In a rather wistful, even elegiac piece in the December 2, 2014 edition of National Journal, political analyst Charles Cook describes how leading to last month’s election, the Democratic Party “paved the way for their own defeat.” Describing as “noble” such priorities as “health care, the environment, and civil rights,” Cook notes that “an argument can be made that it is because Democrats have subordinated their traditional focus on helping lower- and working-class Americans move up the economic ladder” that there has been a “decline in support for Democrats among certain groups.”
Prominent among these “certain groups” are lower- and middle-income voters, historically the most substantial element of the “common man” contingent of the Democratic base, the contingent of the electorate for whom the Democrats were supposed to be the defenders and champions. As noted by Associated Press reporters Jennifer Agiesta and Jesse J. Holland, “White voters of all ages were less likely to back Democrats this year than in elections past, helping Republicans nationwide but most acutely in the South — and overpowering Democratic efforts to turn out their core supporters among blacks and Hispanics.”
These efforts were not particularly successful; although Democrats won about 90 percent of the black vote, Pew Research reports that nearly 40 percent of Hispanics voted Republican — indicative of another troubling trend for Democratic electoral hopes. And national exit polls show that the white vote went from 51 percent for Republicans in the 2006 mid-term election to 60 percent last month. This is a startling trend in light of the derision with which conservatives are treated by late night comedians and the contempt shown them by most editorial pages; one would think from listening to Stephen Colbert or reading the New York Times op-ed page that the Right is self-evidently so stupid that derision is its only just lot.
A map of U.S. political geography makes the point even more strikingly. As Cook observes in his National Journal piece:
Only 14 percent of the land area in the U.S. is represented by a Democrat in the House. Increasingly, Democratic strength is concentrated primarily in urban areas and college towns, among minorities, and in narrow bands along the West Coast (but only the first 50-100 miles from the beaches) and the East Coast (but only from New York City northward). The South and the Border South, as well as small-town and rural America, are rapidly becoming no-fly zones for Democrats. Few Democrats represent small-town and rural areas, and the party is finding it increasingly difficult to attract noncollege-educated white voters.
Abandonment of the Democratic Party by white and, increasingly, Latino voters is, in part, due to the radical cultural positions taken by the national leadership of the party itself. As noted in a Newsweek cover story by Matthew Cooper (whose liberalism erupts episodically despite his heroic efforts to contain it), “White noncollege voters aren’t all cultural conservatives, but they often lean that way — and Obama’s progressive politics have pushed them further away from the Democrats.”
Abortion, contraceptives, approval of the culturally bankrupt (e.g., Harry Reid’s famous “tweet” to the quasi-pornographic singer Lady Gaga on the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy: “We won”) and the social mainstreaming of homosexuality are the coalescing agents of the national Democratic Party. To deviate from these shibbolethic litmus tests is to become non grata at the Democratic National Committee. Such rigid allegiance to an agenda at odds with, according to polls, at least a third of its own constituency has driven millions of traditional Democratic voters away from their party. Yet there’s more to the story of Democratic voter disillusionment than The Democratic Left, despite its spasmodic protestations to the contrary, penalizes wealth creation and works actively to redistribute existing wealth instead of creating the opportunity for more people to realize what Lincoln called “the leading object” of government: “to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance, in the race of life.”
Conservatives emphasize that limitations on government’s breadth and authority are necessary for the flourishing of creativity and productive self-interest; liberals emphasize government’s protections and its role as a mediating institution between exploiters and the exploited. No conservative, in the true sense of the term, believes that fallen man can be left to his own devices in some survival-of-the-fittest marketplace contest; that’s why we believe in prudent laws and regulations for persons and businesses alike. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
But conservatives do believe that a strong but limited central government is the vision behind the Constitution and why myriad other duties and obligations can and should be assumed by the states, also per the Constitution. This diffusion of power protects against the oppression of the vulnerable and dependent and enables a substantially non-interfering government to do a few necessary things well: provide ordered liberty and religious and political freedom and an environment in which economic and educational opportunities abound.
More simply put, the Obama-envisioned “Life of Julia” (now removed from www.barackobama.com, interestingly) is a life of reliance on the government. It substitutes the risk requisite to elevate one’s station with a state-based sense of security that fosters mediocrity. This is not the kind of American life conservatives can ever endorse (watch here for an illuminating take on what government really does for America’s “Julias”). We believe the security “Julia” seeks will come not from constant appeals to Washington but from her own bravery and initiative, abetted by a host of institutions (family, church, business, social groups and local, state and federal governments).
Our skepticism of human nature and large human institutions prevent such an endearing view of Uncle Sam’s largesse as that portrayed in “Julia.” At the same time, our confidence in human innovation enlivens are hope for a bright American future. Public safety, the sanctity of private property and the dignity of each person encourages our belief that a limited government is wisest for individual persons as well as society.
