The results of Tuesday’s election are savagely depressing, wholly expected, yet deeply puzzling. Why do so many Americans insist on voting against their own best interests? Why do they shout hatred for a health care plan that gives them better protection against calamity than they have ever had? Or stimulus spending that has prevented a bad economic climate from being much worse for them? Or tax proposals that lower their own taxes by raising taxes on people much richer than they will ever be? Why do they vote in such numbers for the party favored by the bankers and traders who brought on the economic catastrophe?
Eight out of ten voters told exit pollsters that they are frightened by the economy; four out of ten report that their own families are still worse off than they once were. Columnists say that this explains why they turned on President Obama and deserted the Democrats. But that is not a solution to the puzzle; it is part of it. The economy is improving; private sector jobs are increasing. True, the improvement is slow—no doubt slower than everyone hoped and many people expected. But if someone has burned down your house you would not fire your new contractor because he has not rebuilt it overnight and then hire the arsonist to finish the job. Commentators say that Obama has failed to explain the value of what he and the Democratic leadership have accomplished. But he tried: he repeated his explanation all over the country. The people who voted against his policies—or simply stayed away from the polls—many of whom voted for him two years ago, must have had a reason for not listening to him now.
We must take seriously what so many of them actually say: that they feel they are losing their country, that they are desperate to take it back. What could they mean? There are two plausible answers, both of them frightening. They might mean, first, that their new government is not theirs because it is not remotely of their kind or culture; it is not representative of them. Most who think that would have in mind, of course, their president; they think him not one of them because he is so different. It seems likely that the most evident difference, for them, is his race—a race a great many Americans continue to think alien. They feel, viscerally, that a black man cannot speak for them.
Obama isn’t one of them in other ways as well: in the period since he was elected it’s become clearer that he is uncomfortable with the tastes, rhetoric, and reflexive religiosity they identify as at the heart of American political culture. He tries to find his way into that culture—he speaks of “folks” in every paragraph these days—but his articulate, rational style strikes the wrong note. Many of those who voted for him before don’t like what they got. They want to take their country back by taking its presidency back, by making its leader more like them.
There is a second, equally dismaying, understanding of what they mean. All their lives they have assumed that their country is the most powerful, most prosperous, most democratic, economically and culturally the most influential—altogether the most envied and wonderful country in the world. They are coming slowly and painfully to realize that that is no longer true; they are angry and they want someone to blame.
They read every day of our declining power and influence. Our dollar is weak, our deficit frightening, our trade balance alarming. The Chinese own more and more of our currency and our debt; they, not we, have built the world’s fastest computer; and they show no inclination whatever to heed our demands about revaluing their currency or helping to protect human rights in Africa or prevent nuclear weapons in Iran. Our requests and demands are more and more ignored in foreign capitals: in Jerusalem, for example, and in congresses on climate change. Our vaunted military power suddenly seems inept: we are unable to win any war anywhere. Iraq was a multiple disaster: we could not win peace in spite of a vast expenditure of blood and treasure. Afghanistan seems even worse: we are unable to win and morally unable to quit. The democracies of the world, who once thought us the model of the rule of law, now point to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and call us human rights criminals.
For many Americans, losing America’s preeminence means losing the country they know. They want America to stand alone on top again; they want politicians to tell them that it can, that God has chosen us but false leaders have betrayed us. The heroes of the Tea Party made reclaiming American triumphalism the heart of their victory speeches on Tuesday night. Marco Rubio, elected senator from Florida, declared, “The United States is simply the greatest nation in all of human history. A place without equal in the history of all mankind. But we know that something doesn’t seem right.”
Rand Paul, the new senator from Kentucky, repeated the theme and tied America’s greatness to unregulated economic freedom:
Why is America great? Why are we the greatest, richest and freest country ever known to man?… America is exceptional because we embraced freedom, because we enshrined it in our documents and because we have lived and fought for the principles of freedom.
This is dangerous. History has left exceptionalism behind: the world has, fortunately, moved beyond the capacity of any single nation to dominate the rest. If Americans do not come soon to accept that, frustration will roil our politics for a long time to come.
We should fear two further consequences of the 2010 elections. A grotesque amount of money—up to $110 million—was spent on congressional campaigns by sources kept secret. Spending by outside organizations has dwarfed spending by the Republican and Democratic party committees themselves, and we can expect exponentially more spending in the much-higher-stakes presidential election to come. Those who claimed that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case would make little difference to our politics have been quickly and dramatically proved wrong.1
The elections also, I fear, make the appointment of new Supreme Court justices who will be effective in reversing its right-wing adventures less likely. If another vacancy occurs in the next two years, a filibuster against any even moderately liberal nominee—or, indeed, an outright defeat of such a nominee—will be likely because Republicans, who vote as a bloc, now have nearly as many votes in the Senate as Democrats. Obama will be unlikely to nominate anyone with even a tinge of a public liberal record for fear of a politically damaging defeat.
