As relieved as I am about the outcome of the national elections, I can’t get the thought of how much we’ve lost in order to “win” out of out my mind. Something an old colleague of mine told me in the 1980s keeps popping into my head: politics is a battle for position.
What he meant by that, I think, is that political fights are won or lost based on how one is positioned vis a vis the public, and relative to one’s opponents. He told me that in order to help me wrap my then relatively inexperienced mind around the idea that fighting the religious right by calling them supremacist bigots was a losing strategy. To the mainstream, religious rightists looked like church-goers exercising their religious freedom and right to speech by protesting abortion and gay rights. To get folks to listen, we needed to pivot and talk about democratic values.
On Tuesday (in addition to deploying a tactically brilliant campaign), Barack Obama won re-election because the GOP blundered spectacularly in the battle for position.
For 50 years the GOP fought to reposition itself among voters as something other than the folks who brought you the Great Depression. They did so by placing their political fortunes in the hands of a coalition of radical factions whose most powerful appeal is among white males. That move was a winner. It positioned them to win the presidency for Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. But, while conservative white males are still influential, that influence is declining. Romney losing on Tuesday with 59% of the white vote was a clear indication of that reality.
But, too late now. That right wing coalition the GOP built dominates the party’s presidential nomination process. That’s why right wing ideologues with no business working for government much less running for president like Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum were each briefly GOP frontrunners. Moderate Mitt only won by turning sharply to the right (and being the only one with a real campaign).
And on Tuesday, we, or some version thereof, won. And yes, the influence of people of color, younger voters, and women in this election may be the first few rays of light indicating a new day dawning in American politics. Maybe.
However, there’s another side to this story. It goes something like this.
The GOP wedge strategy – their 50 year campaign of using controversial social issues to split liberal coalitions and push the left out of meaningful influence in politics – did succeed for a good long time. There were a few gaps along the way. The Watergate scandal gave us Carter, Ross Perot gave us Clinton in ’92, and the Iraq War and financial crisis gave us Obama.
The one legit presidential win for the Dems since Johnson was Clinton’s second term. Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 and re-election in 1996 by figuring out that the Dems had lost the battle for position in a white dominated electorate when it traded white southerners for the black vote. When Lyndon Johnson led the charge to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act he anticipated the backlash, saying to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.” He could have tripled that and still come up short.
Under Clinton’s leadership, the Dems moderated their message and pivoted on key issues. The Secretary of Explaining Stuff conceded to racist attacks on welfare, reforming it by imposing benefit caps and a work requirement, but without providing a meaningful path to livable wage employment nor addressing what would happen to those who were pushed off the rolls by those caps without first finding decent jobs. Clinton also gave us the North American Free Trade Agreement. In addition to devastating the Mexican economy, NAFTA did a whack job on American workers and crushed the small farm economy in the U.S. And it was under Clinton’s watch that Glass-Steagall was repealed, and the basic architecture of the economic bubble that finally burst in 2008 was built.
Clinton also showed American voters that a Democratic president could be just as much of a hawk as a Republican one when he signed the Iraq Liberation Act, better known as “regime change,” and led Operation Desert Fox. The Iraq Liberation Act was the trail head leading to the Iraq War.
This is some of what it took to win on Tuesday. Each time the GOP took a step to the right, the Democratic Party stepped to the right to capture the territory it left behind. And the Dems kept moving to the right until, by November 6, 2012, it had made itself nearly indistinguishable from the GOP of the 1970s, with key exceptions on social issues that, as fortune and careful polling would have it, anticipated generational and demographic change. But those positions do not represent the kind of justice great movements formed to achieve in the years before the rise of the right.
So was Tuesday a new dawn in American politics? Only if we treat the election as the beginning and not the end of our fight, and use the rays of hope it cast to find a path to justice.