What’s particularly frustrating for someone who’s been watching the Tea Party lately is the inability of Democrats, and especially our President, to capitalize on issues where they actually have an advantage over Republicans, especially economic fairness. Many key words of our political vocabulary have been copyrighted by Republicans over the past thirty years, notably “freedom,” which was the major leitmotif of Reagan’s administrations and the label he stuck on all his foreign and domestic policies. The symbolically loaded terms that mobilized voters for the Democrats in the Sixties and Seventies—“equality” and “justice”—now drive them away; unfortunate but true.
But there is still one powerful symbol the Democrats could capture because today’s Republicans explicitly reject it: fairness. “Life isn’t fair” is a refrain you hear constantly from the right. Yet there is a strong sense in the nation today that things are rigged, especially at the top of the economic ladder, and this has only intensified since the bailouts of early 2009. The unwillingness of the Obama administration to engage in economic populism in this intensely populist age, when skepticism of “Wall Street” just keeps rising, is utterly baffling to me. This is the one area where they could get a toehold, if not with the Tea Party hardcore then with the vast numbers of independents who sympathize with it and have floated back to the Republican Party because of it.
I saw in The New York Times the day after the election a survey of election-day voters that touches on this and doesn’t surprise me in the least.2 Most responses show just how divided the nation is, except on one question: Wall Street. When asked whom they most blame for our economic troubles, 41 percent of those who voted Republican blamed Obama and 55 percent of those who voted Democrat blamed Bush. But 32 percent of Democratic voters also listed Wall Street, as did—find a seat, quick—37 percent of Republican voters. At the crucial moment last year when AIG was bailed out and bonuses were paid, President Obama let pass a golden opportunity to seize the issue of economic fairness and steal some of the right’s populist thunder. Whatever political instinct it is that tells a politician he’s got an opening, that a potent political symbol is lying there waiting to be picked up, our president lacks it. As for progressive pundits and Democratic Party leaders, they need to get out of their limousines and talk to some of those people with the misspelled signs. They’ll discover some potential allies among them.
The Republicans of 2010 are a party led by a movement. From early 2009, the movement declared that its strategy would be to denounce the growth of the national debt, oppose the bank bailouts, attack health care reform, and undermine the legitimacy of President Obama. On November 2, that effort largely achieved what it had aimed for. Many Democrats are saying it was a typical midterm election, in which the majority party is bound to suffer. The rest they put down to the bad state of the economy. But suppose the unemployment rate in October had dropped to 9.0 percent. Would the outcome have been much different? This midterm result was a vote of no confidence in President Obama and the Democratic Congress.
Obama’s long-drawn-out attempt to settle himself in a place above politics has injured his party and found no takers on the other side. Only in the last three months did he begin to blame his predecessor for anything. Yet to blame George W. Bush for the economic collapse was a half-truth. The fault goes back at least to Lawrence Summers’s deregulation policies under President Clinton; and it was Obama himself who brought Summers back into government. Such improbable shifts of tactics are one reason why many people who voted for Obama in 2008 no longer think he is someone on whom they can rely.
It is true the recession hurt the Democratic Party on November 2; and the origin of the recession was out of Obama’s control. (He never explained this satisfactorily, and the time to explain it was early.) Within his control were some other things: his decision, for example, to put the stability of the banks and financial firms—as measured by the same banks and firms—ahead of the creation of jobs. Partly in his control, too, was the length of the delay while he sought Republican support for health care reform. Obama has a strangely plastic sense of time. Among the independents who brought him victory in 2008, the decisive disenchantment probably came last summer. The President’s immobility and near speechlessness regarding the BP spill seemed to say that he wished it had not happened and wished that people were not looking at him.
The Tea Party movement stands as the latest embodiment of a far-right strain in our politics that has passed episodically from partial control to a dominant grip on the Republican Party. It ascended in 1964, in 1980, in 1994, and has returned with a vengeance in 2010. The continuity has been concealed by the legend of Ronald Reagan as a moderate conservative. Reagan gave the nominating speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, and his central issues in 1980 were Jimmy Carter’s want of manly resolve in failing to attack Iran and his lack of patriotism in letting Panama take charge of the Canal. Obama’s hands-off conduct toward the BP spill last summer was reminiscent of Carter’s Rose Garden strategy. Say nothing (both men reasoned) about a crisis that resists a methodical solution, and you will gain credit for candor. But it does not work like that.
Capitalist utopianism and unqualified loathing for all that remains of the welfare state are the dispositions that now unite the Republican Party from the bottom up. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier that while it might be too much to hope for economic equality, he liked the idea of a world where the richest man was only ten times richer than the poorest. Bertrand Russell in Freedom versus Organization wrote that since money is a form of power, a high degree of economic inequality is not compatible with political democracy. Those statements did not seem radical seventy years ago. Today no national politician would dare assent to either.
