On October 21, 2008, when Dissenting Justice was still getting started as a blog, I wrote the following essay reprinted below. I am republishing it because it seems highly relevant today. FYI: The article received many hits at the time and remains very popular among readers.
2008 Is Not 1964: Why Liberal Mania and Conservative Panic Are Nothing But Melodrama
Keeping with the theme of this blog, I have decided to critique the dramatic commentary coming from liberal and conservative circles about the implications of a likely expanded Democratic majority in Congress and probable victory for Barack Obama. Democrats are getting ready to dance in the streets, while Republicans have assumed a "Red Scare" posture. On the sidelines, I watch with alternating amusement and astonishment. Both sides exaggerate the significance of a Democratic victory - particularly when they analogize it to the period of massive legal and social change in the 1960s.
Republicans Channel Paul Revere: "The Liberals Are Coming, the Liberals Are Coming!"
The editors of the Wall Street Journal set off a rallying cry last week, in an opinion piece predicting gloom and doom from a "liberal supermajority." The WSJ predicts that a Democratic Executive and Congress, including a filibuster-proof Senate, "would mark the restoration of the activist government that fell out of public favor in the 1970s." I guess it would also replace the activist government that fell out of public favor in 2008. I wrote about this opinion piece in a previous blog entry.
On the campaign trail, McCain and Palin have already insinuated that Obama's economic policy resembles European socialism. Now, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, McCain's campaign has decided to raise the specter of full Democratic control of the national government as dangerous. Despite the fact that the Republicans have controlled Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court for many years, they will shamelessly market the virtues of divided control. So, expect to hear more soundbites about the perils of the Obama-Pelosi-Reed triumvirate.
Democrats: We Believe We Can Fly!
The Democrats, on the other hand, are salivating from the implications of a clean sweep. For some time now, liberal commentators have gleefully predicted the demise of the Republicans and the establishment of a liberal utopia. Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote a eulogy, masquerading as political commentary, remarking on the death of the Republican Party. Rich opined that "the G.O.P. looks more like a nostalgic relic than a national political party in contemporary America. A cultural sea change has passed it by." Rich predicts that a "national rout in 2008 just may be that Republican Party’s last stand." Obama supporter Jonathan Alter of Newsweek has written a similar, but more guarded, column called "We're Heading Left Once Again," in which he asserts that Obama "would have a fighting chance to move the country to a new place, or at least one we haven't seen for a while. Leftward ho!" Finally, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has a "hot from the press" article entitled "Party Like It's 1964." Cohen argues that Bush and McCain have "constructed a mean, grumpy, exclusive, narrow-minded and altogether retrograde Republican Party." Accordingly, the GOP has earned its fate: life in the "political wilderness."
My Take: Both Sides Are Just Wrong
Republicans lament the advent of U.S. socialism, while Democrats prepare to build a new "Great Society." From both of these notions, I respectfully dissent. Despite all of the passionate predictions of an impending liberal takeover of the country, both sides overstate the significance of a Democratic presidential victory, even one connected to an expanded liberal majority in Congress. Here's why.
The Country Remains Right of Center
Despite the apparent resurrection of the Democratic Party as a contender for the White House, the Country remains right of center. And if you compare aspects of American social policy with other liberal democracies, the country's political core looks solidly conservative. If the Democrats want to get re-elected -- which is likely their paramount goal as politicians -- then they will have to operate within the constraints of that political reality. Any sweeping liberal change will receive stiff resistance. Certainly, any costly liberal policy proposal will receive even louder opposition. Bush and the Republicans engaged in excess, and they are paying for it. Smart Democrats like Obama will avoid this at all costs -- not by building a coalition for radical change -- but by aiming for the middle.
