There are dangers of reading both too much and too little into the outcome of this year’s presidential election. On the former count, the fact of the matter is that this election does not signify a major shift in the body politic. Since 1988, when George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis by about 10 percent of the popular vote, the total votes garnered by the center-left coalition and the center-right coalition have been split roughly evenly. In 1992, the Bush vote plus the Perot vote exceeded the Clinton vote, as was the case in 1996 if the Dole vote is added to the Perot vote. In 2000, Al Gore and Ralph Nader together won a slim majority of the popular vote. So a 51-48 victory for the Republicans does not mark the beginning of a new era.
By the same token, the 2004 election cements the proposition that the Republican Party is, like it or not, the national majority party, controlling all branches of government via legitimate democratic processes. And as is the case after every one of these quadrennial fiascos for the Democrats, various liberals, leftists and donkey-loyal centrists will be asking the same question they asked last time: Does the party need to move left or move right? I would suggest that the question is flawed, and the answer is neither.
The practical consequences of moving left are self-evident, and have been since Nixon’s evisceration of McGovern in 1972. The reality is that the Republican Party is an efficient machine designed specifically to destroy anything resembling a traditional left-liberal politics. As for moving right, the tactic that brought Bill Clinton to power in the 1990s, its advocates are trapped in an a priori fatal error. However far to the right they move, whether in terms of jettisoning New Deal social policy, cozying up to corporate interests, or embracing traditionalist cultural values, the Republicans are always able and more than willing to move farther right. The net effect is to push the median political position in the wrong direction, and the widening Republican control of the legislative branch testifies to this fact. The Republicans cannot be out-Republicaned, and Clintonian triangulation will produce not only diminishing returns, but will strengthen the electoral hand of the Republicans on a fundamental level.
Since they can’t rely on finding another singular phenom of public coolness and charisma like Clinton, what the Democrats need is their own counterpart to the neoconservative movement in the Republican Party. They need an intellectual elite that can unpack their current mishmash ideology and rebuild it from the ground up. Though they were abetted by world events, neoconservatives owe their success to their ideological galvanization of the Republican Party and their unification of its socially and fiscally conservative wings. The neocons abandoned the guidance of Burke and Kirk in favor of Strauss, Bloom and Hayek. On that basis, they refashioned all the traditional (often inconsistent) values of conservative anti-communist Republicanism, rejected so strongly by voters in 1964, into coherent and self-justifying advancements of the national interest.
The Democrats could — must — learn a lesson from this history. Just as there is no electoral advantage to be gained by tweaking liberalism to suit the left or right wings of the Democratic Party, there is zero further mileage to be gained by appeal to the Democrats’ traditional axioms, from their justification of social welfare to their increasingly hopeless cause in the culture war. My proposal is this: If the Democrats are to regain majority status, they have to reject traditional liberalism in favor of a kind of left-libertarianism. The overarching goals of the liberal project can then be couched as the collective pursuit of individual interest and the enjoyment of individual freedom. Successful moral persuasion will require awakening voters to the fact that their own personal, selfish interest does not lie in the current top-heavy redistributionist scheme, but in a trim and non-wasteful mixed economy that rewards productivity with a favorable tax situation and basic social provisions such as health care and retirement savings.
This reconstruction will allow the Democrats to position themselves as the party of small, non-intrusive government and personal freedom, the party committed to fighting “waste, fraud and abuse,” and the party directly and unmistakably representative — in terms even of naked self-interest — of the widest cross-section of the electorate. If the Democrats, furthermore, can transform church/state separation and pluralistic tolerance into indispensable tenets of patriotic loyalty, the cultural battle so skewed in the Republicans’ favor will be half-won. It’s George W. Bush himself who has opened the door to a successful realignment, through profound fiscal indiscipline, a social policy designed to punish the heterodox, blinkered misconduct in Iraq and enforcement of partisan loyalty so strict as to block any Republican criticism of the administration.
Bush has, in other words, planted the seeds of his own party’s demise. But for them to grow, the Democrats will have to get serious about curtailing pork-barrel spending, about significant reduction of property and sales taxes, about — take note of this — rejecting the washed-up politics of group identity and victimization, etc. Furthermore, the Democrats need to lay out an intelligible, practical position on national defense, recognizing both that security is vitally important for reasons more profound than partisan aggrandizement, and that Michael Moore-ist apologetic pacifism is not a viable alternative. We’ll know soon enough if the Democrats are up to the task.
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.