I was resisting writing something about this, because I have nothing truly original to add. Does the world really need another wannabe blogger explaining the electoral motivations of millions of people? And then I saw one of the liberal Catholic bloggers on the American Catholic had highlighted a quote I had made some time back about the Republican party. Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote that the Republican party was “a rump party of the south and the plains, mired in an anachronistic culture that has little resonance with the modern world and with the younger generation”. I had forgotten that, so I thank Donald for jogging my memory! Still, I wonder how long he had saved this quote, planning to rub my nose in it when the moment arrived?
And so the moment had arrived. Or has it? As I said, I have no unifying theory of the election of 2010, but all polls showed that the Republican party remains less popular either the Congressional Democrats or President Obama. And yet there was a dramatic nationwide shift in their direction, one that cannot simply be downplayed. We saw a major reaction against a ruling party that controlled the executive and the entire legislature, during the largest recession since the Great Depression.
As I noted recently (referencing Martin Wolf of the Financial Times), the policies of the administration undoubtedly prevented a catastrophic financial and economic collapse, and set us on the road to recovery. The policy measures included the TARP, financial guarantees and “stress tests” on banking institutions, the fiscal stimulus, and the Fed’s actions. But you don’t get out of the biggest hole in a generation so easily. Unemployment is at record levels. Demand remains low, so there is no investment or job creation.
But it is precisely these extraordinary policies that provoked an electoral backlash. People forget how close we came to a second Great Depression at the end of 2008. People forget how far we have come, even if growth has not translated into jobs. People forget that the skyrocketing deficit is almost solely due to the recession (mainly collapsing revenues, some increase in unemployment and healthcare spending). People forget that it was the Republicans that pushed the country toward fiscal jeopardy before the crisis, launching huge tax cuts, a huge war, and a huge medicare expansion – none of which were paid for, and each of which cost more than either gross costs of the Affordable Care Act or the stimulus (and both of the latter are paid for – the former by cost savings that exceed the subsidy costs, and the measures that underpin the latter are expiring). People forget that government spending can stimulate the economy more than tax cuts. People forget that nearly half of the stimulus was tax cuts. People forget that the TARP, no matter how unsavoury, halted the financial meltdown and is actually set to make money for taxpayers. People forget that the Democrats launched an ambitious re-regulation of Wall Street, at a time when Republicans are pushing the tired old low-regulation mantra. People forget that the Democrats are actually trying to trim the growth of Medicare costs, while the so-called small government party called for a robust defense of the government-run single payer program. People forget that the last Congress had a lot more accomplishments than any Congress in a generation.
People forget all of this, when unemployment is so high, when people are living day-to-day, and when economic prospects remain gloomy. This is to be expected. The election was a thorough rejection of the ruling party, and the perceived arrogance of that party. The Democrats deserve a lot of the blame. They could have spoken in the moral language of FDR, but that kind of language is not used today. The Congressional leaders are wholly uninspiring, and Obama has lost his voice. And the base could have actually taken its responsibility seriously and actually voted, instead of staying at home and not bothering. Democrats lost because the people who support them stayed at home. Whites voted, minorities did not. The old voted, the young did not. Nobody forced them.
But some things were beyond their control, including a wilful campaign of lies and misinformation spread by very wealthy vested interests through the well-oiled organs of the right, especially Fox News. Some of it was the politics of selfishness, with elderly voters refusing the pay for the healthcare of others, but insisting that their own medicare and social security remain untouched.
And some of it was the lack of choice. The restricted and binary nature of the US political system means that the only way to voice disapproval was to embrace the very people who so thoroughly messed up in the first place. And yes, when I wrote those words two years ago, I did not expect this. But in the long-term, I believe I am right. I stand by those words. We must think beyond short-term electoral cycles. The older, whiter, tea party cohorts have a few fights left in them. But the younger generations have no identification with the Republican party. The minorities that will grow in numbers in the years to come have no identification with a Republican party that demonizes them for electoral reasons. They stayed at home this time, but this will not always be the case.
Of course, the Republican party could transform itself into something very different. Anything is possible. But I see little signs. I see the opposite. The tea party represents the last dying gasp of a worn-out movement. The tea party probably cost the GOP the Senate, but will the Republicans have the courage to stand up to people like Palin, Beck, and Limbaugh? I see little sign of it. I see little signs of any intellectual rejuvenation at all. I see more of the same. And that’s why I worry about the economy, the country, the world.