By David K. Shipler
The most significant lesson of the election may be one that has gone practically unnoticed: Conservatives have failed to radicalize the American electorate, even after years of well-organized, heavily-financed efforts. Most voters have not been pushed to the extremes, not by Fox-News and Rush-Limbaugh propaganda, not by thinly encrypted appeals to racial bigotry, not by evangelical preachers threatening the wrath of God for abortion and same-sex marriage. Fire and brimstone ain’t what they used to be.
As the pundit class has observed, Republicans have been left behind by the demographic shift. But that’s not the whole story. The group identities that have always described the landscape of American politics run deeper than skin color or national and religious heritage. Groups have real political interests and resilient attitudes, not easily manipulated in an open society where multiple voices can be heard.
So the rising American groups—Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, less religious whites—have proved resistant to the rightwing argument. They have not been swept into the back eddies of radicalism. They are afflicted by less moral certainty than the hard right would wish—less distaste for government, less intolerance on social issues, a wider embrace of diversity in politics and culture. Witness the views on gay marriage evolving at warp speed.
Conservatives don’t quite see what has happened, judging by their early analyses and proposed solutions. Their Long Campaign (my term), which transcends the specific campaigns for specific candidates, is simply not succeeding. Their notion now is to patch it up by suddenly lurching toward immigration reform or recruiting conservative blacks and Hispanics to run for office. But those are shallow tactics that don’t make the political margins any more attractive.
Certain ideologues are clinging to their hope that the public will magically come around to views that need no fundamental compromise. They do not seem to feel the ground shifting under their feet. I saw an example two days after the election, when I ran into Grover Norquist, the conservative lobbyist, at an event in Washington. He has handcuffed Congress by inducing 279 Republican members to sign an infamous pledge to oppose tax increases, whether by higher rates or reduced deductions or credits. I asked Norquist what lessons he saw in the election and what he thought conservatives needed to do going forward.
The only issue he mentioned was immigration reform, which he had long favored. (His wife is Palestinian.) He blamed talk-show hosts for scaring Republicans away from it, and noted happily that a Fox host had just flipped and endorsed reform. Norquist couldn’t remember the man’s name, calling him the “dumb” one who is on at night. Oh, I said, Sean Hannity? Yes, he said, Sean Hannity.
How about taxes, I asked, given that polls showed about 60 percent of the voters favoring tax increases? We agreed that surveys are suspect, that folks often endorsed increases for others, not themselves. Still, I told him about the unscientific polls I’ve taken all across the country when I’ve spoken to audiences about poverty. These have not been totally liberal; they’ve included business executives, lawyers, college students, and other diverse groups as well as those involved in non-profits.
How many would personally be willing to pay higher taxes to help address poverty? I have asked. Most hands go up, sometimes all hands go up. Then I ask how many of those have told this to their elected representatives. Hardly any hands are raised. And that’s the problem, of course: politicians don’t get the message, and they see higher taxes as the third rail.
Norquist may have been listening, but I wasn’t sure. He didn’t look very interested. So I tried to provoke him with a broader argument: Our great challenge was not deciding between government and the private sector, but in creating a healthy interaction between them to improve the justice of the free market, an ingenious system that still lets some people fall through the cracks.
He had nothing to say to this. His eyes had glazed over. Maybe yours have too, but really! After a bitter campaign over the role of government, wouldn’t you think that thinkers would now be thinking about this?
The Long Campaign is hardly over. It has made some inroads. In Texas recently I was told that two elderly women had organized a summer lunch program for poor children who normally got their lunches at school. The women raised money from private contributions and had internalized such hatred for government that they adamantly refused to accept funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has budgeted grants for precisely such summer lunch programs. A regional U.S.D.A. official sighed when I told him, and said that anti-government resistance was common in that part of the country, even where his agency had funds waiting to be tapped.
Don’t you tell people, I asked, that if they’re going to send their taxes to Washington, they might as well get some back? Yes, he answered. He tells them that all the time.
Extreme conservatism is far from dead. It occupies seats on the Supreme Court, which in two cases this term is poised to end affirmative action and emasculate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, even as minorities gain political clout. It dominates talk radio and Fox television. It mobilizes the financial resources of small numbers of billionaires to coarsen the debate and propagate disinformation. With a demagogue as a leading candidate, and the right mixture of tension and fear, perhaps it could sway larger segments of the public.But not so far.