Talking about the election to many friends and family who had been rooting for Romney, I found their emotions ran the entire gamut from despair to despondency. Everybody was way down. I found myself unexpectedly blue as well. Our emotions were not so much caused by the Romney defeat. Few of us were particularly excited about him. It was the Obama victory that concerned us.
I heard lots of explanations for the outcome. Hurricane Sandy let Obama look presidential and bipartisan. The left-leaning media. Missteps in the Romney campaign: a passivity in the later debates; his failure to reveal his tax returns; an insufficiently specific outline of what he would do once in office; a failure to capitalize on the Obama response to the Libya tragedy. But all of these factors that reduced Romney’s chances wither in the face of the handicaps Obama faced–an appallingly bad economy over the last four years, a signature legislative achievement–ObamaCare–that was not particularly popular, and a failure to achieve much of anything in the last two years. This was a president who ran up trillions of dollars in deficits for little economic gain. A president who is taking the United States toward European levels of government spending and government regulation. A president who abrogated the rule of law to help his union cronies. A president who turned the Department of Energy into a really bad venture capital fund using my money and yours. A president who failed to talk about what he would do with four more years until the the very end of the campaign and then it was a grab-bag of little substance; most of his appeal, it seemed, was that he promised to fight for the middle class. Never mind that he achieved so little in pursuit of that goal in the first four years. How did he get re-elected?
The fact that Obama won despite these handicaps is the source, I think, of most people’s despair. It’s not that they dread the policies of the next four years. It’s that this election has revealed that the American people chose someone who wants the US to be more like Europe–more statist and paternalistic. I have heard people who feel like giving up. If we can’t beat this guy, it’s over. We’re on the road to serfdom. Could be. But I think the glass is more half-full than half-empty. So here is some cheer for those of you who are pessimistic about the future.
Yes, a little over half of the people who voted, a little over 60 million people, thought Obama deserved a second term. But about 59 million (the combined Romney and Gary Johnson votes) disagreed. That’s pretty close. Politics is winner-take-all, a zero-sum game. But those totals tell you just how close it was and how little it will take to change the outcome.
Yes, Obama overcame handicaps that should have been insurmountable. But Romney as a candidate was not particularly well-positioned to take advantage of Obama’s weakness. Yes, the economy was mediocre. But Romney’s “plan” was not a very exciting or specific alternative. Yes, the President’s proudest legislative achievement was unpopular, but Romney had created a similar plan in Massachusetts that muted his ability to attack it. Then there were Romney’s own handicaps–his wealth, his business background in the financial sector (a part of the economy that is very unpopular these days), and most of all, the positions he had staked out in the primary campaign. This allowed him to be portrayed as an enemy of Hispanics for his anti-immigration position and more generally, a flip-flopper without principles. I don’t live in an Hispanic neighborhood or watch much Spanish-language television. I suspect the Democrats did a very effective job reminding Hispanic voters of what Romney had said about immigration to defeat Rick Perry. George Bush got 41% of the Hispanic vote in 2004 when Hispanics made up 8% of the electorate. Romney got 27% of the Hispanic vote that is now 10% of the electorate. That’s a handicap in a lot of battleground states where the Hispanic vote is even bigger.
My point is that I don’t think Obama’s victory is a mandate for big or bigger government or a sign that the American people are all Keynesians or would-be Europeans. Obama may draw a different conclusion. I’d understand that. He would. But I’m not discouraged just because Obama won. I don’t believe it proves how far Americans would like to go down the road toward serfdom. There was plenty to be discouraged about before this election. I’m not sure the election provides much new information.
The lesson I learn is that we have work to do. It’s our job to speak up and educate and cajole others about what we lose when government gets bigger. It’s our job to help people understand that the civil society that emerges from the bottom up is better than the coercive dictates decreed from the top down. The better we do that, the higher the chance of a candidate out there who understands these ideas and who has a decent chance of winning. We, the people, help determine which candidates emerge and what they stand for.
We have work to do. The Talmud, talking about the obligation of a Jew to improve the world and do what God expects of us, says that it is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to walk away from it. You may or may not believe that liberty hastens the redemption of the world. But the Talmud’s insight is that small steps can eventually make a big difference. I can’t bring about liberty single-handedly. Neither can you. But all of us together make a difference. Which way should we choose? More bottom up or more top down? The American people just elected the king of top down, but it was close, and my claim above is that the result reflects a lot more than the appeal of “top down” policies. Let’s keep at the job and we’ll eventually have better candidates to choose from and better results.
My other source of cheer is to remember that politics is not where life happens. Policies affect our lives, but we have much to do outside that world. Yesterday I helped my youngest son learn Python, learned some Talmud, played with my photographs on Lightroom, had dinner with my wife, and went shopping with my oldest son for his first nice blazer. Lots of satisfactions there. Nothing to do with politics.
Put Tuesday night behind you for a while. Remember what matters. Take a walk. Read to your kids. Go out for dinner with your spouse. Read more Adam Smith and less of the Drudge Report. And smile at your neighbor. That’s always a good idea. But there’s a bonus–it might help your neighbor imagine that someone who believes in leaving things alone when it comes to the coercive power of government might actually be a decent person after all. And then maybe he’ll be a little more open to those crazy ideas you talked about at that dinner party.
Toward the end of the campaign, I saw an ad where Obama looked into the camera and said something like “look at my policies and those of my opponent and decide which one is best for you.” Those of us who believe in voluntary emergent order and civil society as a way to make the world a better place, reject Obama’s calculus. We believe that our policies aren’t just good for ourselves but allow everyone to reach their potential and serve others through the marketplace and the communities we choose to join and build. That’s a world I want not just for my children to but for your children, too. Being nice to your neighbor helps your neighbor imagine the possibility that the policies we pursue are not just about ourselves.
So don’t despair. Get to work, instead. And along the way, make lots of time for the joys of life. Don’t let the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue affect the sweetness of all those roses on whatever road we’re heading down.