle and working classes? Is there something inherent in progressive politics that is out of sync with American attitudes and aspirations?
To understand the answers to these questions, we must understand that this election is only the latest battle in what I have called the Fifty Years’ War between progressives and conservatives for possession of America’s political soul. One can understand the president’s words and deeds only if we understand both what the war is about and how Democrats themselves differ about how to fight the war. So it is to that issue that I now turn.
The Fifty Years’ War
At the political level, the Fifty Years’ War is about what defines American freedom. Is the promise of America that everyone enjoys the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness best kept when government is minimally involved, either through regulation or taxation, in individual decision making? Or is it best kept when government removes material and immaterial obstacles to some individuals’ ability to make the decisions they would prefer to make, even if removing those obstacles places obstacles in the paths of other Americans?
Conservatives have a tendency to agree with the first proposition, while progressives have a tendency to agree with the second. But for progressives there is a second, pragmatic question to answer: Should necessity–in the form of voter opinion and economic factors–significantly constrain the pursuit of justice? Progressives differ among themselves on this question, and it is this difference that forms the heart of the battle between the “moderates” and “liberals” within the Democratic party.
Liberal progressives say necessity should have a minimal role in constraining the pursuit of progressive justice. If voters don’t agree with a progressive view of rights, recourse to the courts to overrule them is proper. Voters’ desire, and especially well-off voters’ desire, to keep taxes low and the economy growing ought not to be a significant factor in bringing medical care to poor people or saving the planet from greenhouse gasses.
Moderate progressives take the contrary view. Justice can be secure only if it is secure in the hearts and minds of the people, they believe. They place more faith in, and pay more deference to, voters’ desires, not because they don’t believe in progressive aspirations, but because they believe those goals can best be achieved through incremental measures that receive broad popular support.
We can see this clash most clearly in the reactions of both camps to the Clinton presidency and to Hillary Clinton’s once and future candidacy. To liberal progressives, the Clinton presidency is anathema. It was too timid when it had power in 1993-94, and too conciliatory when it shared power with a Republican Congress thereafter. This belief fueled the challenges to Al Gore in 2000 by Bill Bradley in the primaries and Ralph Nader in the general election. It fueled Howard Dean’s 2004 bid, and was the impetus behind much of the support for Barack Obama’s challenge to frontrunner Hillary Clinton in 2008.
To moderate progressives, the Clinton presidency is the model of progressive action in the modern world. Clinton’s go-slow approach, coupled with his continued pursuit of progressive spending and social policies where possible, meant that progressive policies became imbedded in the middle-class mindset, making them impervious to conservative counterattack.
These differences did not arise with Bill Clinton, though. The seeds for this Democratic division extend much further back in our political history, to the start of the current political era in the 1960s. Each side in this progressive civil war draws different lessons from what happened in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, lessons that carried through into their different paths in the 1990s and remain to the present day.
The Legacy of the Sixties
Today’s liberal progressives are directly descended from the “New Left” of the 1960s. By this I do not mean student radicals, SDS members, Yippies, and others of the radical fringe of this movement. Instead, I define the “New Left” as those Americans–largely bearers of college and postgraduate degrees–who sought not merely to ameliorate some of the hardest edges of American life, as FDR did with the New Deal, but rather to transform American life now. They sought to eliminate, not ameliorate, poverty now. They saw Americans’ pursuit of ever-increasing wealth as an impediment to these goals; why should already well-off families have more when some people had little? And they saw American defense spending as a crucial obstacle to these goals; if no one was attacking us directly, why shouldn’t we spend on butter rather than bombs?
The New Left was characterized as much by its impatience as by its lofty ambitions. Its advocates saw the non-attainment of their goals as a moral crime. As such, those who stood in the way of those goals were not merely adversaries, they were enemies: selfish, unlettered, in need of enlightenment. This sentiment is the source of the arrogant condescension that many Americans and most conservatives have felt all too frequently is a defining feature of today’s Left.
