In case you somehow missed the message amidst the applause following every victory speech in the nation and the sour denial of the New York Times, Republicans won last night. They won big. Twelve seats in the House came to the GOP, exceeding their 1940s win to give them the largest majority that the party has ever enjoyed. In the Senate, at least seven seats have turned red, with races in Alaska, Louisiana, and Virginia either too close to call or poised for recounts and runoffs. Even gubernatorial races in Democratic strongholds like Maryland, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Connecticut have gone in favor of Republicans. Commentators on every cable network and social media have been weighing in, and only the most desperate Democratic mouthpieces have refused to call this a Republican wave and a referendum on President Obama’s performance. It was not an anti-incumbency movement—incumbent Republicans in tough races fared wonderfully. It was not just an anti-ObamaCare vote (though it was partly that)—the biggest issue for voters this year continues to be the economy. This was a condemnation of a failed Democratic leadership in the White House and in the Senate who opted to stifle legislation and productivity to secure their own places while feeding special interests and neglecting the well being of the country. At least as detrimental to their cause, however, was the oft-hailed but ultimately petty strategizing of the Democratic Party, and it is important to understand how their approach is a detriment to both their party’s victory and to the country.
I. What Economy?
If the Democratic Party’s talking points were presented with the names and specific references wiped and one compared it to the poll numbers on American voters’ priorities in 2014, you might believe that you were looking at references to two entirely different countries. American voters’ number one priority in this election was the economy, with 43% of voters citing it as the most important factor in their decision. Among those who expressed this view, Republicans won by at least twenty percent of the vote. Consider that after an election night in which one- and two-percent differences in candidates’ results are strikingly common.
Across generations, demographics, and historical eras, one thing in politics remains constant: voters hate a bad economy, and they want someone to pay. Republicans succeeded this year by, amidst consistent attacks on ObamaCare and branding their opponents (usually rightly) as shills for the president, providing a pro-growth message of cleaning up a tangled regulatory system, lowering energy prices, and improving the job market. Whether or not they were clear in their policy advocacies or whether they yet have a consistent idea of how to improve the economy the morning after election night, they demonstrated to voters that their priorities matched those of the voters and that they were committed to achieving results for them. This goes beyond mere parroting of voters’ words to show a degree of respect for the hardships that they have endured since 2007 and continue to weather today. It showed empathy and respect for the voter, valuable and under-appreciated qualities in today’s political culture of high-gloss cable news interviews where elections often seem to be about anything but the people.
II. From big picture to local news
The Democratic Party is shrinking. Not in its numbers, which remain healthy if not at an all-time peak. Not in its purses, which despite recent years’ fundraising hardships were well stocked by election night this year. It is shrinking intellectually. It lacks the passion for the moderate, mixed-economy politicking that kept it in power through the heart of the twentieth century, and it senses, though it dares not say it aloud, that its New-Left-inspired goals of democratic socialism and loosely conceptualized ‘social justice’ are deeply at odds with the rest of American culture. As a result, it has cowered from world and major national issues. What is the Democratic Party’s stance on the situation in Iraq and Syria? They have none—at least none that they have gone to any length to express publicly. What is the Democratic Party’s strategy for restoring the job market and promoting a growing economy? Again, none—at least none that do not pursue electorally motivated views contrary to economic science, such as raising the minimum wage. Where are Democrats with respect to the escalating situation in Ukraine and US relations with Russia? Blank out.
By contrast, what are the Democratic Party’s views with respect to the situation in Ferguson, Missouri? Where was the Democratic Party on California’s new legislation meant to combat sexual assault on college campuses? How did the president of the United States respond to the coming-out of the first openly homosexual NBA player? What were his views on the conviction of George Zimmerman last year? Whether or not one agrees or disagrees on Democratic responses to any of these issues, the fact remains that the president and Democratic lawmakers are playing national politics like micromanaging state and local officials who feel obligated to aver on issues that will have no bearing on any American not directly involved in them. Instead of taking a stance on the issues of our time, Democrats are trying to change Americans’ priorities to match points where they think that they might be able to eke out some minor victory on social policy issues. Lacking coherent and palatable views on issues of real importance, they take the Don Draper approach to politics: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Unfortunately for the rest of America, changing the conversation doesn’t make our nation’s challenges disappear, and Rome won’t stop burning no matter how sympathetic Nero’s tune.
III. The age of paternalism
Americans don’t like being told what to do. Persuaded, yes. Instructed from on high, no. America as a culture retains a self-esteem and sense of individualism that distinguishes it from most other cultures, even those in the West. It is precisely that independence of thought and of action that inspired such admiration from the world and that, in the course of trying to convince the world of our meagerness and shame, the left seeks to undo. Contrary to that independence, today’s Democratic Party pursues a consistent policy of subordinating the individual to the collective and to the state. On healthcare (‘everyone needs insurance, whether they know it or not’), the minimum wage (‘you are not allowed to work for less pay even if you choose; we will decide what you deserve’), voter ID (‘women and minorities can’t figure out how to get photo IDs on their own’), regulation (‘you can’t buy that’), antitrust (‘you can’t sell that’), environmentalism (‘you can’t build that’), and a litany of other issues, Democrats approach voters as an overbearing grandmother, fully prepared to correct their misguided thinking about what is in their best interests, to revoke their privileges when they act in any way contrary to a predetermined model of economic and social behavior, and to convince them that they have been victimized and abused when they look as thought they might stray from the herd.
