Liberal Victory? Count Again

by Amitai Etzioni Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction 06.12.2012

Liberals are making victory laps and scoffing at the GOP, which is having great difficulties drawing lessons from the 2012 election debacle. However, liberals also have much to learn from the election. They will need to find other groups to collaborate with if they hope to get President Obama -- and, above all, Congress -- to advance many programs dear to their heart.

Liberals are celebrating. Molly Ball at The Atlantic characterized the results as, "a ringing victory for liberals across the board." Ari Melber at The Nation called it, "the most decisive mandate for an assertive, progressive governing model in well over a generation." The top story at The Huffington Post read, "Welcome to Liberal America." Across the pond, Michael Cohen argues in the Guardian that while the election was generally good for Democrats, "for liberals, the victory is even sweeter, because not only is their party getting more progressive, but so, too, it seems, is the nation."

The morning after such partying, liberals should note that (a) President Obama won the popular vote with 51 percent, not a huge margin; (b) Only 25 percent of the voters, according to exit polls, define themselves as liberals; (c) While most Republicans are conservatives; not all Democrats are liberals by a long shot. The 2012 exit polls show that only 46 percent of Democrats self-identify as liberals; (c) For decades, for every American who considered themselves a liberal there were two who identified as a conservative. (Since the 1980s, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as conservative has fluctuated between 35 percent and 40 percent, while the percentage identifying as liberals has hovered around a mere 20 percent); (d) Hence, even when the Democrats had a majority in the House, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and Obama in the White House, they had a hard time passing a liberal agenda, because some conservative Democrats voted with the GOP, or the lobbyists of Wall Street and big business got to them. Expect the same in the new Congress; (e) The discussion these days is all about the deficit -- not about job creation and getting the economy growing at a more sustainable pace; (f) True, the country is becoming more tolerant on cultural issues, such as gay marriage, however, not so on socioeconomic issues.

Liberals must be specifically concerned that raising taxes on the super rich (a bit) will be considered a great liberal victory. However, if at the same time the Democrats will agree to major additional cuts in social spending, little cuts in the defense budget (if any), and cutting into the social safety network, this will be a rather Pyrrhic victory.

If liberals are to carry the day, they will need to (a) continue to mobilize their troops, rather than assume that because "liberalism won," Obama will follow even a semi-liberal course; (b) Find other groups to work with, although it will be a challenge to determine who these groups will be. I believe that the most promising demographic here is, oddly, senior citizens, especially the AARP, because the interests of this group are most threatened by the GOPs attack on social safety networks. Also, seniors as a group vote more than others, and donate and volunteer at much higher rates than others. Furthermore, this age group was quite anti-Obama in the past, and as such there is a lot of ground to be gained here.

Liberals may search for allies elsewhere, but without a new coalition, liberals are going to be much disappointed, although they may well continue to make some progress on the state level on cultural issues and above all -- on the national level -- on immigration issues. It is much too early to do victory laps, given the president's natural tendencies to compromise in his dealings with an adamant conservative majority.

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