What are we to make of the November 2010 midterm election? There are two articles that paint a dire picture for the Democrats: Henry Olson’s “Day of the Democratic Dead” and James Ceaser’s “2010 Verdict.” We should note that in 2006 there were many predictions of the conservative crack-up (that never came to be in reality). These articles do not go that far in the opposite direction. There is a lot that rings true in them nevertheless. There will be much difficulty for a governing conservative majority going forward.
Olsen argues that the Democrats are in a bit of an internecine war that has been raging for 40 years or so. It is between the third-way more moderate Democrats versus the hard left Democrats. Olsen calls the divide between the New Left and the Liberal Progressives. The progressives loathed Clinton, but Clinton believed voters would never vote for a liberal progressive if there was a moderate Republican alternative. The point here is not to account for the Democrat Thermidor, but to provide background for Olsen’s conclusion:
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.
Liberal progressives want to act quickly (see Obamacare), but the Tea Party also wants to move in the opposite direction quickly. Olsen argues that neither will work–plodding and prolonged change is the only thing that will allay the working class voters.
James Ceaser, Professor of political science at UVa, appears more optimistic of Republican (more, conservative) prospects. The Republican gains this November were the largest since the 1920s–a feat to be sure. Ceaser notes that Thermidor is really yet to be effected–the “Progressive Democrats” are now in charge over their more moderate comrades. The voters certainly rendered a judgment:
Of all the recent mid-term elections, 2010 is the closest the nation has ever come to a national referendum on overall policy direction or “ideology.” Obama, who ran in 2008 by subordinating ideology to his vague themes of hope and change, has governed as one of the most ideological and partisan of presidents. Some of his supporters like to argue in one breath that he is a pragmatist and centrist only to insist in the next that he has inaugurated the most historic transformation of American politics since the New Deal. The two claims are incompatible. Going back to the major political contests of 2009, beginning with the Governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey and to the Senate race in Massachusetts, the electorate has been asked the same question about Obama’s agenda and has given the same response. The election of 2010 is the third or fourth reiteration of this judgment, only this time delivered more decisively. There is one label and one label only that can describe the result: the Great Repudiation.
I agree that the Democrats largely as a group, were repudiated. Some have argued, and I ruminated on it for a while, that Obama did not have the right story (or that he did not tell a story), and hence he was defeated. Unlikely. I think the people understood his message and rejected it (and the same goes for Republicans who try to make such claims of their message not getting out). But what next? Ceaser:
Elections in America serve two functions– a “formal” function of filling the personnel for the constitutional offices, which takes place in every election, and an “informal” function of signaling what the people want, which takes place in a meaningful way only in certain elections, where national public sentiment has congealed on a common message or theme. The situation in Washington now reflects a conflict stemming from the results of these two functions. On the formal side, the array of forces puts neither party in full control. Democrats hold the presidency, Republicans will now firmly control the House, and the senate appears likely to swing in ways no one can now foresee. The Democrats, who now derive their power from this formal situation and rely on officials chosen in elections conducted two and four years ago, will emphasize the constitutional authority of the offices. They represent for the moment the conservative position. On the informal side, Republicans claim not just their seats and numbers in Congress, but the weight and power of the majority as expressed in the clear and powerful message delivered on election day. This claim cannot, of course, cancel the formal array of power–we are a nation governed by laws and institutions–but there is nothing amiss in reminding those in offices that they cannot stray too far for too long from the wishes of the majority without straining the fabric of authority in a democratic system. The informal function, while it should not be overvalued, should not be undervalued, either.
The Republicans’ case, resting on this informal claim that can always be disputed, is already under assault. Along with the Democrats’ open campaign to persuade the public that the election did not mean what Republicans thought, there is an allied effort underway, far more subtle, to undermine and weaken the Republican position. It comes from a group of self-proclaimed wise men who present themselves as being above the fray. These voices, acting from a putative concern for the nation and even for the Republican Party, urge Republicans to avoid the mistake of Obama and the Democrats after 2008 of displaying hubris and overinterpreting their mandate. With this criticism of the Democrats offered as a testimony of their even handedness and sincerity, they piously go on to tell Republicans that now is the time to engage in bipartisanship and follow a course of compromise. The problem with this sage advice is that it calls for Republicans to practice moderation and bipartisanship after the Democrats did not. It is therefore not a counsel of moderation, but a ploy designed to force Republicans to accept the “overreach” and the policies of the past year and half. It is another way to defend “the change.” If Republicans are to remain true to the verdict of 2010, they cannot accept that the message of this election was just containment; it must mean roll back.
There is a lot to digest in this election. As someone commented in another place I cannot seem to find right now, persuasion is the operative word for Republicans, and Democrats. The Republicans, if they are going to be successful, must make a coherent and principled argument that the voters assent. Republicans could over-reach to be sure–like the Democrats did after 2008. They could also simply go silent–or fail to persuade (like the Republicans did after 1994). Persuasion is something of higher note than the alacrity of change. Let’s put it this way, Aristotle says in Book three of the Ethics that human beings are moral creatures–that is, we deliberate about what is just, and we all have opinions about what is right or wrong. In this deliberation we make choices about the means to an end. Ultimately, we choose between different paths in order to reach some good. To say that going slow or going fast to the goal is not terribly important as much as is the goal itself and the arguments made to achieve that goal.
Aristotle goes on to say that the future is unclear. We should deliberate and not leave things to non reasonable chance. Both parties would do well to know that going forward.