The November election results were all about the war, the chattering classes told us; and in this case, there’s probably more truth to popular opinion than not. For those of us who have opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning (and even before), this seems a rather strange moment. After all, what really changed between November 2004 and November 2006? Yes, more Americans and Iraqis have died; the scale of individual acts of violence has risen; and we’re no closer to leaving Iraq today than we were when President Bush defeated John Kerry. But anyone who had eyes to see and ears to hear knew what was coming two years ago. That Tucker Carlson and Rod Dreher and William F. Buckley, Jr., now concede what we argued all along says more about their lack of connection to reality than it does about our prescience.
Perhaps it’s time to revisit the conventional wisdom about the 2004 election. The media, who don’t like the idea that Republican manipulation of moral issues may have driven the election results, were quick to jump on Karl Rove’s claim (on NBC’s Meet the Press the Sunday after that election) that moral values did not play a decisive role. Rove argued that voters’ attitudes on the war and terrorism were more important, and exit polls gave him solid ground for that claim, since the two were cited as the first and second most important issues. There was only one problem with Rove’s analysis, however (and, by extension, with that of the liberal media who ran with it): The exit polls also showed that the overwhelming majority of those who were concerned about the war voted for John Kerry, while a slightly smaller majority of those who were concerned about terrorism voted for President Bush. In other words, the two concerns tended to cancel each other out.
As I pointed out two years ago (“Bleeding Red, Feeling Blue,” January 2005), this meant that the initial reaction, before Rove spun the results, was correct: The 2004 election was about moral values. Issues such as homosexual “marriage” and abortion placed high in the exit polls, and the voters concerned about them voted overwhelmingly for President Bush and other Republicans. I also argued, however, that Republican unwillingness to do anything about moral issues except use them for electoral gain would begin to backfire. This time, with the exception of a few scattered referenda (abortion in South Dakota, embryonic stem cells/cloning in Missouri), moral values weren’t a primary focus in most states. Even terrorism, the polls show, was less of a concern. So the war took center stage.
Coming in a close second was the state of the economy, and on this, too, the Republicans fared poorly. Democratic candidates who made economic nationalism a theme of their campaigns, such as former Reagan administration Secretary of the Navy James Webb in Virginia, won. That these candidates also opposed the war means that we can’t say with certainty what put them over the top; what we can say, however, is that the Rust Belt—traditionally socially and morally conservative, with broader support for the war than any other region except the South but devastated economically in Bush’s first term—returned almost completely to the Democratic fold. And from that, we can begin to draw some conclusions about the political lay of the land.
What I wrote two years ago about the Republicans’ prospects in future presidential elections is supported by these results. If the party “cannot—or, more correctly, will not—provide the Reagan Democrats in the industrial Midwest with an economic policy to match its moral rhetoric,” I argued, “the decline of manufacturing may well accelerate, driving these critical states further into Democratic arms.” Looking at the infamous Red and Blue map, the Republicans can’t win the White House without winning at least one of the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. The last state is arguably the only one of that group where a moral issue—abortion—played a major role in determining a Senate race, and there, the pro-life Democrat, Bob Casey, Jr. (son of the late and enormously popular pro-life governor), defeated the nominally more pro-life Republican, Rick Santorum, who had supported pro-abortion Republican Arlen Specter against a strongly pro-life candidate in the 2004 primary. And Casey, like Webb, campaigned on economic nationalism as well.
If the last six years have been the Republican moment—with the control of both houses of Congress, the presidency, and even the Supreme Court—the next two are shaping up as a Democratic one. So far, there’s no reason to believe that the leadership of the Democratic Party has drawn any useful lesson from the election results. But individual Democrats, such as Casey and Webb, have a much better idea of what is going on.
On November 15, Webb published a hard-hitting op-ed, “Class Struggle: American workers have a chance to be heard,” in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. (Interestingly, Webb doesn’t use the phrase “class struggle” in the body of the article.) The reaction from the mainstream right and left was swift and unanimous. National Review-type conservatives who had endorsed Allen over the clearly more conservative Webb joined their voices to those of Democrats who had taken heat for endorsing this “misogynist,” “racist” “Neo-Confederate,” and together they cried: “See? We told you he wasn’t a conservative!”
And, in one sense, they were right. Webb’s op-ed didn’t belong in the Wall Street Journal. But, with its invocation of “the national interest,” it didn’t belong in the pages of the Nation, either. Instead, it would have fit comfortably in the pages of Chronicles’ recent issue on manufacturing, or in a dozen other issues that we’ve published over the past six years.
“When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much,” wrote Webb. “In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future.”
Webb recites the litany of ills that Chronicles readers know all too well: the loss of manufacturing jobs; the massive rise in medical costs; the effects of outsourcing and illegal immigration; the increasing gap between the living standards of the top one-percent of wage-earners and of the average worker.
“[T]he true challenge,” Webb argues, “is for everyone to understand that the current economic divisions in society are harmful to our future.” He is concerned about the possibility of “political unrest” if American workers begin to “understand that there are (and were) clear alternatives to the policies that have dislocated careers and altered futures.”
As I argued last month, using the history of manufacturing in Rockford as a model, we need to break out of the dominant view—shared by rich and poor, owners and workers alike—that sees “economic laws” as akin to natural ones. The worker who convinces himself that he cannot afford not to shop at Wal-Mart, even though he realizes that doing so may affect his local economy enough to cost him his own job, has more in common than he may think with the CEO of a multinational corporation who convinces himself that stock price is the only true indicator of the health of his company and, therefore, is willing to slash jobs or send them overseas to increase the bottom line on the next quarterly profit-and-loss statement. That one class of people disproportionally benefits from our economic delusion doesn’t change the fact that the delusion is truly national.
Once we acknowledge that wage rates aren’t set by the law of gravity, we can begin to see alternatives. After hearing the speech on which I based last month’s column, Rockford Institute board chairman David Hartman told me that he attributes the success of the many businesses he has started over his lifetime in part to his commitment to paying his workers a wage on which they could raise a family. In other words, concern for his workers helped his businesses prosper, because he was able to attract the best, brightest, and most hard-working people in the field. Of course, his companies were privately held, so his focus was more on the long term. But that is precisely the point.
“The politics of the Karl Rove era,” Webb wrote, “were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life.” Interestingly, Webb makes the same assumption I did two years ago: American workers hold conservative views on “God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag.” That explains the temporary political success of Rove’s strategy, but it also points the way to a possible revival of the Reagan coalition—this time, by either party.
In the short term, the Democrats, by virtue of the political success of Casey and Webb, have the upper hand. Since the national party is committed to stances on moral issues that don’t play here in Rockford or Macomb County, Michigan, however, they will likely squander that opportunity by the time of the 2008 presidential election. And then the ball will be back in the Republicans’ court.
In the long term, however, the Democrats’ failure to seize the day may be less important than the Republicans’ failure to do so. As I wrote in January 2005, “the very public and visible economic issues are likely to trump the more private issue of abortion,” and other moral issues, such as homosexual “marriage,” are likely to be decided by the courts—wrongly—by the time George W. Bush leaves office. If neither party rebuilds an alliance based on moral values and economic realism, the Democrats still win.
And conservative voters lose.