This post is part of Ethika Politika’s ongoing post-mortem on the 2012 elections, Lux Mundi. For more contributions please click here.
So how would Alexis de Tocqueville react to our “progressive” president’s reelection? His first comment might be: Don’t overreact! Think a bit about what really happened.
Tocqueville makes a key distinction between SMALL and GREAT political parties. Great parties are parties of high principle. Their dominance on the political stage has the advantage of bringing great men into political life. They have the disadvantage of rousing up animosity that readily leads to war. So great parties make great men happy and most men miserable. Lee and Lincoln were given by the Civil War challenges worthy of their great talents and ambitions, as was Washington by the Revolutionary War. But these bloody conflicts were devastating for ordinary lives—for most people’s hopes and dreams.
Democracies, however, hardly ever have great parties. Most of the time our parties are coalitions of diverse interests and short on clear and divisive principle. Politicians make petty appeals to ordinary selfishness, and people vote their interests. The bad news is that great men are repulsed by the small stakes and contemptible motives of political life, and so they stay away from it. The good news is that the outcomes of elections aren’t so important, and people aren’t roused up to take to the streets or grab their weapons. The winning candidate and party is the one that most effectively builds a majority coalition of diverse interests, and the losing candidate and party end up acknowledging that, most of all, it got outhustled.
Both of our candidates, two decent, talented men short on high principle, ran small, highly calculated, and even cynical campaigns. Romney’s message was little more than the economy is bad, and it’s the president’s fault. Vote for me—a highly successful businessman—and our economy will be better managed. The result will be a lot more jobs.
Romney, most of all, wanted the election be a referendum on the incumbent who failed to give us prosperity. The president knew he failed on that front, but he countered effectively. First, he claimed it remains President Bush’s fault that the economy is screwed up. “He needs more time,” Bill Clinton pleaded so eloquently on his behalf. Lots—and so just enough—of voters believed that. Obama added that Romney is nothing more than an agent of the rich—a plutocrat—who is exploiting the bad economy to make the rich richer. He doesn’t really care about the plight of the ordinary guy; he’s not thinking about your interests. But I, your president, “have got your back,” as one of his clever commercials said. I’ll protect the safety nets on which you have come to rely—taxing the plutocrats to pay for their future.
The exit polls show that Obama whipped Romney soundly on the “care” front. He convinced plenty of the blue-collar workers in the Midwest that bossman Romney doesn’t care about the union that gives you security. He also, of course, had little trouble convincing Latinos that Romney doesn’t care about your interest in being equally respected citizens of our country. And he certainly seems to have mobilized single mothers with the thought that Republicans have no interest in helping you in your lonely and noble struggles.
So the main reason Romney lost is that the president did a much, much better job mobilizing a coalition of diverse interests. His ground game of pushing voters’ buttons and getting them to the polls was the best ever. Romney’s ground game—by comparison— was rather stupid and clueless. Both candidates had and spent huge amounts of money on their campaigns, but Obama used his money to much greater effect. The main reason Romney lost is that he didn’t give his guys—the people who connected their interests with his campaign— sufficient attention and incentives to get them to the polls. One reason his polls end up being based on a wrong “turnout model” is that ground-game gap. If the campaigns had been equally effective in their get-out-the-vote strategies, Romney would have won.
A shrewder Romney, of course, would have done better in fine-tuning his economic message. He should have said more about how he was about mending—not ending—our entitlement system. And he certainly should have made a huge deal about being against public-employee unions but all for proudly American industrial unions. The fact that Obama was obviously anti-coal helped Romney a lot, but Romney should have been more attuned to fears about wholly unregulated globalization when it comes to American industry in general. And one reason that Obama neutralized fears about ObamaCare during the campaign is both that Romney both didn’t play to those fears and didn’t articulate a credible alternative that addressed voter concerns about their future health-care security. The bottom line here is that most Americans actually think that government should be smaller—not bigger; that’s not to say that they’re not interested having their existing safety nets protected in what they perceive (rightly) as an increasingly unfavorable environment. They really don’t want a more intrusive government (regulating, for example, their consumption of giant sodas), but they do want a government that has their backs. That’s why Obama got an unexpected last-minute surge from his early steady handling of the federal response to the freak-storm Sandy.
So I’ve said all this to dampen the indignation of Catholics and evangelicals who want to read a moral and religious message into the election’s outcome. It’s not true that democratic voters were more depraved than usual. Voting patriotism was surely off some, but we can’t even blame the voters for that. Neither candidate appealed to patriotic motives, and neither served their country in the armed forces. Americans are embarrassed by the two wars Bush bungled, and some feared that Romney might do something equally imprudent. And say what you will about Obama’s foreign policy, he has somehow kept us safe and certainly feeling safer at home. Romney ineffectively countered that killing random evildoers with Drones is hardly an effective foreign policy; people actually are comforted by the thought that waging war with machines is good enough these days. The Benghazi screw-up and then cover-up was a really big deal to Fox News, but an avoidable murder of four in Libya by terrorists was hardly enough to move any not-already-convinced voter.
