WASHINGTON – Maybe we can call these mid-term elections the revolt of “Fly-Over-Country” against the coastal pro-big-government elites that have now occupied “Fort Washington”. “Fly-Over-Country” is the derisive name given by the jet setters who fly New York-Los Angeles back and forth to the rest of America in between the two coasts –a very large of the country that in their sophsticated judgment is clearly not worth a visit.
We can look at this vote both as a loud anti-Obama statement, (at least regarding results for the House), but also as the anti-elitist reaction of a Middle America usually treated with sufficiency and condescension by the enlightened, Ivy League-bred establishment; the self appointed arbiters and paladins of what is sensible, what is right and what should be done by Government, under the supervision of “smart leaders”, (and they are the best), for the benefit of all.
Tea Party Rebellion
When the spontaneous, raucous and at times bizarre Tea Party Movement emerged, the polished, liberal-intellectual establishment, at its most charitable, could say that the Tea Party activists are poor lost souls who, (being unfortunately ignorant and unsophisticated), really do not get the importance of far reaching public policies. According to the enlightened, the Tea Party people and other assorted paleo-conservatives hold archaic positions because they do not understand that all the complex Government engineering crafted by the educated technocrats is really for the common good –including the misguided conservatives. And so, confronted with such ignorance, what is a good, well educated technocrat to do? Well, perhaps explain policy a bit better to these rather dense people anchored in folksy, outmoded ideas, such as those primitive principles whereby when you do not have money you do not spend it.
“And yet, all good efforts notwithstanding, look at that –lament the elites after November 2– the conservatives voted against us”. So, what do the elites make of these elections? Not much really, if anybody was hoping for introspective self-criticism. So far the narrative is that , as the vote unfortunately demonstrates, these retrograde country-folks still do not get it. On substance, the Democrats, looking at themselves in the mirror, conclude that they like every bit of what they see.
So, the issue is the general public that failed to understand. And in this cavalier analysis I detect an only tenously veiled contempt for the unwashed, for these throngs of Mid-Western small town yahoos. This contempt, even if it is not shouted loudly, comes out. Before the elections, Obama himself opined that people in the midst of a crisis do not think clearly. (Translation: “They may vote against me; but only because they are not calmly reflecting on the issues”). And now, even after this drubbing at the polls, President Barack Obama, with ample portions of egg on his face after what amounts to a political repudiation of his agenda by a large part of America that had trusted him in 2008, tries to change the topic, asserting that this defeat shows him that he needs to improve how he communicates about his otherwise smart ideas. (See above). No word about what he may have done wrong in terms of policy. And no admission whatsoever that his opponents, after all, may have a point.
Well, the unsophisticated middle, prodded by the Tea Party enthusiasts, declared in these elections that they do not trust the liberal establishment. Indeed, it would appear that Obama’s problem is really not about “how the message has been conveyed”. It is the content of the message –Big Government—that is really at issue.
Message to be fine tuned; but polices are correct
But regrettably we do not hear any of that in the early post elections commentary by leading Democrats. So much so that outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who became the symbol of Democratic overeach, electoral defeat notwithstanding, announced that, rather than stepping aside or retiring from politics, she is running for the position of Minority Leader of her party. Translation: she has done nothing wrong and she is ready to fight on against the Republican plague that is threatening all her achievements.
But the people of fly over country do not buy the commication gap theory. They intensely believe (at least for now) that all this Government activism and consequent debt takes the country in the wrong direction. The November 2 vote, while not a neat sweep, (think of California and New York as major exceptions), is unmistakably a “no” vote against the very notion of too much Government.
But if this so, what are the wider implications of this vote? What happened is that Middle America felt, sensed, more than having actually digested it, that the United States was on its way to becoming something else, something that they do not like. America was turning into a European-like nanny state that needs more and more resources (our money) to be in charge of more and more sectors, eventually smothering enterprise and freedoms. And so there has been this reflexive, emotional reaction against perceived encroachments that appear to engulf individuals and progressively choke them.
