By Prof Lawrence Davidson
It has only been a few days since the November 2 elections and already the media in all its forms is awash with analyses expressing hallelujahs and curses according to the political orientation of the commentator. For instance, on the conservative side, Chris Mathews happily suggested that after this election the Democratic party will only exist on the east and west coast. On the liberal side Paul Krugman commented that "future historians will probably look back at the 2010 elections as a catastrophe for America." Perhaps both are correct.
There is a more insightful way of looking at this election, and that is as a window letting us see who American voters actually are and, very likely, always have been: folks with culturally conditioned conservative inclinations, focused on local concerns (the small picture and not the big one), and with remarkably short historical memories. If accurate, this would mean that liberals, to say nothing of real progressives, are a perennial minority amongst the American voting public. My guess is that they represent no more than 30% of the electorate and thus cannot be expected to win a national election outright. However, under certain circumstances, their political stand can win the temporary support of an additional 20 plus % and place professed liberals in the White House and Congress.
This means that the default position of most voters favors those who preach the interests of business, low taxes, anti-welfare policies, an a chauvinistic foreign policy. This seems to be so despite the fact that such stands predictably lead to dangerously insufficient regulation of the economy, the under funding of vital services, high levels of corruption and debt accelerating foreign adventures. Eventually, some sort of economic and/or moral disaster results from these policies and it is then that circumstances allow for the possibility of that other 20 plus % of the voters to lunge to the left. It is times like these that allow for the election of a Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. But, it must be emphasized that this is a reactive impulse among a group of more aware and sensitive voters to some conservative generated mess and not a change of political heart. In a relatively short period of time those voters return to their default position, which is usually center-right.
The election of November 2 was a good example of this sequence of events. The mess the country finds itself in was not created by Barack Obama or the progressive elements that so enthusiastically backed him for president. The mess is the result of policies instituted beginning with the Reagan administration. It is Reagan who began deregulating the economy and driving up the national debt beyond even its Vietnam War levels. Clinton was actually a conservative in democratic trappings (a charade that Paul Krugman calls the "Clintonian backflip" ) who proceeded to enhance the Reagan program by rolling back aspects of the welfare state, undermining the American working class with NAFTA and continuing the process of deregulation. The Bush dynasty drove the process further and added gross moral indiscretions to the mix. By the time Obama stood for office the economy was near collapse and the Oval Office the source of lies and torture. It was only in the face of this disaster that a man claiming to be a progressive desiring to institute "real change" could be elected president. On his coattails rode the rest of the Democratic candidates, some of whom were really conservatives known as "blue dogs."
The Democratic party’s professional political analysts have long believed what I have proposed above, that most American voters are culturally conditioned conservatives. Thus, upon election, and following the advice of his political advisers, President Obama immediately shifted to the center right–the political home of those 20 plus % of the population that gave him his victory. But by doing so he put himself in a position that demanded compromise for the sake of consensus. To get that consensus the compromises would have to be with the Republican minority in Congress and their primary goal was to stymie the president and make him appear ineffective. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate said that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." Thus did Obama enter into a period of frustration and minimal, often half-a-loaf, sort of achievements. According to an AP election poll 84% of the voters saw no improvement in the economy in the last two years and half of those thought things were going to get worse. 40% thought Obama had no plan for recovery. That is what compromise and consensus building got the Democrats. And this failing strategy came at a very high price. For to cater to the Republicans the president had to abandon his progressive base, the 30% of the voters who were his most stalwart supporters. No doubt the political rationale for this was the dubious premise that these progressives had no where else to go and so would vote for him come what may. This turned out to be a serious misjudgment, for there was enough progressive disgust with Obama on November 2 to drive some of them to the Green Party and cause others to just stay home. So you see, there is always somewhere else to go.
And now we come to that other perennial political problem, the fact that the American electorate has a short historical memory. As noted above, Barack Obama did not create the country’s present problems. So the notion that the voters should punish him and his party for not solving those problems (in but a brief two year period) by voting back into office the party that made the mess in the first place makes no sense. Makes no sense, that is, unless a majority of the voters have no clear notion of who is responsible for the mess beyond the generic "those politicians presently in charge." And, indeed, the above mentioned AP poll found that 25% of voters in the November 2 election"blamed Obama for causing the economic crisis." This sort of distortion occurs when citizens do not pay attention to the rudimentary details of recent political history and so cannot remember events well enough to withstand media propaganda seeking to create an altered version of reality.
Of all the problems itemized above, the most crucial is that the default position for most American voters is a conservative one. Crack this nut, so to speak, and the other problems become much easier to handle. How might a liberal president do this? Two things come to mind (though certainly many other approaches exist). First, it should be the job of such a president, as well as his progressive supporters, to educate the American people about how the political process now works, its money driven and special interest aspects, as well as to clearly explain the dangers that confront us as a consequence of these faults. Obviously, this will take a lot more energy than is now expended in this direction. A liberal president should weekly be on television telling people how things really work in Washington and his vice president ought to be out there touring the country and informing what voting conservative has historically meant. Over and over again (and not just now and then) all progressives should be itemizing the obstructive and destructive acts of the Republicans, etc. Use the "bully pulpit" and use it often. And second, bring foreign policy into the mix. Most people pay no attention to foreign policy because they do not think it impacts their lives, but in truth it does. Our disastrous foreign policies, particularly since the 1960s in the Middle East and Asia, have driven up our debt and thus contributed to our economic problems, and have made the U.S. a pariah in the eyes of much of the rest of the world. This foreign policy mess is a good old bi-partisan one but the president who can turn it around will be a hero. However, it can not be done in the absence of strenuous public education.
It is perhaps naive to think that an educational approach can help change the political instincts of the nation. But progressives only have to aim at changing that 20 plus % that already have proved their willingness to move left in times of trouble. They are the target audience and perhaps can be permanently influenced. Be it a long shot or not, it is probably the best shot progressives have.
Lawrence Davidson is a Professor of Middle East History at West Chester University in West ChesterPennsylvania.He is the author of America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood (University Press of Florida, 2001), Islamic Fundamentalism (Greenwood Press, 2003), and, co-author with Arthur Goldschmidt of the Concise History of the Middle East, 8th and 9th Editions (Westview Press, 2006 and 2009). His latest book is entitled Foreign Policy, Inc.: Privatizing American National Interest (University of Kentucky Press, 2009). Professor Davidson travels often and widely in the Middle East. He also has taken on the role of public intellectual in order to explain to American audiences the impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Davidson is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.