The Conventional Wisdom, repeated ad nauseum is that America is a center right nation, the corollary being that, if those lefty Democrats want to win elections they have to “move to the right,” and if Obama (“the most extreme radical leftist President ever”) is to have a prayer of passing any kind of legislation he’d better drop this socialist garbage and start acting like a Republican. You know, that Republic Party representing the majority of Americans, ahem. This CW is displayed front and center day after day on the mass media, repeated so often that most national Establishment Democrats believe it themselves, and it looks as though even President Obama swallowed the CW hook, line, and sinker, as he strove to re-create a bipartisanship in Congress which in reality had frayed apart long ago, and which most certainly became a total dead letter upon his election.
How, then, is it that Barack Obama, that “radical leftist” ever got elected in the first place? How, in heaven’s name, did he carry so many so-called Red States, including Virginia—- which promptly turned around two years later and elected a hard right conservative (masquerading as a moderate) as Governor, and an Attorney General openly so far over the cliff on the right he is almost certifiable? Why is it there is such a powerful, reactionary movement like the Tea Party dominating the public square and, it seems, the Republican Party? Why do I have the gall imagine that America is not center right, but center left?
Obama’s campaign registered thousands and thousands of “new” voters, mostly young, but also plenty of older, and diverse ethnic groups. These people had never voted before, and they had for years therefore been invisible in the political life of the nation. They were perfectly well qualified to vote, but had never done so, and therefore never really showed up on any screen, even that of a pollster because they never fell into the category of “likely voter.”
The standard universe of voters proves indeed to be “right of center,” and this universe showed up reliably time after time to vote, even in Virginia’s endless series of special elections, off-year elections, and primaries. The Obama vote in 2008 represents a different universe of voters. Not, you understand, an invalid universe, just a different one not normally seen in American polling places.
Most of these individuals had never before bothered to register to vote and participate in the governing of their country for many “reasons.” Some of the reasons were, of course, laziness or indifference, but also there was the idea that nothing they did could ever make a difference in their lives, that “the system” was rigged against them (true, it often is), that their contribution was not desired and their boss would fire them if they “got political,” that there was no real difference between the political parties, plus there was plain ignorance and a lack of motivation. Not to mention, in many areas of the country there is a pattern of very effective suppression of voting among “non-standard” groups, especially minorities.
As it happened, for generations the right of center white majority conservative universe of voters bebopped merrily along, convinced that their group, their universe of voters, was America…. after all, they thought (if they thought about it all) their bunch were the historical creators of America—– those original Boston tea partiers who dumped the tea in Boston harbor may have dressed up like local American Indians, but they were one and all white guys. White guys moved the frontier westward to the Pacific Ocean. White guys (and increasingly some white women) innovated and created the magnificent American industrial machine that won World War II, went the narrative, and they were the ones who developed the atomic bomb and put men on the moon and then won the Cold War—– well, okay, there are today a few clever Asians and Indian Indians, and maybe an African-American or two around who accepted the white guy system and fit in by blending in, who also contributed to America’s super power status, but white men were the architects. Such was the mental landscape among this universe of voters, or among a majority of them. It was consistent, made historical sense in their eyes, and they themselves symbolized, well, America.
Meanwhile, toiling beside this universe, mingling among them on a daily basis, were the members of the invisible universe, whose life experiences, whose needs and ideas were unrecognized because they were rarely expressed, and whose concerns never ever were considered by the Powers That Be because they never voted, never made a fuss politically. This is the universe that was inspired to register and vote for Obama, thereby turning the American political world upside down.
When they showed up at the polls, and once the votes were counted, it was revealed that the American body politic was actually left of center. The old universe, the white guy universe, was still there, but it was overwhelmed by the new, left of center masses. The old universe did not accept its defeat gracefully, and has steadfastly refused to recognize not just the reality but the legality of this new universe, and it went immediately into fierce denial, questioning Obama’s validity (“born in Kenya,” “secret Muslim,” “pals around with terrorists”) and the right to vote of all those “new” voters (“has to be fraud,” “ACORN committed voter registration fraud”).