For both parties, moral and religious appeals are about mobilizing parts of the base. The shameless extremism about abortion rights, Planned Parenthood, and all that at the Democratic convention was about convincing feminist women that the Republicans not only don’t care about you, they’re out to trample on your freedom. The president’s war with the Catholic Church over the HHS contraception mandate was cynically engineered to mobilize the sophisticates who think of institutional religion as hypocritically and even creepily moralistic when it comes to sex. The timing of the president’s flip-flop on same-sex marriage was surely driven by polls that showed that the time had come when the benefit would outweigh the cost. It’s true that more and more Americans believe that Republicans are anti-science, but now they have the evidence of the Republican campaign’s ignorance of truths revealed by statistical political science.
The main reason the Democrats could be so brazen in such base mobilization—which is not to be confused with the mobilization of the bulk of their winning coalition—is that the Republicans, they knew, would be ineffective in exploiting their extremism. On abortion, most Americans stand somewhere between what could be called the pro-life extremism and the pro-choice extremism of both parties. Young people are more pro-life than their parents. But only 20% of Americans want all abortion outlawed, just as about 20% Americans think of abortion as an absolute right.
The best way for the Republicans to have called the Democrats on their extremism, truth to tell, is to have a more moderate platform themselves. Instead of being for outlawing all abortion, they should have been for reversing Roe v. Wade and returning the issue of when life begins and how it should be protected to democratic deliberation—mainly through the states. When the president says that he wants to protect the American woman’s right to choose, they should counter that we want to protect the American people’s right to choose concerning life, marriage, and so forth from an intrusive, elitist judiciary. I know Catholics and evangelicals and so forth rightly want more than some unprincipled compromise that isn’t sufficiently respectful of human lives. But the rest of their work has to be done through evangelization both religious and scientific. For now, most Americans and most scientists don’t buy Robert George’s take on the science of embryology.
We have to add, to be absolutely fair, that insofar as the campaign was about the right to life, women’s rights, the status of marriage, and such, Obama came to have the advantages that come with openness and sincerely. The loud and proud Democratic defense of “abortion rights” and same-sex marriage at their convention surely originated out of calculation, but there was no doubt that the president really embraced his party’s extremist platform. The Republicans’ extremism was rarely mentioned and push to the periphery, it wasn’t intended to anything much to do with Romney’s actual message. A more moderate Republican platform could, especially in Romney’s case, have been a more authentic one, one actually designed to be displayed proudly and insistently to the American people. As usual, there were “values voters” supporting both candidates, but Obama, unlike his Democratic predecessors and his Republican opponent, had come to be perfectly on board and in sync with his "values voters." One reason why the MSM media so easily branded the Republicans as the real extremists is that their candidate never really stood up and defended the truth and dignity of their values.
Romney took his support—from evangelicals, Catholics and so forth for life-and-marriage reasons—for granted. I talked to a Romney operative a couple of weeks before the election about the obvious inferiority of their ground game to the president’s. The response: Don’t worry, we’re relying on the volunteer efforts of enthusiastic evangelicals. Well, Obama wouldn’t have left such a key part of the winning coalition to chance, to supervisors not on his payroll and under his control. So the evangelical turnout, of course, was disappointing—perhaps disappointing enough to have lost Ohio, Virginia, and Florida. Not only did most people, as usual, vote their economic interests, but fewer people than should have voted on moral and religious motives.
Catholic bishops took a big and noble risk in coming close to endorsing Romney for life and religious liberty reasons. They affected the behavior of some voters, but not nearly enough. The problem there is with the diminishing authority of the church as an institution, and surely that’s a problem that can be and may well be in the process of being reversed. The church has to actually make the public case that the routine use of contraceptives is contrary to our true interests, and that it’s had disastrous public consequences, beginning with the birth dearth. Our entitlement crisis has to do with too many old people and not enough young ones, a birth dearth so scary that no politician dare mention it in public.
Catholic political theorists have to better in articulating the political interest of the church—of all our American churches—as institutions. The HHS mandate is the first of many confrontations that will occur as long as government regulates employer-based healthcare. On this point, the church has to openly take the side of devolving healthcare to the individual with means-based subsidies. The only solution for now is to get employers out of the healthcare business. But Catholics have to make that small-government argument without becoming uncaring libertarians. They have to criticize the heck out of Republicans who don’t display real care for American creatures who genuinely are unable, through no fault of their own, to care for themselves, beginning of course with those with Down Syndrome, Alzheimers, and all the other debilitating conditions. This list also includes the single mothers and the increasingly pathological families of the sinking middle class. The church, to repeat, has interests, and it needs a theory to articulate them.
I think Tocqueville would conclude his observations by noticing what’s changed the most since the America he wrote about is the breakdown of the religious-based American consensus on the limits of self-obsessive individualism. His America was all about chastity, marital fidelity, what’s best for children, and common moral duties. This consensus has broken down, and the resulting devolution of marriage into a contractual entitlement devoid of real duties or even duration is the real cause of the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. The question posed by gays is roughly this: Given how little marriage really means under the law these days, you have no right to exclude us from its benefits, which have become mainly symbolic.
Young people can see for themselves through the newest technology that unborn baby is really a baby—or not a random clump of cells to be removed at the individual’s convenience. But what they see for themselves—and what they’re taught from a variety of sources—concerning marriage doesn’t merit the exclusion of gays from what’s become a civil right and nothing more. This problem of our evolving and increasingly individualistic understanding of marriage can’t be resolved or even exacerbated all that much by merely the result of any particular election.
This post is part of Ethika Politika's ongoing post-mortem on the 2012 elections, Lux Mundi. For more contributions please click here.