In 1992, James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid” to describe what would eventually become a rare popular win of the presidency for William Jefferson Clinton. Garnering less than 50% of the vote, Clintonites spent the next couple of years crowing Carville’s line, that is, until they faced the resurgence of the right in 1994. I was one of those Clintonites, and one of the Clinton votes was my first ever cast in a presidential election. Because of that resurgence on the right and what the players of the GOP in the 1990s chose to do with their power–namely go after Clinton every chance they got–I closed my mind to entertaining anything they had to say. I became rather tribal during those years, and that tribalism increased with the disastrous George. W. Bush presidency of the 2000s.
Now we’re in 2012 and the Republican Party of the 1990s and the 2000s is a dying beast. The people who populated that party were never as monolithic as the elected who served them, but I couldn’t see that in my anger over the onslaught against the Clintons, or Bush’s onslaught against the Constitution that I loved so well. It took another onslaught, the Obama onslaught against the Constitution, to open my eyes to who I really was and what I really believed. And it wasn’t about party or ideology. My values, it turns out, are as staid and storied as our American history. As it happens, I am no great radical after all.
While we have mythologized our history, as humans often do, the facts remain the salient feature of that history. We fought for our independence nobly against a tyrant who would control us to the point of suffocation and starvation. In that fight, we defined new ideals and values that would mark us as Americans–unlike any culture that had come before–for generations to come. Liberty. Free will. The chance for opportunity. These are what define us, and they are why our forefather and foremothers fought so hard and sacrificed so much. I see this clearly now and more than any single policy or social belief, it is what I want for myself and my family. I want the American way of life to continue.
The small tribe of progressives that, in a moment of confusion and weakness, armed with the rhetoric of hope and change, persuaded the nation to elect Barack Obama does not subscribe to these values and can’t understand them. Their values are more akin to the King we fought to free ourselves from, who believed and insisted he was acting under the most paternal of impulses–for our own good. Like the King, progressives believe their subjects are too stupid to understand what’s good for them, and that they only resist the progressive prescription because they are under the sway of a small group of radical troublemakers. Then it was the likes of Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and The Sons of Liberty. Today it is the radical likes of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and the Tea Party.
Frank Rich has framed this dynamic that plays itself out again and again on our political landscape. And like a good British soldier circa 1775, it is his sneering contempt for the very things that make Americans American that informs his central claim: that the ideas of the Tea Party live on and will win out, even though the forces of progressivism, or so he would have us think, have succeeded in sullying the name.
But isn’t the tea party yesterday’s news, receding into the mists of history along with its left-wing doppelgänger, Occupy Wall Street? So it might seem. It draws consistently low poll numbers, earning just a 25 percent approval rating in a Wall Street Journal–NBC News survey in September. The tea-party harbinger from 2008, Sarah Palin, and the bomb throwers who dominated the primary process of 2012, led by the congressional tea-party caucus leader Michele Bachmann, were vanquished and lost whatever national political clout they had, along with much of their visibility (even on Fox News). So toxic is the brand that not one of the 51 prime-time speakers at the GOP convention in Tampa dared speak its name, including such tea-party heartthrobs as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Scott Brown, who became an early tea-party hero for unexpectedly taking Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 2010, has barely alluded to the affiliation since.
History tells us that American liberals have long underestimated the reach and resilience of the right, repeatedly dismissing it as a lunatic fringe and pronouncing it dead only to watch it bounce back stronger after each setback. That pattern was identified in an influential essay, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” published by the historian Alan Brinkley in 1994. Brinkley was writing two years after the religious right of Pat Robertson had stunned liberals by hijacking the GOP convention from the country-club patrician George H.W. Bush—the same fundamentalist right that had ostensibly retreated from politics after the humiliating Scopes trial in the twenties.
The contempt Rich has for the right is palpable. It fairly drips from this essay like snot drains from an old man’s nose in winter. He goes on and on about all the times the forces of liberalism have put down that dreaded monster on the right, only to have it rear its sixth or seventh head, needing to be slain once again, and, it must be noted, once and for all. That is the game the left plays in this country. They spend so much time crying foul over what they perceive as conservative attempts to beat them down forever, when really it is they that are seeking the final, ultimate win. They could make this country great, a model society, if only it weren’t for those dastardly conservatives. What they fail to realize is that they, in their smallness and tribalness, are the flip side of the coin they loath–the small faction of actual radicals in the GOP. America is bigger than either faction, and both of them put together.
Regarding Barry Goldwater, Rich quotes Richard Hofstadter, known at the time as “iconic historian of postwar liberal consensus,” thusly: “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?” I’m sure the King had similar thoughts about those uncooperative Americans. But Goldwater was no real radical, anymore than Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan is. He was so mainstream, in fact, that for a time Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater Girl. What he was was in the way.