And so, small town, do-it-yourself, America rose up against the alleged policy wonk conspiracy. Of course, it did not help the purported conspirators, the Harvard educated cabal, that their economic recipes, admittedly concocted in the face of unprecedented economic ruin, were not working as advertised.
In fairness to them, in that mayhem who could have done much better? And yet it seems to me that, even giving them the benefit of the doubt, the Obama team technocrats fell largely on their own swords. They displayed smugness and an almost cocky self assuredness way back, at the time of the transition, after their November 2008 triumph. They were so eager to jump in and get started, to get into the fray, because they told one another and anybody around them that they “knew what needed to be done”. Oh boy, oh boy, these guys knew policy.
Things were more complicated
Well it turned out that, valiant efforts and good faith notwithstanding, they did not. At least not entirely. And so they made over optimistic prognostications, (stimulus will reduce unemployment to 8 per cent), falling into the oldest politician trap: over promising. And so, when the economy turned out to be a lot worse, it was easy to argue that they were wrong, that their stuff did not work. And when things did not improve after more than one year, it became progressively less credible to keep blaming George Bush. Fairly or not, after one year in the saddle, Middle America concluded that this was Obama’s recession and thus his to fix. And he could not.
All against Obama-care
But what really ignited the Tea Party rebellion that eventually grew to national proportions was the perception of an unfolding sinister conspiracy, as evidenced by the Obama-care health plan. The feeling in the heartland was that Obama decided to throw into the fray the health reform package, at a time when most people thought that the real focus should be on the economy, for purely ideological reasons. Surely, the basic intent of increasing coverage to millions of uninsured was laudable. But, rightly or wrongly, the push for health care reform, at that particular time, appeared to be part of an ideological battle, rather than sensible policy. For the critics, it seemed to be born out of the desire to bend the health care sector to the will of Government.
Obama the “socialist”
And the fact that Obama fought so hard for this cause, in the end winning but only by the slimmest of margins, notwithstanding loud opposition, seemed to be a clear revelation of a statist, or may be even “socialistic” ideological bent. Again, this health care battle, let us not forget, was waged in the middle of a historic recession. So, the prevailing interpretation of the opposition was that, while the US was hurting economically, the President and his cohorts were busy re-engineering a huge chunk of America so that it would suit their own ideological biases.
Victory, but not across the board
Anyway, so Middle America rose up and it gave us the Tea Party Movement and thus the foot soldiers and the officers that led to the retaking of the House on November 2. Of course, the battle plan was hardly flawless and many races did not work out as planned. In the battle for the Senate, at least two very low hanging fruits, the seats in Nevada, (held by an unpopular incumbent Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid), and in Delaware were given away by foolishly selecting two truly unqualified Tea Party-backed candidates to run against the Democrats. And this clumsiness may give additional arguments to those (including many mains stream Republicans) who look with horror at this spontaneous Tea Party Insurrection as some kind of out of control County Fair taken over by a bunch of unhinged red necks.
The “Small Government” message
Whereas, messy bits and political errors notwithstanding, the deep, positive message coming from the Tea Party Movement is in the reaffirmation of an almost religious confidence in “can-do-America”, if it is only left alone by Government. According to this simple political philosophy, small Government, low taxation, sensible administration will create the appropriate environment for people to be once again productive wealth creators. Well, this may be a bit simplistic. But it is not so far off from a huge chunk of American tradition. America’s secret weapon, its “force multiplier”, is indeed its instinctive entrepreneurial spirit, a spirit that can be properly unleashed only in an enterprise friendly policy environment.
