We briefly interrupt this multi-part series on “What’s Wrong and How to Fix It” to comment on—you guessed it—the elections.
What can I possibly say that hundreds of other people have not already said, or are about to say? It’s a challenge, I admit. There’s obviously no point in telling you what happened, only the possibility of telling you why it happened. But most of that is obvious, too. Most, but perhaps not all.
To start with the most obvious observation, it’s a bit attention-arresting to compare serious opinion polling that shows a deep disquiet within American society (the polls about whether people think the country is moving in the right direction, especially the polls about whether people think their children will have better or worse circumstances then they have had, and several other key survey markers) with the status quo outcome of the election. Despite all of the ambient anxiety out there, the American electorate decided to keep the same President, keep Republican control of the House and keep Democratic control of the Senate. After the most expensive elections in world history, essentially nothing will change.
What could this possibly mean?
It could mean that the dominant two-party system rigged the elections again, albeit legally, thus illustrating the old adversary culture adage that if elections could really change anything they would be illegal. This is not a trivial accusation, but I doubt it explains very much about what happened on Tuesday.
It could mean that people are anxious and want change, but that the kinds of change they want cancel each other out politically. So, for example, those worried about the size of government being too large and too expensive were neutralized by those who park their anxieties into a hope that government will solve their problems.
It could mean that while a lot of people know that the current big government status quo is failing, they don’t trust Republicans to do any better with a small government alternative. The extremism on view from most Republicans this year, although not necessarily from Mitt Romney, determined a good deal of the outcome—especially in the Senate races once thought to be close, which mostly went Democratic. A lot of people will think this means that the country is more leftist than before, but I think it just means that, in the judgment of many, the Republicans have drifted way too far right of center. (Defeated parties often do this in electoral democracies, so the Republicans are right on script after their 2008 loss).
All that is, as I say, is obvious. Also obvious is the breakdown of the presidential vote. If you are a wealthy, relatively elderly married white male who does not live in a big city, you voted for Romney. If you are a relatively poor, young, non-white urban unmarried female you voted for Obama. If you are a Latino or Asian voter, or a Jewish voter, you voted for Obama. If you are a Protestant, and especially an evangelical Protestant, you voted for Romney. If you don’t fit either combination exactly, well, you figure it out, and there are so many ways to slice and dice the sectoral and demographic data that it’s a day job for some people.
It’s not my day job, but it’s obvious that as the country shifts demographically the political implications make themselves known. So in the gender data available, for example, we know that while married females show only a modest preference for the Democrats, that unmarried women (and to a lesser extent unmarried men) show a greater preference. But the fact is that there are increasing numbers of unmarried people, and that obviously torques political outcomes.
Also pretty plain is the fact that national characteristics—urbanization, ethnic identification, gender and age characteristics, in the main—now outweigh regional factors far more than before. So, for example, Latinos are now 11 percent of the population and about 8 percent of the electorate, and that matters politically in and of itself. But even here Latino influence is felt not just in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, but also in Florida, Colorado, Iowa and even Virginia.
Note that none of this need have anything to do with specific constituency interests, assessment of discrete policy questions or even ideology. It has to do mainly with broad notions of affinity. It’s about identity politics writ large. That is why culture war issues play such a large part in contemporary American politics, despite the fact that they have almost no bearing on the future power, prosperity and vitality of the country. These highly emotional moral issues track with affinity and identity far more readily than do complex public policy questions about taxes and banking and healthcare and energy and national security and all the rest.
So if all that is obvious, what’s not obvious? I have only two notions to impart for now.
When swing state voters were asked in exit polls why they voted as they did, a lot of people said they chose Obama because the economy is getting better little by little. They gave him the benefit of the doubt not only on grounds of affinity, that he really cares about people (and it was here, I think, that Romney’s 47 percent remark was the most injurious single thing he did to himself to lose this election), but also on grounds of getting results. Clearly, the trends, rather than the objective reality, helped the President, just like they helped FDR in 1936: A year ago or so unemployment was a bit above 9 percent, and now it has fallen to a bit below 8 percent. Yet still the political chatterati thought the President was very vulnerable on account of the economy.
But he wasn’t vulnerable because a large number of people have come to accept the unacceptable and the unnecessary as the new normal. They are resigned to a sluggish and malfunctioning economy. They are frustrated, exhausted, confused and dispirited to the point that they don’t expect much more. They’re tired of teasing themselves into disappointment.
This isn’t because the average voter really understands the complicated impact of globalization/automation and plutocratic malfunctioning in the economy. It’s just that people have gotten used to bad news about the economy to the point that it has become a kind of white noise. They have not become angry, for the most part, about the outrageous extractive greed of the private-sector financial industry and the public-sector patronage parasitism that together have been sucking the lifeblood out of the economy. Rather, they have become fatalistic, passive and drawn like a moth to the glittering escapism of our vapid celebrity culture. It’s bread and circuses, and most people seem to be okay with that. That’s maybe not so obviously what this election means.
Closely related, and also not especially obvious judging from what’s on offer to read these days, is that American society doesn’t know what it’s for anymore. In the absence of a worthy national challenge or ambition, we have defaulted to a pale imitation of a “moral equivalent of war”, to recall William James’s famous locution. (I’ll tell you what that pale imitation is in just a moment.)