Total repeal of the 2010 health care reform is the declared goal of John Boehner, the new speaker of the House. “This is not a time for compromise,” he told Sean Hannity six days before the election. “People want Obamacare ripped out by the roots.” At a time when the Tea Party rank and file are threatening acts of civil disobedience, it will take considerable dexterity for Obama to salvage a decent portion of his legislation. It seems possible that the Tea Party crowd who want to nullify health care will provoke an angry crowd of a different sort. After all, there are people who need the things that will be taken away. So a president whose political nature is to co-opt and not to fight may be called on to perform an unfamiliar task: to defend the law and vindicate justice (which does not always lie halfway between two extremes) without appearing to assist any of the simmering forces of disorder.
Because Washington State now votes by mail, elections here tend to play out at an agonizingly slow speed, over many days and, sometimes, weeks. So it was a relief when Dino Rossi, the Republican challenger, conceded to Senator Patty Murray less than forty-eight hours after the polls closed, with 1.8 million ballots counted and around 600,000 still to come. Murray then led by 45,000 votes, just over 2 percent, which might on paper make Rossi’s concession look premature. But Rossi understands the odd demographics of this state as well as anyone, and his goose looked cooked even on election night, when Murray’s lead was barely 14,000.
In the run-up to the election, I saw Washington described by commentators as a blue state—“very blue,” “reliably blue,” “stark blue.” But it’s only by a series of electoral flukes in very closely matched races that it has a Democratic governor (Christine Gregoire) and two Democratic senators (Murray and Maria Cantwell). Six of its nine members of Congress are—or were before the election—Democrats. These numbers mask a deep, and very nearly equal, tribal division between the rural and urban parts of the state.
Democrats inhabit the low shores of Puget Sound, mostly on its eastern side, in a ragged trail of port cities that stretches from Bellingham, close to the Canadian border, through Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma, to Olympia, the state capital, at the southern end of the sound. In Seattle, our very liberal Democrat congressman, Jim McDermott, is being returned to D.C. for his twelfth term with a majority of 83 percent of the vote, which is nearly identical to his 2008 figure. In fact, most of western Washington’s Democratic candidates for the House (five successful, one unsuccessful) defended the administration’s record in their campaigns. But when you drive eastward over the Interstate 90 bridge that crosses the long and skinny Lake Washington to Bellevue and beyond, you enter Republican territory, whose redness continues, in varying shades, over the next three hundred miles to the Idaho border.
The north–south line of “the mountains,” meaning the Cascade Range, forty miles east of Seattle, is a rigid political frontier. On November 2, all twenty counties east of the mountains voted for Dino Rossi, while Patty Murray’s support was concentrated in the urban settlements on Puget Sound.
As one crests Snoqualmie Pass on I-90, the whole character of Washington State changes before one’s eyes: abundant rainfall gives way to near desert; ferns, salal, blackberry, and Douglas fir to sagebrush and stunted pinyon pine; high-tech industries (Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon.com) to irrigated agriculture and cattle ranches. Median incomes drop, population density thins.
Republican eastern Washington was importantly shaped by FDR’s New Deal. The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River is its genius loci, along with ten further dams downstream of it. The dams, which have turned the river into a string of inert lakes, were originally meant to transform the Columbia plateau into a quilt of small family farms, but now supply subsidized water and electricity to corporate acreages, whose circular fields, each a mile in diameter, are continually moistened by mechanical sprinklers, and whose vast yields of potatoes are processed onsite into frozen precooked french fries and hash browns, before being trucked out in refrigerated eighteen-wheelers on the plateau’s narrow, rifle-shot-straight roads. This desolate style of industrial agriculture dwarfs the orchards and smallholdings that line the rivers a thousand feet below the plateau.
The violent contrast between the eastern and western halves of the state, and between the cities and their immediate rural hinterlands, has made for a peculiar style of confrontational politics in Washington, much of it centered on land-use and environmental issues: on one hand, the farming, mining, timber, and construction industries, and on the other “Seattle liberals,” as people living east of Lake Washington like to say, who are held to be bent on destroying the livelihoods of their eastern neighbors. In the early 1990s, the cause of the spotted owl led to drastic restrictions on logging in national forests and a sharp—in many places terminal—decline of the timber industry; more recently, there’s been a movement to demolish the dams on the lower Snake River in order to restore salmon runs there, which has caused great anger among eastern Washington farmers, who rely on the Snake for irrigation and for transport of their crops.
2 Jackie Calmes and Megan Thee-Brenan, "New Support from Independents Fueled GOP Gains, Exit Polls Show," The New York Times, November 3, 2010. ↩
Jackie Calmes and Megan Thee-Brenan, “New Support from Independents Fueled GOP Gains, Exit Polls Show,” The New York Times, November 3, 2010. ↩