Tea Party and the legacy of the pioneer experience
Who knows why is it that this “leave-us-alone-so-that-we-can-do-stuff” theme resonates more in the heartland? Is it because these are the spiritual descendants of the pioneers, of the common folks who went West and lived the incredible adventure of the Frontier? The pioneers “had to be” self-reliant. There was no Government to help out in the Frontier. And may be this legacy somehow lives on in the lands they settled. May be this is why it is more cherished in the decidedly more Red middle of America, as opposed to the more distinctly Blue urban coastal areas.
America: split in two
Be that as it may, even if we appreciate the positive elements of the Tea Party insurrection, the results of these mid-term elections tend to support the conclusion that the country is split in two, almost equal parts. There are two prevailing –and almost evenly balanced in terms of degree of popular support– political philosophies in America, largely born out of the qualitatively different social and economic experiences of the people who end up supporting them. These different experiences tend to be geographically localized, reflecting the different histories of different states. Due to the almost equal support in terms of votes, the country is divided almost in half and stuck, as neither side has enough national support to implement its vision.
Small town legacy
As indicated above, the mid-western, small town experience is qualitatively separate from the large city legacy. It draws from the vast XIX Century pioneer, Far West heritage that inspired a propensity for self-reliance. This instinct on individual or localized solutions translates into political models that favor small government.
Big city issues require different solutions
In the more populated coastal states, and especially in large cities, with all their people and fast paced economic activities created by the great industrialization of the early XX Century and the growth of mega corporations, there was a more fertile ground for creating bigger and more assertive public institutions that would act as economic shock absorbers, while keeping things together through various social policies. And thus, because of the numerical advantage of the working masses, most of the votes and thus political power went to the Democrats, the party that had developed a social justice message favoring the disadvantaged.
Democrats: more urban party
When in office, the Democrats rewarded their voters by providing for those who felt squeezed: the industrial workers, the laborers, the low wage civil servants and teachers, the poor, the new, not quite sure footed, immigrants and later on the growing numbers of seniors depending on government welfare. And with the willingness to support so many constituencies came the expansion of the government services and the need to finance them, along with redistributive ideas that rationalized the need to take more from the better off.
So, while this may sound simplistic, conservative ideas are easier to sell in small town America, because of its stronger self-reliance heritage. Whereas in large cities where issues are more complex and where the needy are clustered and more numerous, they can find solace in supporting and being aided by the Democrats, as the party that “will do more for us”. And in large cities, as opposed to small town America, we also have had the flourishing of a liberal cultural establishment that is instinctively “progressive”, meaning favorable to new ideas aimed at improving society through social engineering. And, in general, most established media professions tend to attract people who think along “progressive” lines. And so here you have the basic ingredients of the Democratic coalition: wage earners, civil servants, seniors, single women, minorities, new immigrants and the “enlightened” intellectual elites.
2010 elections reflect the enduring divide
As I said, if we look at this 2010 post mid-term elections map, we see a validation of this analysis. The middle of the country is back to mostly Red. The two coasts, even with heavy losses for the Democrats, are still mostly Blue. The recent exception to this rather entrenched political geography was the 2008 Democratic sweep in which Barack Obama, improbable and certainly unusual Democratic standard bearer, charmed almost everybody and managed to carry traditionally non Democratic territory.
Country divided in almost equal parts
And so here is the issue. Even if we leave aside for the moment the current, deep economic slump and how it certainly influenced, (especially for independents), the strong anti incumbent mood and thus the vote against mostly incumbent Democrats, it seems that even after this blow suffered by the Democrats, we still have two, almost equal, juxtaposed societal models with their own uncompromising political philosophies and political vehicles.
Democrats: beaten but not vanquished
Again, let us consider that with all the anti-Obama tsunami, the Republicans won big in the House; but not in the Senate. True, they gained Governors and state houses; and these are strategic victories, in the light of the re-districting exercises that will soon take place. But this was not the obliteration of the Democrats. In the Senate, the Democrats, losses notwithstanding, kept the majority.
This is an important election; but, unless its impact can be deepened later on, for the moment it does not amount to a historic political re-alignment.
