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The Turning Point
Posted on Feb 22, 2007
The Beginning of the End?
Despite serious doubts about the deeper significance of the 2006 election, there is, in fact, a good case to be made that it may turn out to be one of those rare turning points, or at least a signal that one is looming on the near horizon.
To begin with, polls indicate that the election represented an explicit repudiation of the Republican Party as a party; at least, as explicit as one could possibly expect in a midterm election. Try as they did to argue beforehand that all elections are local, Republican leaders knew that not to be the case, not this time; indeed, that’s precisely why they traipsed around the country vociferously denying what they deeply feared was true.
Under normal circumstances and by its very nature, in the American electoral system—monopolized by two amorphously constituted parties of little distinct ideological or programmatic identity, and with its multiple disincentives to any kind of independent party representation—it is usually excruciatingly hard to register voter sentiment on behalf of a party rather than a candidate. But the election of 2006 was not normal in this regard. There are indications that significant numbers of Americans voted against the Republican Party and, with less enthusiasm to be sure, for the Democratic Party.
Perhaps most tellingly, in numerous races moderate Republicans, who remained quite popular with their constituents and had enjoyed long tenure in office—the best known case is Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island—succumbed to Democrats who were often no more to the “left” than they were. Notwithstanding the inherent fuzziness of what either of the parties stands for, voters seemed ready to conclude that the Republican Party and the administration of George Bush could be fairly associated with the disaster in Iraq, the shameful incompetence and callousness of the response to Hurricane Katrina, the rank and systemic corruption associated with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the crony capitalism of the oil companies and Halliburton. Voting for the Democratic Party was a way of repudiating all that, even if any particular Republican candidate might be blameless.
Then, there is the matter of the “Blue Dogs.” It turns out that rumors of their ascendancy were not so much exaggerated as mischaracterized. True enough, Senate candidates like William Casey in Pennsylvania and James Webb in Virginia were well-known supporters of such social conservative causes as gun ownership or the “right to life.” But these were hardly the issues they ran on. On the contrary, the campaigns of Webb and Casey, not to mention Sherrod Brown’s Senate campaign in Ohio and those of many fellow “Blue Dogs” running for House seats, stressed opposition to the war in Iraq and anger directed at big pharma, big oil, tax breaks for the rich, and free-trade globalization agreements like NAFTA.
Far more often than not, economic populism, not social conservatism, is what lent the Democrats, and in particular the Blue Dogs, an edge. This same sentiment could be felt, both before and immediately after the election, in the overwhelming support for a quick congressional move to raise the minimum wage and to empower Medicare to lower prescription drug prices by bargaining with the big pharmaceuticals. Even more remarkable, given the perilous state of the labor movement, is the emergence of a House majority in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for millions of workers to join unions, a development critical to shifting the balance of political and economic power.
It would be premature to speak of a fully formed populist/New Deal-like alternative within the Democratic Party or to suggest that people were voting for such a possibility in 2006. Nonetheless, when the Democratic leadership anointed its opening agenda as the new governing party in Congress with the resonant phrase “the first 100 hours,” echoing FDR’s first 100 days, there was nothing accidental about it.
So, too, certain demographic and geopolitical trends that showed up in 2006 are suggestive of changes to come. The Latino vote, which in the 2004 presidential election was relatively evenly divided between George Bush and John Kerry, went a whopping 70 percent for the Democrats this time. And that wasn’t even the biggest percentage shift in voting behavior from the 2004 election in favor of the Democrats. That took place among white, non-college-educated working people who, for some time, have made up the core of the conservative populist constituency of the Reagan counterrevolution. Although all the numbers are not yet in, estimates suggest that about one-half of the shift toward the Democrats came from white working-class voters.
Regionally, the Democratic Party made significant gains in the Rocky Mountain West, while clearing away the remnant outposts of Republicanism in much of the Northeast and driving Republicans from Rustbelt outposts in Ohio and Missouri. The logic of that trend—which doesn’t, of course, mean that it will be realized—is to regionalize the Republican Party in the South. In this way, the southernization of national politics, which was the great accomplishment of the Reagan political order, might be replaced by the southernization of the Republican Party.
Even the early talk about presidential candidates seems portentous. On the Democratic side there is no one to the right of Hillary Clinton, certainly a sign of a shift in the party’s center of gravity. But odder than that is the candidacy of Barack Obama. It seems to signal a thirst for a messiah. Such a quest can be symptomatic of many things, some bad, some not as bad.
Obamaism is a real mystery. Others have already noted that messiahs don’t normally come from the middle as he most emphatically does. Moreover, the charisma that surrounds the prince of banality from Illinois is even harder to decipher, attached as it is to nothing tangible or providential as was Robert Kennedy’s lightning 1968 ascension before his assassination, his candidacy held aloft, rightly or wrongly, by the energies of the antiwar and civil rights upheavals.
Something—though it’s hard to tell what—may be blowin’ in the wind.
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