If that sounds incoherent to you it’s because it is, and you are using logic rather than wishful thinking. Insisting in the face of the evidence of Election Day that Americans actually voted for more of the same is nothing but wistfulness. But that wistfulness is aided and abetted by an oft quoted poll, much like the 2004 exit poll that told us that voters' most significant issue was moral values. It gave rise to the myth of a powerful voting block that became known as “values voters.” This time, it's a CBS/New York Times poll done in October that is threatening to become the new mythmaker. This poll, measuring the public’s pessimism, said that only 17 percent of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing all or some of the time, an all time low in trust. On that basis, media pundits and Republicans are claiming that Americans share the conservatives’ distaste for government action on regulating the markets, reforming the health care system or raising taxes on the wealthiest one percent of Americans. According to their analysis of this response, Americans still side with conservative anti-regulatory, anti-tax, anti-government policies.
There is so much wrong with this analysis. But let’s start with that pesky poll result.
I don’t believe that Americans are center right, even based on the results of that one poll. But I do think the U.S. public are astute observers of reality, and when they were asked if they trusted the government to intervene to fix things, they were assuming the question was about the current government – the Bush administration. That would have been my assumption. And I too would have answered, “hell no.”
After eight years of mismanaged government, including the Republican congressional culture of corruption; the executive branch entering a war under false pretenses and botching it; messing up the response to a natural disaster, Hurricane Katrina; and destroying the economy, I too wouldn’t trust this government one bit to do the right thing or even be marginally competent. But that doesn’t mean that I believe the government shouldn’t exercise proper oversight, protect its citizens and give them appropriate assistance when they need it. It also doesn’t mean that most Americans don’t want a government competent enough to do its job. The people's answer to the question just means they didn’t find this government competent enough to do so. Of course, they don't trust it.
It is true, however, that more people identify as conservatives than liberals. That, however, is because conservatives have been remarkably adept at demonizing liberalism for years, so most people associate it with higher taxes, overregulation, and failed policies from the 1970s. They probably also still associate liberalism with Woodstock, bra burning, and dope smoking hippies. Fair enough. Some people also associate conservativism with gay bashing, intolerance, anger, and extreme incompetence. Both views are gross distortions that are unfair to the majority of liberals and conservatives.
More important, if you drop the labels and ask people about actual issues and policies you get a very different picture from the one you would get by just asking them to self-identify by a label. To prove that, just check the results of this 2007 Pew Center survey, measuring politcal attitudes and core values.
Increased public support for the social safety net, signs of growing public concern about income inequality, and a diminished appetite for assertive national security policies have improved the political landscape for the Democrats as the 2008 presidential campaign gets underway.Furthermore, a lot of policies and programs initiated and supported by Democrats, going back to FDR’s New Deal are still incredibly popular. For example, most Americans still support Social Security, a favorite target for the axe by conservatives. Don’t believe me? Then consider this.
At the same time, many of the key trends that nurtured the Republican resurgence in the mid-1990s have moderated, according to Pew's longitudinal measures of the public's basic political, social and economic values. The proportion of Americans who support traditional social values has edged downward since 1994, while the proportion of Americans expressing strong personal religious commitment also has declined modestly.
Back in 2004, when Bush, who ran his campaign mostly on the issues of terrorism and national security, suddenly announced right after he was re-elected that he now had political capital to privatize Social Security, even Republicans were taken aback. Bush never publicized that goal during the election season. And his illusion that he had support for such an action sunk like a lead balloon within a matter of months as the public repudiated Social Security privatization. It seems like even then they were as suspicious of the markets as they are today of the government.
The voters also supported an increase in the minimum wage, which the Democratic Congress was able to pass in 2006 to much public approval. Most people also are no longer enthralled by extreme deregulation. After years of stories of food borne illness, unsafe products imported from China, and other health hazards caused by lack of funding for government agencies to perform inspections that protect the public, most citizens want an effective government where drugs are properly tested before going to market, dangerous toys are kept out of the country, and farms and food processing plants are clean and wholesome again. People also want government investment in infrastructure and in green technology to create jobs for the 21st Century and keep our planet safe.
