The consensus in Washington and the mainstream news media is that last week's election represents the repudiation of the Obama administration and its policies, which tilted much too far to the left.
"A nationwide recoil against Barack Obama's idea of unlimited government" is how George Will put it in The Washington Post. "We were too deferential to our most zealous supporters," wrote the departing Senate Democrat Evan Bayh, of Indiana, in The New York Times.
That analysis is fundamentally mistaken. It misreads the will of a variegated electorate that sought above all to register profound discontent with the state of the economy. It mischaracterizes the Democrats' policies. And it has given both parties a new zest for fiscal austerity that may cut short the economic recovery and further damage the prospects of the very working-class voters who cast their midterm ballots in desperation for jobs.
Missing from this discussion is a sense of history. When set against other liberal-reform phases in American politics—the Age of Jackson in the 1830s, the Progressive Era of the 1910s, the New Deal of the 1930s, or the last liberal heyday of the 1960s—what the Obama presidency has lacked is not centrism but a vibrant left-of-center mass movement capable of shaking up the establishment and advancing the national agenda beyond Washington's comfort zone.
Without a doubt, the 2010 election was historic. Midterm results typically confound the party of a sitting president, even more so in poor economic times. The Republicans' gain of at least 60 seats in the House is their largest since 1938—not exactly the preferred replay of the New Deal period sought by left-of-center observers.
But that outcome does not reflect a conviction of Republican conservatism. In exit polls, voters disdained both parties. Only 41 percent viewed the Republican Party favorably, while 43 percent saw the Democrats positively. How voters could marginally prefer one party while resoundingly electing the other has to do with district lines and a perceived lack of alternatives in a winner-take-all system. It also has to do with context.
The media's story line was the skillful rebranding by the Tea Party of a discredited right. But a more crucial variable was the near-total absence of countervailing left-of-center movements for social justice. The workingmen's movements of the 1830s, the women's-suffrage and socialist movements of the 1910s, the labor and unemployed organizing of the 1930s, the civil-rights and antiwar mobilizations of the 1960s: No comparable wild-card movements materialized in the past two years to demand more of the Democrats and corporate America than they were prepared to offer.
Given Democratic control of the White House and both houses of Congress, including a filibuster-proof Senate majority, the past two years invite comparison to earlier decades of liberal reform presided over by Democratic presidents. But were the resultant policies overly left-wing?
The centerpiece of the initial Democratic push was health care, which seemed to offer multiple advantages: Lowering the cost of care would reduce the federal deficit by making entitlements less expensive; achieving near-universal coverage would shore up household finances, with economic as well as moral benefits; and extending insurance to millions offered the possibility of Democratic realignment on the order of Social Security's passage, in 1935.
The day after the election, Rep. John A. Boehner called the legislation a "government takeover of health care." But President Obama had signed no such thing. Off the table from the start was a single-payer system that would have cut out corporate insurers by extending Medicare to all. The "public option" in the House version would merely have compelled insurers to face low-cost competition—but it, too, was axed. The final measure did protect against insurance companies' denying coverage of "pre-existing conditions" and extends Medicaid to millions of low-income Americans. But its staggered implementation made few of the benefits immediate. Far from serving as the basis of a permanent political realignment, health care became, incredibly, a Democratic albatross. Swing-district incumbents were punished for it, although 31 percent of voters nationwide wish to see the measure expanded, and 16 percent like it as it is.
The second focus of the Obama administration was to stanch the economic crisis, but here the measures—extension of Bush-initiated bank bailouts, an $800-billion stimulus package, and the auto bailout—were about stabilization, not justice. They reprised the early New Deal of 1933-34 rather than its social-democratic heyday in 1935-36. The effect was to restore corporate profits, productivity, and stock valuations while ordinary Americans sank in a mire of job loss, underemployment, foreclosures, and anxiety.
Bailed-out bankers gave themselves gigantic bonuses while the Obama administration declined to impose a foreclosure moratorium. The unemployment rate rose by more than two percentage points, to 9.6 percent, between Inauguration Day and the midterms, yet no new public-works agencies were created. Although the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1 percent of the population is at a peak unseen since the 1920s, the president made purely rhetorical criticisms of Wall Street "fat cats" while signing a financial-reform law that permits the unwinding of failed companies and fails to correct the practices that led to the crisis.
The Democrats' problem was not overreach, but insufficiency. The president disregarded many economists who advised that the stimulus needed to be at least half again as large. The resulting economic lethargy cost the Democrats the midterms in hard-hit states like Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In those states, which will remain electoral battlegrounds for years, the economy is a structural, not merely cyclical, problem.
Remarkably, the proportion of the electorate, roughly 40 percent, that seeks increased jobs spending is equal to the proportion that seeks spending cuts. Voters blame Wall Street and President George W. Bush for the financial and economic crisis but are unimpressed by Obama's response. "There are still massive layoffs," an Ohio steelworker told The New York Times in March, "and people really believe that he bailed out Wall Street and forgot about Main Street."
An estimated 29 million Obama voters from 2008 did not vote in 2010. Much of the reason lies in the administration's hewing to the center, even the center-right. Labor activists supported Obama dedicatedly, only to see the Employee Free Choice Act shunted aside. Gay and lesbian voters were estranged by Obama's failure to fulfill his promise to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell." Environmentalists' jaws dropped as the administration announced its support for off-shore drilling a few weeks before the BP disaster and a once-in-a-generation chance to do something about carbon emissions cratered in the Senate. Civil libertarians have seen secrecy and warrantless wiretapping undiminished. The collapse of the youth vote may owe something to the 50,000 troops remaining in Iraq and the escalation in Afghanistan.
Despite that, a highly disciplined right has parroted the claim that Obama is socialist, part of a demagogic mishmash along with the falsehoods that Obama is a Muslim born abroad. The news media, browbeaten into avoiding racial analysis of the Tea Party, has not examined the startling fact that an exceptional 60 percent of white voters went Republican in 2010, making race more reliable than gender, education, or income as a predictive indicator of ballot preference. Demographic trends will make whiteness less potent in decades to come, but how it plays out in the coming years will also be affected by the extent to which the hardship of working-class families is mitigated.
Disgruntled white working-class sentiment will continue to take the self-defeating form of a protest vote for Republican candidates in the absence of any alternative sense of direction and power of the kind that bold interracial movements for economic justice provide—meetings, protests, songs, civil disobedience, and other forms of action. But the groups that might have organized a response from below were waiting for Obama to deliver. Well-bankrolled Tea Parties filled the void.
Renewed hope will not come from Washington, whose natural gravitational pull, now magnified, is toward a centrism defined by corporate lobbyists. It will come, as it always has, from below.
The greatest social advances of the New Deal—recognition of labor's right to organize, Social Security, a more progressive income tax—occurred as the Great Depression turned the corner toward recovery, giving rise to waves of strikes and other demands from below. Whether in protests for more relief by the unemployed at state courthouses, farmers disrupting foreclosure auctions, renters moving their furniture back inside from the curb after being evicted, or workers sitting down on the job and occupying factories, the New Deal resulted from independent action that created a horizon of possibility and an urgency that legislators could not ignore.
The lesson is not to go to the center. It is to take to the streets.