The Election, Ideology, and the Public Interest

The irony of the Obama presidency is that in less than two years it has caused a minor political transformation. This transformation will draw, for a significant number, an ideological line in the sand, a demarcation between a presidency that is moving farther to the left and a Congress that will begin to move farther to the right.

Wall Street has been climbing upward on the cynicism of anticipated political gridlock. While some assume that nearly anything government does is detrimental to the well-being of the nation, others assume government is the best solution to the nation’s problems. The reality is that both these views are overly simplistic.

The essence of politics, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, is compromise and conciliation. The Obama administration set a standard for ideological exclusion and purity, and in turn created its mirror image in the current electoral outcome. Even gubernatorial races are being interpreted as referenda on the Obama presidency.

Lost in this is that government performs vital and necessary functions, and there are limits to what either government or free markets alone can accomplish. Imagine Wall Street without regulation, or rust belt industry without environmental controls.  Left to market forces, environmental damage would be devastating, perhaps irreversible. Yet overregulation and too much intrusion in the economy cause the kind of crony capitalism and wealth transfer that is the hallmark of this administration and has damaged the economic recovery.

Americans primarily are neither liberals nor conservatives; they are best defined as pragmatic moderates. Political economist Anthony Downs described the American electorate through the spatial image of a bell-shaped curve along an amorphous left-right ideological dimension. The centrist ideological distribution of the American electorate provided for stable, moderate government that avoided the ideological and dysfunctional political upheavals of European politics grounded in conflicting ideologies.

The political right has always argued that there is a large group of conservatives, a second mode, in the otherwise normal curve, sitting at the right end of this somewhat amorphous ideological continuum that stayed home because the differences between the candidates were insignificant. The conservative ideal has been to mobilize these conservatives into the electorate by running candidates that strongly represented their ideological point of view.

In 1964, the nomination of Barry Goldwater was the fulfillment of the conservative dream and a test of the bimodal variation of Downs’ single-mode political curve. And the theory was rejected just as Goldwater was.