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The Meaning of Yesterday’s Defeat

Yesterday was a comprehensive disaster. Here in Minnesota, to add a local perspective, not only did the state go for Obama–no surprise there–but the Democrats recaptured both houses of the legislature, and voters defeated two ballot initiatives, one on gay marriage and one on voter ID. Similar losses were sustained across the nation, although there were a few bright spots here and there. So yesterday’s defeat was not about a flawed presidential candidate or presidential campaign.

What lessons can we draw? To begin with, conventional political wisdom was upended in a number of ways. When a president runs for re-election, the campaign is a referendum on his performance; undecided voters break against the incumbent; it’s the economy, stupid. These and other familiar maxims can be consigned to the dustbin.

But there is a much more important proposition that, I think, was proved false last night: that America is a center-right country. This belief is one that we conservatives have cherished for a long time, but as of today, I think we have to admit that it is false. America is a deeply divided country with a center-left plurality. This plurality includes a vast number of citizens who describe themselves as moderates, but whose views on the issues are identical or similar to those that have historically been deemed liberal.

Decades ago my father, the least cynical of men, quoted a political scientist who wrote that democracy will survive until people figure out that they can vote themselves money. That appears to be the point at which we have arrived. Put bluntly, the takers outnumber the makers. The polls in this election cycle diverged in a number of ways, but in one respect they were remarkably consistent: every poll I saw, including those that forecast an Obama victory, found that most people believed Mitt Romney would do a better job than Barack Obama on the economy. So with the economy the dominant issue in the campaign, why did that consensus not assure a Romney victory? Because a great many people live outside the real, competitive economy. Over 100 million receive means tested benefits from the federal government, many more from the states. And, of course, a great many more are public employees. To many millions of Americans, the economy is mostly an abstraction.

Then there is the fact that relatively few Americans actually pay for the government they consume. To a greater extent than any other developed nation, we rely on upper-income people to finance our federal government. When that is combined with the fact that around 40% of our federal spending isn’t paid for at all–it is borrowed–it is small wonder that many self-interested voters are happy to vote themselves more government. Mitt Romney proclaimed that Barack Obama was the candidate of “free stuff,” and voters took him at his word.

The question is, can this vicious cycle ever be broken? Once we are governed by a majority that no longer believes in the America of the Founding, is there any path back to freedom and prosperity? The next four years will bring unprecedented levels of spending, borrowing and taxation. The national debt will rise to $20 trillion or more. When interest rates increase, as they inevitably must, interest costs will squeeze out other government spending. That might not be all bad, except that defense will go first. If Obama’s second term turns into a disaster, fiscal or otherwise, voter revulsion may return the Republicans to power. But that doesn’t mean that America will be saved.

To me, the most telling incident of the campaign season was a poll that found that among young Americans, socialism enjoys a higher favorability rating than free enterprise. How can this possibly be, given the catastrophic failure of socialism, and the corresponding success of free enterprise, throughout history? The answer is that conservatives have entirely lost control over the culture. The educational system, the entertainment industry, the news media and every cultural institution that comes to mind are all dedicated to turning out liberals. To an appalling degree, they have succeeded. Historical illiteracy is just one consequence. Unless conservatives somehow succeed in regaining parity or better in the culture, the drift toward statism will inevitably continue, even if Republicans win the occasional election.

This is not primarily the job of politicians, but politicians cannot escape it, either. I have been grumbling for a long time that Ronald Reagan was the last politician who made a real effort to teach the principles of conservatism to the American public. Since the 1980s, we have largely been coasting on his legacy. The prevailing assumption has been that America is a center-right country, and if Republican politicians run a good tactical campaign and get their voters to the polls, they will generally win. That strategy no longer works, and conservative politicians need to try much harder not just to appeal to conservative voters, but to help create new ones.

The stark question posed by the country’s unmistakable drift to the left is, does America have a future? Can we once again become a beacon of freedom, or will talented young Americans be forced to look elsewhere for opportunity? Barack Obama’s budget–the one that was too extreme to garner a single vote in either the House or the Senate–projects that in four years, we will have a $20 trillion debt. That debt will be paid off by a relatively small minority of our young people, the most productive. If you were in that category, and had to make a choice between staying in the United States and inheriting a debt that could well be $1 million or more, and starting fresh in another country, what would you do? And if you were an investor, where would you put your money? In the United States, where hopelessness reigns and where high unemployment and close to zero growth are now accepted as normal, or in a country with limited government and a dynamic, growing economy?

These are dark days, indeed.

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