Weak Left Led to Democratic Defeat
Editor’s Note: The Left’s anger at President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats misses a key point: despite Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, the progressives have little structural, day-to-day influence with broad sectors of the American public, certainly nothing like what the Right has with AM talk radio, Fox News and right-wing commentators everywhere.
Given that media imbalance – which has grown the past three decades – it is hard to achieve any significant reforms without Democrats paying a high price at the polls and Republicans returning to power, a reality that Lawrence Davidson addresses in this guest essay:
It has only been a few days since the Nov. 2 elections and already the media in all its forms is awash with analyses expressing hallelujahs and curses.
There is a more insightful way of looking at this election, and that is as a window letting us see who American voters actually are and, very likely, always have been: folks with culturally conditioned conservative inclinations, focused on local concerns (the small picture and not the big one), and with remarkably short historical memories.
If accurate, this would mean that liberals, to say nothing of real progressives, are a perennial minority amongst the American voting public. My guess is that they represent no more than 30 percent of the electorate and thus cannot be expected to win a national election outright.
However, under certain circumstances, their political stand can win the temporary support of an additional 20-plus percent and place professed liberals in the White House and Congress.
This means that the default position of most voters favors those who preach the interests of business, low taxes, anti-welfare policies, and a chauvinistic foreign policy.
This seems to be so despite the fact that such stands predictably lead to dangerously insufficient regulation of the economy, the under-funding of vital services, high levels of corruption and debt accelerating foreign adventures.
Eventually, some sort of economic and/or moral disaster results from these policies and it is then that circumstances allow for the possibility of that other 20-plus percent of the voters to lunge to the left. It is times like these that allow for the election of a Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
But, it must be emphasized that this is a reactive impulse among a group of more aware and sensitive voters to some conservative-generated mess and not a change of political heart. In a relatively short period of time, those voters return to their default position, which is usually center-right.
The election of Nov. 2 was a good example of this sequence of events. The mess the country finds itself in was not created by Barack Obama or the progressive elements that so enthusiastically backed him for president. The mess is the result of policies instituted beginning with the Reagan administration.
It was Ronald Reagan who began deregulating the economy and driving up the national debt beyond even its Vietnam War levels, a process largely continued by his successor, George H.W. Bush.
Bill Clinton, who won election in 1992 when independent candidate Ross Perot siphoned off some conservative support from President Bush, was essentially a conservative in Democratic trappings (a charade that Paul Krugman calls the "Clintonian backflip" ).
Clinton expanded the Reagan-initiated program by rolling back aspects of the welfare state, undermining the American working class with NAFTA, and continuing the process of deregulation.
The restoration of the Bush dynasty in 2000 drove the process further and added gross moral indiscretions to the mix. By the time Obama stood for office, the economy was near collapse and the Oval Office the source of lies and torture.
It was only in the face of this disaster that a man claiming to be a progressive desiring to institute "real change" could be elected president. On his coattails rode the rest of the Democratic candidates, some of whom were really conservatives known as "blue dogs."
The Democratic Party’s professional political analysts have long believed what I have proposed above, that most American voters are culturally conditioned conservatives. Thus, upon election, and following the advice of his political advisers, President Obama immediately shifted toward the center right – the political home of those 20-plus percent of the population that gave him his victory.
But by doing so he put himself in a position that demanded compromise for the sake of consensus. To get that consensus the compromises would have to be with the Republican minority in Congress and their primary goal was to stymie the President and make him appear ineffective.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, expressed this strategy clearly just before Election 2010 when he said "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
Thus, throughout his nearly two years in office, Obama compromised for minimal, often half-a-loaf, sort of achievements, from his health-care plan to his economic stimulus package. And he got little credit for his efforts from the voters.
According to an AP election poll, 84 percent of the voters saw no improvement in the economy in the last two years, and half of those thought things were going to get worse. Forty percent thought Obama had no plan for recovery. That is what compromise and consensus building got the Democrats.
And this failing strategy came at a very high price. For to cater to the Republicans, the President had to abandon his progressive base, the 30 percent of the voters who were his most stalwart supporters. No doubt the political rationale for this was the dubious premise that these progressives had nowhere else to go and so would vote for him come what may.
This turned out to be a serious misjudgment, for there was enough progressive disgust with Obama on Nov. 2 to drive some of them to the Green Party and cause others to just stay home. So you see, there is always somewhere else to go.
And now we come to that other perennial political problem, the fact that the American electorate has a short historical memory.
As noted above, Barack Obama did not create the country’s present problems. So the notion that the voters should punish him and his party for not solving those problems (in but a brief two-year period) by voting back into office the party that made the mess in the first place makes no sense.
Makes no sense, that is, unless a majority of the voters have no clear notion of who is responsible for the mess beyond the generic "those politicians presently in charge." And, indeed, the above mentioned AP poll found that 25 percent of voters "blamed Obama for causing the economic crisis."
This sort of distortion occurs when citizens do not pay attention to the rudimentary details of recent political history and so cannot remember events well enough to withstand media propaganda seeking to create an altered version of reality.
Of all the problems itemized above, the most crucial is that the default position for most American voters is a conservative one. Crack this nut, so to speak, and the other problems become much easier to handle. How might a liberal president do this? Two things come to mind (though certainly many other approaches exist).
First, it should be the job of such a president, as well as his progressive supporters, to educate the American people about how the political process now works, especially its money driven and special interest aspects. Also, they should clearly explain the dangers that confront the United States as a consequence of these faults.
Obviously, this will take a lot more energy than is now expended in this direction. A liberal president should weekly be on television telling people how things really work in Washington and his vice president ought to be out there touring the country and informing what voting conservative has historically meant.
Over and over again (and not just now and then) all progressives should be itemizing the obstructive and destructive acts of the Republicans, etc. Use the "bully pulpit" and use it often.
And second, bring foreign policy into the mix. Most people pay no attention to foreign policy because they do not think it impacts their lives, but in truth it does. Disastrous foreign policies, particularly since the 1960s in the Middle East and Asia, have driven up the U.S. debt and thus contributed to the economic problems. Those policies also have made the U.S. a pariah in the eyes of much of the rest of the world.
This foreign policy mess is a bipartisan one but the president who can turn it around will be a hero. However, it cannot be done in the absence of strenuous public education.
It is perhaps naive to think that an educational approach can help change the political instincts of the nation. But progressives only have to aim at changing that 20-plus percent that already have proved their willingness to move left in times of trouble.
These voters are the target audience and perhaps can be permanently influenced. Be it a long shot or not, it is probably the best shot progressives have.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America's National Interest; America's Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.
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