What conservative surprise about Obama’s re-election says about conservatives

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2

How many Evangelical pastors will give thanks for President Obama this Sunday, even as they intercede with God to give the president wisdom and an understanding of justice in his second term as President of the United States? How many Evangelicals will give thanks for all people – all Americans – even after they have just re-elected Barack Obama to a position of authority in this country?

It is far too soon after election day to offer up any objective or balanced interpretation of the significance of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections, the future of the Republican Party, or the viability of conservatism in American politics. Pundits and theorists will declare the election to be a clear verdict that the Republican Party has veered too hard to the right and that the Tea Party was like a millstone around Mitt Romney’s neck, not to mention the direct cause of the Republican Party’s failure to retake control of the Senate. Others will try to tease out just what missteps by Romney and other Republicans were most fatal. And of course, there will be a lot of talk about demographics: the old, white, male Republican Party simply cannot win without finding ways to gain the support of younger voters, Latinos, and women.

These are all discussions that Republicans and conservatives need to have. But over and above all of these questions the most striking thing about last night’s election may well be that it took conservatives entirely by surprise. Although the polling and analysis of the mainstream media turned out to be right, numerous leading conservative writers predicted with absolute confidence in the days leading up to the election that despite what the polls said Romney would win. The polls were biased in their methodology, they said, and polls have no ability to capture enthusiasm or energy. Politics is about much more than statistics and predictive models; what matters is what is happening on the ground. Americans are discouraged about the economy and too many don’t like Obamacare. Democratic voters are discouraged and fewer would go to the polls than in 2008.

All wrong. The best conservative minds in the country were out of touch with the sentiments of most Americans and with the reality on the ground. Even after it was clear that President Obama had won many conservatives refused to believe it because they had been told this would not happen. They could not understand why people would vote for Obama and thought that in the end their man – Mitt Romney – represented the spirit of America. But again, it turns out that they were wrong. As Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard:

[Obama] did one thing that surprised the Romney campaign, Republicans, and political writers, myself included.  He and his campaign delivered a massive turnout by Democratic voters who were supposed to be unenthusiastic, dispirited, and less inclined than Republicans to go to the polls.  By voting in droves, they offset the increased Republican turnout.

Last night the conservative John Ziegler offered an explanation in a column on the Huffington Post, suggesting that many conservatives have become so isolated in the bubble of their own intellectual worldview that they simply tell themselves and their followers what they want to hear, regardless of reality. In many ways this is understandable, he argued, because the mainstream media is openly biased towards the left (if you don’t believe that you were not watching MSNBC last night; there is no way Fox News leans more to the right than MSNBC does to the left). But conservatives failed to distinguish the liberal media from the science and data of polling.

In another post Ziegler got at a deeper reason why conservatives were so taken by surprise:

Conservatives like to think that there is a “silent majority” out there that the media/pollsters will suddenly show up on Election Day. There is very little evidence that this actually exists. The 2010 election deludes conservatives because they don’t seem to realize that in presidential elections the turnout is much higher, especially in the states that actually matter. Republicans only have “tides” in low turnout elections. When the “low info” voters get to the polls, Democrats simply can’t be blown out in the key states. I never understood why conservative commentators couldn’t understand that Obama’s turnout would be just fine in the states which would actually decide the election.

Although conservative strategists have long known that white voters are a shrinking demographic, history told them that whites are far more likely to vote than are blacks or Latinos, especially in a poor economy with high unemployment. And while many conservatives have long been warning that the Republican Party is doomed if it fails to win over a substantial number of Hispanics, the rhetoric of the GOP’s primary season was if anything more harsh on illegal immigration than ever before. In 2004 President Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote. In 2008 John McCain won only 31%. Last night Romney’s portion fell to around 27%. Twenty-seven percent of the fastest growing demographic in the United States.

The main point I want to make, however, has less to do with demographics and more to do with 1 Timothy 2:1-2. As I have argued before on this blog, if conservatives are going to earn the right to guide this country politically they have to figure out how to lead by persuasion, not simply by power politics. There is no moral authority in conducting brilliant strategic campaigns and hoping your opponents have low turnout. If you can’t make conservative political theory make sense to millions of hard working Christian immigrants who just so happen to be part of the fastest growing demographic in the country you don’t deserve to win regardless of how skillful you are politically. Your politics have to demonstrate a spirit of solidarity and affirmation toward all people – not simply those who are already like you. You have to learn to speak for all Americans, not just the people you judge to be real Americans.

Former George W. Bush political director Matt Schlapp is quoted as making precisely this point in an analysis offered by Politico:

Hispanics continue to grow in importance, and we need to embrace these voters for two reasons: It is simply the right thing to do, and it’s mandatory demographically if we are to avoid more presidential disappointments… It’s about simple math and basic moral decency.

Do conservatives get this? Do Christian conservatives in particular accept this as part of their moral duty? Will we continue to view every political divide through the lens of a culture war, writing off entire ethnic or economic groups as part of the other side needing to be defeated rather than engaging them as fellow citizens who might have something to tell us about their own welfare, let alone the welfare of this country?

Note, my point is not to criticize conservatism nor is it to criticize Christian political theology. On the contrary, it is that in a democratic society any political perspective loses its moral credibility if it ceases to take seriously the need to treat other perspectives with dignity and respect. If we can’t explain our moral and political judgments to those who disagree with us even while they often share our faith, if we don’t trust them even while we demand that they trust us, why should we expect them to cede to us any moral or political leadership?

Again, do conservatives get this? I’m not sure. In the National Review Kevin Williamson writes:

The lessons of Ohio are that Barack Obama is a skillful demagogue, that the ancients were wise to number envy among the deadly sins, and that offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives. This is what Oakeshott had in mind when he wrote that liberty was something that many people simply are not equipped to “enjoy as an opportunity rather than suffer as a burden.”

So according to Williamson Mitt Romney’s comments about the 47% were right all along. Most Americans are just greedy and selfish and there is nothing we can do about it.

Or take Matthew Schmitz’s comments on the First Thoughts blog:

Gallup’s recent polling finds slightly more than half of Americans identifying as prolife, and while support for gay marriage continues to increase, the issue motivates far more conservative than liberal voters. There’s a large intensity gap that should continue to tip the issue to the right for some time even if current trends hold.

Hmm … where have I heard that sort of logic before. Most don’t agree with our perspective but we care more so we can defeat them at the polls even if we cannot persuade them.

These comments do not sound like the expressions of lessons learned. They sound like a continued refusal to recognize that the American people, in a free and fair election, chose President Obama to continue to lead this country over the Republican Mitt Romney, chose Democrats to serve as United States senators in states thought to be solidly conservative, and endorsed same-sex marriage despite strong campaigns to prevent it.

Conservatives can view this data as a simple condemnation of their opponents and pat themselves on the back for standing for the truth even as their country (as they see it) falls apart. Or they can take it as a sharp rebuke that calls them to begin again the hard work of re-engaging the American people, hearing and taking seriously their concerns even as they try to make sense of how conservatism might best help address those concerns. The American people are open to persuasion, I firmly believe. Few people really think this country is on a sustainable path to prosperity. But if conservatives are ever going to lead it in a different direction, they will have to do a better job persuading the rest of the country that they actually deserve it.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on November 7, 2012, in 2012 election, Barack Obama, Culture War, Democratic Party, Mitt Romney, Republican Party and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on What conservative surprise about Obama’s re-election says about conservatives.

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