Whether they recognize it explicitly or not, at an individual level Americans remain possessed of an instinct to bridle when they feel the hand of the state growing too heavy. If Democrats have neglected the economy, they have doubled their energies in the pursuit of manufactured causes and crises that generally entail convincing some group that they have been victimized. To their profound credit, Americans resist the characterization of themselves as perpetual victims. They reject the left’s view of them as fodder, adrift in the wind, ready to be yanked to and fro by one greater force or another. They choose to view themselves as independent and efficacious actors, and by spurning that mold they make that vision a reality. Unfortunately, the strategy is still destructive even when it is not successful. In the process of stoking animosities, it may not succeed electorally, but at a cultural level it digs rifts between social demographics and pits them against one another for its own gain.
IV. Interest group warfare
This last point may be the most tragic and the most dangerous of Democratic strategies. For every grievance that must be manufactured in order to achieve a Democratic victory there is a new animosity—a new victim and a new villain. I have written elsewhere in these pages of the left’s love of divisive politics and its many dangers, but it cannot be overstated. Statist economics requires villains—scapegoats to be punished so that a crusading politician or party can prove themselves a hero to the people. The Democratic Party is, by all appearances, on a standing mission to wedge every rift, find a punishable culprit for all of life’s challenges, and to reap the spoils of a culture war that they will have made.
To the left, every lack is theft—someone not having health insurance must mean that someone else is actively denying them their right to it, women making ninety-two cents for every dollar that a man makes (not seventy-seven, as is often claimed—that’s just bad economics) is conclusive proof of sexism and cannot be explained by differences in career patterns and behavior, and any income or educational discrepancy between demographics is due to discrimination and the specter of “white privilege” (despite Asian Americans’ higher per capita incomes, educational attainment, and credit ratings). If one accepts the collectivist premise that each individual lives not for himself but for the good of society and can be sacrificed accordingly, then such a culture of guilt, suspicion, and animosity is the only possible result. The Democratic Party’s strategy can thus be seen as a natural consequence of their fundamental philosophy. In an America that does not share that premise, however, it can also be viewed as the cause of their failings.
Just as Americans do not like to think of themselves as victims in need of saving, so they do not take well to the self-image of animals in line for the slaughter or as sneering villains holding the blade. As the Civil Rights movement demonstrated, Americans are willing to coalesce behind the cause of equal rights when injustices are apparent, but they will not submit en masse to political strategists pitting them against one another for electoral gain. They do not want civil strife, and they resent the sight of political opportunists and their sympathetic media passing out black and white hats at the first sign of turmoil.
The Democratic Party’s strategy for 2014 was a consistent alternation between demographics, trying to convince each of their victimization—mostly women and racial minorities. As election night grew near, the rhetoric grew to hyperbole and cheap accusations. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana accused Republicans of racism two days before ballots opened, suggesting that their real issue with the president was the color of his skin and not the failing economy or healthcare legislation, as they claimed. Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis baselessly accused her opponent, Republican Greg Abbott, of secretly intending to ban interracial marriages—no doubt to the surprise of his Hispanic wife. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado spent his whole campaign discussing birth control and abortion, all on the claim that challenger Cory Gardner harbored unexpressed ambitions of denying birth control to women despite Gardner’s protestations to the contrary. Indeed, the frequency of baseless and arbitrary accusations by Democrats against Republicans was enough to seem conscious and deliberate, as if party strategists were directing them to start slinging mud as soon as the going got tough.
Unsurprisingly, such a strategy comes with considerable costs. Men continue to leave the Democratic Party in the wake of the “War on Women” rhetoric of 2012 and 2013. In fact, it can easily be said that the Democratic Party faces a crisis around the corner as men—particularly white men—have abandoned the party that sought to use them as the go-to villain for every social ill. Meanwhile, women under thirty are more fiscally conservative than ever, suggesting that while Democrats may currently hold the majority of women’s votes, they will either have to swing right or face losing them in coming elections. Black voters remain considerably Democratic, but with an increasing number of prominent black Republicans (including the first directly elected black senator in US history, Tim Scott) that may even out over time so long as Republicans perform well on the economy.
No matter which demographic line one refers to, however, the pattern is clear: as Democrats chase a strategy of scapegoats and division, they must make sacrifices. For every crisis they stoke in order to play the crusading hero, they must label victims and villains, and so long as American culture retains its self-esteem, the villain demographics will not take well to being tarred and feathered. The next two years may be a risky gamble for Democrats as they reconsider the wisdom of doubling down on narrow demographics at the high cost of losing Middle America. Meanwhile, as Republicans pursue a broad-based, issue-oriented strategy of appealing to a wider cross-section of Americans, they may not achieve as high of an average approval rating in many demographics, but they clearly earned enough of each to succeed to 2014. As for which is the better, healthier strategy for America as a country, there can be no doubt that issue-based campaigning that highlights the unity of American interests over petty divisions will lead to a stronger, more enduring national character able to take on the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Republicans have won. Whether America achieved a win in the process is yet to be seen, but with respect to the campaign strategies and messaging that triumphed in 2014, Americans should be proud. For all of the doubts that are frequently and understandably expressed today as to our country’s future, the 2014 elections can be taken as a sign of the integrity of Americans and their refusal to be whittled down into predetermined social identities and treated as movable blocks rather than individual, rational, self-interested voters. What happens next is a test of the character and conviction of those who have been elected to office. Yesterday was a test of the American people’s, and they should proudly consider it nothing less than a glowing success.