Rather, it is back to the pre-Obama status quo ante. In brief, this vote gives an important signal, indicating that Obama’s real or perceived approach does not sit well now for millions of Americans who gave him a nod in 2008. But this is not a total, national repudiation of the Democratic Party.
Mutually exclusive models
Again, we still have two mutually exclusive models. The first is about self-reliance, small community, small government and local efforts. The second is a about the need to protect large numbers of weak people through a variety of well meaning but expensive and not always effective social programs.
The first model is based on the idea that people know best and that, if left alone, they will do great stuff.
The second model instead posits complex, (adversarial) social relations in which the powerful, if unchecked, tend to overwhelm the weak and so the weak need protection via social programs and a variety of safety nets. These complex programs need to be managed by highly educated, technocratic elites. By intellectual disposition, the technocrats subscribe to the basic tenets of the welfare state and are happy to work for it. They are its officers, its theologians and its political supporters.
Both models have merit, up to a point
The fact is that –to a degree– both models are correct as they appear to suit the realities that initially created and validated them.
However, and here is the problem, when they place themselves as absolutes, as one size fits all for the whole of the United States, both visions show their intrinsic limitations. There is no one ideologically “pure” and yet viable one size fits all for the whole of America.
Impossible to construe a clear “mandate”
But in the rhetoric of post election bombast, we already see the winners attempting to interpret the result as a clear and unanimous message repudiating Obama and the Democrats. “The America people have spoken”. Yes, many have spoken against Obama; but not all of them. Many did speak; yet they did so in significant but not overwhelming numbers.
Besides, this composite coalition was effective as an anti-Obama force. It is not equally clear as to what they collectively stand for. Small government sounds like a good idea. Different story when we start talking about real cuts for real programs that currently benefit many.
The Democrats are still there
In the end, the Republicans won and they won big. But the Democratic Party, with all its “bad ideas”, is still there. Wounded but hardly dead. The Republicans regained the majority in the House. But the Democrats, (most likely led by the familiar Nancy Pelosi, in her new role as Minority Leader), are still there, ready for a rematch in two years. It would be foolish to conclude that this vote marks the end of their political fortunes. And, even though the Democrats have been a bit lucky in the Senate vote, including two seats regained by very slim majorities, this vote, while a powerful reaffirmation that a semi-comatose Republican Party can spring back to life, does not put an end to the opponents political fortunes and to the ongoing ideological struggle.
If the ideological standard bearers are the interpreters of these elections, not much room for future political compromise
Still, if the only interpreters of the events are the stalwart, pure breed ideologues now paraded in TV talk shows, there will be a tendency to oversimplify the meaning of outcomes, continuing to demonize adversaries. Tea Party darling Sarah Palin may be right in extolling the virtues of hockey-moms, the practical women, spiritual daughters of the Frontier, who can roll up their sleeves and get busy. But can she really deny the plight of the urban under classes? Is Black America’s predicament really due to too much Government?
By the same token, those who invoke an assertive Government as the necessary remedy against social injustice, tend to look at inequity and injustice as naturally built into “the system” and thus perennial. The weak will be weak forever and thus they will need protection in perpetuity. The fallacy of socially oriented policies is that they are there to alleviate; but not really to transform. Poverty and marginalization this way become the rationale for forever running social programs that in substance become self-perpetuating public charities, and not polices aimed at triggering qualitative change.
These elections repudiate Obama; but they do not settle anything
From this perspective in which we have two juxtaposed and deeply entrenched models that respond to different historic and cultural experiences for different parts of America, the political earthquake resulting from the November 2 mid-term elections does not “resolve” anything at all.
This November 2 vote signals a powerful reaffirmation of the “Small Government Idea”, up to that point silenced by the avalanche of big policies concocted by Washington; but it does not settle anything. Indeed, even if we take proper notice of the strong small government message shouted by Middle America, almost half the country, mostly ensconced in the big cities, in the labor unions, in academia and in the traditional media thinks the opposite –and just as strongly. They may concede this battle; but not final defeat in what amounts to a perennial conflict.
