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Given that politics both manifests and affects the culture, it’s appropriate to consider the possible cultural meaning of Tuesday’s elections. Voters replaced the party in power in the House by an unusually large change in seats (a swing of more than sixty), cut the Senate majority to the near-minimum, and turned over party rule of several state legislatures and governorships.
Nineteen state houses flipped to the Republican Party, a truly astonishing number. The North Carolina and Alabama legislatures are under Republican control for the first time since the 1870s.
These changes reflect a cultural trend in the nation exemplified, of course, by the Tea Party phenomenon. The election results show an increasing political and cultural bifurcation of the nation into a bourgeois-liberal heartland and a high-population-density progressive enclave confined largely to New England and the West.
As to the political and cultural ideas expressed in last night’s elections, here is my comment for a Heartland Institute symposium on the subject:
Two big myths about politics and policy died yesterday, and they focus on issues of budgets, taxes, and regulation:
“All politics is local.”
“The public wants more from government than it is willing to pay for.”
By moving to concentrate so much power in the federal government so quickly, President Obama and the congressional Democrats nationalized the election.
When the central government takes so much tax money from the public and imposes as many regulations as it does today (while promising many more), the effects of local issues diminish accordingly. No amount of favors, aka “constituent services,” can compensate for the enormous demands of Washington.
Big government thrives by promising enough people enough favors paid for by other people so that it can achieve voting majorities. Some people want, and get, a good deal more from government than they pay for, but multitudes more are required to support them through confiscated taxes. The latter are willing to put up with it as long as the amount of their coerced overinvestment in government is not too far above the benefits they perceive they’re getting. They see it as their public duty and are perfectly willing to fulfill it.
However, when government takes a ruinous proportion of people’s income and puts it to waste—exemplified by the bailouts, health care bill, protracted involvement in Mideast politics, and threat of cap-and-trade—they see themselves as being exploited. Peter is no longer willing to be robbed to pay Paul. The public moves to vote the government out and replace it with people whom they think more likely to manage things such that the overall cost of government is less grossly out of line with the total perceived benefits.
That’s precisely what happened yesterday, and it’s a trend that will continue until the federal, state, and local governments are brought to heel.
An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal summarized the situation nicely:
And while Mr. Obama has campaigned on the robust role government can play in people’s lives, a majority of Tuesday’s voters said government was doing too many things.
And this is from political writer George Will’s syndicated column yesterday:
In 2008, Democrats ran as Not George Bush. In 2010, they ran as Democrats. Hence, inescapably, as liberals, or at least as obedient to liberal leaders. Hence Democrats’ difficulties.
Responding to [a complaint by Newsweek’s Jonathan] Alter [that the Democrats’ problem was a failure to market their ideas well], George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux agreed that interest-group liberalism has indeed been leavened by idea-driven liberalism. Which is the problem.
“These ideas,” Boudreaux says, “are almost exclusively about how other people should live their lives. These are ideas about how one group of people (the politically successful) should engineer everyone else’s contracts, social relations, diets, habits and even moral sentiments.” Liberalism’s ideas are “about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas . . . with a relatively paltry set of ‘Big Ideas’ that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced by government, not by the natural give, take and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people.”
This was the serious concern that percolated beneath the normal froth and nonsense of the elections: Is political power—are government commands and controls—superseding and suffocating the creativity of a market society’s spontaneous order? On Tuesday, a rational and alarmed American majority said “yes.”
This election, as these comments indicate, manifested a big disagreement within the nation on authority and personal responsibility.
The progressive vision has been in the ascendancy for the past few years. It holds that authority must be ceded to an elite in order to ensure that the nation is run according to the latest scientific principles and equality of conditions is imposed on the public, because inequality of conditions is generally the result of exploitation.
The classical liberal vision made a comeback on Tuesday. This worldview holds that social, economic, and cultural conditions should be allowed to evolve in an organic manner and order is generated spontaneously (as is natural in human societies, according to this vision).
These two visions of society, as should be evident, are incompatible and are based on fundamental ideas about personal responsibility and authority. As such, the ascendancy of one or the other in a society will have immense consequences, as the political events of the past few years vividly demonstrate.