The New Left and today’s liberal progressives, then, interpret America’s political history very differently from the way conservatives and moderate progressives do. They see the victory of Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 as catastrophic. As much as conservatives see Nixon as a liberal because of his imposition of wage and price controls and his failure to even seriously try to dismantle much of the Great Society, liberal progressives see his victory as a watershed, because he stood as an impediment to the rapid attainment of their goals. If Nixon’s victory was catastrophic, Reagan’s victory was epochal. Reagan and his heirs promised not just to stand in the way of achieving liberal progressives’ deepest dreams; they stood pledged to question the very assumptions of the progressive project and roll them back if they could.
To reverse these trends, liberal progressives knew they had to control the Democratic party, and to do that they had to nominate and elect one of their own to the presidency. Thus was born the now endemic battles between the progressives and the old guard (unions and party bosses in the ’80s, the DLC in the ’90s and ’00s) in Democratic nomination contests. The liberal progressive candidate would win educated voters–the “wine set,” as Ron Brownstein has labeled them–while the moderate progressive candidate would win the middle and working classes–Brownstein’s “beer set.” Since beer drinkers have always outnumbered wine drinkers in Democratic primaries, the candidates who excited the most progressive elements always lost–until Barack Obama broke the mold in 2008 by attracting African-American “beer drinkers” into the progressive camp.
Liberal progressives view these consistent defeats as examples of justice denied. Their consistent rejection by the voters is seen not as a rejection of their impatience or lofty ambitions, but as something more sinister. The voters were bamboozled by the Teflon Great Communicator, by Willie Horton ads, by triangulating good old boys, by corporate interests, and by blockheaded Texans backed by unscrupulous Mayberry Machiavellians. Something is the matter with Kansans if they don’t back progressives; it must be devious politicians who divert middle- and working-class voters with the bread and circuses of phony social issues and unnecessary foreign wars. The solution: Organize new constituencies, particularly among the young and among ethnic minorities, through the internet (Daily Kos, MoveOn.org), local groups (ACORN), and D.C.-based interest groups (EMILY’s List, Center for American Progress), and continue to press for progressive justice in bold colors, not pale pastels.
As the continued failure of progressive candidates in Democratic presidential primaries shows, a majority of Democrats are not of this lineage. These moderate progressives place a very different interpretation on what went wrong in the ’60s and ’70s, and have adopted a very different view of how to engage in and shape American politics.
Moderate progressives view the rejections of the Democrats from 1968 to 1984 as a sober lesson delivered by a sober populace. They view Americans today as wanting the same things economically that their parents and grandparents wanted from the New Deal: an active safety net that helps them move up in American life. In this view, Americans support Democrats when they use government to support and enhance middle-class values and aspirations. Moderate progressives believe Democrats got away from that heritage when they started to be perceived as worrying more about people who did not work than about those who did, as worrying more about criminals than the victims of crime, as worrying more about American aggression than about the freedom of the West.
For moderate progressives, then, the very impatience and lofty ambitions that animate liberal progressives were seen to be the causes of Republican and conservative victory. Moderate progressives like Bill Clinton believed that voters would choose conservative Republicans if they were not offered a Democratic alternative that sought to modernize Roosevelt’s legacy for modern times. By pledging to “end welfare as we know it” and support the people who “work hard and play by the rules,” Clinton sought to place that alternative before Americans. He did, and he won.
The very victory that moderate progressives view as legitimizing their approach, though, is seen as destructive by liberal progressives. This difference is encapsulated in how each side views welfare reform, the passage of which is widely viewed as securing Clinton’s reelection. Moderate progressives are proud of that legislation, wishing that it had provided more economic support to single mothers but generally supportive of the fact that it helped move millions of people into work. Liberal progressives, though, believe that it did little or nothing to end poverty, and as such was a sell-out of the progressive commitment to the poor. The fact that the public demanded that the welfare-reform bill or something like it be passed weighs large in the calculus of the moderate progressives, but not at all in that of that liberal progressives.
