A Referendum on Nothing

Yesterday saw two Republicans win governorships in key states. The first was Virginia, a historically conservative state that has trended purple lately and elected several consecutive liberal governors. The second was New Jersey, a historically liberal state that just plain don’t elect Republicans.

What does this mean? While some conservative analysis, such as National Review, has been sophisticated and cautious, some has been just as wild as liberal analysis was in 2006. Back then, we were told that liberal gains in Congress represented a referendum, not merely on George W. Bush, but on conservatism writ large. And today, a writer from The Heritage Foundation trumpeted this uncharacteristically partisan message:

Last night, elections were held in several states across the nation, and by most independent observations, the results served as a warning to liberals. Whether it was Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey or even in typical liberal bastions like Westchester County, New York, the post-analysis was framed on what does this mean on Capitol Hill, and more importantly, what does this mean for the conservative movement. However, last night did not represent a new day for conservatives. On Monday, the same could have been said: the state of conservatism is strong.

The state of conservatism can be measured through its popularity, its policies and its people. Most observers would say Election Day 2008 was not a good day for conservatives. However, putting election results aside, President Obama campaigned as a centrist. Obama promised to address jobs, the economy, our national security and even hold teachers accountable for our children’s education. Obama promised that most of America would receive a tax cut. He promised to win a “necessary” war in Afghanistan. These are conservative principles.

At this point, some readers (well-versed in conservative political thought) are already cringing at the use of the term “conservative movement.”  That, indeed, would be the obvious thing with which to quibble.  Conservatism is not, nor has it ever been, a “movement;” it is rather a temperament, a way of viewing the world that focuses on the rooted and the stable, not on systemic change.

But there is, I think, a larger point to be made here.  Jobs, national security, education, tax cuts, and “necessary” wars are not conservative principles—though some are points of emphasis in the 2009 Republican Party.  Some conservatives today are overly quick to define “conservatism” as “whatever Ronald Reagan did” (hence, for example, tax cuts).  But this attitude is not the fault of a few misguided people who call themselves conservatives.

Rather, it is a symptom of the short-termism that has increasingly pervaded post-Enlightenment politics (and particularly post-Progressivist politics).  The irony of the smug Enlightened crusaders, from Marat in 1789 to Obama in 2008, is that their messianic view of their own importance caused them to view political needs through the lens of the moment.  The past was either a rejected history of misery and oppression or, at best, an irrelevant relic of the pre-messianic era.  Political predictions were, therefore, to be made based on the present reality; a political “dynasty” was three successive presidential terms rather than many generations.

In such a paradigm, we are virtually forced to treat single elections as indicators of broad social shifts, because the definition of “broad social shift” is…well, roughly the time between two elections.  We act (for example) as though technocracy has always been and will always be the norm, though its continuity in America has spanned fewer than 100 years.  We make our political decisions based on an assumption that the foundations for our action will be there 10, 20, 200 years from now—a paradoxically conservative assumption for messiahs who promise to revolutionize those foundations by their actions.

“Conservative” analysis today has simply done what it has been taught—treat a single election span as a revolution of political foundations, and a single election as a referendum on an entire political philosophy.  Today’s election may have been a referendum on phenomenally bad governing, but public opinion—let alone long-term success or failure—of Progressivism is a long way from settled.

1 Comment

  • November 13, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    The nails in the coffin on “referendum” rhetoric:
    Virginia voter turnout was its lowest for a gubernatorial election in 40 years, and its under-30 vote total was half of what it was in 2008.
    New Jersey was below 40% turnout, I think.