Penn Jillette once observed that the Republican Party was essentially the “party of fear” and the Democratic Party the “party of hate.” During the Bush era (when he made the remarks) these designations hit the nail on the head. Republicans used the awful specters of Islamic terrorism, the Radical Gay Agenda, abortion and — gasp! — taxes to bully voters into thinking there was only one way they would make it through the next decade with their churches, families, money, or guns safe. Democrats, conversely, used George Bush as a symbol for everything that was wrong with Republicans. He, and by extension the Republican Party, wasn’t just incompetent, he was greedy and racist and ever eager to encroach on our rights — he took from the poor to give to the rich, he turned a cold shoulder to the victims of Katrina, and he routinely disregarded the constraints of the Constitution.
I think the time has come to rebrand the Democratic and Republican Parties for the Obama era as the parties of Impotence and Obscurantism, respectively. It is these behaviors working in tandem with established historical trends — not shifts in the actual political leanings of most voters — that I believe are responsible for the numbers Mr. Yost cites.
For one, it has been well-documented that parties tend to do better in midterms when the opposing party controls the executive branch. The record for most losses in the House goes to Republican Warren Harding, whose party lost 77 seats in 1922, and in the Senate to Truman in 1946 (D) and Eisenhower in 1958 (R), whose parties each lost 12 seats. By comparison, the Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate in 2010. This pattern extends back decades, has only rare, minor exceptions, and can on its own account for a large part of the Democratic loss. For Yost to attribute the midterm results to tectonic shifts in public opinion is a tad premature.
That is not to say that the Democratic losses in the House were not significant — to the contrary, they were the most substantial losses in either party in 70 years. But this has more to do with the parties themselves and not the political opinions most often associated with them. It essentially comes down to semantics. Over the past several years, conservative commentators have managed to turn the word “liberal” into a pejorative; “liberal” is now a subset of political stances that can be dismissed out of hand as too extreme. Using the word “conservative” as an insult simply does not carry the same weight. Conservative is acceptable. Liberal is radical.
The thing is, most Democratic policies coincide quite nicely with American public opinion. For example, so-called “Obamacare” was portrayed by conservatives/Republicans as a socialist, grandmother-euthanizing, government takeover. But when the provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are considered individually and without the “Obamacare” label, public support for them is conclusively positive. People like that health insurance companies can no longer drop you when you get sick or deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, that offspring can stay on a parent’s plan until the age of 26, and that the hole in Medicare Part D has been covered, among other things. (A personal favorite of mine is the provision that establishes a 10-percent tax on indoor tanning services that use ultraviolet lights. Sorry, Snookie.)
Other Democrat-backed proposals that also happen to agree with a majority of Americans include the extension of unemployment benefits, a bill that would have given health care to 9/11 rescue-workers who suffer from complications due to their efforts, an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (but keeping them for everyone else), and the establishment of civil unions. Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to these proposals (the rescue worker bill was killed in July — don’t ask me how the allegedly more patriotic party finagled out of a yea-vote for American heroes) and yet it is the Democrats who are considered out of sync with Americans. The most recent case in point is the vote on extending unemployment benefits. While two million Americans were struggling to survive sans paycheck, as John Kerry put it, Republicans essentially “held hostage” the extension of unemployment insurance until Democrats agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; in the meantime, we struggle with a crushing deficit. It is the Republican demonization of Democratic legislation — and the inability of Democrats to respond effectively — that makes it seem like the Democratic Party is on the wrong side of public opinion.
And despite the resounding Republican victory in the House, Americans are in general less happy about it than in other years. According to Pew Research Center, in 2006, 60 percent of Americans were happy about the Democratic victory while only 24 percent were unhappy; this year, only 48 percent reported being happy about the Republican victory, with 34 percent unhappy. Even more telling is that similar numbers of people disapprove (37 percent) and approve (41 percent) of this Republican Congress’s agenda, a dismal showing compared to the 1994 Republican victory (28 percent and 52 percent) and the 2006 Democratic victory (21 percent and 50 percent). What this means is not that Americans are moving further to the right, but that they are becoming increasingly disappointed in both parties, and have settled for the Republicans this time around. Indeed, a full 76 percent of respondents said they expected continued or worsening partisanship in Washington.
Finally, Yost’s assertion that liberalism is losing relevance as conservatism gains traction is patently absurd when placed in the context of the past couple of decades. It is a well-known fact that self-described liberals compose a smaller portion of the U.S. population than conservatives; this has been true for years. (As I said before, I personally think this is because of the connotations each word carries, i.e. conservatives have linked themselves with “family values” and “fiscal responsibility” despite the fact that their behavior is inconsistent with these platitudes, and liberals have been labeled as “radical” or “socialist,” to name the more mild appellations.)
But according to Gallup, percentages of liberals and conservatives have remained more or less static for the past 18 years, with a few percentage point increase in the portion of liberals. While it is true that percentages of conservatives have increased slightly over the past two years, this fits nicely into a pattern of a slight peak in liberalism and a slight dip in conservatism towards the end of the perhaps traumatizing Bush administration and into Obama’s inauguration. To infer from this that there is significance — indeed, the start of a fundamental demographic shift — to the marginal increases in conservatism is nothing more than statistically irresponsible extrapolation.