Americans also saw how lack of government oversight led to banks and mortgage companies engaging in predatory lending practices, producing complicated and unsound mortgage-based investment instruments and mortgage defaults that crippled the real estate industry and led to a financial meltdown on Wall Street. They want increased regulation of financial markets and especially greater transparency, not an anything goes” attitude that fails to protect their financial future.
There also was a stark difference between the health care reform packages supported by Obama and McCain. The public understood that McCain’s plan, far from addressing real middle class needs, would have left too many people uninsured. It threatened to undermine what little does work in our health care system, such as the employer-based health insurance plans. Taxing those out of existence and leaving families to the mercies of an under regulated individual market would have raised costs, left too many people with pre-existing conditions without coverage, and the small government $5,000 subsidies would not have been adequate to cover the $12,000 premiums most people lucky enough to even qualify for individual plans would have had to pay. McCain’s health care reform plan was rejected by voters.
So, when pundits and columnists caution Obama that this nation is really conservative and so he should go slow, do little, and especially not deliver on the promises to reform health care, stimulate the economy, and give the middle class the tax relief it needs, while closing the deficit by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, they are basically telling him that now that he’s won the election, he should govern as a moderate conservative. He should implement McCain’s platform rather than the one he actually ran on and won.
The reason they are advising that is because conservatives and their allies in the mainstream media can’t conceive that the public actually meant it when they voted by 53 to 46 percent for Obama.
Yet, when Bush won a mere 50.8 percent in 2004 and when Reagan won his first term in 1980 by 51 percent, both of those men and their party claimed a mandate to take this country far to the right. Nobody then cautioned them about overreach. Instead, the results were trumpeted by conservatives as an ideological realignment, a popular mandate, and, in the case of Karl Rove, as the beginning of an enduring Republican majority. But Obama blowing out the Electoral College by 364 to 163 is somehow not considered by them as another legitimate mandate for a change of direction, nor another realignment. That’s even though Obama brought in with him more Democrats to Congress that either Reagan or Bush at their most successful. Guess what?
Somebody is kidding themselves here. And it’s not Democrats. Furthermore, the very worst thing Obama could do is listen to these conservative pundits and political operatives. Progressive columnists like Paul Krugman and E.J. Dionne have it right. Now is the time for bold and decisive action to fulfill the promises Obama made on the campaign trail.
Here’s what Krugman has to say:
Right now, many commentators are urging Mr. Obama to think small. Some make the case on political grounds: America, they say, is still a conservative country, and voters will punish Democrats if they move to the left. Others say that the financial and economic crisis leaves no room for action on, say, health care reform.Here’s what Dionne says.
Let’s hope that Mr. Obama has the good sense to ignore this advice.
About the political argument: Anyone who doubts that we’ve had a major political realignment should look at what’s happened to Congress. After the 2004 election, there were many declarations that we’d entered a long-term, perhaps permanent era of Republican dominance. Since then, Democrats have won back-to-back victories, picking up at least 12 Senate seats and more than 50 House seats. They now have bigger majorities in both houses than the G.O.P. ever achieved in its 12-year reign.
Bear in mind, also, that this year’s presidential election was a clear referendum on political philosophies — and the progressive philosophy won.
The worst advice will come from his conservative adversaries, the people who called him a socialist a few days before the election and insisted a few days later that he won because he was really a conservative. The older among them declared after the 1980 election that the 51 percent of the vote won by Ronald Reagan represented an ideological revolution, but argue now that Obama's somewhat larger majority has no philosophical implications.Yes, those two are correct in their analysis. Let’s face it. There was no ambiguity about this election. People knew what both Obama and McCain stood for. The voters weighed both candidates’ plans and policies and made a clear choice. In addition incumbent Congressional Republicans were unseated in reliably red states that had gone for Republicans for decades. Voters decisively rejected the failed conservative policies of the last eight years. For Obama to go slow, to govern from some imagined center right that is more Bush lite than progressive would truly be a betrayal of those voters. In fact, it would be a dreadful bait and switch to pull on them.
These conservatives are trying to stop Obama from pursuing any of the ideas that he campaigned on -- universal access to health care, a government-led green revolution, redistributive tax policies, a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, more robust economic regulation.
Their gimmick is to insist that the United States is still a "center-right" country because more Americans call themselves conservative than liberal. What this analysis ignores is that Americans have clearly moved to the left of where they were four, eight or ten years ago.