Back in the heady days of the early naughties, Karl Rove's (allegedly genius) electoral strategy was said to be to divide the electorate in such a way that his side would always take the bigger chunk.
What if — despite their robust alternative media — conservatives are now cutting themselves a smaller and smaller chunk all the time? What if they're creating for themselves a sort of counterculture, opposed to and outside of mainstream culture? What if the majority culture is trending left — not just with the 2006-09 Zeitgeist, but for demographic, structural, more intractable reasons?
It's an idea. I'm not even sure I believe it. But I wonder if the current cultural/ideological cleavages leave open for the Democrats the photo-negative of a Nixonian, “silent majority” strategy. Nixon won a divisive race in 1972 in a massive landslide — at least partly by standing against the social unrest of the era. In Rick Perlstein's words, ““the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational chaos … eight years later, pulled the level for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”
Can the Democrats take advantage of a similar dynamic?
Let's start with race: Plainly, the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama have proven a crisis moment for white racists — who are not rare, even in electoral terms. Racism is, of course, the basis for the birth certificate attacks — the assumption being that no one named “Barack Obama” could really be a real American. That tribal instinct — unfortunately a hard-wired part of human nature — plainly provides some of the fuel to the health care opposition. It's not usually stated so obviously, but here's an example:
Mr. RICHIE DRAKE: The health care plan he's got, Obama, is going to hurt people in the long run. Minorities are going to get more attention than the whites and stuff like that. That's the way I take it from what the news was talking about.
Is this where mainstream political culture is? Yes and no. Amazingly, a nationwide plurality of Republicans believe Obama's not a citizen. Even so … it's not a majority opinion: Thankfully, 77% of public believes he is.
As Ruy Teixeira and John Judis forecast in 2002's The Emerging Democratic Majority”, the country is demographically shifting towards traditionally more left-voting groups. With almost perfect historical timing, the GOP decided to cut off its finger, electorally speaking, and endorsed Tom Tancredo's immigrant-bashing, xenophobic agenda — losing Hispanics and other minorities for the moment, and possibly longer.
Meanwhile younger voters have swung to the left: Obama won a stunning 66%-31% victory among voters under the age of 30. It tends to be the case that people develop their voting habits at this age, and keep them for life. The George W. Bush era of plutocracy and war-by-choice seems to have hatched a generation of quacking young Democrats.
In the short term, I cannot forecast how the townhall screamers will have affected support of health care in the general public or Congress. But let's be clear that the vast majority of Americans support something called “health care reform” I'm quite confident that such tactics will not result in higher approval for conservative ideas — whatever those may be. The protestors are not offering a palatable alternative to the Democrats' basic blueprint for health care reform. Polls indicate diminished support for Congress, and somewhat diminished support for “health care reform” — but hardly a bump for Republicans.
The point is this: There's a new “mainstream America.” And it's not what the right-wing imagines it is, anymore. Mainstream America is fast becoming non-white. It is becoming less Christian. It is becoming less homophobic. Even Merle Haggard — the anti-hippie “Okie from Muskogee” of 1969 — penned a song for Obama's inauguration.
And so the extreme cleavages in our politics, hawked by Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and their ilk, threaten mostly to isolate their very followers from the political mainstream. This sense of isolation and grievance is enormously profitable for those individuals, no doubt — last year Beck was bumbling along on a low-rated CNN show. They also plainly exert a lot of influence on a considerable chunk of the electorate: Not a majority, maybe not even a majority of the minority, but enough to make itself heard. Charles Grassley heard them. Mike Huckabee heard them. But Arlen Specter also heard them — and changed parties.
Therefore Beck and Palin might also provide easy foils for aggressive politicians of the center and left — if the mainstream, now inhabited mostly by Democrats, bothers to seal them out. Such politicians could easily ask the public: Can you believe this rot? Is this what you want your country to be?
If Obama, or the Democrats in general decide to become culturally aggressive, one wonders if the Republicans might end up hemorrhaging even more of their own voters.