It’s possible that
we’re a fifty/fifty nation, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans,
and the last two elections have been so close that they only prove we’re tied.
But I don’t believe it. A powerful current is moving us rightward. It has helped
Republicans to gain control of both houses of Congress, to appoint most federal
judges, and to control seven more governors’ mansions than the Democrats do.
(State legislatures are still about evenly split, with 19 completely under the
control of each party, and the rest divided.) In the national
exit poll, 34% of voters called themselves conservatives compared to 21%
who identified as liberals. The ideology score is nothing new, but the balance
of power is startlingly different from 20 years ago. It is possible that the
rightward trend will stop of its own accord at the current point, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Progressive parties demand more of voters than conservative ones. To start
with, they demand more taxes. Under favorable circumstances, progressives can reserve
their tax increases for a wealthy minority, but people won’t vote to tax
anyone unless they believe that the revenue is likely to be well spent.
Progressive parties also need low-income people
to turn out, something that is relatively hard for them to do because the “costs”
of voting (becoming informed and taking time off to go to the polls) are relatively
onerous for poor citizens. Besides, poor people have little reason to trust politicians enough
to vote for them. Finally, the modern Democratic party is (rightly) committed
to a set of unpopular moral values, so it must convince people to overlook those
commitments in return for other benefits.
Historically, American progressive parties (usually Democratic, but occasionally
Republican) have won elections when they have identified the really important
issues that concern majorities of voters, and have directly addressed those
issues. People will vote to raise taxes–their own or other citizens’–if they
think the money is needed for critical purposes. For example, the nation faced
a deep depression in 1932. One of its causes appared to be malfeasance in the financial
markets. And even before the depression began, people risked becoming indigent
if they lost their jobs. Roosevelt responded with employment programs to stimulate
the economy, market reforms, and Social Security. We can argue about whether
he solved the problems that the country faced in 1932, but there was
no question that he pursued policies that directly addressed the country’s needs.
In the 1960s, there was less consensus about the need to wage a “war on poverty,”
given that most families had become relatively affluent. But there was wide
agreement that the country had to move past racial segregation. Liberal Democrats
and liberal Republicans who tackled discrimination won elections.
traditional problems have not disappeared. De facto racial segregation is worse
than it was 25 years ago; losing your job can still be very bad news. But for
most Americans, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to invent new solutions
to these old concerns, which are manageable. People support the traditional progressive
programs, but they need not vote Democratic to preserve them; Republicans
also swear oaths in defense of Social Security and Medicare. In any case, Americans
are now more concerned about a new set of problems, including the lack of decent
jobs for those with high school diplomas; persistent violent crime that we barely
control by jailing millions of our fellow citizens; reliance on foreign oil;
and the coarseness of popular culture, especially as it affects kids. While
the long-term fiscal condition of the federal government probably doesn’t worry
people as much as these other issues, the deficit does matter because it makes
it hard to propose expensive policies.
No doubt, some people are also worried about issues that Democrats cannot and should not define
as “problems,” such as immigration and increased diversity, gay weddings in
San Francisco, or the legal right to abortion. But Democrats would have a fighting
chance if they addressed a different set of important concerns. Otherwise, people will vote conservative.
gave up on this year’s Democrats when they failed to address any serious
problems at their convention. They seemed to think that Americans would vote for a Democrat
because Bush had made mistakes and Kerry was personally macho. I think a Kerry
administration would have been at best a holding-action; at worst, a last stand.
A considerable part of me is relieved that Democrats (and McCain-ite Republicans)
now have four years to come up with a plausible program.