It’s no secret that the tea party faithful regard the Obama administration as a Constitution-shredding tyranny. But in a profile of the movement published last week, the New York Times reported the surprising news that many of the protesters have come to this view as a result of their experiences in the recession: “Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.”
An account of a conservative uprising published a few days later by the Washington Post under the headline, “Appalachia is slipping from grip of Democrats,” told the story of a hard-bitten congressional district in western Virginia where the response to the recession has been a dramatic swerve to the right.
The free-market system blunders into recession; its victims flock to the free-market banner. And here we go again.
The backlash against liberalism has been going on for more than 40 years. It is as immediate as this morning’s newspaper but as old as those “Silent Majority” buttons you find at antique stores. Since the days of George Wallace, conservatives have been leading rebellions against hippies, against busing, against Hollywood, against property taxes, against welfare, against evolution, against whatever.
The formula is familiar beyond the point of tedium: Middle-American righteousness, resentment of liberal “elites,” weepy fantasies of persecution set to a country-music melody. Yet its power never wears off. Today conservatives are giddily anticipating another electoral disaster for the “Party of the People.”
For the moment, let’s leave aside the question of whether the conservative rebels can credibly claim that, by raising their voices for tax cuts and deregulation, they are striking a brave blow against the powers-that-be.
Instead, let us pause to contemplate what appears to be the epic dimwittedness on the other side of the battlefield—the years of folly that have allowed the Democrats to wander blithely into the same old snare again and again. The laissez-faire system has just finished giving us a convincing demonstration of its viciousness, but the party of Franklin Roosevelt can’t get out in front of the resulting anger. Working-class Massachusetts and even Appalachia are turning away from it in disgust, but the party of the political scientists doesn’t seem to have noticed.
The answer to the riddle is as plain as the caviar on a lobbyist’s spoon. Democrats don’t speak to angry, working-class people because a lot of them can’t speak to angry, working-class people. They don’t know how. Many of the party’s resident geniuses gave up on that constituency long ago, preferring instead to remodel their organization as the vanguard of enlightened professionals and the shrine of purest globaloney. They worked hard to convince Wall Street that new-style Democrats could be trusted. They accepted, for the most part, the deregulatory agenda of the Reagan administration; in fact, in some fields—banking, telecommunications, free trade—they went farther than Ronald Reagan dared.
Along the way, these new-style Democrats did little as their allies in organized labor were scythed down by organized money; last year they watched as the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector sank lower than any point in the 20th century. The fatuity of it all is surely plain to Democrats by now: They have permitted nothing less than the decimation of their own grass-roots social movement. As a result, in large parts of America, there is no liberal presence at all, no economic narrative to counterbalance the wisdom of Rush Limbaugh.
President Barack Obama might have helped in this regard, using the biggest megaphone in the land to tell us, in the Times’s words, “why it happened and whom to blame.” He might have explained to us how financial regulation was systematically undermined by his predecessors, how the prospect of quick profits bred conflicts of interest throughout the system, and how a delusional free-market superstition blinded the nation to the unsoundness of the financial structure.
He might, in other words, have contested the right’s monopoly on the word “elite.” He might have reached out to working-class voters in the only way Democrats can.
But that would have been divisive. That would have disturbed the confidence of the markets.
Watching the victory of 2008 appear to slip through the Democrats’ fingers is disheartening, but not because it is a story of opportunism and selling out. After all, if Democrats were opportunists, they would be pushing the still-popular “public option” in the health-care debate. Something might yet be salvaged.
No, the Democrats’ problems arise from their convictions, from the botched centrist faith to which so many of their leaders still cling. They do what they do because they believe that those hearty fellows on the Sunday talk shows really know the answer; that the truth really resides in the dusty globalization clichés of the ’90s.