Sunday, November 11, 2012

Some Thoughts on the 2012 Election

My memories of Election Night in 2008 all involve exhaustion and joy: listening to the returns while driving back from Ohio, the news getting better and better, while exchanging texts with friends in NYC and around the country and around the world. Making it home in time to see the celebration in Chicago's Grant Park, Democrats assembling to claim their great triumph in the same space where, forty years earlier, they'd torn themselves apart. It was a great ending to an incredibly compelling story, populated with vivid characters and packed with wild plot twists.

But real life can't sustain drama the way fiction can, and is resistant to happy endings because the actual story continues. Even as the country elected Barack Obama and brought the Democrats to the brink of a super-majority in the Senate, marriage equality failed in California and the remaining Republican caucus very quickly showed its determination to block the new president across the board--and it turned out that the economic crisis was far worse than most understood at the time. When Obama actually took office, he faced the same steep learning curve that confronts every new president: I think I once compared it to having the fastest car in the race by far, but not really knowing how to drive. In his first year, he seemed to get things right on substance (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), or on style (his speech in Cairo that spring), but almost never both. The economy first got worse more slowly, then began to improve. The process of passing healthcare reform disappointed literally everybody in real time: Republicans because it was happening at all, liberals because of everything it wasn't (no single-payer, no public option, no clampdown on Big Pharma or other predatory interest groups). Once in office, Obama the graceful and resourceful above-it-all candidate was replaced by a president who evidently was straining and often was, or seemed to be, failing. 

Looking at it from a distance, Obama actually accomplished enough during his first term that he had an argument not only for re-election but a plausible (not inarguable) case for greatness. But, as he himself has acknowledged, he's struggled to articulate that case to an almost shocking degree. With all that in mind, and more to the point the sustained high unemployment and slow growth throughout his first term, Obama certainly could and arguably should have lost his re-election bid last Tuesday.  Yet he not only won a second term, but did so by larger electoral and popular vote margins than almost anybody had predicted. In my opinion, this outcome was due to a failure of Republican strategy and a triumph of Democratic tactics. 

The tactical piece is pretty straightforward: in terms of infrastructure and technology, the president's re-election campaign is probably the best anyone's ever seen. What happened last Tuesday was the culmination of eight years of work to determine what the electorate might be, and how to ensure that it would be. The Democrats now have a decisive advantage in electioneering theory and practice. Some of this might be specific to Obama, but I wouldn't count on it: whatever enthusiasm the next Democratic presidential nominee might lose among African-Americans or the most highly educated urbanites with PhDs, he or she likely would recoup among women or blue-collar white men or other groups. The targeting and GOTV methodologies will persist and if anything might get stronger. 

The strategic failure of the Republicans is a bit more complicated, but it starts with their four-year effort to shift blame for everything wrong in the country to the president. History began for them on the day of Obama's inauguration; there was occasional grudging acknowledgement that the president inherited a challenging situation, but no evident self-reflection about either why they lost so badly in 2006 and 2008, or why and how the policies they'd been able to put in place through the Bush years had led to such a signal disaster. There was no admission of error and thus no profession of what they'd do differently; without that, their only path was an attempt to convince the country to blame the black guy with the weird name. Inside the echo chamber, it worked perfectly, probably because they so desperately wanted it--a common theme on the right, consistent with the magical thinking that brought us "we'll be greeted as liberators," "deficits don't matter," "this government does not torture," and indeed that they would win the election itself, possibly in a blowout.

But outside, few were buying. Hence an election where most of the country felt like we are on the "wrong track", yet so distrusted the party out of power that they voted to retain the current president. 

I think the Republicans have a deeper problem, though, a core incoherence in their message that will severely limit their electoral potential until they resolve it. I've written here before about Philip Bobbitt's book, The Shield of Achilles, which charts the evolution of the State through the last five hundred years and posits that we are moving toward a "market-state" in which individual autonomy and well-being, rather than that of the collective, is the explicit goal of government. I believe this is correct, though the pace and manner of the transition from the old nation-state to the emerging market-state obviously is very much in question. 

Given that the Democrats were the guiding party of the nation-state in its full flowering--leading the U.S. to victory in two World Wars, creating the regulatory structure and social insurance framework of the New Deal and Great Society that did so much to provide for the common good, and leading the gradual push for greater social inclusion and expansion of the national community--it would make sense for the Republicans to hold an advantage in this transition. Under Goldwater and Buckley and Reagan, they began to articulate a very compelling critique of the flaws and limitations of the nation-state as defined and administered by the Democrats, arguably helping to hasten the arrival of the "market-state."