When Clinton was elected in 1992, my liberal colleagues were similarly exuberant about the possibilities of a liberal shakeup of the country, although with Obama, liberals have become absolutely ecstatic (translation: unbounded from political reality). But the nasty reaction to Hillary Clinton's vanguard effort to create a national health care system and the backlash -- led primarily by Colin Powell -- against Bill Clinton for attempting to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military -- gave people an early wakeup call. Merely electing a Democrat does not mean that the electorate has fundamentally changed with respect to political ideology.
Many commentators have also neglected to consider that Obama actually trailed or tied McCain in most polls until Lehman Bros. collapsed. When several other financial institutions imploded, Obama reclaimed the lead, which has only sharpened. This change in his fortune surely does not mean that the country has become suddenly left or center-left. Instead, non- or less-partisan voters are simply doing what they have done throughout American political history: They are blaming the incumbent and the incumbent party for poor economic conditions. On top of this historical skepticism towards incumbents during bad times, Obama has successfully blamed Bush for the financial crisis -- even though this is a major distortion (as FactCheck.Org documents). The economy -- not a new liberal electorate-- has placed Obama on top of the polls.
An Election Alone Is not a Social Movement
Obama's rallies are filled with thousands of supporters. Scores of new voters have registered as Democrats, many due to the appeal of both Democratic candidates during the primaries. Obama has formed a coalition of liberal/leftist elite whites, blacks (who were already the most faithful Democrats), women, young people, and some moderates. Several commentators have argued that these changes will lead to the implementation of much more liberal social policy -- just like in the 1960s. This is not necessarily true.
Many of the changes that occurred during the 1960s happened because of very sustained, sometimes even violent, political activism and unrest. Although Clinton was right in saying it took a president to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she should have also cited her earlier work, because a very large "village" helped create the political conditions that ensured passage of the law.
The implementation of the 1960s legislation that prohibited discrimination in areas of employment, voting, the usage of federal money (the denial of which would have crippled segregated schools), and access to places of public accommodation, resulted from decades of social movement activity. It also resulted from a remarkable alignment of domestic leftist interests with the national government's need to project a good image into the international community. The U.S. justified its Cold War policing of foreign countries on the need to fight totalitarianism and fascism. News of racial terrorism and discrimination against U.S. blacks, which the Soviet Union rapidly distributed to other countries, disrupted the attainment of this latter goal.
Comparing the 1960s with the current situation does not reveal many parallels. Granted, young people are passionate and fed up with the current government (just like most other people). But many participants in the current Democratic resurgence have united in order to secure the defeat of Bush (Cheney-Rumsfeld-McCain-Rice-Powell*), rather than to accomplish a broad set of liberal social policies. During the primaries, the media joyfully reported Obama's victories in a string of red states, where he often secured the vast majority of white votes. But it remains unclear what beyond electing Obama and ending the war unifies white Democrats in Wyoming or Utah with blacks in Brooklyn, and gays and lesbians in San Francisco. These groups view the Democrats as a healthy alternative to the Republicans. But outside of ejecting the Republicans from leadership, wanting change is merely a political slogan, not a political movement. Desiring something new does not transform what already exists.
Obama Is Not Wildly Liberal Compared with Other Democrats
During the Democratic primaries, Obama supporters, especially blogs such as HuffingtonPost, Daily Kos, and Mother Jones, vehemently worked to distinguish Obama and Clinton ideologically. Clinton was just "more of the same." She was, gasp, almost a Republican. Her war vote, Obama said, showed a lack of judgment. To his supporters, it proved that she was a shameless hawk. Even when commentators like Paul Krugman said her health plan was more progressive than Obama's, his supporters said that she was lying anyway and would not work to achieve it. Some of them (and the Obama team as well) said that it would "force" people to participate, which sounded a lot like the Republican rejection of "Hillarycare."
Once the primaries ended and polls showed that many of Clinton's disgruntled supporters intended to vote for McCain or neither candidate, their rhetoric turned around completely. Instead of being a Republican in Democratic clothing, Clinton held the exact same position as Obama on all social issues. Accordingly, PUMAs would betray their party and preferred candidate's life work if they voted for McCain. So is Clinton now wildly liberal like Obama or is Obama less progressive than his supporters claimed? Probably a little of both.
