No Left Turns

Der Spiegel has an interesting op-ed that argues that the Democrats need to turn towards the right to win in 2008. It contains a rather interesting argument:

This is why voters aren’t just interested in their own tax bracket but also in the tax brackets of those richer than them. This is why higher estate taxes are so unpopular not because they actually affect the voter, but because they could affect the voter. The voter doesn’t want to see the person he aspires to be punished or treated poorly. What it comes down to is that most voters live their lives on the left side of the political spectrum, while their dreams lie to the right of their reality.

In short, elections are not won at the center, as is so often claimed, but slightly to the right of center. In Germany, the conservatives have won 10 of the 16 parliamentary elections in the country’s postwar history. In the United States, the Republicans have won seven of the last 10 presidential elections. In the US, the Republicans are simply better at promising a brighter future, as former President Ronald Reagan showed with his simplest of pledges: “It’s morning in America.”

Now, there’s a wide gulf between postwar German conservatives and American conservatives, but the point still stands. The Democrats’ rhetoric is all about how terrible America is: we’re in a financial crisis, the war in Iraq can’t be won, government is incompetent, the aliens are coming, etc. Of course, the only real solution to all those problems just happens to be to elect Democrats.

On the other hand, the conservative message has always boiled down to those who work hard can find success and government shouldn’t stand in their way. Reagan’s “Morning in America” optimism was exactly what the country needed after years of “Whip Inflation Now” buttons and “malaise.”

Is it true that most Americans want to be rich? You’d better believe it. Does that effect their voting habits? I’d be strongly inclined to believe that too. Prominent “progressives” like Thomas Frank keep wondering why people who aren’t “rich” by any stretch of the imagination keep voting Republican. (Which is the question he asked in his book What’s The Matter With Kansas?) Part of that is because the appeal of the Republican Party is not about an appeal to the upper classes, but part of it is because there’s a stronger correlation between Republican voting habits and the entrepreneurial spirit than between voting GOP and class.

People who think that they’re in control of their lives tend to vote Republican. It’s not hard to see why: if you believe that you’re in control of your own life you’re less likely to see government as a savior for your problems. As the article points out, the appeal of Fabian socialism wrapped in “social democracy” is petering out across the globe:

Despite producing respectable candidates like Edwards or Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate in the last French election, left-leaning social democrats hold power hardly anywhere in the world. Voters listen to them, nod their heads in agreement, but they don’t vote for them. The analysis of “Two Americas” Edwards presented in the 2004 presidential election was brilliant, but it was ineffective.

Why? People already know about the cramped conditions of their own lives. What they want to know is how to expand those conditions and improve their circumstances. Recognizing this need, Schröder reduced unemployment benefits and made the rigid German labor market more flexible. Instead of doubling welfare benefits, Blair redoubled the government’s efforts to do away with welfare. And instead of handing out subsidies, Clinton produced a budget surplus. Even former President John F. Kennedy, a man idolized by many today, was hardly a leftist. His take on the issue of economic equality was clear: “Life is unfair.”

There’s a message here for the Republicans: don’t get mired in gloom. Reagan’s optimism worked because it wasn’t forced. The American people still have the same pioneer spirit that founded this country. It’s why we’re the world’s most vibrant economy, why we have more Nobel Prize winners than any other country, and why we won the Space Race and the Cold War. The candidate who will win in 2008 will be able to tap into that.

Der Spiegel has it right—leftism doesn’t play well in this country and never has. Economic populism has not elected a President in post-war America, mainly because that sort of economic populism conflicts with the can-do spirit of this country. Across the globe, the old appeals are failing as post-modern economies discover that the old theories of social democracy and a government-backed social safety net are illusions. When the French elect a President that is to the right of many in the Democratic field it says something about just how retrograde a course the Democrats are taking.

America has always been an optimistic country, and while our politics are mired in pessimism, the successful candidate in 2008 will the candidate who paints the best picture not of what’s wrong with American, but what’s right.

One thought on “No Left Turns

  1. It’s an interesting argument, oft cited by David Brooks, that has some basis in reality….in flush times at least. For the most part though, I think average Americans are simply ambivalent to tax cuts for the rich as long as they don’t feel unfairly put upon themselves. Right now, in an era of soaring health care costs, soaring energy costs, disappearing pensions, and plunging home values, the concern of having to pay higher taxes “once they become rich” moves way down the line on the list of fears and fewer people feel “in control of their lives”, a metaphor you correctly apply to those who fancy themselves bigshot enough to support the Republican Party. And when rich people in suits write newspaper editorials ridiculing the public for not recognizing how great the current economy looks like on statistical graphs, it only makes them more likely to believe the nation’s on the wrong track, as every poll currently indicates.

    “Der Spiegel has it right—leftism doesn’t play well in this country and never has.”

    Actually, “leftism” has played very well in this country ever since political participation has expanded beyond white, male landowners. From Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era to FDR’s New Deal to LBJ’s Great Society….and even to George W. Bush’s Medicare Part D….American voters expect a cradling government, but unlike our grown-up peers across the Atlantic, we don’t think we should have to pay for it. That’s unlikely to ever change in this country, but more often than not, the culture will place a higher premium on expanding government’s helping hand than it does on cutting taxes.

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