American elections are tribal affairs these days, which means a lot of people cast votes on either side for superficial reasons. The model of a good election is an informed population affirmatively voting for the positive message of the better candidate. That’s not how it works nowadays. A lot of people are voting against The Other Guy. More to the point, they’ve voting against The Other Guy’s supporters.
In the 2012 election, the Obama campaign played those tribal impulses much better than the Romney campaign did. Obama was able to run the kind of negative campaign that the media would never allow any Republican to run. Such negative campaigns are designed to both damage the candidate, and work up animosity towards his supporters.
Such forces are at play on both sides of the aisle, but again, the media would never allow a Republican candidate to openly cultivate them. Obama got away with telling his supporters to think of voting as “revenge,” and he wasn’t talking about personal vengeance against Mitt Romney. But certainly there are people on the Republican side of the aisle who felt motivated by opposition to both Barack Obama and the people he represents – at the visceral level, that’s what the “takers versus makers” debate is about.
Not surprisingly, the first week after the election included a heavy dose of personal invective between supporters of the two candidates. That’s not new – it happens no matter which side wins, and the advent of social media makes it far more obvious than it used to be. Maybe it was easier to offer those soothing post-election bromides about “coming together to overcome our differences” back when blogs, Facebook, and Twitter didn’t make it so painfully obvious that many Americans, both Democrat and Republican, are still bitterly determined to overcome each other.
Again, that’s all par for the course these days, and not unexpected. But what’s really disturbing is the tendency of triumphalist Democrats to tell Republicans that the results of the election mean they should shut up and obey the President’s agenda without further resistance.
Republicans have responded by observing that Democrats have done no such thing following GOP presidential victories, from George W. Bush’s roughly comparable re-election victory to Ronald Reagan’s landslide. Not for a moment did any significant portion of the Democrat constituency think they should meekly submit to whatever issues those victorious Republican candidates ran upon. Instead, the talk was all about the urgency of effective resistance, holding congressional alliances together, and laying the groundwork for the next mid-term and presidential elections.
And they were right to behave that way. They would be correct to conduct themselves in such a manner right now, if Mitt Romney had won the election, even if he won in a huge landslide.
The old radio show told us that Superman fights “a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” That’s a short, sweet summary of what democracy is all about. Everything is a never-ending battle. Very few issues are ever permanently settled, especially not by a single election. That is the essence of liberty. It is our birthright. Coalitions of free people may lose elections, but the people themselves are not defeated. Electoral victory is not an act of subjugation. Even our great Constitution provides a process by which it can be amended.
I would submit that the handful of great questions we have settled for good, sometimes at agonizing cost – such as the elimination of slavery – have all moved us closer to the true original intent of America’s founding documents, whose words were so mighty that even some of those who affixed their signature did not appreciate their full import. That doesn’t invalidate the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, or those who crafted them. On the contrary, it makes them all the more astounding.
Not even as a bit of rhetorical excess, in the release of passions following a hard-fought election, should any American demand the silence or submission of any other. One of the most alarming aspects of the march toward statism is that each step is meant to be irreversible; that is the essential strategic principle of “progressivism,” in which history only moves “forward” toward the total State. I’ve always thought that was a good reason for the citizens of a free republic to vote against such policies. Why should any American be interested in making a decision that his children cannot reverse, if they deem it necessary? Why should anyone be eager to reduce the boundaries of possibility… in both our private conduct, and the options available to us in future elections? What worthy idea requires the absence of criticism for survival?
I vote in favor of smaller government and greater economic liberty, in the sure and certain knowledge that the next electorate might decide to vote the other way. Even if the 2016 election brought an astounding victory for conservatives, they would have to begin defending their gains the very next day. That’s how it should be. Cut spending, and someone will immediately propose raising it again; lower taxes, and there will promptly be calls to increase them; de-regulation will instantly be followed by calls for re-regulation. No matter how strenuously I might disagree with such calls, may the day never come that I demand they be silenced… because on that day I would have lost my enthusiasm for the never-ending battle, and thus for freedom itself.