The reactions of the Republicans and Democrats to Tuesday’s historic election were a study in contrasts. John Boehner, surrounded by ecstatic supporters, moved quickly to dampen expectations, reminding the public that the President still “sets the agenda” and therefore can still be held responsible for what comes next, and tried as best he could to appear humbled rather than vindicated. Marco Rubio, the Tea Party favorite who is now Florida’s senator-elect, put the matter bluntly in a strong acceptance speech that conservative pundits are swooning over: “We make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party.”
These two men get it: Tuesday’s massive defeat for Barack Obama was not an embrace of the Republican Party that voters had soundly rejected just two years ago. The Tea Party remains a real problem for the GOP, and it will grow between now and 2012, as the party must deliver on what it promised, and knows it can’t: without serious cuts in the fastest-growing items in the federal budget—Social Security, Medicare, and defense—about which there is no social consensus, the deficit will continue to grow in the near term if taxes are not raised, another taboo. The party will remain vulnerable, not so much from the right as from below, and will still face a roster of ill-prepared, embarrassing Tea Party insurgents running for office and threatening to throw elections to Democratic candidates, as seems to have happened in the Nevada, Delaware, and Connecticut Senate races. A Palin shipwreck looms.
Republicans take seriously the Tea Party and the quarter or more of the electorate that is sympathetic to it because they see it as a fundamentally right-wing phenomenon. They are wrong. Democrats don’t take it seriously—by which I mean, don’t try to understand and engage the passions behind it—for the very same reason. They, too, are wrong. The Democratic doxa for the past few years has been a mix of contempt (look at the misspelled signs Glenn Beck’s puppets are holding!) and economic determinism (these sorts of things happen when people lose their jobs and homes).
President Obama is no snob but he is susceptible to the latter delusion, telling Jon Stewart recently that when he saw the real economic figures provided by the Bush administration during the transition, and discovered just how bad things were, his political advisers told him to prepare to lose the midterm elections. Sage advice, though it does not follow from the fact that a stagnant economy spelled a Democratic defeat, that all the factors contributing to the defeat are a function of economics. The Tea Party is not.
Nor is it a simple right-wing phenomenon. Though those most active in the movement lean fairly right by most measures, its sympathizers among independents are a mixed lot. And what we saw in Tuesday’s election was a large-scale shift of independents, many of whom must have voted for Barack Obama in 2008. As David Chalian observed on NewsHour:
In 2006, when Democrats swept into control of the House, independents split 57 percent for Democrats…39 percent for Republicans. 2010, the exact flip—56 percent of independents went to Republicans; 38 percent went to Democrats. That right there is the biggest story of the election.
The Tea Party’s rhetoric expresses many contradictory things, but it is continuous with a forty-year trend of growing dissatisfaction with the political process, distrust of elected officials, skepticism about the effectiveness of government initiatives, worry about frayed social bonds, and the conviction that self-interested elites are running the show. Every president since Jimmy Carter has faced this nest of sentiments and the passions they provoke; only the Republicans have managed to exploit it, and since Ronald Reagan not all that effectively. The one Democrat to get it, at least in his 2.0 version, was Bill Clinton. He took the lesson from the defeat of his health care initiative and the thumping he took in midterm elections and changed course. Most importantly, he managed to get a Democratic version of welfare reform passed, which symbolically was very important for independent voters. I worry that the Obama election has put the limousine back in American liberalism and has made the Democrats forget the lessons of the Clinton years. At the moment they seem unreconciled to the fact that in democratic societies you go into elections with the nation you have, not the nation you’d wish for.
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.
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In King County, the most populous in the state, whose county seat is Seattle, there is widespread resentment in its eastern, rural fringes and Republican outer suburbs against the “liberal tyranny” of the city as it enforces “critical areas ordinances” regulating such matters as wetlands setbacks, brushcutting, and new construction and development. Twice, in the 1990s and again in 2004–2006, residents of eastern King County mounted a secession movement to create a new county to be named Cedar, then Cascade, in which they could liberate themselves from the despotic power of liberal Seattle.
Recent statewide elections have been close in the extreme. In the 2000 election for the US Senate, Maria Cantwell beat Slade Gorton, the Republican incumbent, after a statutory recount, by a margin of 2,229 votes, or 0.09 percent. In the 2004 gubernatorial race Dino Rossi appeared to have beaten Christine Gregoire by 261 votes. On the first recount, his majority slipped to 42, but he held the title of governor-elect for six weeks, until a second, manual recount put Gregoire ahead by 129 votes. (Six months later, after a lawsuit brought by the Republican Party, she emerged with her majority increased by four votes, to 133. In their 2008 rematch, Gregoire beat Rossi by 6 percent.)