The Progressive Civil War
Fast forward to the past two years, and we can see that this tension within the Democratic party is a factor in every major decision the administration and the congressional leadership has made. From the start, President Obama, with the enthusiastic backing of liberal progressives, declared that his would be a transformative presidency. This meant that his agenda would largely be that of the liberal progressives: health-care reform with a major emphasis on near-universal coverage, cap-and-trade, a large economic stimulus focused more on government projects than on tax relief, a consumer-protection agency to regulate financial instruments. Truly, this crisis would not be allowed to go to waste: Forty years of wandering in the political wilderness would finally be over.
were acutely aware that they had supermajorities they had not possessed since 1980. With the increase of the partisan use of the filibuster, a phenomenon not widely seen until the Clinton years, they felt they would not have this degree of power again in the near future. Many argued that the window for bold action was narrow, and it could not be let to close without fulfilling liberal-progressive dreams.
Any one of these measures would have defined a Congress. To push all of them simultaneously, plus a major financial-regulation bill to address what was argued to be the causes of the financial crisis, proved to be too much. Nevertheless, time after time, when political warning signals went up, the administration and the congressional leadership pushed forward.
The administration has been criticized by many for not engaging in Clintonian triangulation, in not bending to the political winds to pass something incremental and obtainable. Speaker Pelosi’s decision to push her caucus to a floor vote on cap-and-trade legislation that was unlikely to pass the Senate might cost dozens of Democrats their seats. The decision to push the health-care bill after Scott Brown won the Massachusetts special election to the Senate has helped to define the entire 2010 campaign. Had they not done these things, many moderate progressives argue, Democrats could have staved off the massive defeat they are now certain to suffer.
But this argument essentially says that Hillary Clinton should have won the presidency. The whole point of liberal progressivism is to rid the Democratic party of what it views as temporizing and lack of principle. Barack Obama won his nomination with that faction’s support; Nancy Pelosi was elevated to the speakership with their favor. To ignore the liberal progressives’ ideals in difficult times would break faith with them, guaranteeing their eternal enmity and earning the president a probable primary challenge.
Indeed, these fears were justified. The twin totems of liberal progressivism–lofty ambitions and impatience–have been on full display when liberal progressives discuss the administration’s decisions. Paul Krugman decries a too-small stimulus, a bill whose near-trillion-dollar price tag shocked middle-class Americans. Jon Stewart tells the president that he has been too timid. While most polls show that Americans view President Obama as too liberal, liberal progressives view him as not liberal enough.
None of this would have mattered if the liberal progressives had been right about the reasons they have lost in the past. If Americans genuinely wanted quick implementation of liberal-progressive economic measures, then there would have been no electoral retribution to fear. Indeed, this was the argument many liberal progressives made when the decision was made to go forward with the health-care bill.
Moderate progressives argued that Brown’s election was a wake-up call. Pointing to many polls showing that Americans did not want the health-care bill to pass and that independents were growing more concerned about the deficit and moving against the Democrats, men such as Mark Penn and Doug Schoen argued that electoral disaster loomed unless the administration changed course. They pointed to the landslide of 1994 as an example of what could happen if the Speaker and the president persisted. In essence, moderate progressive argued that the Democrats lost in 1994 by trying to be three steps ahead of public opinion instead of one.
Those in favor of pushing forward argued that the reason the Democrats lost in 1994 was not that they were too far ahead of public opinion, but that by failing to pass Clinton’s health-care bill they had not heeded public opinion enough. Democrats were punished in 1994 for not governing, not for being out of step with public opinion. Thus in March 2010, liberal progressives were saying, Pass the bill and the people will reward you for tackling a tough problem. By November, these men argued, Republicans will no longer be able to distract the voters with wild claims about “death panels,” and the president could make the case himself. The political calculus, they said, favored bold action–not triangulation.
Note how all the issues in the progressive civil war played out in this discussion. Should we aim for incremental amelioration or bold transformation? Should public opinion cause progressives to slow down or not? Is the public genuinely for liberal progressivism or not?
The progressive civil war has played out in the ensuing post-Obamacare policy and political debates as well. Moderate progressives argued for a sole preoccupation with the economy, jobs, and controlling the deficit. Polls showed that this is what independents, who still had a personal regard for President Obama, wanted addressed. Liberal progressives instead insisted on measures that would energize the despondent base. Immigration reform would attract Latinos, addressing student-loan defaults would energize the young, cap-and-trade would energize environmentalists, and so on.
