The Democratic ascendancy and why it happened
Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By JEFFREY BELL
Reagan did more than benefit from an existing conservative movement. He transformed it and brought it to maturity. Influenced by Jack Kemp, between his 1976 and 1980 campaigns he embraced supply-side economics, adding an important pro-growth component to Goldwater’s advocacy of limited government. In foreign policy, he fully identified with the anti-Communist forward strategy of Goldwater and National Review but placed increased emphasis on America’s commitment to spreading our founding principles and democratic values around the world. He directly challenged the realism of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and became an advocate of “morality in foreign policy” (the title of a Reaganite plank added unanimously to the 1976 platform). On social and cultural issues, which in an earlier form had been key to his election as governor, he had a pro-life conversion and added the first militantly anti-abortion plank to the Republican platform in 1980. In his first term Reagan became such a central figure in the debate about the right of people of faith to advance their beliefs in the public square that during the 1984 campaign, Democratic nominee Walter Mondale accused him of being an “ayatollah.”
All of this proved effective in pushing previously Democratic voting streams toward the Republican presidential coalition between 1976 and 1984. But the most striking thing about Reagan as a political leader was his integrated worldview and his determination to advance it on a broad range of policy fronts. None of Reagan’s five successors as GOP nominee fully shared his integrated worldview, but the momentum of his positive polarization continued in 1988 when Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, both high level alumni of the 1984 campaign, turned the race against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis into a debate about the Massachusetts governor’s social liberalism on such issues as prison furloughs and his veto of saying the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Nonetheless, before the end of his first and only term, George H. W. Bush had turned against supply-side economics and embraced a “big tent” on the abortion issue—ironically via a speech delivered by Atwater—which was designed to play down polarization on behalf of a “kinder and gentler” society and presidency.
Barack Obama, of course, openly models himself not on Reagan’s Republican successors or on his own pragmatic Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, but on Reagan, whom he has recognized as transformational. In the context of his first term, his reelection campaign, and (especially) the weeks since, Obama is proving effective in pushing an ideologically comprehensive, consistent, and unapologetic left agenda. By its nature, this involves polarization. And in our age of polarization, aided by the comeback of the left that began to gain momentum after 1998, this has already made him a more consequential president than Bill Clinton, for all his popularity, could ever dream of being.
Since the 1960s, two social trends have laid the groundwork for the revitalization of the American left. The earlier and more significant one is the left’s reorientation toward social and sexual liberation, rather than government ownership of business, as its center of gravity. This was not so much an innovation as a return to the origins of the left in late 18th-century France. It then took the form of an assault on organized religion and the traditional family, formulated by Rousseau and first executed politically by Robespierre and the Jacobins in the 1790s, when the left was first named.
The second is the steady increase as a share of the electorate—about 1 percent per year for the last 10 years or so, as measured by surveys of the Pew Charitable Trust, among others—of voters who list “none” as their religious affiliation. In an era marked by frequency of religious observance as the single most important factor in determining Republican/conservative allegiance, the rise of the “seculars” has added several percentage points to the share of self-described liberals in the composition of voter turnout, though by no means bringing them close to parity with conservatives. The Obama campaign of 2012 was well aware of this trend in a reelection effort heavily dependent on turning out its existing ideological base, and this explains much of its in-your-face pursuit of social issues like same-sex marriage, support for Planned Parenthood, and imposition of contraceptive and early-term abortion mandates on the Catholic church and other traditional religions.
In taking a passive position in response to left-inspired polarization on these issues, the Romney campaign was pursuing an economics-only strategy fully supported by the Republican establishment. It even extended, with establishment approval, to Romney’s decision not to bring up the Obama administration’s Benghazi fiasco in the presidential debate on foreign policy. One can be confident of this full establishment agreement from the fact that Karl Rove and his associates, with close to a billion dollars of completely independent advertising money, did not run a single ad critical of the administration on social issues or any aspect of foreign and defense policy, including Benghazi. Instead their ads limited themselves to echoing the Romney campaign theme that the U.S. economy was not vibrant and had continued high unemployment.
There is little evidence that for all this advertising, Republicans achieved much of a net benefit even on economic issues. When Bill Clinton in his convention speech asked rhetorically why, with some progress being made, we would want to return to the policies that brought us the financial crisis in the first place, the Romney campaign and other Republicans offered zero rebuttal. The lack of a persuasive economic narrative is still haunting Republicans in the polarized economic debate pursued by the president since the election.
So why is the left winning, and in particular why did it prevail in 2012? In the words of Christopher Caldwell’s postelection article in these pages (“Values Voters Prevail Again,” November 19, 2012): “[S]tructurally the outcome was the same one that we have seen decade after decade. Where two candidates argue over values, the public may prefer one to the other. But where only one candidate has values, he wins, whatever those values happen to be.” This is particularly true in our age of polarization, and Republicans need to relearn the lesson taught by both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama before their party drops completely off the charts.
Jeffrey Bell is policy director of the American Principles Project and author of The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism (Encounter Books, 2012).