These debates also replayed old progressive debates on how to engage in American politics. Moderate progressives, who believed that liberal progressivism was to blame for prior defeats, emphasized the role independents would play in the election and counseled ameliorative incremental measures. Liberal progressives, who believed that lack of boldness and improper campaign tactics were responsible for prior defeats, focused on policies that would energize liberal progressives — who supposedly normally do not vote — to show up at the polls.
We can see that the administration again largely accepted the liberal-progressive view of the world. Legislative attention was focused on financial regulation, a bill that was superficially popular but which clearly was not a priority for any segment of the electorate. Little serious attention was paid to the deficit, and the administration’s reaction to the Gulf oil spill was to shut down offshore drilling, an act that thrilled environmentalists but surely was noticed by working-class Americans already worried about their jobs. It was as if the administration felt that directing popular anger against Wall Street and big business — a staple of the Democratic party since Andrew Jackson and 1832, as progressives John Judis and Ruy Teixeira noted in their book The Emerging Democratic Majority — was sufficient to bring working-class Americans back on board.
The result is clear, according to moderate progressives. Once again, the Democratic party has been seduced by the siren song of immediate and comprehensive public action without regard to cost or public opinion. The cure for this disease is clear: a return to the only course of political action that has worked for Democrats since 1966, Clintonian incrementalism.
Liberal progressives would contest this interpretation. They place the blame for the Democratic defeat on the economy, noting that unemployment is at historically high levels, levels that have particularly affected the working class. They further note that they were unable to deliver on immigration reform, cap-and-trade, don’t-ask-don’t-tell, and other measures that would excite the base. They would argue that the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United opened the floodgate to unprecedented influence by corporations and billionaires who could now spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns guided by clever and unscrupulous Republican operatives.
In short, they are repeating all of their prior explanations for 40 years of political defeat. People are voting their pocketbooks, our voters won’t vote unless they have something to vote for, and outside interests are once more conspiring to distract the voters with phony issues and slick ads. This, then, is the decisive point: Are liberal progressives right about recent American electoral history? Or do American voters fundamentally not want what liberal progressives have to offer?
WHAT DO AMERICANS REALLY WANT? Let’s start this discussion with a simple fact. Since 1960, Democrats have simultaneously controlled the White House and Congress with large supermajorities four times: 1965–66, 1977–80, 1993–94, and 2009–10. In each of the three previous instances, Democrats suffered landslide reversals in Congress within four years of obtaining their supermajorities. They will do so again this year. The only time they did not also then lose the presidency was in 1996, when the triangulator Bill Clinton was reelected. Is this a coincidence?
One cannot easily blame the economy for those earlier defeats. The economy was humming in the 1960s, and it was steadily recovering during the early 1990s. Nor can one easily blame political consultants and clever Republican tricks. As anyone who follows advertising and politics knows, a campaign succeeds only if it communicates messages its audience wants to hear. The only thread that runs through all four of the landslide reversals is the presence of liberal progressivism as the defining feature of the campaign.
One can begin to arrive at the political problem of liberal progressivism when one notes that each of those reversals saw the white working class abandon Democrats in record numbers. Nixon’s Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats, angry white males — these catchphrases from those past elections are merely euphemisms for the white working class. In each election, it was their defection that cost the Democrats their majorities and gave victory to the GOP, and polls and casual observation suggest that the white working class is in revolt against President Obama. You can read my NRO article “GOP Heaven, West Virginia?” for the full argument, but suffice it to say that President Obama’s approval rating among white working-class voters is in the neighborhood of 30 percent. By comparison, this is only a few points higher than Nixon’s approval rating on the eve of his resignation.
There must be something unique to the concerns of the white working class, then, that liberal progressivism rubs the wrong way. What might that be?
One could try to discover the answer by recourse to recent polls. If one examined the Ap-GfK poll from September 6–13, for example, one would find that working-class voters believe that government intervention in the economy is more harmful than beneficial by nearly a two-to-one margin. One would also find they are more distressed about the economy and more likely to say they have suffered financially or that a relative has lost a job. Over half say President Obama does not understand ordinary Americans’ problems. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn the same poll shows Republicans leading Democrats by 22 points on the generic congressional ballot, whereas Democrats led Republicans by 12 points two years ago.