Harmful division, no clear way forward
This deep division, cutting the country in two almost equal parts is harmful. The American system that allows divided Government can function only on the basis of some compromise. For America to thrive, this political middle ground ideally should translate into policies that keep opportunity open, in fact expanded; while encouraging and rewarding enterprise. The American Dream, among other things is about upward mobility. It is about having a fair chance of getting ahead. The political system at its best should enact policies that open up the system; or, at the very least, policies that will not impede growth.
These mid-term elections amount to a “Stop!” cry by rebellious Middle America. But they do not provide a clear indication of a good way forward, when it comes for instance to a detailed fiscal agenda and measures that would encourage enterprise, not to mention education reform and true health reform. And this lack of an identifiable common middle ground is scary, given the unusually bad predicament the country is in.
So, how do we get out of this political stalemate? The real trick would be in finding a common ground. But this would entail transformation of both somewhat crystallized ideologies which define themselves as mutually exclusive, in as much as each of them asserts to contain the totality of a good recipe for America.
Large issues would require larger majorities
Most of the problems facing America today are huge and systemic: erosion of national competitiveness, negative impact of globalization, declining education standards, lower levels of R&D, shifting demographics and consequent higher cost of benefits for more retired seniors.
Neither party today has a credible formula that can productively embrace the whole picture. Tackling the big issues will require a combination of private and public efforts. The private sector by itself cannot set the stage for new energy policies or for any large, far reaching new infrastructure program; let alone a true health reform or a drastic overhaul of the welfare system –itself the only way to start reducing the debt. Likewise, the Government cannot run the economy. It needs a vibrant and confident private sector. And one way of having it is by not choking it under an avalanche of restrictions that discourage enterprise.
However, while political cooperation is essential, especially in this historically bad predicament of low growth, high unemployment and massive debt, in this ideologically tainted environment cooperation is not politically expedient. And yet we have a system that allows, in a sense encourages, divided government, such as the one we are getting now, after this vote, with the Republicans controlling the House and the Democrats still in charge of the Senate and the White House. Again, divided Government may work; but in order to be productive it somehow postulates compromise to get anything done. And this can happen only when the two main parties are not sharply divided by ideology. But this is not the case now.
Temptation to play politics very strong
In this heavily charged atmosphere, how can one work with the other side without being viewed as a sell out by the zealots of the base? The Republicans now control the House; but they do not run the show. And even by saying “no”, the Republicans may lose.
A clever President Obama in the next two years can paint them as obstructionists who care about politics but not about the country; and then sail to reelection in 2012. The only way for the Republicans to play a winning political game would be to put forward sensible legislative initiatives and then have the Democratic Senate vote them down. But this could work only if the Republicans could convince the country that they had very good, middle of the road ideas, and that an ideologically prejudiced Democratic Party prevented their enactment. In any way, all this political maneuvering would be exhausting and, unlikely to produce results for America.
Is there an alternative to the present two party system?
Some say that the existing parties, with their entrenched constituencies and established ideologies, cannot really grow beyond their traditional base so that they could forge a truly broad based national consensus that would allow either of them to govern on the basis of a wide and deep support.
For a brief moment, it appeared that Barack Obama, as a brand new politician, could assemble and keep some kind of new, post-partisan coalition in 2008. But the 2010 mid-term elections put an end to this dream. Obama never had the confidence of the hard core Republicans and he clearly lost the support of most independent voters. But the Republicans, while resurgent, are also confined to a base that, while much larger than two years ago, is still not overwhelming.
And yet America needs sensible pro-growth policies that unfortunately, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans by themselves can pass. Is this a terminal weakness of a divided American political system? Or will this stalemate produce a true transformation, rather than just dramatic pendulum swings every two or four years?