These assertions are often grasped intuitively; the “common man” gets them well, which is why those in the third and fourth quintiles of the economy are veering Republican. In a prescient 2004 piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Karl Zinsmeister, now of the Philanthropy Roundtable, described how “[s]tarting in the 1960s and ’70s, whole blocs of ‘little guys’ — ethnics, rural residents, evangelicals, cops, construction workers, homemakers, military veterans — began moving into the Republican column. And big chunks of America’s rich elite — financiers, academics, heiresses, media barons, software millionaires, entertainers — drifted into the Democratic Party.”
The irony of the Left’s closeness to the elites is both funny and pathetic. Some of the uber-wealthy have believed that by pandering to the Democratic Party they can safeguard themselves from political predation (Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley and Obamacare should by now be giving them at least some pause). Others, most especially those in the entertainment field, are so thoughtlessly aligned with the social Left (they herald compassion, rights, justice, etc., even if those appealing appellations mean the opposite of what those most eager to use them usually intend) that they are unconcerned with the ravages their erstwhile political paladins are wreaking upon those who sustain them (the lower- and middle-income workers who buy tickets to their movies and watch cable TV). As to academics: insulated from the competitive marketplace and hostile toward religious restraints on intellectual and moral autonomy, they luxuriate in the freedom to deny the existence of moral absolutes and political common sense. And they, and their student acolytes, vote.
Spurned suitors are an unhappy lot; the failed romancing of the broader electorate has failed to endear “the common man” to Democratic bigwigs. Consider some fairly recent but currently representative comments by Bill Clinton’s political savant, James Carville, and the delightful Ben Stein’s appraisal of them:
I was surprised when I read that [James] Carville blasted the men and women at the anti-Obama tea parties as so “classless” that they shocked him. Wait a minute. I thought the Democrats were the party of the little guys and those who aren’t classy or well-born. Now, the Democrats’ political enemies are the ones without social class? So, now the Democrats are admitting they’re the party of the rich? They have been getting the lion’s share of very large political gifts for years now. The truth is that the Democrats are the fat cats. I am impressed that Mr. Carville admitted it.… What’s really amazed me is how the elitist anger of the liberal Democrats is boiling over as some ordinary citizens show they don’t like being pushed around. The liberal Democrats might want to rethink this. Contempt for the ordinary citizen is just not American. And it does not win elections.
The Democrats seem not to have gotten the message that their belief in a government with certain of the qualities of God — benevolence, omnipresence, parental oversight, dispenser of good gifts, etc. — is not well-received by most Americans. Indeed, in a remarkable passage in his recent National Press Club speech, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York had the courage and honesty to say what he actually believes about the role of centralized government (his conservative and liberal counterparts might take a lesson from his candor, by the way):
Democrats must embrace government. It’s what we believe in; it’s what unites our party; and, most importantly, it’s the only thing that’s going to get the middle class going again.… If people don’t believe government can deliver, they’ll follow the Republican path. That leaves the job to Democrats. If we run away from government, the negative misperceptions about it will take root, and even if people support our ideas, they won’t believe government can deliver. We must convince the middle class that the only way out of their morass is by embracing a strong and effective government, not demeaning it or running from it.
Can big government do some good things? Sure; national defense, good interstate highways, smooth interstate commerce, international relations, a national currency and an effective federal justice system are among then. But tens of millions of those to whom Sen. Schumer wants to appeal have been, to use his word, “delivered” things they have come to loathe: Higher taxes, cascading regulations on the small companies they own and businesses where they work, curtailment of their religious liberties and a culture where corrosive libertinism is celebrated by the Left as free personal expression. Instead of liberty, prosperity and opportunity, they have been hemmed in by a strong and invasive nanny state that tells them, as Obamacare advisor Jonathan Gruber infamously put it, to eat their spinach. After all, Uncle Sam knows best.
Charlie Cook is right that “the focus on (health care, the environment, and civil rights) has effectively decimated the Democratic Party in specific areas and among specific voter blocs. The evidence is the difference in the partisan makeup of the Congress that will be sworn in next month.” But this decimation is due to more than a wrong focus. It is due even more to an abandonment of policies that empower instead of weaken and an allegiance to a social agenda affrontive to the bulk of the citizenry.
The politics of fear (“war on women,” “they want to privatize Social Security,”), resentment (the “one percent” versus “the rest of us”) and victimhood (you just can’t make it without government, you poor thing) are weak reeds upon which a political party can rest. This year, even more of those reeds collapsed, and as time goes on, more of them will falter as well.
Conservatives cannot rest upon the trends documented above. They must make their arguments more persuasively to African-Americans and other minorities. They have to keep explaining why what they believe makes sense for all Americans, cogently and in term ordinary people can grasp. And politics change rapidly because public opinion is often very different than its ultimate judgments.
But one thing is sure: the Democratic Party has much less a problem of communicating that it does a problem of its message and purpose. And an entity without a reason for its own existence cannot, to again quote Lincoln, long endure.