The first thing to say is “calm down.” As our friend Steve Barr observes, we tend to over-interpret election results. That’s especially true for those of us paid to have opinions. Nothing sells soap like decisive pronouncements. “End of conservatism!” “New permanent majority.” “Thousand year reign of Democratic Party begins!”
So instead of a summation I’ll make some tentative observations.
We’re winning the argument about the sanctity of life. The voters in Massachusetts declined to legalize doctor-assisted suicide. In the months before the election polling suggested that the referendum would easily pass. But a strong and broad-based opposition campaign in the final months turned public opinion. When voters hear the moral arguments, even in blue state Massachusetts, they realize that nice-sounding slogans such as “death with dignity” disguise an erosion of our proper commitment to the sanctity of life.
We’re losing the argument about marriage. Referenda redefining marriage passed in Maine, Maryland, and Washington. A referendum upholding traditional marriage failed in Minnesota.
Given the polling data this isn’t surprising. Although large majorities oppose gay marriage in a great deal of red state America, the more liberal parts of the country tend the opposite way. In the Washington vote, the vast majority of counties voted against, but Kings County (Seattle) went for it with a huge majority. Amazon nation and empire Microsoft are pro-gay rights. (In fact, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and Bill Gates gave millions to support the redefinition of marriage in Washington.) Opponents of the referenda report that they were outspent 4-1.
I’ll have more to say about marriage in the January issue of First Things, but here I’d just like to point out that resisting gay marriage is only part of what we need to do to defend marriage. There’s no reason we can’t press for victories on other fronts, even as we lose on gay marriage.
The economic issues? We should not underestimate how many voters in the muddy middle went for Obama because they feel vulnerable and just don’t trust the Republican Party to look out for their interests. Here, Republican operatives and strategists made a big mistake. They rightly saw that our weak economy was the main issue. But they wrongly assumed that crucial swing state voters were primarily concerned about who is to blame, or even who is most likely to promote growth in the long or even medium term.
No, the struggling middle class voters in places like Ohio were primarily concerned to know which candidate and party is most likely to protect them tomorrow.
This is a long-term concern. Globalization has threatened and will continue to threaten the viability of middle class life in America. Both parties whistle past this issue because they haven’t a clue what to do. The Democrats, however, have the old New Deal rhetoric and a long history of founding and funding social programs. Unrealistic, perhaps, given our fiscal crisis, but tangible. The Republicans? They promise jobs in an unshackled economy that encourages entrepreneurial initiative. Nice, but hypothetical.
Warmed over New Deal “solutions” to the economic pressures and suffering caused by globalization won’t work. In fact, they’ll make the situation worse, because market interventions, protectionism, and social spending garble the market signals that we all need to hear in order to make the sorts of decisions necessary to navigate successfully through the process of globalization.
But all that is very academic when you go to the voting booth. If I were a high school-educated male who has recently lost his job at manufacturing plant, I’d roll my eyes at promises about how the free market, if given a chance, will heal itself and resume its job-creating function. Who’s to say those jobs will be in Youngstown, or suitable for me? Social issues aside, I’d vote for Obama.
Yes, yes, his promises are probably empty (green jobs?). But if I’m about to be executed, I’d vote for the guy who promises a stay, even if I suspect that he’s probably not able to deliver. Who knows, he might. The guy who says that we need executions in order to have a vibrant, market-oriented economy? (That’s what “creative destruction” means when we come down from 30,000 feet and actually look at communities and individuals.) Are you kidding?
What I’ve come to see is perhaps a paradox about free market promises. They work best when times are good and we don’t need them all that much, because economic freedom appeals most when we’re confident we can leverage it to our advantage. But the same promises are off-putting during bad times when we need them, because that very same freedom looks scary. We want a safety net.
I’m in favor of economic growth. We need it, and less burdensome regulations and prudently moderate taxes are likely to encourage it. But this election has helped me see that the Republican Party lacks a vocabulary and vision of social solidarity. It’s absurd to suggest, as some did during the election season, that conservatives follow Ayn Rand’s hatred of weakness and disdain for the vulnerable. But we certainly have a blind spot.
Final thought: November 6 saw the highest percentage of non-Hispanic Catholics voting for the Republican candidate in recent memory. This migration into the Republic column is increasingly being encouraged and led by bishops and priests. It is my hope that this trend and the increasing role of Catholics in the leadership of the Republican Party will renew American conservatism by removing that blind spot.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.