I’m tempted to write about a historical parallel between this moment and Reconstruction. I’ll be teaching about Reconstruction to my 19th century US history students later today, and we’ll surely discuss the “arc of history” between then and now.
But for now I want to focus on something far more recent: the political era that began in 1980 and ended yesterday. It’s been surreal watching conservative commentators insist that we are a “center-right” country and that Obama won only because he moved to the center. Indeed, there is some truth to those remarks. We are more culturally-conservative than, say, Western Europe. And we are more wedded to free market capitalism than they are. Obama did, indeed, appeal to the center (even center-right) with his talk of tax cuts and his post-partisan rhetoric.
But consider the messenger. No, not the Democratic messenger of “hope and change” but the conservative messengers lauding the “centrist” campaign of Obama. Just 24 hours earlier these same commentators insisted that Obama was the most liberal member of the Senate, a quasi-socialist with radical leanings, an apostle of Saul Alinsky and the New Left. And yet he won.
I firmly believe that the Republican Party made a grave mistake in hyping the ideological stakes in this campaign. By painting Obama as a far-left liberal they have essentially validated left-liberalism in its moment of victory. And yet they knew this could happen.
Why did the GOP raise the stakes so much? Do they really believe that Obama the far-left radical is suddenly a centrist? Were they just going through the motions when they called Obama a left-wing extremist?
If we take them at their word, Barack Obama just ended the Reagan Revolution. Much as conservatives will insist that conservatism never fails — people only fail conservatism — the reality is that the electorate heard the conservative message about Obama loud and clear and rejected it. For the first time in recent memory the public trusts the Democrats on taxes more than the Republicans. Small government conservatism at the core of McCain’s campaign was repudiated.
In fact, the only areas where McCain succeeded were those that embraced Bush-style big-government conservatism: the rural South with its Wal-Mart voters who want populist economics and cultural conservatism. The Mormon-Dixie alliance is the last rump of the GOP, and its defining element is not small-government Reagan Republicanism but Christian militancy and cultural retrenchment. Goldwaterism, which had its strength in the suburbs of America, lost everywhere.
Look at the suburban vote totals – even the outer suburbs – and you can see just how much the Reagan Revolution has ebbed. Even in the Sunbelt, where the Reagan Revolution first took root, the GOP’s margin of victory has contracted. Orange County, California only went for McCain by 51-47. If Reaganism faces defeat in Orange County, where is its last redoubt? In 2004, Orange County voted 60-39 for Bush. The 4-point margin there is, by far, the closest margin in history.
The Reagan Revolution was as much a governing philosophy as a political movement. Based as it was in the expanding white suburbs, it dominated American political life for 28 years. The failures of Bush and demographic changes undoubtedly demoralized and defeated small government conservatism in the Orange Counties of America. And Obamacons like Andrew Sullivan will insist that these votes for Obama were more a protest against DeLay/Rove-style big-government conservatism than an actual shift away from small government conservatism itself.
Without a doubt that’s true for many voters. But I suspect some Reaganites are whistling past the graveyard here. A whole new generation has come of age and has no memory of Jimmy Carter, the Great Society, the urban riots of the 1960s, the 90% marginal tax rates, or 1970s-style bureaucratic bloat. The Reagan Revolution successfully put an end to that era. It did its job. But now it has yielded to a new era. Republican talk of big government and bemoaning “sharing the wealth” and “socialism” simply does not resonate anymore. America is not the same country it was in 1980.
The Democrats can certainly lurch too far to the left. I suspect there will be pressure to do so. And they must be vigilant to guard against overreach. But they should also not fool themselves into thinking that the silent majority still embraces Reaganism. It doesn’t.