Many Republicans are excited about the midterm elections. They see a good chance of taking over the Senate, which means they can neutralize Obama’s last few years in office. Many also are hopeful about the presidential election in 2016, though Hillary Clinton will enter that race with decided advantages. Regaining the presidency, some believe, will lead to a reprise of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, in which the country was turned from its leftward drift under Jimmy Carter.
Yet even if this scenario unfolds as the Republicans hope, it is doubtful the deeper structural problems of the country will be solved. The entitlement Leviathan, nourished under governments dominated by both parties, is unlikely to be reformed as significantly as it must in order to ward off looming fiscal catastrophe. Too many Republican politicians are enablers of government spending, voting to keep funding handouts like the $20 billion a year in agricultural subsidies. Others are plotting “comprehensive immigration reform,” aka amnesty, to ensure a steady supply of cheap labor. Too many have seemingly accepted the disastrous cuts in military spending that put at risk our ability to defend our interests and security.
Then there are the nearly 66 million American people who reelected as president an inexperienced narcissist, serial liar, racial divider, and manifest failure. Whether they did so out of juvenile idealism, hope for racial reconciliation, or the lure of more government handouts doesn’t really matter. This lack of judgment and basic information, or sacrifice of principle to self-interest, bespeaks an electorate significant numbers of whom are unlikely to support any politician or party that seriously attempts to halt runaway entitlement spending, debt, and deficits, or to rebuild our military deterrence and reassert our will globally.
Yet despite these obstacles, the political order created in 1787, assaulted as it has been over the last 100 years, still possesses resources for putting us back on the right track. If we fail to take advantage of those resources and modern information technologies, we will have no one blame but our fellow citizens or ourselves for our country’s decline.
First and foremost, we still hold elections every 2 years, and elections have consequences. We can remain mystified that 66 million voters chose Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012, but think how much worse it could have been without the 2010 midterm “shellacking,” as Obama called, that gave the House of Representatives to the Republicans. We can disagree over what the Republican House should or shouldn’t have done with their power, but they at least slowed down the slow-motion train-wreck of the Democrats’ progressive policies.
Regular fair and transparent elections mean that changing course is always possible. It may be that things will have to get much worse than they are now to wake up those 4 million Republicans who stayed home in 2012, or those 5 million voters who gave Obama the victory. And there’s a chance that the pain of correction will be much more severe, much more socially disruptive than anything we’ve seen in many years. But we still will have the legal right to change course when that moment comes.
Second, despite decades of assault on federalism, sovereign state governments still exist. They still remain what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1932 called a “laboratory” in which citizens can “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” In recent years states have gone their own way on issues like gun control, voter identification laws, same-sex marriage, right-to-work laws, reduction of public employee unions’ political power, limits on abortion, or legalization of marijuana. Particularly important are the states’ right to set tax laws and business-friendly regulations that lure investment and people.
A comparison of California with Texas illustrates this phenomenon. As Forbes reported last year on the country’s two most populous states, “California’s state and local tax burden ranks as America’s 4th-highest compared to Texas at 45th. California taxes a 42 percent larger share of state income than does Texas, California’s restrictive energy policies discourage oil extraction, even though it has the largest proven shale oil reserves in the nation; while its industrial electrical rates are 88 percent higher than in Texas.” As a result, in 2011 Texas’ per capita GDP surpassed California’s. No surprise, then, that between 2000 and 2012, Texas’ population growth rate doubled California’s, and that 183 Californians moved to Texas for every 100 Texans moving to California.
Increasing red-state success in growing their economies and liberating people from the intrusive Leviathan state will attract more and more people, even as the bankrupt blue-state policies of ruinous tax rates and over-regulation will drive more and more people away. We could then see a return to the Founders’ idea of federalism as “islands of intolerance in a sea of tolerance,” with people free to feet-vote for the political and social order they find congenial.
Third, American civil society––those 1.5 million associations and organizations separate from government––is still vigorous, though not as much as it was at its peak in 1970. People still belong to groups like the PTA and the Rotary Club, and still attend more than 350,000 churches. The pushback by churches and religious organizations against Obamacare’s requirement that they offer abortifacients and birth control in their health plans illustrates the impact civil society can have on public policy. More significant is the rise of the Tea Party, a truly grassroots movement that quickly organized in 2009, and by the summer its members were confronting politicians at “town-hall” events, a display of direct political accountability to the people more typical of early America or ancient Athens. There is no question that the Republicans’ victory in the 2010 midterm was made possible by Tea Party activists.
Finally, new communication technologies have broken the monopoly liberals once held over information and commentary. Before the rise of talk-radio in the 80s, political opinion was controlled by a few score network news anchors, magazine editors, and syndicated columnists. Today there are hundred of thousands of voices and opinions on cable news networks like Fox News, blogs, on-line magazines like FrontPage, websites, social networks like Facebook, and video sites like YouTube. It’s clear that the persistence of Fox News in reporting the Benghazi debacle and the IRS scandal have kept these administration failures alive in the public square.
Of course some of these sites are frequently venues for misinformation, propaganda, and transient trivia. But they also provide ordinary citizens with a democratic virtual town square in which lies are exposed, truths hidden by the establishment media revealed, and opinions aired to raucous challenge and debate. Don’t forget, the Tea Party could become a national organization nearly overnight because of a YouTube video and the Drudge Report. Still protected by the First Amendment, this virtual town square gives everyone the opportunity to exercise their right to free speech, and to mobilize resistance to the political status quo.
The resources, then, are there, and they more than any one election give us hope. We just have to make use of them. It is still in doubt whether the 2 terms of Barack Obama have represented a permanent change in the American political character, a shift much farther to the left than this country has ever experienced; or whether the unique circumstances of electing the first black president will be a one-off, and the nation will return to its traditional center-right character, and restore our fiscal sanity and our global leadership. Whatever the outcome, it will be the responsibility of the people to use resources of the Constitution to get our country back on track.
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