Progressives’ Doldrums: Public Grows Impatient with Reform

Well, who knew? The Republicans, who for the last year have been exhibiting all the emotional symptoms we normally associate with serious midlife crises (confusion, resentment, Tourette’s-like outbursts at inappropriate times), suddenly seem relevant again. In the only two gubernatorial races of the year in two relatively blue states, New Jersey and Virginia, the GOP candidate is polling either equal to or far ahead of his Democratic opponent. (That the race in New Jersey has narrowed to a dead heat says more about the political missteps of the Republican candidate, Chris Christie, than about any lack of conservative support in the state.)

One reason for this surprising success is that, unlike their friends in Washington, D.C., state Republicans seem to have weaned themselves off self-destruct mode. That is to say, both state GOP candidates have politely refused Sarah Palin’s offers to campaign for them. I’d like to think that they took this stance on principle, but more likely, pure pragmatism won the day. After all is said and done, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are good for folks who want to let off some steam at the end of a long day but not for politicians who want to run successful campaigns. They’re both simply too extremist for moderate America, which, thankfully, is the group that decides elections. Palin herself seems to be headed quietly and inexorably for a slot on Fox News, which will rid the party of a distraction and give Palin a job for which she’s temperamentally well suited. (I guess the diplomatic phraseology is that she’s a “rapid response” politician, but “small-bore” is the more honest description.)For all the tact shown when it comes to ignoring the crazies, though, it’s what the GOP candidates are saying that is winning the day. And what they’re saying is, oddly enough, nothing new. Lower taxes, smaller but more effective government, lower spending; these belong to the traditional province of Republicans. Amazingly, less than a year after a repudiated George W. Bush returned to Texas, these principles seem to be resonating with voters once again. More interestingly, this surprising shift has less to do with voters’ perceptions of Republicans than with their views of Democrats. The Economist, The New York Times, and other major newspapers recently visited New Jersey and Virginia to interview undecided voters leaning Republican, and the message seems universally the same: Taxes are too high, and the government is trying to take over everything.

Is this characterization fair? Not really. Yes, President Obama wants to centralize more control in the government, but so do most Democrats, and this is not an unreasonable perspective given capitalism’s recent returns. Yes, the party wants to fix health care through government legislation, but then health care needs fixing, and badly. The real problem here is less the Democrats’ objectives than their current record of accomplishments. Americans are actually not inherently against bigger government, though they don’t much care for high taxes. What they most strongly dislike is ineffectiveness, an aura that once again seems to be surrounding the Left.

How are the health care reform bills progressing? Well, they’re pared down, moving slowly through Congress and already labeled ineffective in different ways by large segments of the Left and the Right. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans are too busy worrying about their personal finances to pay much attention to politics. When they do tune in, they see that the excesses of Wall Street, which brought on the financial crisis in the first place, remain largely unaddressed. All of which makes the Democrats look like what the Republicans have always accused them of being: interested in expanding government power and promoting pipe dreams like universal health care, and uninterested in or incapable of focusing on effective, practical solutions.

Of course, this portrayal is a bit rich coming from the party of George W. Bush, whose eight years made incompetence and impracticality hallmarks of the federal government. The Obama Administration is in fact erring seriously when it comes to reforming financial institutions, but in other areas it is running into a deeper, more entrenched problem, which is the inherently anti-reformist nature of American politics. We were founded 200 years ago by men concerned with protecting property and guarding against government power, and despite the galloping pace of change between then and now, that focus remains predominant.

Yes, the government has gotten bigger, but as opposed to those in Europe, it is still incredibly decentralized. This means that while Americans do not invariably oppose increased centralization, they do not grant it carte-blanche acceptance, either. Yes, we protect workers more than we did in 1930, but we still don’t have a legitimate political party committed to representing the dispossessed, which leads to less of a focus on social justice than in countries across the Atlantic. All of this makes meaningful, non-incremental reform difficult and puts American progressives in a tough spot. If they don’t try for reforms, then the status quo remains unchanged. But when they do try, changes happen slowly, people get impatient, and the Left looks ineffective.

Whether or not this tendency is good for the country depends on your outlook. But it’s true that, for better or worse, American progressives tread an uncertain path. When they try to change the system their biggest yield is often public frustration, which is part of the reason that the Republican Party has regained support so suddenly and so soon.

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