WASHINGTON – Intentionally or by default, Barack Obama has become the champion of the dispossessed and of the downtrodden. Against all odds, (considering a weak economy and high unemployment), he won the 2012 re-election with a simple message: Mitt Romney and runnig mate Paul Ryan are “bad people”.
Their (evil?) goal, according to the well orchestrated Obama campaign narrative, was and is, (if they get another chance), to destroy the social safety nets that guarantee a semi-decent life for those who work hard but get little from a system that is stacked against them.
If you vote for me –promised Obama– I guarantee that you’ll keep your Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Disability Insurance, and the rest of it. And I promise that I shall keep fighting for greater equality. Therefore, and mark my words, don’t be stupid. If you vote for the Republican ticket you are doomed, because they’ll take the little you have away from you.
Well, thanks in part to Romney’s unforced errors that seemed to confirm the artfully created image (by the Obama campaign) of the heartless “vulture capitalist”, Obama got re-elected.
“Sweet Populism” has no standard-bearer
But the moderate right that had placed its hope on Mitt Romney right now is a political orphan. As Pepperdine University Professor Ted McAllister points out in an extremely insightful and elegantly written WSJ op-ed piece, (“Sweet Populism” Awaits Its Leader, August 6, 2014), now within Middle America (traditionally centrist but leaning conservative) there is a palpable yearning for a new, inspired leader (a new Ronald Reagan) who will be able to forge a message of hope based on the reaffirmation of the “Good American Myth”, that McAllister calls “Sweet Populism”.
This is about a set of old (but still vibrant) principles that explain how “everybody can make it in America” if we would only refocus on self-reliance and industry in this rich and generous land of opportunity that always rewards personal effort, ingenuity and enterprise.
Here is the creed and the program: Let’s unleash the creativity of all hard-working Americans. Let’s tear down the barriers (taxation, hyper regulation, and what not) that stifle individual efforts. Let’s make this country great again.
Conservative and revolutionary ideas
And so, (I would add), we can be both conservatives and revolutionaries, reaffirming the eternal validity of old principles that will allow us to dream about and reach greater heights. And, while engaged in this endeavor, we shall also reaffirm this country’s greatness, a greatness founded on the fundamental goodness of the American people.
“Sweet Populism”: America’s secret sauce
As Ted McAllister puts in his essay:
“Sweet populism is a peculiarly American species, organized around a version of the country’s history that is positive and incomplete; stresses the importance of self-reliance; seeks to remove obstacles to individual empowerment when they emerge; and aims any anger it produces at those who deny the essential goodness of the American idea”.
Tea Party got it half right
I fully agree. And I also agree with McAllister that the Tea Party Movement failed to capture the essence of this Good Myth. It could only articulate an emotional anti-government message. “Cut taxes and cut government”. But this is not enough. Ronald Reagan’s brilliance was in his ability to make himself into the prophet of a New Era of Hope, strongly grounded on the reaffirmation of old values.
The Tea Party focused on theoretically correct but in the end abstract and impractical ideas of fiscal purity. In the end, its members have been unable to produce a compelling message that would convincingly combine good ideas that will promote growth, while restraining spending. The Tea Party seems to be “anti-this, and anti-that”. But it is unable to provide a warm, inspiring message that will sway Middle America.
Left: focus on injustice
As McAllister points out, the left has its myth too. But it is not in sync with the narrative of America as a Blessed Land of Opportunity. Its focus is on injustice. The rich rigged the system in their favor. As a result they get all the goodies while the rest of us, hard-working Americans, get the crumbs.
Therefore, the thrust of any progressive public policy has to be the promotion of social and economic equality. And, in order to get there, those who gamed the system now have to pay up.
As the 2012 elections have demonstrated, this “social justice” message, (combined with a weak Republican candidate), worked rather well.
America is on the wrong track
But now we are stuck. While we got out of the Great Recession, there is a general sense of unhappiness. The economy now grows, but only a little, (about 2% a year). Unemployment is down; but it is still very high, (around 6%), while millions of people who are lucky enough to be employed struggle with the meager income provided by their low paying part-time jobs, the only ones they can get.
Indeed, by coincidence the WSJ today also published the results of a national poll that shows how 71% of Americans believe that the country is “on the wrong track“. This high percentage of really unhappy Americans includes people who voted for Obama in 2012.
Who will lead?
As McAllister writes, the yearning for a new interpreter of the American idea of freedom, and of the promising horizons it can open up today, is there. However, the millions of American moderate conservatives need a convincing standard-bearer.