The Stupid Party Strikes Again

Steven Hayward

November 5, 1998

The last time the nation ran a mid-term election in which it was said that “there are no great national issues” was in 1986.

Republicans got crushed.

History repeated itself on Tuesday, with the clear lesson being that when Republicans run in national elections without clear national issues, Democrats will sweep to victory. When Republicans run an issue-oriented national campaign, as they did in 1980 and 1994, they do very well. Not for nothing are the Republicans called “the stupid party.”

Oh, the Republicans did have one national issue, which they pumped half-heartedly: the Clinton scandal. But the election confirmed what the polls have been saying for months. People aren’t interested, especially with the economy humming along. Watch for a new slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid party!”

This will be the conventional wisdom among Republicans as to why they did so poorly in the election. And while it is not wrong, there appears to be something deeper and more portentous at work in this election that suggests we are moving into a new political climate. The Clinton scandal may have ironically accelerated this move.

If the Republican sweep in 1994 can be seen as a referendum on big government, then this election can be seen as a referendum on “lifestyle liberalism,” and lifestyle liberalism won big. Over the past 30 years it is possible to observe the following paradox in American political beliefs: America has increasingly embraced political conservatism and rejected political liberalism. Yet at the same time Americans have become more conservative politically, they have become more liberal socially and culturally.

What has been called “lifestyle liberalism” has advanced in tandem with political conservatism. (The term “lifestyle,” it is worth noting, did not make its debut in Webster’s International Dictionary until 1961.) Or, as Tom Wolfe put it, what was rebellion thirty years ago is now ordinary high school life. The tolerance of, if not approval for, abortion, homosexuality, illegitimacy and single motherhood, casual sex, pornography, coarsening of language, degraded educational standards, and public disorderliness–to name a few–grew alongside public disapproval for big government.

President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky brought the matter of “private” behavior front and center, and the era that seemingly prizes “nonjudgmentalism” as the supreme virtue didn’t want to render political judgment against the president. But the acceptance of lifestyle liberalism showed up in other ways on Tuesday as well, especially in state initiatives and referenda on medical marijuana and gambling, which passed by wide margins in most places, and partial birth abortion bans, which lost in Washington and Colorado.

The split between political conservatism and lifestyle liberalism was most evident in Washington state, where voters defeated a partial birth abortion ban (and sent social conservative Linda Smith down to flaming defeat in the Senate race) while voting at the same time to end affirmative action–the ultimate big government program. The only caveat voters expressed about lifestyle liberalism came over the issue of homosexual marriage, which voters in Alaska and Hawaii–two libertarian-leaning states–voted against. But this might be because voters see the gay rights crusade as just another variant of big government identity politics rather than a lifestyle issue.

Exit polls and surveys may yet show that the religious right, such a potent force in the 1994 election, didn’t turn out in sufficient numbers to help Republicans. But one has to wonder about polls showing that large numbers of Americans are increasingly concerned about “family values.” If this is so, where were these people on election day?

One reason they might have been absent is that Republicans are noticeably inarticulate about the so-called “social issues.” Republicans have made no serious public argument about lifestyle liberalism. They made no serious argument in this election about big government, either, though government has continued to grow larger even though President Clinton has declared “the era of big government is over.” In other words, Republicans didn’t make much of an argument about anything at all. They have forgotten the adage that “you can’t beat something with nothing.”

To be sure, arguing about lifestyle issues is difficult, but if the Republican Party can’t even muster an argument in favor of their popular ideas (“down with taxes and big government”), how are they ever going to make headway on social issues? Republicans lack civic courage, and this constitutes the chief ground of doubt that they will ever be a serious governing party.

Steven Hayward is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.