If the 2014 elections will be remembered for anything, it will be that they reflected the electorate’s concerns about basic economic security. While it’s historically true that the sitting president’s party suffers losses in the midterms, the “shellacking” isn’t usually quite as extensive as this year’s was.
There’s nothing like economic instability to motivate voters. And there’s nothing like a brutal loss to force partisans into searching explanations that satisfy their worldview.
One of the most interesting narratives in development on the left as they deal with this historic defeat can be summarized as follows: Republicans found victory by focusing on the concerns of liberals and utilizing our rhetoric, therefore progressive ideology is on the rise. Take William Saletan, writing at Slate:
[Republicans] captured the Senate and gained seats in the House. But they didn’t do it by running to the right. They did it, to a surprising extent, by embracing ideas and standards that came from the left. I’m not talking about gay marriage, on which Republicans have caved, or birth control, on which they’ve made over-the-counter access a national talking point. I’m talking about the core of the liberal agenda: economic equality.
Saletan then goes on to chronicle how many Republicans effectively spoke about issues like poverty and income inequality in our nation’s poor economy. His conclusion however, would strike most people outside of the liberal echo chamber as odd. He figures that because conservatives are addressing the concerns of liberals, as if these concepts are foreign to non-progressives, they must also be embracing left-wing policy solutions.
This line of thinking is backwards. In reality, conservatives, liberals, and libertarians alike are largely concerned about the same issues. This is especially true as it pertains to the economy, consistently a top concern of voters. We all want a strong middle class, don’t like seeing wealth concentrated at the top while our own wages stagnate, worry about our family’s financial stability, care about those less privileged than us, and hope to see local small businesses flourish.
The simple fact is nobody is pro-poverty. Despite the fearmongering endemic to election season, people don’t go to the polls harboring a nefarious desire to bankrupt their neighbors. The overtures of attack ads aside, average voters aren’t loyal to secret cabals of elite powerbrokers bent on economic domination. The truth is, Americans are simply divided in our visions for how to best achieve goals that we all hold in common.
Stepping outside of our ideological bubbles and approaching each other in good faith is a crucial first step toward changing policy in the wake of a contentious election. If liberals can’t accept that the average conservative isn’t hoping to rob the poor on behalf of multinational corporations, and conservatives can’t see that most liberals are truly concerned about the well-being of the underprivileged, the nation will remain dangerously divided.
Many conservative candidates this cycle effectively proved to voters (including an increasingly higher share of young people) that bleeding hearts can and should embrace free markets. That policies promoting the freedom to thrive are better than top-down, legally-mandated cronyism such as Obamacare. That income inequality is exacerbated by big government enriching big corporations, as our nation’s widening wealth gap demonstrates.
Take some of the examples that Saletan provided in his aforementioned piece. He noted that Republicans effectively messaged on the stagnation of middle class wages, equal pay issues, underemployment and the prevalence of part-time work only (which typical jobs numbers gloss over), poverty, and upward mobility. To those of us with a liberty oriented perspective, this was refreshing. It was a good reminder that the false dichotomy parroted by so many that conservatives only care about the rich is flat out false.
This of course, isn’t to say all Republicans are suddenly embracing a free market approach to eradicating poverty and empowering the middle class. Both parties have a long way to go in terms of proving to average voters that we’re their priority. But as for those of us who show up to the polls? Let’s try to stop seeing each other as the enemy. Until we dispense with the closed-minded notion that only people who agree with us ideologically are well-meaning or well-versed, it will be impossible to achieve the goals we’d all like to see accomplished.
Despite what you may hear from those in Washington who don’t want to give up their grip on power, there’s a reason that historically, Americans vote for divided government, even sometimes in strong blue states like Massachusetts and Maryland, as we saw this month. As a people, we tend to be skeptical of too much authority concentrated in one place, and want to see genuine bipartisan cooperation that benefits everyone. The political class often has other priorities, that just happen to enrich them, and they thrive when we’re divided.
This election season, voters put their faith in candidates who, at least rhetorically, support economic freedom. For those of us committed to that vision, our responsibility is to both hold these politicians accountable, and approach people with differing perspectives from a place of empathy and understanding. Instead of being confounded by the fact that people with ideologies that diverge from our own want what’s best for everyone, it’s time to look for common ground. A political system that demands participation from the people in order to function properly deserves no less.