The "F-You" Election

Six years ago, pollster and political scientist Stan Greenberg published a book, The Two Americas, in which he broke down the American electorate of the middle Bush era into new categories. Two of those categories -- the only two I remember -- were the "F-You Boys" and the "F-You Old Men." The categories are so perfectly named that they require little explanation. These economically frustrated men were part of the core Republican coalition but were attracted to rebellious-seeming movements like Ross Perot's 1992 presidential candidacy or pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura's Minnesota gubernatorial campaign. Together, Greenberg estimated, the F-You Boys and their older counterparts added up to about 13 percent of the American electorate, and as of 2004, they were of "declining social and political influence."

Tuesday's election, and months of Tea Party and other well-funded rebellions, brought back to power the F-You Boys, the F-You Men, and -- if exit polls confirm a narrowing of the gender gap -- F-You Women as well, exemplified by Sarah Palin's "mama grizzlies." Economic frustration is on the rise, and the results tracked it -- in the Midwest, in the border South, and particularly in the Rocky Mountain West, states like Arizona and Nevada that once believed they were "recession proof" are now enduring unemployment rates well over 10 percent. But there were also F-You Billionaires, like the Koch Brothers, whose principal economic frustration is that their inherited fortunes might be modestly taxed; and the F-You Wall Streeters, who two years ago supported Barack Obama, and whose industry was saved by government bailout, but who now seem to have convinced themselves that they were the passive victims of a hostile takeover.

But an election based on a rebellious, screw-'em-all mood is a rocky base from which to govern. While the results are a major setback for progressive hopes of further policy changes, they are no victory for either conservatism or for the Republican Party, both of which had to transform and become almost invisible in order to survive.

There have been three major Republican/conservative takeover elections in recent history: 1980, when Ronald Reagan carried 12 seats and control of the Senate; 1994, when Newt Gingrich's Republicans took both houses; and 2010. The first, while in many ways a reaction to the incompetent presidency of Jimmy Carter (a conservative Democrat whose flaws came to symbolize liberalism) unquestionably carried a mandate for conservatism. The second, 1994, was in many ways a reaction to congressional corruption, combined with a long-postponed rejection of Southern Democrats, but Gingrich and his allies took it very seriously -- perhaps too seriously -- as an ideological mandate.

This year, though, right-wingers barely even pretended to have a comparable program-cutting agenda. Their main talking point about health reform was that it would cut Medicare benefits. They railed about TARP and the auto bailout, but the former originated in the Bush administration, and they will not attempt to repeal it. They talked about creating jobs by reducing the deficit, which is economic nonsense. Moreover, not one of the policy plans the Republicans produced would reduce the deficit by a penny. Tea Partiers ranted about constitutional and economic schemes that they probably won't even introduce, much less pass.

Consider that in 1995, a year after the election, the Gingrich Republicans famously shut down the government. Why? Because they wanted to force President Bill Clinton to accept cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Republicans backed down and lost face. The new congressional majority has also all but promised to shut down the government, long before the election. Why? Simply to shut down the government. Without an actual agenda for governing, F-You politics adopts the forms of right-wing rebellion without its substance. Right-wing politics long ago grew detached from traditional conservatism, in the Burkean sense of respect for continuity and tradition; it's now unhinged from anything resembling actual philosophical conservatism of any known variety.

As for the Republican Party, or the party establishment, its challenge for most of the last two years has been to harness the generic F-You mood that originally seemed to reject both parties. It took a while, but eventually the GOP was able to use the Tea Party's energy and general economic frustration to separate itself from the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. Money played a vital role here. It wasn't that there was so much money, or that, after Citizens United, the money could come from corporations and be run through the Chamber of Commerce or other outside groups. Rather, Karl Rove, former Republican National Committee Chair Mike Duncan, and what's left of the rejected establishment were able to set up shop entirely outside of the auspices of the Republican Party itself (especially the RNC, which they didn't trust), in groups such as American Crossroads and the American Action Network that couldn't coordinate their work with candidates or the party but could coordinate with one another. Their ads, which the Wesleyan Advertising Project showed to be overwhelmingly negative, were particularly powerful in a year like this one, validating voters' discontent and helping to redirect generic anger to particular elected Democrats.

Many pundits, from the right to the center, will write this morning that Obama misjudged the country, that it's still more conservative than it appeared to be in 2006 and 2008. Unlike some of my Prospect colleagues, I agree with the second half of that statement. The country is not radically different from the one that elected George W. Bush at least once, and where only a small portion of voters identify themselves as liberal. But it's not true that Obama didn't recognize or engage with that conservatism. To the consternation of many liberals, he very much did, which is why he spent the bulk of last year looking for bipartisan alliance on health care, around principles that had already been adapted to reflect the proposals of actual conservatives, or why he visited the House Republican Caucus last January and tried to take their ideas seriously, a high point of his presidency. But conservative Republicans dodged the outreach. They cut themselves off from their own proposals or, like Sen. Lindsay Graham, pretended to cooperate (on climate change or immigration reform) while looking for excuses to defect. Conservatism survived, if it did, by making itself elusive, avoiding any attempt to pull it into the governing process.

Alternatively, Obama might have governed as a forthright liberal, presented a clearer alternative to the vacuous emerging Republican tactics, and taken on conservatives as enemies of the people in the way that Franklin Roosevelt did for one short moment in his long presidency. Maybe. But in many ways, that's what Nancy Pelosi did, and it was her unpopularity -- more than Obama's -- that brought down the Democratic majority. And it's hard to imagine that the results in states like Kentucky, Indiana, or Nevada would be very different if Obama had been a more outspoken, combative liberal, on the model of defeated Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson.

And so here we are: A Democratic majority wiped out in the House, losing its (vastly overrated) control of all three institutions of government. A conservative movement that won power without a clear conservative agenda and the choices that would have implied. And a Republican Party that regained power in part on the energy of the Tea Party and a shadowy structure created to move money outside of the party itself, without the accountability that goes with acting as a political party. In such a result, we can see the people and ideas that lost. It will take some time, though, to see who won, if anyone.

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