My friend Bruce Wolpe has a blog at the Sydney Morning Herald on the 2008 election (in which, of course, Australians are intensely interested). Back in March of this year Bruce and I agreed that the single most striking thing about the Democratic primaries was the huge increase in Democratic participation. It appeared to us that if, somehow, the Democrats could retain that edge in voter turnout, they could win the election in November. This has happened.
This is significant because in recent elections, the ability of the Republicans to turn out their vaunted “base” seems to have done the job for them. It is also important because spikes in voter turnout are associated with re-aligning elections-those that shift the centers of party power for long periods.
A huge challenge to the Democrats’ turnout strategy was the Red Shift. The Reagan Revolution didn’t make for smaller government, or lower deficits, or better values. But it did produce the Red Shift. This is a shift in language that changed voters’ perceptions of the political landscape in favor of conservative themes. Markets (always called “free markets”) are good. Unions are bad. Government is the problem. Tax cuts for the wealthy spur investment and create jobs. And a hundred other “memes” vocalized by Republican politicians who relentlessly stayed “on message” and echoed over and over by the right-wing talk radio empire. The result was a true shift in political discourse to the right. People who advocated well-paying jobs, or decent health care, or environmental protection were part of the “loony left.”
The Red Shift gave the Republicans a huge advantage because the conservative vocabulary was now implanted in the heads of millions of Americans. Changing that would be very hard-as Al Gore and John Kerry found out in 2000 and 2004.
Obama has a chance to begin a shift back. He has begun to create a new political language: positive, forward looking, softly communitarian. The audacity of hope. Change we can believe in. And the McCain forces seem gobsmacked that their Red Shift language isn’t working well as it once did. So they’ve resorted to charges of “socialism” using Republican themes from fifty years ago. That disconnect is an important clue that something really big is in the air.
But it’s turnout that creates the basic change-electoral change-that makes the more lasting and subtle changes in language, and political conception, and new policies possible. It began last March and seems never to have stopped.
As Bruce Wolpe wrote on October 28: “We have also not seen – and it is not reflected in the polls – the vote-generating machinery that is the Obama grassroots campaign. By every indication, it is the most thorough exercise in overwhelming force devised for a presidential election and its true power will be evident only on election day.”
It is exciting-and unnerving-to be a witness to, and even a small part of, a big change.