Have We Witnessed a Revolution?

Have We Witnessed a Revolution?

By Blake D. Dvorak - November 11, 2008

The question is everywhere: Just what kind of country are we? Are we still a center-right nation, perhaps dissatisfied with Republicans but ultimately conservative? Or has the country turned left, ready for new (or old) ideas to replace what seems to have failed? Right now, no one knows really knows for sure. But you can bet both parties are deciding their strategies based on their best guess.

Indeed, ideological shifts aren't that easy to discern. In 1976, few could have imagined that the country was four years away from a "revolution." But in 1980 that's what we got. Winning 44 states, Ronald Reagan's victory over Jimmy Carter swept away an era of Democratic dominance and restored the GOP's (and conservatism's) good name post-Watergate. And Reagan had coattails. Republicans picked up 12 seats in the Senate and 35 in the House, though Democrats maintained control of the lower chamber.

So it's natural to wonder: Have we just witnessed another revolution, what historians will one day call the "Obama Revolution"? Barack Obama and the Democrats have certainly won a resounding victory on par with, if not exactly equal to, Reagan's 1980 triumph. What's not so clear -- and likely won't be for some time -- is whether America has made a shift to the left, heralding a new liberal era, or if Democratic dominance of the last two elections is merely a corrective -- a sign of displeasure with the party in power but not an ideological paradigm shift.

The electoral evidence at least suggests that something big is happening to America's ideological moorings: Factor out Obama's victory for a moment and consider: Since 2006, Democrats have won 51 House seats and 12 Senate seats, giving them a hold on Congress not seen since the 1970s. They have pushed the GOP out of the Northeast; made inroads into the Republican-dominated South; and are well ahead of the GOP in winning the West. Demographically, Democrats have put their mark on the fastest growing minority in the country, Hispanics, and seem to have won the loyalty of an entire generation of younger voters.

And yet, despite this, RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, among others, still insisted the other day that America is a "center-right" nation. But then Duncan has some evidence on his side as well.

There's a reason no one talks about the "Clinton Revolution" these days, or, jumping ahead, the "Bush Revolution." Electoral victories, even two-term administrations, don't a revolution make. In fact, it was the failure of each respective administration, and their allies in Congress, to appreciate this small point that led to 1994 and 2006.

Conservatives have exit polls on their side also. Thirty-four percent of the electorate still identify as conservative, compared to 22% liberal and 44% moderate. That breakdown is roughly unchanged from 2004. Considering what's happened to the GOP brand since, it's says something about public sentiment that a third still call themselves conservative, even as fewer call themselves Republican.

Throwing some actual weight behind these numbers are the many states that have banned same-sex marriage in recent years -- currently, every state that has brought the question to a vote. Several of those voted for Obama this year and two -- Florida and California -- voted to ban same-sex marriage even as they pulled the Democratic lever. Obama's own opposition to same-sex marriage need not obscure the reality that its acceptance is a liberal tenet.

But, despite this relative good news for Republicans, the exit polls also showed that a majority, 51%, said that government should be doing more to solve problems. That's up 4 points from 2004. It's a difficult question to tweeze any sound conclusions from, but at the very least, government doing more to solve problems is not exactly what Reagan meant when he said government was the problem. We should, however, consider the context: slumping housing market, bailouts for top industries, job losses.

However, much to the chagrin of their liberal base, Democrats aren't exactly going out of their way to announce their liberal agenda and call it such. Answering Duncan, outgoing DNC Chairman Howard Dean responded that he thought America was "right down the middle" and "very, very moderate." Notice he didn't say anything about it being center-left or even more liberal.

Even Obama hasn't exactly been trumpeting his plan to govern from the left. On the trail he never identified himself as a "liberal," although the preferred term these days is "progressive." And he fought fiercely against John McCain's attack on his "spreading the wealth around." Obama ran as a tax-cutter and that's what he wanted voters to hear.

None of which means that the country isn't calling for a liberal agenda. It does mean that Democrats aren't fully convinced they can answer the question of what kind of country we are now. Indeed, it's not just Republicans who need to do some soul-searching these days. Democrats as well need to take an honest assessment of what their electoral victories mean. After all, the only thing worse than losing an election is mistakenly thinking you're in the middle of a revolution.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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