The Concern Trolls are roaming free in the Village these days: John King, Laura Ingraham, Charles Krauthammer, Tom Brokaw, Karl Rove, Ruth Marcus … I don't know how many talking heads I've heard claim that "America is still a center-right country" in the past few days, but if it were a drinking game, I'd have alcohol poisoning.
I guess I'm confused. I keep hearing from a lot of conservatives that McCain lost because he wasn't conservative enough -- that is, he was essentially a center-right candidate. And I think that's the consensus about where he sat on the political spectrum.
So if America is a "center-right country," then why didn't they elect the center-right candidate?
It's all bullshit, of course. As a CAF/Media Matters study found last year: "Media perceptions and past Republican electoral successes notwithstanding, Americans are progressive across a wide range of controversial issues, and they're growing more progressive all the time." In fact, as CAF's Robert Borosage points out, "Voters didn't just elect Democrats, they elected progressives." This is a liberal mandate.
Yet it's probably true that the election doesn't necessarily reflect an all-out embrace of all things liberal. Obama largely succeeded by making clear that he has a moderate temperament on a number of issues, and more importantly, in his style of governance. So a certain caution is probably wise.
No, this election was about one thing primarily: a sweeping repudiation of movement conservatism.
The breadth and depth of Democrats' victory was a loud shout from the American public: We have had enough of this crap.
Specifically, we've had enough of two things: conservative governance, and conservative politics.
The swirling global economic crisis produced by Republican rule is only the most prominent debacle produced by eight years of conservative philosophy being put into action. Conservatives never met a deregulation scheme they didn't like -- and it was that very mania for breaking down well-established institutional barriers, particularly in the financial sector, that led to the housing bubble and the collapse on Wall Street. Certainly, Democrats played along, often eagerly -- but they were being conservative when they did.
No doubt the solutions to the economic crisis will entail re-regulating the financial sector and imposing strict government oversight. And when they do, no doubt conservatives will accuse Democrats of indulging "socialism". But it is to laugh: the right has earned all the credibility of Joe the Plumber on such matters.
Especially when you consider all the other fruits of conservative governance:
- Foreign-policy debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- A government that invades nations under false pretenses.
- A nation less secure and at greater risk of terrorist attacks than ever.
- A sinking economy.
- An expanding gap between rich and poor.
- Utter inaction on global warming.
- $5-a-gallon gasoline.
- An unresolved immigration problem.
- An incapacity to deal with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
- A debacle in public-school education testing and funding.
- Declining food and consumer-product safety standards.
- A government that spies on its own citizens.
- A government that tortures prisoners held in their detention facilities.
These messes weren't the result of George W. Bush being too liberal and straying too far from the movement's party line. To the contrary -- they're the direct result of him toeing that line to the millimeter. They are all the direct product of the conservative philosophy of governance.
Conservatives have practiced a politics of fear for the past forty years -- since 1968, when Richard Nixon perfected the technique. Since then, as Rick Perlstein has brilliantly limned, we've been living "Nixonland." In recent years, the right has turned politics into a dark art: a relentless parade of smears, demonization, and eliminationism that has profoundly poisoned the public well and deeply divided the country.
In the past decade, we've been subjected to a nonstop battering, cheapening, and demeaning of the nation's public discourse. Nonstop public attacks on liberals -- their policies and their persons -- have come in the form of vicious attack-dog pundits for whom "pushing the envelope" has entailed dredging into the very worst kind of ugly innuendo, and wingnut politicians for whom no smear is too low to stoop to.
Look at what has littered our landscape as a result:
- The absurd impeachment of Bill Clinton in spite of the public's broad disapproval.
- The caricaturization of a future Nobel Peace Prize winner, Al Gore, in the course of foisting a Bush presidency upon an unsuspecting public.
- The relentless campaign to portray anyone dissenting from Bush's post-9/11 war plans as insufficiently patriotic and "soft on terrorism."
- The tireless recourse to a string of "Friedman units" in excusing the interminable extension of the Iraq war.
- The swift-boating of John Kerry.
- The Terri Schiavo fiasco.
- The Graham Frost fiasco.
- The ritual and ongoing demonization of Latinos as criminals, welfare bums, America-hating, job-stealing foreigners.
- The crude dog-whistle campaign run against Obama, depicting him as a terrorist-loving, America-hating, secret Muslim brown man.
- The deeply disturbing way that conservatives acted on this rhetoric: spewing hate, racism, and threatening violence.
The right threw all of its traditional smears at Obama: Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, the "birth certificate" -- you name it, they flung it at him. And this time around, it didn't take. Poll after poll demonstrated that these attacks actually hurt Republicans across the board.
This happened in dozens of races. The most prominent was Elizabeth Dole's desperate attempt to smear Kay Hagan with a last-minute round of ads accusing her of palling around with godless types -- and she lost by an even larger margin than polls indicated. It happened at the state and local levels, too; in Washington state, Republican Dino Rossi's relentlessly negative campaign against Democrat Chris Gregoire actually worked against him -- in 2004, he lost by a handful of votes, but in 2008, the margin was a wide one.
In this election, Obama remolded the Democrats into the party of hope -- in particular, the hope for a better America. In the process, we discovered that hope can defeat fear. That is a discovery that could profoundly reshape our national politics for generations.
If Obama's presidency is successful, the "Nixonland" era will finally be over. Voters in 2008, for the first time in memory, clearly repudiated this kind of politics and this kind of governance. But it took a supreme pushback effort to get there. Staying there will be even more work -- this defeat will not mean the right will go away.
Ironically, it will now be in movement conservatives' interest to make sure that an Obama presidency fails (so much for "Country First", eh?). It will be in the interest of everyone else -- liberal, progressive, centrist, even center-rightist -- to make sure that the failure, once again, is theirs.