At one point early in our national history we were really possessed with the idea that the American experiment was something very special: an unencumbered embodiment of Enlightenment rationality, something new under the sun in a vast and rich New World. We also had a continent to conquer and an overarching attitude to justify it: developmentalism. We had to subdue nature, build up the land, become prosperous. We also had something to show to the world in our manifest destiny, and as American power waxed we moved from being merely an exemplar of political best practice to being a far more active agent of global change. We then spent six straight decades dealing with Depression and existential threats from totalitarian enemies, even as we lugged our exceptionalist baggage with us, embellishing its history along the way.
And now? For most people in this country the innocent joys of Enlightenment optimism have long since evaporated in meaningless abstractions and unanticipated latter-day complications. The continent is long-since conquered, prosperity is ours beyond the wildest dreams of our forefathers, and most of us seem to get increasingly less kick out of each new gadget and electronic tchotchke that comes along. There are no monsters abroad breathing down our necks, try as some might to find one or two. We’ve soured on the idea of building other people’s nations for them and on teaching them how to be good democrats. We don’t even care much for space exploration. The result is that we don’t know what to do with ourselves anymore. So, many people do what comes naturally: They take what seems to be an unalloyed good idea, one seemingly ratified by the virtuous narrative of American history, and proceed to mangle, misunderstand and misapply it. That good idea, of course, is equality.
American history can be read as the continuous extension of the equality principle. American society originally enfranchised only propertied males of a certain religious conviction, but, as everyone knows, over time citizenship, voting rights and an increasingly explicit array of civil right were extended to those of heterodox religion, to people of color, to women and now, evidently, to those of every possible variation of sexual taste.
So what’s the problem here? The term “equality” in American political discourse always meant, until quite recently, equality of opportunity in the broad sense of life chances, not equality of outcomes or status in a narrow, materialist sense. It also meant equality before God and before the law, so that no human being could be justifiably instrumentalized or robbed of basic dignity. But now the simple distinction between equality of opportunity, understood as a broad description of human potential, and equality of outcome, seen in narrow material status terms, has been muddied.
It has been muddied with no little help from an activist, post-modernist academe whose legions of earnest assistant professors can prove to you that a person’s circumstances have nothing to do with his own behavior or judgment based on anything like right and wrong, but that everyone is essentially a victim of their genetic endowment and social circumstances. (That this pseudoscientific form of predestination tracks exactly with a certain theological tradition that is rarely if ever mentioned, but never mind.) For way too many people, the “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue”, as Jefferson called it as he wrote to John Adams, has given way to a kind of embarrassment that anyone might actually be better at anything than anybody else.
One can see this at play in one of the Obama campaign’s secondary slogans visible at Chicago headquarters Tuesday night, where the term “equality” sat alongside “hope” and “justice”, entirely without context. One can see it in the blithe, closely related insistence that discrimination against homosexuals (in the military, with respect to marriage and particularly with regard to child-rearing) is exactly the same, historically, morally and otherwise, as racial or religious discrimination. It isn’t exactly the same (which most emphatically doesn’t mean that most forms of discrimination against homosexuals are justifiable). Yet all nuance, all distinctions, get washed away in the headlong and apparently accelerating embrace of a completely undifferentiated egalitarianism. Such was evident in the results of so-called gay marriage plebiscites in Maine and Maryland, which might not have passed (like 32 such efforts before) had not President Obama endorsed the notion under the duress of his Vice President’s flapping yap back on May 7.
But then again perhaps these measures would have passed anyway. This is what happens when cultures have nothing better to do, no collectively accepted reason to gird themselves to achieve something important. They become intellectually lax as well as morally decadent. The latter was also on display Tuesday in Maryland, where I live and vote. Marylanders said okay to vastly expanded government endorsement of gambling. Why? Essentially, because other states (namely, nearby West Virginia) do it too. Note that this is not about whether gambling should or should not be legal; it’s rather about using gambling explicitly as a vehicle for raising revenue for the state, which, in my view, changes entirely the political and moral context of the issue from one of forbearance to outright endorsement.
It’s hard to beat the “other states do it” argument for its moral illiteracy. When a child argues to his parents that so-and-so is also doing something dangerous or unseemly, we recognize it immediately for what it is: self-indulgent and self-exculpatory pleading of a particularly short-sighted sort. Because other states prey on the psychological vulnerabilities of certain citizens to exact the most regressive form of tax imaginable, we have to do it, too? When West Virginian politicians stoop to that sort of exploitation, the sin is on them. If Marylanders want to cross the state line to indulge, that, similarly, is on their consciences. But Marylanders have now shown their willingness to run a moral race to the bottom, earning their very own obloquy and responsibility for the consequences as a result. One wonders how those who voted for Question 7 will feel now when one of their children cries to them that “other kids are doing it.”
As we race here in Maryland, and elsewhere in the country, from Bedford Falls to Pottersville, decadence in its several forms, as well as resignation over the state of the American political economy, is, I‘m afraid, also what this election was about. It’s no big deal in terms of democratic theory. With but a few and extreme exceptions, people get the government they deserve. Virtuous societies get virtuous governments, and, well, you get the point.
Or is all that obvious, too?