Three elections in the last week have challenged long-held liberal premises about how elections are fought and what the public wants. It’s worth examining those results in such widely separated places as Australia, Norway, and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
In Colorado, liberals are already in denial about the fact that two Democratic state senators were recalled from office in districts Barack Obama carried by some 20 percentage points only ten months ago. The recalls were organized by citizens upset with the lawmakers’ votes in favor of a gun-control measure. The two senators also helped pass bills perceived as being against the interests of rural areas and helped push through a fraud-prone election law that shifted the Centennial State to all-mail voting.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee’s chairwoman, said the results simply reflected “voter suppression, pure and simple.” Matt Vespa of Red State scoffed at her flimsy explanation: More Democrats and independents signed the two recall petitions than did Republicans, he noted, which “only further discredits DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s insane claim that her side lost due to voter suppression.”
Liberals are also claiming that the black arts of the National Rifle Association skewed the results. But the gun-rights group came very late to support the recalls, and the Denver Post reports that pro-gun-control groups spent some $3 million versus only $540,000 by recall supporters.
Grover Norquist, a board member of the National Rifle Association, claims once again that liberals mistook “position for passion” on an issue. In the wake of the Newtown massacre of last December, the Left believed public opinion had finally turned in favor of gun control; in support of this view, they cited surveys showing overwhelming support for background checks and limits on ammunition magazines. As Michael Tomasky of the Daily Beast wrote, “You cannot oppose the will of 90 percent of the public and expect no consequences.”
But in terms of intensity, the advantage goes to those who oppose restrictions on gun rights and believe that even the most modest of them will only embolden those who ultimately aim to restrict access to guns even further.
As Norquist explains it: “The polls showed many people wanted some new gun-control laws at the same time they told pollsters they didn’t think they would prevent future Newtowns. Understandable outrage at murders accompanied by an acknowledgement it won’t make things better doesn’t make a passionate voter. Gun-rights supporters are always passionate, which is why more laws expanding gun rights have passed since Newtown than laws restricting them.”
What should worry Democrats is that the two Colorado districts that recalled their senators last Tuesday represent the two sides of their electoral coalition. The district in downtown Colorado Springs was urban, trendy, and filled with upper-income social liberals; it voted 59 percent to 38 percent for Obama. The other district in nearby Pueblo and its suburbs was Hispanic, moderate-to-lower income, blue-collar, and more culturally conservative; it voted 58 percent to 39 percent for Obama.
“The recall in Pueblo was started by two plumbers and an electrician,” notes Jon Caldara, head of the pro-recall Independence Institute. “Hispanics and blue-collar voters resented interference in what they regarded as their local rights.” And as for the NRA, the Democratic survey firm Public Policy Polling found voters in Pueblo had a positive view of the group.
If the Colorado results showed the limits of liberal paternalism’s appeal, voters in prosperous Australia and Norway rebelled against liberal governments they perceived as incompetent and too focused on peripheral issues.
In Australia, conservative leader Tony Abbott made opposition to the Labor government’s carbon tax the signature issue of his campaign. Polls showed that the public expressed general concern about global warming, but Abbott knew the polls also showed voters didn’t believe a carbon tax could do much about the climate and would probably serve as an excuse to extract more money from taxpayers. “Labor forgot about the basics of how to practice competent economic policy and went off on wild tangents to appeal to its special-interest backers,” Tim Andrews of the Australian Taxpayers Alliance told me.
In Norway, after the 2011 massacre of dozens of teenagers by a white-separatist madman, the ruling Labor government was convinced that their conservative opposition would be discredited and that they could retain power in an economic climate where growth fueled by the nation’s abundant oil reserves was averaging over 3 percent a year.
But an independent investigation of how the killer was able to evade capture for hours pointed out incredible bureaucratic incompetence in the national police bureaucracy, and even called into question rules banning almost all policemen from carrying guns. In addition, the leaders of the Conservative party and the libertarian Progress party succeeded in persuading voters that high taxes and suffocating regulations were preventing Norwegians from creating non-oil entrepreneurial ventures that employed people. “As rich and generous as Norwegians are, they want their children to inherit a real economy, and they demand better accountability from their government for the taxes they pay,” Jan Arild Snoen, a Norwegian political analyst, told me last August when a National Review cruise visited Norway.
Michael Barone, the co-author of The Almanac of American Politics and an analyst of international elections, tells me that many people driven by ideology often feel elections should revolve around their concerns and reflect their priorities. “That can happen on the left or on the right,” he says. “But liberals are especially prone to not recognizing the public does care if their policies actually work in practice and are in sync with their everyday concerns.”
In all three elections held in the last week — from Australia to Norway to Colorado — liberals forgot that their priorities aren’t often those of the average voter. In each case, they were punished for it.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.