This year, with unemployment across the state at 9 percent, it seemed that Rossi, now well funded and well known, was in a much stronger position to take Murray’s Senate seat. Certainly the national Democratic Party believed so, and sent Obama himself, Michelle Obama, and Joe Biden out to Washington on separate visits to campaign for Murray, though none of them ventured far outside Seattle. On the Republican side, millions of dollars poured into Rossi’s coffers, much of it from out of state, and much in the form of “dark money” from political groups with unknown donors. In the blanket primary, Rossi easily outpolled his Republican opponent, the former NFL player Clint Didier, who has a farm on the Columbia plateau (a spread of a thousand acres, which is modest by plateau standards), and was endorsed by Sarah Palin.
Rossi ran a canny campaign, finding a scheduling conflict whenever a Tea Party rally beckoned, and representing himself as a mainstream, centrist Republican, his anti-abortion position tempered—somewhat—by his proclaimed willingness to make exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and the mother’s life. The message on his website, “I’m running for the US Senate because our country and our economy are in trouble because of too much spending, debt & government,” aimed to chime with the national mood, but steer well clear of Tea Partyish excess. (Although Tea Party groups are scattered around the state they’ve found little of the traction that they’ve gained in other parts of the US.) Rossi carried eastern Washington by large margins, and made some deep inroads into the western Washington vote, winning in ten of the nineteen counties west of the mountains, yet he lost the state decisively.
Murray has been an effective senator since her election in 1992, especially in the matter of bringing earmarks back to her home state. When eastern Washington’s largest newspaper, the Spokane Spokesman-Review, endorsed her last month, it noted her “fairness” in bringing federal money and jobs to the eastern half of the state, while commending Rossi for his “philosophy.” Murray dazzles no one, but her seniority in the Democratic leadership and on the Appropriations Committee have given her the kind of financial power that made the late Ted Stevens so valuable to Alaska. Her “just a mom in tennis shoes” style has made her unusually popular among her constituents, with whom she talks simply and accessibly. For this, she was always polling well ahead of Rossi among women voters, though Rossi appeared to have the edge among men.
The local rule of thumb is that a Republican running for the US Senate or the governor’s office must break 40 percent in King County, where close to a third of all voters in the state live. When, on election night, the early-ballot returns showed Murray winning in King County by 62 percent to Rossi’s 38 percent, Democrats here went to bed confident that she’d keep her seat. Rossi’s loss, despite his carrying thirty out of thirty-nine counties, rather justifies the old cry from east of the mountains and the dying logging and mill towns on the Olympic Peninsula that once again an election has been fatally skewed by the usual suspects, those damned Seattle liberals.
Much the same pattern has held in races for the US House. The two seats east of the Cascades have been won by their Republican incumbents, with overwhelming majorities. A third Republican, Dave Reichert, whose district straddles King and Pierce Counties, was reelected by a 5 percent margin. The only Democratic loss was in an open seat in largely rural southwest Washington, vacated by Brian Baird and won by the Republican Jaime Herrera.
Herrera, who’s thirty-two, takes an absolutist stand against abortion, but is an otherwise straight-down-the-line free-market conservative, with distinct humanitarian tendencies, who knocked out two Tea Party contenders in her primary (they labeled her a RINO—Republican In Name Only—and a “liberal”). The last House seat to be decided was in District 2, which sprawls northward from the outer suburbs of Seattle across six counties (including a small, bite-sized chunk of King) to the Canadian line. Here the Democratic incumbent, Rick Larsen, has just managed to scrape past his opponent, John Koster, a Sarah Palin anointee, with a lead of around 2 percent.
Washington has been lightly scathed by the gale of anti-Democrat, anti-Obama loathing that swept the US heartland but seems to have lost much of its force as it reached the West Coast, and was felt here only as an uncomfortably stiff breeze. Nor has there been any sign here of the “enthusiasm gap”: though a final figure for statewide turnout (not a word that works well for an election held by mail) hasn’t yet been published, it’s clear that many more people voted in Washington in 2010 than did in the 2006 midterm election (64.5 percent), and when the last ballot paper has been counted, the turnout is likely to come within a whisker of the midterm record of 72 percent in 1970.
—November 11, 2010
December 9, 2010
See my “The Decision That Threatens Democracy,” The New York Review, May 13, 2010. ↩
Jackie Calmes and Megan Thee-Brenan, “New Support from Independents Fueled GOP Gains, Exit Polls Show,” The New York Times, November 3, 2010. ↩