Obama is a great politician and lawyer, which has led to much of his success. He knows how to embrace policies specifically enough to show commitment, but always leave room for nuancing his stance later. A lot of Democrats in the past, like Gore and Kerry, could not do this effectively. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, could. Part of it comes from being a lawyer and knowing that "is" can have multiple meanings.
Outside of abortion, where Obama has a very consistent record of progressive voting, it is unclear what other liberal area he is as far to the left as his supporters portrayed him during the primaries. For example, he is against the war, but so are most Americans. He believes in multilateral foreign relations, but this is hardly a novel idea for the U.S. He campaigned on universal health care, but so did all of the other Democrats, and it is unclear whether the electorate will support this policy under a time of economic hardship. He took the position that the Supreme Court should have authorized the death penalty in rape cases -- even though the history of applying capital punishment for sexual assault follows a horribly racist pattern. And he supported the Supreme Court's recent Second Amendment ruling, which found an individual right to bear arms sufficient enough to defeat Washington, DC's ban on handguns. Obama, like Bush and McCain, does not support same-sex marriage, but endorses local efforts to make it a reality. It appears that Obama can chase the center, middle, and right -- just like Bill Clinton, the original triangulator.
Furthermore, despite Obama's opposition to the war and his view that supporting it shows a lack of judgment, Obama selected Biden -- who voted for the war -- as a running mate. Despite his slamming of Clinton for supporting NAFTA, Biden actually voted for the legislation, which Obama himself says he will not seek to repeal. Biden also voted for the bankruptcy reform legislation, which Obama derided as showing a lack of compassion to consumers. Also, while Democrats blame (wrongfully) the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act for the current financial crisis, Obama has called upon Clinton's former Secretary of Treasury Ron Rubin for economic advice. Rubin supported Gramm-Leach-Bliley, and he is currently a Director of Citicorp, one of the largest beneficiaries of the legislation.
Finally, Obama recently accepted Colin Powell's endorsement, despite Powell having delivered one of the most compelling arguments to the United Nations for the war. Powell's dissertation on the war utilized forged materials, which purported to document Iraq's effort to obtain uranium from Niger. Powell also orchestrated political opposition to Clinton's effort to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces, which gave us the terrible "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise. Nevertheless, Powell's endorsement has received almost universal praise from Democrats. Obama's negotiation and acceptance of the endorsement is brilliant from a political perspective. But it does not fit with the narrative of a leftist politician who will fundamentally change the U.S and who hates all things related to Bush and his war.
Only White Old Heterosexual Males Are Predicting the Demise of White Old Heterosexual Male Power
Finally, I think it is worth mentioning that only white old heterosexual males have predicted the demise of white old heterosexual male power. Joining Rich, Alter, Cohen and McCain, Alec Baldwin recently asserted that Obama's election would neutralize racism and kill the civil rights movement. Most of the commentators and politicians I have seen who believe that November will usher in a leftist regime that will grip America and slay old white power are part of that demographic themselves, regardless of political affiliation. Why is that? Perhaps because women, people of color, the poor, and gays and lesbians know from personal experience that meaningful progressive change does not happen overnight. Perhaps it is because we know that creating equal opportunity still requires a lot of work. Maybe it is because having just witnessed a plenty of crude sexism, racism, and mocking of poor uneducated voters from so-called liberals during this election cycle, we cannot imagine a Democratic victory causing substantial progressive change. I hope our cynicism goes too far, but for now, I am sticking with history and my own instincts. Accordingly -- Republicans should: "Chill out!" You are down, but not done. And Democrats should: "Put down the pom poms and start doing the hard work of building effective social movement activity, which actually involves some very honest and open political debate and self-criticism.