Election 2004: Déjà Vu All Over Again

Steven Hayward

April 1, 2005

After the mid-term election two years ago, I wrote in this space that the stunning pro-GOP outcome contained signs that a genuine realignment had taken hold. The 2002 election was the first sign that we are not a fifty-fifty nation. The result suggested that a small but durable Republican majority was emerging across the board: “The 2002 election hints at a Republican breakout.” The concluding sentence of the article is worth recalling: “Assuming President Bush and the Republican Congress are able to govern successfully in the ordinary sense, the Democratic Party is likely to go out of its mind over the next two or three election cycles.”

Two years and one election cycle later, one needn’t recur to Michael Moore, MoveOn.org, and Democratic Underground for evidence of the liberal meltdown. The exit poll debacle provided an assist; for six hours, it looked like liberals were about to enjoy the sweet fruits of victory, only to have it snatched away when the votes were actually counted. What we saw on the afternoon and evening of November 2 was the dynamic of the Truman-Dewey election compressed into eight hours, and it is hard to go from exhilaration to despair in such a short timeframe without suffering a nervous breakdown.

Still, even with this bitter turn of events, the reaction to the election from elite journalists and thinkers read like a parody of political commentary. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd wrote: “The President got re-elected by dividing the country along fault lines of fear, intolerance, ignorance and religious rule.” MoDo, as she is known, has clearly lost her MoJo. Novelist Jane Smiley wrote on Slate that “The election results reflect the decision of the right wing to cultivate and exploit ignorance in the citizenry… Ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states… The error that progressives have consistently committed over the years is to underestimate the vitality of ignorance in America.” And then there was that splendid banner headline in the London Daily Mirror: “How Can 59 Million People Be So Dumb?”

The most revealing tantrum, however, came from Garry Wills. Writing also in the New York Times in an article titled “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out,” Wills argued that the election “might be called Bryan’s revenge for the Scopes trial of 1925, in which William Jennings Bryan’s fundamentalist assault on the concept of evolution was discredited… Can a people that believes more fervently in the Virgin Birth than in evolution still be called an Enlightened nation?” This is worth a pause, for Bryan’s populism prefigured the emergence of the Democratic majority beginning with the New Deal. The New Deal heirs of Bryan may not have agreed with the religious prejudices of their supporters, but they respected them, and never attacked the voters for having “pre-modern” views. Wills makes clear that were Bryan alive today he would not be welcome in the Democratic Party; the populist Bryan would likely have to become a Republican—an unthinkable idea even 30 years ago.

The first clue this reaction would be forthcoming should have been seen deep in the primary season when Howard Dean—Howard Dean!—was rebuked for saying he wanted to compete for the votes of guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. From the reaction you’d think he’d proposed to put child molesters on the Democratic National Committee. Instead we have arrived at the point where it is not just acceptable but de rigueur for the party that champions diversity and tolerance to deride evangelical Christians and Southerners. Tolerance apparently has its limits, even for liberals. But to mix metaphors from another religious tradition, it takes chutzpah for a party that cozies up to airhead Hollywood celebrities to call other people stupid.

And yet this is more than just presumption and self-congratulation at work. The lashing out at the voters we have seen since Election Day represents the victory of the strain of liberalism that has long competed with populism for dominance on the left, namely, the Progressive impulse toward expert or elite governance that is at the core of the modern administrative state. More and more functions of government have been removed from the control of the elected, accountable branches of government, and not just by judges. The premise of every independent agency, starting with the Interstate Commerce Commission (now abolished) and the Food and Drug Administration, is that certain kinds of questions (drug approval, environmental protection, and so forth) are beyond the ability of the ordinary workings of democratic government to decide, and must be delegated to expert elites to decide for us, insulated from those grubby people known as our elected representatives. By degrees the government of men is replaced by the administration of things, in the famous phrase of Saint-Simon; in other words, politics is replaced by bureaucracy.

The trouble is that when one party absorbs the premises of this thought too deeply, it comes willy-nilly to view elections not as a means of conveying real political choices but merely a process for ratifying the goodness of liberalism on the march. The tacit message is: Vote for us, we’re smarter than you drooling morons. Why not? It worked that way for almost 50 years. When the voters don’t play along according to the Progressive script, it can only be because of their ignorance or Republican dirty tricks. Hence Garry Wills, Maureen Dowd, Jane Smiley, and the rest of the incredulous chorus.

Since Democrats are the overwhelming party choice for those in the therapeutic “caring professions,” it is fitting to analyze the Democratic Party through the prism of the therapeutic nostrum of the seven (or ten or twelve or however many there are) stages of grief, which begins with denial. Shortly after the election, the New York Times had an article on the new Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, with some unintentionally revealing quotes from top Democrats. Sen. Joe Biden, for example, said this: “The idea that people are looking at Harry to sort of be the spokesperson of the Democratic Party, that’s not a role all majority leaders have filled before.” Wait a minute: What did he say? Let’s roll the tape again: “That’s not a role all majority leaders have filled before.” “Majority leader??” Majority leader! News flash, Joe: Your team hasn’t had a majority for ten years now (excepting those few months brought to you courtesy of Jim Jeffords), and you’re not likely to be in the majority again for a while. Biden wasn’t an isolated example. A few paragraphs later in the same article, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said: “If we keep going on this way, we’ll be a minority party.” Hello? News flash Dianne: You’re there already. This is rather like Captain Smith, looking at the Titanic’s propellers pointing up at the sky, remarking, “if the water keeps coming in at this rate, the ship might be in danger of sinking.”

