On the night he was elected president in 1980, Ronald Reagan stood on a stage in Los Angeles with his wife Nancy beside him and said that winning the presidency was “the most humbling moment in my life.”
Now there’s a contrast. Judging from his “our failure was we talked too fast for the people to comprehend” message in Wednesday’s press conference and Sunday’s 60 Minutes interview, it’s a fair bet that no election ever left President Obama feeling that way.
But humbling or not, last week’s ballot produced a stunning Republican victory, overall the fourth biggest midterm win since 1900, according to scholars at the American Enterprise Institute speaking at an election recap forum on Thursday. It has also given us a divided government, with the House Republican, the White House Democrat, and the Senate effectively neither.
At that AEI conference, election scholar Henry Olson was asked if he ascribed any significance to the global enthusiasm for divided government. Britain has it, as do Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and Canada. Yes, he said. As working classes have become more affluent and welfare states closer to financial exhaustion, we have seen a rising desire to rein in but not eliminate social welfare spending. Seeking reform that’s not too hot and not too cold, Goldilocks electorates have given country after country divided government.
The development has been a long time coming. In 2000, in a Wilson Quarterly article, Seymour Martin Lipset, among the most eminent American political scientists of his day, wrote about the move of one socialist party after another, from Britain to Sweden and Denmark, to Spain, Germany and Italy, away from the hard left towards something, as he put it, “far more like the Democrats and Republicans, instead of socialists and capitalists.”
Lipset argued that, “Many political analysts here and abroad still do not fully appreciate the extent to which the left’s new course, its centrist Third Way, is the product of common developments throughout the economically advanced democracies rather than of events or leaders peculiar to each country.”
These changes included the decline of national working classes and the increase in middle class numbers, the availability of advanced education, the growing economic productivity that has diminished lifestyle differences among Europe’s classes, the decline of unionism, the rise of the knowledge and service industries, the new ease of global communications and travel, and the rising appeal to young people of self-employment and entrepreneurship, which is in part a result of all these other developments.
Olson’s assessment is Lipset’s adjusted for the developments of the past decade. Still, in the United States, at least, something else is going on, too.
All great movements in American politics have been responses to the shifting place of the U.S. in the global economy. I’m thinking of the epochal movements that brought to power the McKinley Republicans in the 1890s, the Roosevelt Democrats in the 1930s, and the Reagan Republicans in the 1980s. All shaped our politics for the decades that followed.
After the Civil War, the great need of our industrializing economy was to draw investment capital, primarily from Europe. The GOP coalition that formed then and reformed with McKinley was dedicated to that end. Then came World War I.
All of a sudden Europe was the one that needed investment capital. It took a decade for our politics to start to adjust, as happened with Franklin Roosevelt’s election, and in more effective ways after World War II during the Truman and Eisenhower years. The economic policies that the new politics inaugurated sharply favored consumption over investment. For war-devastated economies desperately needing to reflate, they combined to absorb global goods while pushing out capital, restoring global and, in particular after World War II, European and Japanese liquidity. And for that reason, a reason largely unappreciated among policy makers then and now, they worked for the U.S. economy, too. Real incomes rose; real personal wealth, broadly shared, increased.
But with the late 60s, the job was done. Europe and Japan had recovered. U.S. policies that had worked stopped working. The growth and rising incomes of the 50s and 60s were replaced by the stagflation and falling incomes of the 70s. The U.S. needed both to attract capital and create more capital at home.
The Reagan election brought in economic policies responsive to that need, which continues to this day. The ideologically driven Obama administration has tried to turn back the clock to the now utterly inappropriate policies of the 1930s, a devastating disconnect with reality. In the Washington Post this Sunday, an outgoing Democratic governor put this disconnect in the personal and gut gripping way most of us experience it. Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen told the Post, “There doesn’t seem to be anybody in the White House who’s got an idea what it’s like to lie awake at night worried about money and worried about things slipping away.” (see: http://tiny.cc/66i2x)
The nation has an urgent need to align its economic policies to the world as it is. The election has moved us in that direction. As has occurred so often throughout our history, the wisdom of the American people is greater than that of our leaders — which should be enough to leave any leader humble.