These debates also replayed old progressive debates on how to engage in American politics. Moderate progressives, who believed that liberal progressivism was to blame for prior defeats, emphasized the role independents would play in the election and counseled ameliorative incremental measures. Liberal progressives, who believed that lack of boldness and improper campaign tactics were responsible for prior defeats, focused on policies that would energize liberal progressives–who supposedly normally do not vote–to show up at the polls.
We can see that the administration again largely accepted the liberal-progressive view of the world. Legislative attention was focused on financial regulation, a bill that was superficially popular but which clearly was not a priority for any segment of the electorate. Little serious attention was paid to the deficit, and the administration’s reaction to the Gulf oil spill was to shut down offshore drilling, an act that thrilled environmentalists but surely was noticed by working-class Americans already worried about their jobs. It was as if the administration felt that directing popular anger against Wall Street and big business–a staple of the Democratic party since Andrew Jackson and 1832, as progressives John Judis and Ruy Teixeira noted in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority–was sufficient to bring working-class Americans back on board.
The result is clear, according to moderate progressives. Once again, the Democratic party has been seduced by the siren song of immediate and comprehensive public action without regard to cost or public opinion. The cure for this disease is clear: a return to the only course of political action that has worked for Democrats since 1966, Clintonian incrementalism.
Liberal progressives would contest this interpretation. They place the blame for the Democratic defeat on the economy, noting that unemployment is at historically high levels, levels that have particularly affected the working class. They further note that they were unable to deliver on immigration reform, cap-and-trade, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, and other measures that would excite the base. They would argue that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United opened the floodgate to unprecedented influence by corporations and billionaires who could now spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns guided by clever and unscrupulous Republican operatives.
In short, they are repeating all of their prior explanations for 40 years of political defeat. People are voting their pocketbooks, our voters won’t vote unless they have something to vote for, and outside interests are once more conspiring to distract the voters with phony issues and slick ads. This, then, is the decisive point: Are liberal progressives right about recent American electoral history? Or do American voters fundamentally not want what liberal progressives have to offer?
What Do Americans Really Want?
Let’s start this discussion with a simple fact. Since 1960, Democrats have simultaneously controlled the White House and Congress with large supermajorities four times: 1965-66, 1977-80, 1993-94, and 2009-10. In each of the three previous instances, Democrats suffered landslide reversals in Congress within four years of obtaining their supermajorities. They will do so again this year. The only time they did not also then lose the presidency was in 1996, when the triangulator Bill Clinton was reelected. Is this a coincidence?
One cannot easily blame the economy for those earlier defeats. The economy was humming in the 1960s, and it was steadily recovering during the early 1990s. Nor can one easily blame political consultants and clever Republican tricks. As anyone who follows advertising and politics knows, a campaign succeeds only if it communicates messages its audience wants to hear. The only thread that runs through all four of the landslide reversals is the presence of liberal progressivism as the defining feature of the campaign.
One can begin to arrive at the political problem of liberal progressivism when one notes that each of those reversals saw the white working class abandon Democrats in record numbers. Nixon’s Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, angry white males–these catchphrases from those past elections are merely euphemisms for the white working class. In each election, it was their defection that cost the Democrats their majorities and gave victory to the GOP, and polls and casual observation suggest that the white working class is in revolt against President Obama. You can read my NRO article “GOP Heaven, West Virginia?” for the full argument, but suffice it to say that President Obama’s approval rating among white working-class voters is in the neighborhood of 30 percent. By comparison, this is only a few points higher than Nixon’s approval rating on the eve of his resignation.
There must be something unique to the concerns of the white working class, then, that liberal progressivism rubs the wrong way. What might that be?
