Would it have worked? Who knows? But the issues would have been sharpened; the fake issues (“war on women,” “tax breaks for the rich,” etc.) might have been marginalized; and a lot more energy — real political energy, not just energies bent on denying Obama a second term — might have been unleashed.
The countercase, it must be admitted, has something to be said for it. Not the countercase of the culture-wars-averse campaign consultants, but a countercase that would run something like this (and that illustrates another great change, not initiated on election day but confirmed by the results):
Whatever the clumsiness of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark, the hard fact of the matter is that a critical mass of Americans are now so dependent on government (either directly or through public-sector unions) that any appeal to a larger national vision, much less a vision of personal responsibility, is impossible. So try to make the case that a Romney alternative to Obama will fix things without fundamentally altering the relationship between individual citizens (and families) and the post–New Deal, post–Great Society American welfare state.
There is, in hard truth, something here. That half the country was prepared to reelect a manifestly failed president whose personal incapacities, like the incapacities of the bloated governmental bureaucracies over which he presided, were on full display in the weeks before the election, and in venues ranging from North Africa to Staten Island, is a very disturbing “indicator,” as the pollsters like to say. That a goodly proportion of that half of America seemed susceptible to the Obama campaign’s class warfare is also disturbing. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the exit-poll data showing that a healthy majority of the electorate believed Obama more capable than Romney of handling foreign crises: and this, after the lethal fiasco of Benghazi, itself the embodiment of an ideologically driven pusillanimity in foreign policy that has been on display since the president’s apologize-for-America tour at the beginning of his first term. “Missing greatness,” it turns out, is not just a function of who’s in charge. It’s a result of democratic citizens’ not paying attention. Or worse, it’s the result of citizens’ suffering such severe ideological glaucoma that they cannot see what is in front of them.
What has obviously changed, in other words, is American political culture: and it is hard to make a case that that change has been for the better. Shortly after Ohio sealed the deal on Election Night, a friend (who earlier in the evening had said that she was having a hard time recognizing the country she grew up in) sent me an e-mail with a salient Tocqueville quote:
In the United States, the majority rules in the name of the people. This majority is chiefly composed of peaceful citizens who by taste or interest sincerely desire the good of the country. . . . If republican principles are to perish in America, they will succumb only after a long social travail, frequently interrupted, often resumed; they will seem to be reborn several times, and they will disappear without return only when an entirely new people has taken the place of the one that exists in our day.
So let’s spare ourselves the Bertolt Brecht bromide about a displeased government getting itself a new people, which is precisely the opposite of the point here, and ponder the serious question raised by Tocqueville, and put in more contemporary terms by another of my day-after-the-election e-mail correspondents, a former senior White House official:
Is it time 1) to conclude that what began in 1992 has provided 26 years of confirmatory evidence that the American experiment in ordered liberty has given way, decisively and irrevocably, to a crass and stupid commercial (and sexualized) culture, under a technical-administrative state, guided by the view that man is the measure of all things, and 2) to consider a refocusing of political efforts to the local level, which has its own problems of corruption, stupidity, and loss of tradition and virtue, but in some cases may permit of a politics in some measure noble and worthy?
Unwilling to go quite that far into the Slough of Despond, I nonetheless recognize (and commend) the seriousness of the questions posed by these two friends. For while the surface manifestations of national politics (the presidency, control of the houses of Congress) may look “the same” to the less lucid elements of the punditocracy, the question of whether we have become, if not “an entirely new people” (pace Tocqueville’s warning), then a deeply divided people, one large part of which is now wedded to government in ways that gravely erode civic virtue, surely must be part of the post-2012 conversation.
And even if our cultural slide into a cheerful Gomorrah is not, as my second correspondent suggested, “irrevocable,” the effects of the culture of the imperial autonomous (and government-subsidized) Self on our politics must be reckoned with, as Republicans, conservatives, and all those who felt a real emptiness settling upon them at 11 p.m. EST on Tuesday night think through the economic reconstruction, the restoration of fiscal sanity, and the exercise of global responsibility that must be part of a post-Obama America, now unhappily deferred until at least January 2017.
It takes a certain kind of people, living certain indispensable virtues, to make the market and democracy work so that justice, prosperity, and human flourishing are the net results of freedom. That elementary truth — recognized by the Founders, ignored by the newly reelected administration, and avoided by libertarians and Republican campaign consultants — has to be at the center of the conversation about the American future, and about playing good defense during the next four challenging years.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.