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The Nation We Have, Not the Nation We Wish For

Mark Lilla
The reaction of the Republicans and Democrats to Tuesday’s historic election was a study in contrasts.

Drawing by David Levine

The reaction of the Republicans and Democrats to Tuesday’s historic election was 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 already 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 advisors 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, their 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 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 Ronald 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 see in Wednesday’s New York Times a survey of election-day voters that touches on this and doesn’t surprise me in the least. 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 Republicans blamed Obama, 55 percent of Democrats blamed Bush. But 32 percent of Democrats 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.

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