The old conventional wisdom that America is a “center-right” nation came in for a real beating in the 2012 election. We’re not a center-right nation, not any more.
We were once such a country, but that period actually concluded during the latter Bush years. We may become center-right again. In fact, I think that outcome is highly likely, although it will take a while, and it will come after a journey through some very bad times.
American elections are not wholesale repudiations, or embraces, of particular ideologies. This one was close. They’ll probably all be close at the national level, for a generation to come. Even if some of the rosier Romney victory scenarios had panned out, it still would have been a close victory as a matter of popular votes, and the balance of power among battleground state electorates. Political victories in a divided electorate are often a matter of winning first downs, by a matter of inches.
The American Left has always been very good at picking itself up after electoral drubbings, and vowing to redouble its efforts. They didn’t roll over and play dead after the Reagan landslides – far from it. We’ll see if the American Right can become equally good at bouncing back and living to fight another day. That is an essential skill for success in a free republic, where the great questions are never really “settled,” because each new generation has the fundamental right to ask them all over again.
But elections do matter, and that is something the Left has also been better at understanding. They move aggressively to consolidate power. The essence of the “progressive” worldview is that each bit of territory taken from the private sector, no matter how small, is taken forever. When yesterday’s moderate “center-right” position becomes today’s right-wing extremism, it means that options have been permanently foreclosed for the American people… at least until the whole system comes crashing down, or a truly massive groundswell of popular opinion reverses the gains of progressivism. The latter is something “progressives” think will never happen, and they have some evidence to back up that belief. The shifting sands of popular opinion fuse into glass beneath the tread of the centralized State, until they shatter beneath its weight.
We’re not a “center-right” nation any more, because the center has been dragged so far to the Left that it’s faintly comical to speak of orbiting on the “right” side of it. This was not done with anything like enthusiastic majority support, but it didn’t have to be. One step at a time was good enough, until the big prize of socialized medicine was finally within reach. Barack Obama did not begin this process; it started before he was born. And as far as modern political history goes, Obama has his foot firmly planted on the accelerator as we head toward the cliff, but George Bush topped off the gas tank, back when gas cost half what it does today.
We’re not a “center-right” nation any more, because we’re too centralized for that. Power over our lives and commerce has been raised up to the inescapable federal level, and we are given votes every couple of years over who gets to use it, but there is not currently any serious discussion of returning it. At the state level, big-city machines swamp the electoral power of the suburbs and rural areas in key swing states. One big blue city can detonate like a political hydrogen bomb among a sea of red counties. It happened time and again on Tuesday night.
We’re not a “center-right” nation any more, because the promises of our national leadership matter far more than results, or even the legal limits on their power. That’s the key takeaway from Barack Obama’s success at criticizing Mitt Romney for his supposed lack of a concrete agenda. Obama had no agenda at all, but his blast of hot air blew away Romney’s admittedly thin stack of paperwork. That’s because for a crucial segment of the American electorate, promises are plans. It’s not merely a “takers versus makers” conflict, although class warfare is part of the equation. It’s the sense that Big Government can achieve wondrous things, without anyone middle-class voters care about having to pay the bills.
This world-view is dangerously incorrect, but it would seem Mitt Romney was not able to convince a no-longer-centered nation to change course before it makes contact with some painful realities. The discussion is not over – again, it is the birthright of every free citizen that no great discussion is ever really “over.” But it will take a great deal of persuasion and organization to persuade a crucial number of voters to move the center back to starboard, where it has historically belonged; and conservatives will be tacking against winds that originate from the early Twentieth Century, not the Twenty-First.
Can it be done in four years? Maybe. People do change their minds, often in fairly profound ways. They’re going to be told that some of the decisions they supposedly made in 2008 and 2012 can never be reversed, and that will make them angry. They’ll see the increased influence of Republican governors, now sitting at the highest level in a decade, pitted against the federal government. Popular red-state governors will pick some very high-profile fights with Washington… and they will lose. That’s going to change the way people view Washington. Mitt Romney’s campaign did not propose to move the center of American politics very far back to the Right, although I thought he took some steps in the right direction. If enough voters are persuaded that’s the proper course of action, a 2016 candidate who makes a bolder, more passionate statement for free-market conservatism and individual liberty can win, and accomplish quite a bit.
But the challenges that prospective conservative President faces will be enormous, because the changes Obama has made – now ratified and expanded by his re-election – are institutionalized. The tactic of portraying all movement toward fiscal sanity as heartless “cuts” to vital services and vulnerable dependents will be employed with renewed vigor. Armies of government employees will be held forth as “victims” before the sharp blades of spending cuts and de-regulation. Every problem caused by the federal government will be presented as a result of insufficient enthusiasm by targeted segments of the populace to pay its bills. It is the old gamble of progressivism that those who benefit will always be more eager to defend what they are given than those it is taken from.
Reviving the old moderate-to-conservative consensus will not just be a matter of changing the tone of our national discussion. Some real, tangible debris will need to be cleared away. Center-right America is buried in a fairly deep grave, but with strong arms behind the spades, it can be exhumed.