Election Fallout: Faith in Democracy, Not Government

by Victor Davis Hanson

San Francisco Chronicle

Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the only two Democrats to be elected president since 1976. Both were Southerners. Apparently, the only assurance that the electorate has had that a Democrat was serious about national security or social sobriety was his drawl. More disturbing still for liberal Democrats is that George W. Bush is the first Republican Southerner ever elected to the presidency, another indicator that a majority of the citizenry no longer finds conservatism and Texas such a scary mix.

The fate of third-party candidates was also instructive in the election. Left-wing alternatives like Ralph Nader go nowhere. Conservative populists, on the other hand, can capture 10 percent or more of the electorate, as Ross Perot did in 1992 and almost again in 1996. Indeed, Perot’s initial run probably accounts for Clinton’s first election, and helped his second as well. In short, Kerry’s 3.5 million shortfall in the popular vote underestimates the degree to which the country has drifted to the right. Over a decade ago, it took a third-party candidate, political consultant Dick Morris’ savvy triangulation and Bill Clinton’s masterful political skills to stave off the complete loss of Democratic legislative, executive and judicial power of the sort that we witnessed last week.

Something else is going on in the country that has been little remarked upon. It is not just that an endorsement of a Michael Moore does not translate into votes or that Rathergate loses viewers for CBS. It has become perhaps far worse: A Hollywood soiree with a foul-mouthed Whoopee Goldberg or a Tim Robbins rant can turn toxic for liberal candidates. We are nearly reaching the point where approval from the New York Times or a CBS puff-piece hurts a candidate or cause, as do the billions in contributions from a George Soros.

Television commentators Walter Cronkite, Bill Moyers, Andy Rooney or Ted Koppel have morphed from their once sober and judicious personas into highly partisan figures that now carry political weight among most Americans only to the degree that they harm any cause or candidate with whom they are associated. Readers do not just disagree with spirited columns by a Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd, but rather are turned off when they revert to hysterics and condescension. To the degree that the messages, proposals or endorsements of a delinquent like Ben Affleck, an incoherent Bruce Springsteen, or a reprobate like Eminem were comprehensible, John Kerry should have run from them all.

This election also involved perceived hypocrisy. No one in Bakersfield or Fresno thinks that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld espouses views at odds with the privileged lives that they live; they, of course, unabashedly celebrate and benefit from free enterprise and corporate capitalism. In contrast, Teresa Heinz Kerry and John Kerry, George Soros or John Edwards even more so enjoy the fruits of the very system they at times seem to question.

Thus, concern for two Americas is not discernable in John Edwards’ multimillion-dollar legal fees, the Kerry jet, or Soros Inc.’s global financial speculation. It is easy for a Noam Chomsky or Michael Moore to trash Halliburton, but Red America wonders about the source of university contracts that subsidize privileged professors’ sermons or why corporate recording, cinema and advertising conglomerates that enrich celebrities are exempt from Hollywood’s Pavlovian censure of big business. That the man who nearly destroyed the small depositors of Great Britain also fueled MoveOn.org seemed to say it all.

Where does this leave us? After landmark legislation of the last 40 years to ensure equality of opportunity, the public has reached its limit in using government to press on to enforce an equality of result. In terms of national security, the Republicans, more so than the Democrats after the Cold War—in Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq—oddly are now the party of democratic change, while liberals are more likely to shrug about the disturbing status quo abroad. Conservatives have also made the argument that poverty is evolving into a different phenomenon from what it was decades ago when outhouses, cold showers and no breakfasts were commonplace and we were all not awash in cheap Chinese-imported sneakers, cell phones and televisions.

Like it or not, the public believes that choices resulting in breaking of the law, drug use, illegitimate births, illiteracy and victimhood can induce poverty as much as exploitation, racism or sexism can. After trillions of dollars of entitlement programs, most voters are unsure that the answers lie with bureaucrats and social programs, especially when the elite architects of such polices rarely experience firsthand the often unintended, but catastrophic results of their own well-meant engineering.

So we all know the cure for the Democratic party: more moderate, populist candidates who don’t talk down to voters or live one life and profess another; more explicit faith in American democracy and values; and a little more humility in accepting the tragic limitations of human nature.

Yet for many, that medicine of reappraisal will be far worse than the disease of chronic defeat.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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