One could try to discover the answer by recourse to recent polls. If one examined the Ap-GfK poll from September 6-13, for example, one would find that working-class voters believe that government intervention in the economy is more harmful than beneficial by nearly a two-to-one margin. One would also find they are more distressed about the economy and more likely to say they have suffered financially or that a relative has lost a job. Over half say President Obama does not understand ordinary Americans’ problems. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn the same poll shows Republicans leading Democrats by 22 points on the generic congressional ballot, whereas Democrats led Republicans by 12 points two years ago.
But such recourse cannot account for the recurring white-working-class swings toward the GOP in prior years. Issues change, yet the same pattern has recurred for over 40 years. Something deeper must be at work, something that operates at the level of values rather than that of ideas. To discern what those values are, we must make inferences from these past elections rather than rely on contemporaneous data; we must turn off our computers and rely on the Force.
When I started to do this, I focused on American voters. But I soon realized that working-class voters exhibit similar traits in other countries as well. Ask an American working-class voter why he supports Democrats, and he or she is likely to say it’s because Democrats support “the little guy.” Reading about English voters in Claire Berlinski’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, There Is No Alternative, I found the exact same phrase used by English miners to describe their support for Labour. When I found the same phrase being used by Australian working-class voters to describe their attraction to the Australian Labour Party, I decided I needed to learn more.
So I reached out to Patrick Muttart, former chief of staff to Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper. Muttart is perhaps the world’s leading expert on working-class voters in English-speaking countries, having studied their behavior and attitudes not only in Canada but also in Britain, Australia, and America. He has found that in each country, working-class voters may form the base for successful center-left governments but are crucially responsible for the rise of center-right leaders like Harper, Australia’s John Howard, and Margaret Thatcher.
He was kind enough to speak with me at length. He emphasized that working-class voters do not fit neatly on the traditional left-right continuum. They are fiscally conservative, wanting low rates of taxation and wanting government to live within its means, but economically populist, suspicious of trade, outsourcing, and high finance. They are culturally orthodox but morally moderate, in the sense that they don’t feel their lives will change much because of how social issues play out. They are patriotic and supportive of the military, but suspicious of foreign adventures.
Most importantly, they are modest in their aspirations for themselves. They do not aspire to be “type A business owners”; they want to go to work, do what’s asked of them, not have too much stress in their lives, and spend time with their families. They want structure and stability in their lives so that things are taken care of and they don’t have to worry.
Drawing on Muttart’s insights and my own thinking, I believe there are seven salient values or tendencies that are common to working-class voters across the decades. Call them the Seven Habits of the Working Class. They are:
- Hope for the future
- Fear of the present
- Pride in their lives
- Anger at being disrespected
- Belief in public order
- Fear of rapid change
Let me address each of them in turn.
Hope for the future: One of the striking facts about America is how readily we believe that we can prosper through hard work and our own efforts. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly believe this to be true. These polls also show there is a high correlation between the belief that one is in control of one’s life and the belief that one can prosper through one’s own efforts.
Working-class Americans share classic American beliefs very strongly. They value economic growth because they believe they personally benefit from it. Unlike Continental Europeans, working-class voters do not envy the rich. They believe that Bill Gates has earned his billions, and while they do not believe they can become billionaires, they believe their children can.
Fear of the present: Working-class voters may believe that they and their children can move upward, but they are as or more motivated by their fear of moving downward. They recognize that their relative lack of education means they are at more risk of being laid off in downturns. Their relative lack of earning power means they find it harder to save for retirement, afford medical care, or pay for their children’s education. Their relative lack of specialized skills means they are more vulnerable to competition from unskilled immigrants and more likely to remain unemployed if they lose their job. This gnawing fear that everything they have built is at risk of falling apart is a central feature of their political identity.
Pride in their lives: Working-class voters are generally not a despondent group. Life is harder for them in many ways, but they take pride in who they are. They are not “bitter people, clinging to religion or guns”; they celebrate their lives and crave respect from the educated and wealthy classes. They flock to politicians who show genuine respect for their lives, and turn on those who display contempt or disdain.
Anger at being disrespected: This is the flip side of their pride. Working-class voters are very cognizant of their status in American life. They rarely occupy executive positions in their jobs and are consumers rather than producers of ideas. They feel keenly this relative lack of control over important features of their lives, and resent being ordered about as if they were merely pawns in someone else’s grand plan. They particularly dislike having their lives belittled as unsophisticated or inferior to the lives of educated or wealthy folk.
