Let’s raise a cup o’ cheer for robust, aggressive debate, especially for a democracy in an election campaign. Truth will out. Sometimes it takes awhile, but determined voters can find out what they need to know from many voices, even when the voices are raised (or especially when they’re raised.) The voter, often dismissed by the intelligentsia as dumb and unrefined, knows how to select and separate the wheat from the chaff. This week, he left a lot of chaff on the wind.
So let’s hear it for the Americans who refuse to be characterized by name-calling, who don’t like it when their president calls them “enemies” to be “punished” because they disagree with his policies and initiatives, or to hear that they’re “hard-wired” not to think clearly when they’re scared. Americans think well enough, scared or not. A rush of adrenalin quickens both imagination and the impulse for self-defense.
It must have been the ghosts, goblins and witches (and not just in Delaware) who scoured the graveyards at Halloween and resurrected those conservative voters pronounced dead only two years ago. Fortunately, they were buried in shallow graves by gravediggers who work by day as pundits.
It’s always a mistake to make identifications from a snapshot, or generalizations from fancies that might well be passing. We can leave it to the historians to say what permanent marks this most recent wave of conservatism will have left on the landscape. But Barack Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, will have to recognize the message the voters sent and decide whether to work with it or work around it. He only reluctantly conceded, in his post-knockout press conference, that he sort of “gets it.” The proof is still in the oven.
It’s true enough that most midterm congressional elections go badly for nearly every president, and each one is different and goes badly in different ways. This one ratifies the accelerating pace of information delivery through both the old and new media outlets, and confirmed the fact that conservatism is in the DNA of the American body politic. We have a lot worth conserving.
The Tea Party phenomenon, for all of its considerable force, is still an ungoverned, undisciplined, leaderless organization that coalesced more around anger than creative change. That’s where organized, effective political opposition nearly always starts. What works achieves momentum when it separates from what doesn’t. The Tea Party, by most estimates, made up a third of the angry voters, maybe more. But angry opposition ultimately requires accomplishment, and that’s the caution for conservatives. Every generation chooses what it wants to conserve.
The most cynical observation about this election was a tantrum written on the eve of the elections by Michael Kinsley, the columnist and sometime editor of left-leaning publications. Disdaining the approaching success of those for whom he felt contempt, he argued that it’s not only naive, but dangerous to put faith in the fundamental wisdom of the American people. “The important message of this election is not from the voters, but to the voters,” he wrote in Politico. “Maybe it can be heard above the din. It is: ‘You’re not so special.’ “
Like many liberals (and liberals who now call themselves “progressives”) he sneers at the pride Americans take in their country, and at the notion of “American exceptionalism,” that America is something special among the nations. He cites Mr. Obama as an ally in the sneer, recalling that when the president was asked in 2008 whether he believed America was really exceptional, he said yes, but. “I suspect the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Americans believe, with no ifs and without the but. That’s what the president has yet to get.
In the New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky, angry about the way the “progressives” have lost control of the message, argues that Democrats crippled themselves “by ceding to Republicans the strong claims of love of one’s country.” He thinks it’s merely a problem of rhetoric not reality, easily corrected with a profusion of the right words, not understanding that the progressive rhetoric reflects the reality.
The president in his press conference revealed another misreading of what happened to him on Tuesday. His administration, he said, was so eager to get things done that it didn’t take enough care in figuring out how things get done. He’s wrong about that, too, because the rout of the Democrats was accomplished by Americans reacting to both process and substance. The president now promises a civil conversation, and that’s a start, but he’ll have to serve more than civility with the strong tea.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.
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