Almost anyone who has studied the Declaration of Independence has been told at some point that, in reality, it offers Americans the sober promise of life, liberty, and property rather than the heady but qualified utopianism of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “Pursuit” is a general get-out clause, of course. “Happiness” would have been understood by a gentleman farmer of the late 18th century as meaning a state of life that makes contentment possible, i.e., the secure possession of property. And the most liberal of Whigs would have known that no kind of political regime could guarantee its citizens a psychological state of well-being. No government official can compensate Jack for the fact that Jill loves someone else.
That said, the full committee drafting the Declaration crossed out “property” and inserted “the pursuit of happiness.” At the very least they intended to convey a nuance. And as the age of scarcity recedes into history, the voters seem more and more disposed to agree that the U.S. government should offer more to them than the opportunity to accumulate property and the right to its secure enjoyment.
There are many explanations of why President Obama won the election just completed: His GOTV organization was better; he effectively demonized his opponent by an early negative-campaigning blitz; the ethnic balance of the electorate had shifted in his favor; the white working-class voters who might have compensated for this shift stayed at home; Mitt Romney was ill suited to win their votes; etc., etc. But one factor seems to have been present in most of these explanations — namely, that the Republican party was seen as a cold, aloof, mercenary, and self-interested party with no interest in promoting the happiness of the people, however defined, and that Romney was all too representative of his party. In short: The GOP didn’t care about ordinary Americans. The Democrats fixed on this image, reinforced it, and were able to play on it in relation to every item of political controversy.
The American Enterprise Institute’s polling expert recently cited a very revealing exploitation of this trend from Canadian politics. When Michael Ignatieff, a policy academic much respected by the United Nations and other bodies, returned to Canada to head the Liberal party, his Conservative opponents ran a series of ads lampooning his personal aloofness, his transnational sympathies, and his long absence with the slogan: “He didn’t come back for you.” Ignatieff was the leader of the “caring” party and he had a long and creditable record of support for human rights. But these things did not insulate him. The charge that Ignatieff was a remote, ambitious intellectual with no interest in ordinary Canadians struck home; the Tories won; the Liberals slipped to third place.
In the U.S. election, the Democrats’ exploitation of this same theme had its most surprising impact in relation to contraception and abortion. Considered as single issues, neither made any sense (even when aggravated by occasional clumsy comments on rape from individual candidates). Republican candidates don’t oppose easy access to contraception; the GOP’s maximalist position on abortion is to return it to the states for decision. And though most Americans oppose most abortions, more women than men do so. One opinion expert was thus puzzled to discover that the Democrats’ charge of a war on women, though implausible on its face, had seemingly won over even some conservative women like herself. She concluded tentatively that women thought of it as an expression of concern for them at a time of widespread economic and emotional insecurity.
It is an odd expression of concern, but the election results seem to bear out this view. Married women (who presumably enjoy more of both sorts of security than their unmarried sisters) voted heavily for the GOP. Single women, with or without children, went strongly Democratic. But they outnumbered their married sisters; and, in this election, women voters as a whole outnumbered their male counterparts by a substantial 54 to 46 percent. If family breakdown and marital instability continue to rise, therefore, both political parties will be faced with a large and growing constituency of voters who look to government not only for support but even for signs of concern. What goes for single women is equally true for other blocs of voters, such as the elderly retired who are dependent on government. And at least some other electoral blocs, not directly wanting state aid, nonetheless judge political parties by the degree to which they show such concern for others.