As Karl Rove exits stage right with his ruined dreams of rightist hegemony, all the political signs and portents tell us that America is turning the other way. No doubt the departing “boy genius” would dispute that assertion as liberal wishful thinking, as would many on the right. But they cannot so easily dismiss The Economist, an avowedly conservative voice that is among the oldest and most respected periodicals in the world.
Framing the shift on the cover of its Aug. 11 issue with a question—“Is America turning left?”—the magazine’s editors conclude in their lead essay that the answer is yes, probably.
“Having recaptured Congress last year, the Democrats are on course to retake the presidency in 2008,” says the venerable British weekly, which blames the destruction of the vaunted Republican machine on the ideological excess and breathtaking incompetence of the Bush administration, as well as the sleaziness of the G.O.P. leadership in Congress.
The editorial warns fellow conservatives against claiming that George W. Bush failed to fulfill their agenda. The president is a lame duck but not a good scapegoat, because “rather than betraying the right, he has given it virtually everything it craved, from humongous tax cuts to conservative judges.” The worst political errors of the Bush regime, from its ruinous war in Iraq to the awful Terri Schiavo intervention, sprang directly from the brilliant minds of the religious right and the neoconservatives.
“Now the American people seem to be reacting to conservative over-reach by turning left. More want universal health insurance; more distrust force as a way to bring about peace; more like greenery; ever more dislike intolerance on social issues.” The magazine also presents a thorough briefing and even more gloomy analysis of the current condition of the American right, noting that conservative activists are openly angry and depressed while Republican officials privately anticipate a “catastrophe” next November.
The Economist’s doomsaying is still more persuasive because its top staffers predicted only a few years ago that the Republican right would fulfill the dreams of Mr. Rove. Back in 2004, Economist editor John Micklethwait and Washington bureau chief Adrian Wooldridge published The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, a best-selling book that insisted that the United States is an inherently conservative country that was only growing more so under the tutelage of a powerful coalition allied with the Republican Party—and that the remnant of American liberals should simply acknowledge their status as a permanent minority relegated to irrelevance. Right-wingers themselves, the authors predicted that the Republicans could expect a bright and boundless future thanks to favorable demographic trends, bolstered by young people who supposedly leaned right regardless of ethnicity, geography, education or profession.
Happily, neither Mr. Micklethwait nor Mr. Wooldridge has paid much for their bad bet. Indeed, the latter is now the magazine’s Washington bureau chief and featured columnist; the former has been promoted to editor in chief. They deserve to be congratulated not only for climbing the professional ladder, but for confronting the political realities that may now be somewhat embarrassing to both of them.
The Economist’s editors—and all their once triumphal comrades—might have avoided such foolish predictions if they had paid more attention to the nuances of American politics and less to the self-serving propaganda of the Republican noise machine. They might have noticed, for instance, that despite the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore and Ralph Nader together decisively outperformed Mr. Bush. Or that Republican power in the Senate owes more to the outsize clout of small states than to a true electoral majority.
Opinion surveys have provided copious evidence that contradicted the conventional wisdom about the nation’s political outlook. Astute analysts at Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, recently released “The Progressive Majority: Why a Conservative America Is a Myth,” an exhaustive study of reams of polling data from nonpartisan sources that shows that American voters are not just now becoming more progressive, as 2008 approaches. (See http://mediamatters.org/progmaj/ for the full study.)
On salient issues, despite the plurality of respondents who always identify themselves as “conservative,” the American people have favored progressive policies for many years. With all due respect to The Economist, favorable attitudes toward universal health care, environmental stewardship, economic fairness and social tolerance did not suddenly arrive from nowhere this year or even last year. Support for increasing the minimum wage, keeping abortion legal, strong environmental and consumer protections and higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations are among the most durable results in polls from one decade to the next.
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