This anger can be expressed against big business, big government, or big anything. If working-class voters feel they are being treated as mere tools, they will react with anger whether the source of the treatment is an employer, a politician, or an academic.
Belief in public order: Working-class voters rely more on the public order to provide a structure in their lives than do upper-class voters. They can’t afford private security services or retreat to homes with large yards far from unruly elements. They live closer together and in closer contact with crime. Accordingly, they place a high premium on effective police and fire services and greatly respect policemen and firemen.
Patriotism: Working-class voters are highly patriotic. They love their country openly in ways that often seem odd and embarrassing to the educated class. They are likelier to express open support of and deference to the military (while simultaneously recognizing that “big military” is wasteful); their children volunteer for the military in much greater numbers than those of any other class. This is partly economic–learning a trade in the military is a better opportunity for them than for people who think they can graduate from college–but it is also genuinely patriotic.
This sentiment is particularly strong among recent immigrants. One way to show your devotion to your new country is to revere its symbols and institutions, and for the working class the military is perhaps the most accessible institution of all. Hispanics in particular enlist in the military, and it is no surprise that Republican presidential candidates who are strongly supportive of the military, like Reagan and George W. Bush, have fared best among Hispanic voters in the last 45 years.
Fear of rapid change: Working-class voters recognize that they are less equipped to handle sudden changes; consequently, they value stability highly. They fear sudden recessions and distrust sudden changes in government programs. Ronald Reagan, the conservative who has best understood the working class, put his finger on it in a prescient 1964 National Review article on why Goldwater lost: “Human nature resists change and goes over backward to avoid radical change.” Upper-class educated people may embrace risk and change, but working-class voters do not.
Now consider these values in the light of the primary features of liberal progressivism. Liberal progressives inherently crave rapid, transformational change; working-class voters abhor it. This was as true in the 1960s (the Great Society) and the early Clinton years as it is today. The impatience that characterizes liberal progressivism often leads to the impression that its apostles feel contempt and disdain for those who disagree; working-class voters sense this and react against it. Liberal progressivism requires high tax rates, not only on the rich but also on the middle and working classes (overseas, this is accomplished via the VAT); working-class voters know this will choke off economic growth and increase the financial stress in their lives. Liberal progressivism typically displays less concern with public order and the institutions that provide public order; working-class voters opposed this in the 1960s and 1980s when it appeared that crime was rampant, and they remain sensitive to it to this day.
Many of the Obama administration’s actions directly attack these core beliefs. Working-class Americans crave economic security, but they see an administration that talks more about health care and climate change than about jobs. The current recession exacerbates their natural fear of downward mobility, but they see an administration seemingly incapable of providing the very thing they want most from a center-left government. In the Henry Louis Gates and Ground Zero mosque controversies, liberal progressives saw an articulate leader defending individual rights; working-class voters saw someone who questioned the police, perhaps the bedrock institution that provides public order, and showed an insufficient degree of patriotism.
Some of President Obama’s personal habits also rub working-class voters the wrong way. The president’s urbane articulateness and emphasis on rational argumentation attracts many highly educated voters, but is offputting to the working class. His preternatural calm and seeming lack of emotion also work against him. These traits have been lampooned by Doonesbury and commented on in the recent New York Times Magazine profile, but historically, working-class voters have been drawn to politicians who connect with them on an emotional level, from FDR to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton. They need their politicians to demonstrate warmth and humor; they respond to speakers who use example, story, and narrative as much as specific analysis to make their points. President Obama’s aloof and academic manner is the exact opposite of what working-class voters want in their leaders.
It is no coincidence, then, that working-class voters regularly turn from Democrats when liberal progressivism is on full display. In this election, with liberal progressivism on display as boldly as it has ever been, the reaction will be stronger than it has ever been. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kansas; working- and middle-class voters just want something different from what liberal progressives offer.