Besides attempting to de-legitimize Obama as President, the Republican Party, its nose out of joint at being rejected so soundly, began a stubborn, destructive campaign of obstructionism in Congress, while the most conservative elements of its already conservative base, helped by funding from equally conservative corporate interests, turned itself into a reactionary movement demanding “their” country back, and a return to the imaginary perfect Eden of America’s Founding Fathers (i.e., “let’s get rid of all these interlopers”). The Tea Party tapped into all the fears and frustrations of the white guy universe of voters, turning August into the month from hell across the land as violence and threats of violence became the rule of politics at Town Hall after Town Hall, principally revolving around the misunderstood Health Care bill.
The media concluded that this movement represented the majority opinion of the country—– it was made up of people who always voted, the “right of center” crew, which the media had consistently seen politically involved, so of course their opinions were conflated with popular opinion. President Obama was gratuitously informed he had to be more bipartisan, more like Republicans, and Democrats were assured their goose was cooked, they could count on losing control of Congress come November 2010.
Not so fast.
That huge Obama universe of voters is still out there. After the election of 2008, grassroots Democrats cannily recognized that the Party would have to stay engaged with these new voters so as to turn them into voters who turned up regularly to vote Democratic, just as the Republican base was so consistent about voting every time for Republicans. This did not happen: the Obama-centric campaigners did not mesh into the Democratic Party organization on any level, kept their voter records to themselves, and seemed only interested in directly supporting Obama and his (mostly future) policies. The Democratic Establishment seemed remarkably wary about those Obama people, and reluctant to change their own long-standing modus operandi, a mode that angry grassroots workers regarded as little more than “Republican Lite.”
Worse, Obama the President was far more moderate than Obama the campaigner; he frequently chose either Republicans or Republican-Lite Democrats for top policy positions. On his signature issue, health care reform, Obama offered no political leadership whatsoever and, odd for such a good campaigner, never got his message across on health care and many other issues dear to progressives. Instead, he went on a vacation during that fateful August when he lost control of his entire program, and let the Republicans and their Tea Party front take over framing the issues their way, and begin implementing their plans to destroy his Presidency (“I hope Obama fails”). Time after time during the economic collapse and Great Recession, it looked as though what Obama and the Democrats actually did was to help the corporate oligarchs, and not the vast sea of common voters who elected them—- Wall Street over Main Street. So, what else was new?
This run of events dispirited much of the Democratic grassroots, and the new Obama voters decided the Democrats were no different from Republicans, just as they’d always suspected, that their voting had not really helped themselves after all. When the elections of 2009 came around the Obama voters, feeling betrayed and ignored, and the grassroots feeling betrayed and misused, by and large stayed home. Naturally, this was construed by Republicans and the mass media pundit class as proof: America is a right of center nation, the natural order of things is now restored, the cycle would turn, Republicans would come roaring back in 2010, and Obama was going to be a one-term President. Republicans began industriously working on voter suppression, framing Obama as a failure, promoting as Big Issues fear of deficits, and promising a return to states’ rights with a federal government much reduced in power.
The occasions on which Obama has been triumphant have been those in which he honored the progressive grassroots’ policies on which he campaigned. Where he has run into snag after snag and outright defeat have been when he futilely tried to be “bipartisan,” gave away one progressive bargaining chip after another, and begged Republicans for even just one little vote. Meanwhile, when Republicans were returned to office, or continued in office in red states, voters began to see what happened and were dismayed: rejection of federal help to states struggling with budget shortfalls during the Recession, refusal to participate in health care reform, dismantling of desperately needed programs, disasters resulting from de-regulation, for example.
Therefore, it seems obvious that Democrats—- and especially Obama—- if they want to win, must return to their populist and progressive roots, re-engage the Obama voters, and stop palling around with the increasingly extreme reactionary right masquerading as the modern day Republican Party. The irony here is that the Republican Party since Reagan, has lurched so far to the right, dragging the political spectrum with them, that what was once considered the moderate center ground is now regarded as the (far) left, so that, when Democrats retake that “left”ground for their own (instead of cravenly being Republican Lite) they will really be the centrist party, the moderate middle ground. It clearly is what would be good for the country.