He wanted to slow down the progress of The New Deal momentum, momentum which ultimately led to the War on Poverty and LBJ’s Great Society. He also saw the threat posed by the Soviet Union, a threat that Ronald Reagan would later put down, a feat which, while some would argue came at too high a cost, few can claim was an evil, unnecessary act. The nuclear tension between the two countries needed to be dealt with and it got dealt with. We can argue about the semantics of the how, but the why is no longer a matter of question. Even Patty Reagan now agrees it was a good thing.
And just where are we now? Questioning the very value of New Deal and Great Society programs. Are they worth it? Have they done anything about poverty after all? Can we still afford them? What real impact have they had? As with most things in life, the answers here are a mixed bag. Yes, some programs are worth it. Social Security, for example, has been a good and beneficial program, though it has been subject to the corrupt raiding of politicos of every political stripe in Congress and the presidency. The War on Poverty? Who can justifiably say it’s been a success? And have the consequences been worth it? I don’t think so, and neither do plenty of other Americans. LBJ’s Great Society has created more problems than it solved. Medicare is a great idea on the face of it, until you find out that the medical industry will continue to raise prices so it can suck the budget dry, and people will live longer than expected when the details were worked out.
It is the willingness to look at these hard questions that affect so many of us, and to change the course if necessary, that is at the heart of what being an American is all about. And it is what has informed conservatism from our inception. We were a country founded on the balance of people who wanted to hurtle us along into the great unknown, and those who wanted us to take a more deliberative approach to our future. That is the tension of America and it is why our country works. It is the driving force between innovation that propels us and an instinct toward self-preservation that keeps us whole. After 236 years, one side grows weary of this process, and one side is invigorated by it. But that’s not the way progressives choose to see it. For them, they are just bound by denial that prevents them from slaying the beast once and for all. They could slay it if they just thought a few more steps ahead. And the beast is, in Rich’s own words, ” the cockroaches of the American body politic, poised to outlast us all.”
Contempt? Yes, it’s there. And that contempt, while they will say it is directed at the people of the right, is actually directed at American process our founders created. Those founders pieced together ideas that had worked for other cultures with completely new ones that defined our very Americanism. The sneering contempt progressives have is for the very definition of our nation. The contempt they have for the Tea Party is for the part of the Tea Party that wants to observe the great American questioning mindset, that does not accept whole that the progressive tribe, Kings though they think they are, know what’s best for all of America. And it drives progressives crazy that there is any questioning of the rightness, nevermind the wholesomeness, of their ideas. They can’t even imagine people exist who would do so, lest they be the very definition of evil:
Where did these people come from?” asked a liberal friend of mine in Los Angeles this summer as we reminisced about the freak-show characters, from Bachmann to Mr. “9-9-9,” who cycled through the Republican-primary season, sequentially drawing unimaginable throngs of supporters. As Brinkley wrote in 1994, it’s a default liberal assumption that the right’s frontline troops are invariably “poor, provincial folk” or an “isolated, rural fringe” or “rootless, anomic people searching for personal stability,” rather than the perfectly conventional middle- and upper-middle-class suburbanites they often are. We don’t want to believe they’re hiding in plain sight in our own neighborhoods and offices.
But they are “hiding in plain sight in our own neighborhoods and offices.” The American people that is. And the left continues to caricaturize them at their peril. This is not 1964 anymore fellows, and the winds of 1929 are at Republican’s back, not Democrats. There is no great sea of new young voters to deliver the reins of power, and the economy faltered in Hooveresque style under Barack Obama’s watch. And like Hoover, Barack Obama was elected just as the economic train that had been loaded by other presidents (sadly, Clinton included) hit the train station itself. Few cared that Hoover couldn’t fix it in one term, and few will care that Obama couldn’t either. Like Hoover’s, Obama’s policies themselves exacerbated the problem.
During the last four years, Americans have grown restless for real change. This year they are offered a real fix-it artist with the record to back it up, something that is noticeably absent from Barack Obama’s resume. They are not stupid, radical, nor are they cockroaches. They are Americans who have the wherewithal to look at the big picture and choose a future for themselves. That is the gift bequeathed to them by the First Generation of Americans. And the left will once again be delivered the comeuppance that Hamilton himself, the father of American progressivism, was delivered when he got too big for his own britches. He, too, fought it out with sneering contempt for his conservative foe, and it cost him his life in a duel he was unprepared for and didn’t take seriously.
So while we may think it’s the economy, stupid, a contemptuous line if I ever heard one, it’s not just the economy that will drive this election. It’s the contempt. Frank Rich knows it, even as he continues to express it. He can’t stop himself. What he fails to realize is that if you call a man or woman stupid long enough, he or she will fight you back no matter what merit your ideas may have. Especially if she’s American. And we’re about to see what that looks like once again.