The Conservative Challenge
Will the American middle and working classes’ turn to the GOP end the partisan and philosophical conflict of the last two years, or are there tensions between the conservative movement and those groups of Americans that remain to be worked out before a new, more stable political era is created? This is a topic well beyond the scope of this memo, but I will conclude by offering a sober, yet positive, assessment.
Conservatives often assume that elections like 2010 show America has a consistent conservative majority. I think it is more accurate to say that they show that America has a consistent anti-progressive majority. The task conservatives have today is to transform the anti-progressive majority into a pro-conservative one. This will be harder than it seems.
The American conservative movement was founded in explicit opposition to the progressive project. It was also founded on the premise that a return to the governing principles of the Founders’ Constitution was feasible and desirable. The first principle is anti-progressive; the second is pro-conservative. The dynamics of working- and middle-class attitudes I have outlined above raise the specter that these principles in their pure forms can be politically incompatible.
The same abhorrence of rapid change that fuels working-class fear of liberal progressivism works against rapid conservative political action. In that 1964 article, Reagan argued that conservatives lost not because of their ideas, but because liberals portrayed them “as advancing a kind of radical departure from the status quo.” Today’s Tea Party enthusiasts have displayed a desire for rapid transformation of public policy nearly as strong as that of the liberal progressives. Moving too far, too fast down this road will alienate the very voters who just came over to the GOP.
There are other, deeper tensions at work. Working-class voters crave order and stability. They value the degree of these things that the welfare state and public institutions have provided. They also respect entrepreneurs but have no desire to be forced to emulate them. They respect private economic activity, but fear that business will cast them aside in the pursuit of profits. A conservatism that conveys the message that we seek to abolish the welfare state or that people have value only if they enthusiastically participate as risk takers in a dynamic, turbulent economy will not appeal to them.
Conservatives often speak in language and propose policies that the working class perceives as threatening. Conservatives celebrate freedom, opportunity, achievement, being our own boss, entrepreneurship. Working-class voters want these things, but in moderation. They know that not everyone can graduate from college or own a business. They want a political and economic system that rewards and supports their modest vision for their own lives, rhetorically and practically. Conservatives must figure out how to reconcile their core principles with working-class desires if they are to form a lasting, stable political coalition.
We’ve done it before. Ronald Reagan in 1964 said “We represent the forgotten American–that simple soul who goes to work, bucks for a raise, takes out insurance, pays for his kids’ schooling, contributes to his church and charity, and knows there just ‘ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.'” He knew that to attract the working- and middle-class voter, “that simple soul,” conservatives need to express what they already believe, that the simple soul has value as a creature made in God’s image.
Reagan did this in both word and deed. His State of the Union addresses often featured a reference to a person in the audience. This person was invariably an ordinary man who had had a moment of extraordinary heroism, not a captain of industry or a great entrepreneur. When Reagan went to Normandy, he did not laud the genius of Eisenhower or the courage of Patton; he praised “the boys of Pointe du Hoc.” His celebration of average men and women who did their duty, and oftentimes more, reassured and inspired them.
His deeds also struck a balance between advancing freedom and respecting stability. Rasher conservatives often criticized him for failing to do more to reduce the size of government, but he understood, having been a supporter of FDR himself, how much the safety net meant economically and spiritually to the working and middle classes. He knew that his task was to plant the tree of liberty in the garden of Roosevelt. As he said in 1964, “time now for the soft sell to prove our radicalism was an optical illusion.”
His success is manifest. For nearly 30 years, politicians have labored to define themselves in the light of his legacy. Even President Obama was said he wants to be transformative like Reagan. Thanks to him, conservative sentiments are today stronger among the American people than at any time since the Great Depression.
Today’s conservatives have a rendezvous with destiny. The peculiar political challenge of our time–repairing our nation’s finances and avoiding national bankruptcy–requires us to reform our welfare state. This forces us to confront the tensions outlined above, and to do so in a way that reassures rather than frightens the vast American middle that has turned to us now in response to the last two years. If we seize this opportunity and act with principle and prudence, we truly can say we have met our challenge. In so doing, we truly will have “preserved for our children this, the last best hope for man on earth.”
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.