But somewhere along the line, they lost the plot: concern about the pace of social change devolved into flat-out resistance to social change, and sensitivity to the displacement caused by deregulation and the dismantling of the welfare state mutated into a smug and arrogant certitude that the winners and losers in an unfettered market were defined by morality rather than circumstance. They went from making an argument to assuming that the rightness of the argument was so blindingly obvious that anyone who didn't see it was an idiot, a traitor, or both. (While I can claim honestly to have come up with this analysis on my ownsome, David Frum makes these points exceptionally well in his election post-mortem.) 

To put it simply, the Republicans as a group are too far ahead on economics--ready to embrace the full "You're On Your Own" worldview, and damn the consequences--and too far behind (and going backwards) on social issues. By contrast, the Democrats are probably in exactly the right place on social issues, and seem to be moving more or less with the tide on economics: interested in reforming the structures of the regulatory state and social insurance programs while remaining committed, at least for the time being, to sustaining them. 

The Republicans' schizophrenia could be papered over so long as they were winning: David Koch isn't a homophobe (the opposite, in fact; he's consistent in his libertarian views), and Mike Huckabee isn't a fanatical deregulator, but each was willing to support the other because their objectives weren't in direct conflict. But unless they can put Humpty-Dumpty back together, there's no real reason for libertarian billionaires and populist social reactionaries to remain clustered within one political faction. How this cleavage plays out over the next few years might be the most interesting story in American politics. 

The role of Fox News is another fascinating aspect here. Some have said for awhile that ratings and profits at Fox rise when Republican political fortunes fall:

Unfortunately for Republicans and fortunately for Roger Ailes, a feedback loop has been created: As disaffected conservatives turn increasingly to Fox News, Fox News caters its programming to keep them coming back, turning, for instance, the Tea Parties into a daylong televised festival of rage. But given Fox's well-earned brand identification with the Republican Party, and vice versa, that programming serves to promote a view of Republicans as angry white people who hate Puerto Rican judges. Which turns off independent voters, which further isolates the diehard rejectionist wing of the party, which increases the importance of Fox News in their lives as a reassuring voice telling them to be strong in the face of the barbarian hordes—or, as Glenn Beck puts it, "We surround them." 
The more viewers Fox attracts, the more voters the GOP repels. And the more voters the GOP repels, the more viewers Fox attracts. The most important part of the dynamic is that Fox News has no interest in doing anything other than attracting viewers. It will continue to ride this wave of anger and resentment irrespective of what impact it has on the Republican Party until it stops making them money.
But Ailes surely wants to win elections as well as ratings. And he's smart enough to understand that continuous catering to a worldview increasingly out of touch with majority opinion and objective facts will only lead to more head-on, full-speed collisions with reality of the kind his audience (and his on-air talent!) suffered Tuesday night. If and how Fox attempts to bring its audience along to a set of positions that won't fatally handicap its candidates for national office will be fascinating to watch as well. 

There's been a great deal of demographic analysis regarding the election results. Maureen Dowd had one of her occasional truly insightful columns about this today, noting that Romney won big among the group he most assiduously courted: middle-aged and older white men. This has led many to note that "if these trends continue," Republicans are doomed indefinitely. This is both true and entirely irrelevant:  the nature of democracy is that parties evolve to remain competitive. It's ironic in a deeply satisfying way that the Republicans, who endlessly claim to be the Party of Business, recently have failed to embrace this signal truth of market capitalism. But they'll get there--the debate already has some strong entries--and that's something that all of us should welcome. 

For now, those of us who were determined to see them beaten back this time can take great satisfaction in last week's results. Not only Obama's victory, but the election of numerous strong progressives to the Senate and, best of all in my opinion, wins on all four marriage-equality votes at the state level should hearten progressives and, hopefully, spark a revival among honorable libertarian conservatives at the expense of the right-wing radicals who've hijacked their party. 


the Navigator said...

This is typically smart and I don't think I have much to add, just one very minor editing point: you say it's like having the fastest car yet not knowing how to drive. I think what you meant was, having the fastest car yet not knowing how to drive >that particular car<. Without the qualification, it sounds a bit like a real slam on Obama ("has no idea what steering even means!"), or whoever happens to hold the office at a given time. I think the point you're intending to make there is subtler.

The Navigator said...

I should echo one point in particular: "This has led many to note that "if these trends continue," Republicans are doomed indefinitely. This is both true and entirely irrelevant: the nature of democracy is that parties evolve to remain competitive."

Yes yes yes. All this stuff in 2006 and 2008, and now again this year, about how the GOP is permanent toast and the party is doomed to irrelevancy - please. They'll change and their base of supporters will change. Just like the Dems essentially gave up gun control after 1994.

My dad likes to note that the Irish became Republicans when they got money and moved to the suburbs. It goes without saying that that's an oversimplification, but, yeah, in essence, that's what happened and that's what will happen in the future with other ethnic groups.