A few people seem to get it. Chris Satullo of the Philadelphia Inquirer offered this explanation for what he called the “Myth of the Arrogant Liberal Elite:” “The true fuel of this narrative isn’t policy; it’s emotion. It’s the hurt feelings of people who long have felt ignored and looked down upon, their taste mocked, their values dismissed. They seek resentment vindicated, snobbery brought low.” Peter Steinfels, the religion columnist for the New York Times, referred to the “condescending incredulity” of liberals who treat their own views “as so established and self-evident that any questioning of them can only be a puzzling and pathological ’backlash.’ Are there really still people out there opposed to abortion rights? How incomprehensible!”

The most probative reflection came not from a member of the elite media or any of the deep-dish liberal thinkers in Washington, but from Brad Carson, the defeated Democratic Senate candidate in Oklahoma, who wrote in The New Republic:

The culture war is real, and it is a conflict not merely about some particular policy or legislative item, but about modernity itself. Banning gay marriage or abortion would not be sufficient to heal the cultural gulf that exists in this nation. The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one’s self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one’s family; whether an individual is just that—a free-floating atom—or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only “tolerance.” These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2.

For the vast majority of Oklahomans—and, I would suspect, voters in other red states—these transcendent cultural concerns are more important than universal health care or raising the minimum wage or preserving farm subsidies. Pace Thomas Frank, the voters aren’t deluded or uneducated. They simply reject the notion that material concerns are more real than spiritual or cultural ones. The political left has always had a hard time understanding this, preferring to believe that the masses are enthralled by a “false consciousness” or Fox News or whatever today’s excuse might be. But the truth is quite simple: Most voters in a state like Oklahoma—and I venture to say most other Southern and Midwestern states—reject the general direction of American culture and celebrate the political party that promises to reform or revise it.

There are several observations to be made about Carson’s comment, starting with puzzlement about how such an obviously thoughtful man got himself trapped in today’s Democratic Party, and how he could have lost to a conservative (Tom Coburn) who is going to make the Senate leadership of both parties long for the good old days of that loveable puffball Jesse Helms.

The second thing one should notice about Carson’s comment is that there is no mention of Iraq or foreign policy in general. This was of course the other big issue in the election along with the role of cultural principles. The particular difficulties of John Kerry’s candidacy—”I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” the remark Karl Rove called “the gift that kept on giving,” along with “global test”—should not obscure the deeper problem here. During the Cold War, Democrats could not hope to win the White House unless they were perceived as being as tough or tougher than Republicans on foreign policy. Kerry understood this, and tried to thread the needle between the preferences of voters for strength and his own party’s vocal caucus for weakness. But he couldn’t do it: The self-professed war protestor and war criminal reborn as a war hero just wasn’t convincing. The Swift Boat Veterans blew down a house of cards.

The problem goes much deeper than Kerry, however, and is best expressed in a singular moment of the 2002 campaign, when former Vice President Walter Mondale, in his sole debate with Norm Coleman in the Minnesota Senate race, said: “You don’t have to worry about me and terrorism; I’m against it.” Glad we got that cleared up, Mr. Vice President. That a person of Mondale’s long experience and public record was reduced to such plaintive platitudes tells us much, including why he lost to Coleman.

The New Republic’s editor, Peter Beinart, understands this problem, and has issued a call for Democrats to embrace the kind of liberal realism that led an earlier generation of post-World War II liberals to become fervent anti-Communists and architects of containment. This involved emphatically rejecting the influence of Henry Wallace, the Michael Moore of that time. Liberalism, Beinart rightly observes, has not been fundamentally reshaped by September 11 in the same way that earlier generation was reshaped by its encounter with Communism. So far Beinart’s call has met with a mixed reaction on the left.

So let us survey the wreckage. Republicans have now won seven out of the last ten presidential elections. Democrats are starting to take on the role of the Wile E. Coyote of American politics. Some of the so-called “internals” are significant. Bush won the Catholic vote—against a Catholic candidate; his margin over Kerry among Catholics was higher in Massachusetts than nationally. Bush got about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, making it a genuine swing vote for a long time to come. He did about three points better among blacks—11 percent—than in 2000, though there is some evidence that he may have pulled close to 18 percent of the black vote in some of the states with gay marriage initiatives such as Ohio. (One of the underreported political facts of this season is the way in which many blacks are deeply angered by the asserted equivalence between the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s and gay marriage today.)

Republicans achieved this victory through an astonishing display of political competence. The Democrats, with palpable intensity on their side, thought that if they hit their turnout targets they would win easily. And they did hit their turnout targets. Democrats got 5 to 6 million more voters to the polls than four years ago. The stunning fact is that Republicans outdid Democrats everywhere it counted and got more than 9 million more Republican voters to the polls than in 2000. Karl Rove promised a year ago that the GOP machine would directly contact 14 million voters in the last 72 hours; the actual number was closer to 18 million. They didn’t talk much about this, unlike the Democrats; they just quietly went out and did it.

Republicans shouldn’t be too smug, however. Lots can go wrong for President Bush and congressional Republicans. Bush’s plan to overhaul Social Security is shaping up as the biggest and toughest political fight since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His philosophy of transforming entitlement programs into equity programs—the cornerstone of the “ownership society”—aims to smash the New Deal once and for all. The conventional wisdom is that such large changes must be done on a bipartisan basis, but it is not going to happen. Will Republicans have the guts to pass reform based solely on their small partisan majority and then face the voters? It is a high stakes game; even though Republicans hold the higher cards, they could still be bluffed out of winning.

Steven F. Hayward is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center and is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.