The Deadest of Zombie Ideas: Americans Prefer Conservative Policies

by Neil H. Buchanan

The transition to the Biden Administration is already looking less than certain, with Republicans once again enabling Donald Trump's autocratic instincts by refusing to acknowledge the clear victory by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in this year's election.  That is quite worrying, as I will discuss in my Verdict column on Friday.  For now, however, let us imagine that Donald Trump will actually be evicted from the White House and that a new political reality will begin on January 20, 2021.

As appealing as that idea is, the fact is that Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats will continue to work in lockstep -- not conspiratorially, but simply by following their respective political instincts in the same direction -- to prevent progress on the actual policy issues facing the country and the world.

Yes, it will matter a lot whether the Democrats can somehow win both Georgia runoff elections for U.S. Senators, which would give them the bare minimum to control the Senate agenda and keep Mitch McConnell's hands off of the appointment process for cabinet members and federal judges.  But even if the Democrats had ended up with 51 or 52 seats, the Senate was going to be a very difficult place, because too many of their members -- not only West Virginia's conservative Democrat Joe Manchin, but others as well -- buy into the wholly mistaken idea that America's is fundamentally a conservative polity.

Where does the myth of America's DNA-level conservatism come from, especially given that it seems so easy to kill with overwhelming evidence?  Why do so many people continue to reanimate this zombie?

We can start with one of the most persuasive NeverTrump conservatives, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin.  Rubin has been tireless in her attacks on Trump and the entire Republican Party of Trump enablers, which has earned her a spot on MSNBC as a commentator and a lot of good will among liberals.  The problem is that she is simply not on Planet Earth when it comes to her analysis of anything other than Trump's faults.  To be sure, being a voice against Trump is a very important thing on its own, but it does not qualify her to talk about other matters with any authority.

Take, for example, this throwaway line from what was otherwise an excellent column a week before Election Day: "And for once, Democrats nominated a presidential candidate who could not be caricatured successfully as a 'socialist.'"  What?  I cannot be the only person who did a spit-take when I read that one.  Here are the eight most recent Democratic nominees for president:
-- 2016: Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders
-- 2012: Barack Obama as the incumbent
-- 2008: Barack Obama, who was backed by the Democratic Leadership Council and chose Goldman Sachs insiders for his top economic posts
-- 2004: John Kerry
-- 2000: Al Gore
-- 1996: Bill Clinton, as the incumbent
-- 1992: Bill Clinton, who triangulated against his own party and ran as a New Democrat
-- 1988: Michael Dukakis, who would not even respond to George H.W. Bush's attempt to use "the L-word" (liberal, not lesbian) as a smear.

Which of those centrist milquetoasts could "be caricatured successfully as a 'socialist'"?  Yes, the Republicans always try to red-bait any Democrat, but the idea that "for once" Democrats chose someone who was too far from socialism to red-bait is insane.

The recriminations within the Democratic Party right now seem to be playing out along these same lines, with moderates angry about having lost some House seats, supposedly because they could not separate themselves from the taint of socialism.

The Post's editor and columnist James Downie brilliantly responded to that nonsense on Sunday in "Democratic Leaders Play a Ridiculous Blame Game With Progressives."  There, he describes "the approach Democratic moderates are taking after Tuesday’s disappointing House and Senate results: Reject progressives’ suggestions, then blame those suggestions anyway for their failures."  He adds:
"Remember, from the Democratic primary onward, party leaders warned against running on Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal and other progressive ideas. That approach, they said, would lead Democrats to lose states such as Florida. (About that…) Instead, Democrats went small, focusing on saving the Affordable Care Act and providing a check on President Trump.
"But after the party lost House seats and failed to retake the Senate, the knives are out for the left anyway. On a House Democrats conference call on Thursday, party leaders and moderates blamed their failures on progressives. Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina warned against running on defunding the police or socialized medicine. (Since 2007, Clyburn has collected more than $1.2 million from pharmaceutical PACs, among the most of anyone in Congress.) The attacks were best summed up by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.): 'We need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. … We lost good members because of that.'"
So the idea, apparently, is that the very existence of progressives in the Democratic Party is unacceptable.  We are no longer permitted to have a spirited debate -- even if (as happened in 2020) the losing faction accepts the result and unifies strongly behind the other faction's nominee -- because Republicans will run against the supposedly unpopular progressive ideas that the Democrats in question do not even support?

As an aside, I think this year's experience pretty much resolves the counterfactual debate about what would have happened in 2016 if the Democrats had nominated Sanders.  No matter how much Democrats had said, "It's democratic socialism," the Rubins, Clyburns, and Spanbergers of the world would have been running in the other direction, and the press would have thrown gasoline on the fire.

More to the immediate point, however, there might have been something to what we can call the "socialist taint" argument if, indeed, the progressive policies that scare the centrists were actually unpopular.  I would not want to be a Republican candidate for many reasons, but one of the most practical considerations is that it would be difficult to explain why I am in an alliance with White supremacists.  That would only be a problem for me politically, however, because White supremacy is actually horrible and unpopular (not as unpopular as it should be, but still).

The fact, however, is that progressive policies continue to be mainstream and quite popular,  Four years ago, I asked: "Do Republican Leaders Actually Believe That Their Policies Are Popular?" and I noted that Republicans' positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, the environment, the minimum wage, and so on are notably unpopular.   Immediately before reading Downie's column on Sunday, I had read about the bleating from the Democratic centrists and was planning to track down some more recent public opinion polling to disprove their claims, but Downie did the work for me:
"But this diagnosis is at odds with the numbers. A near-majority of voters in swing districts supported the Green New Deal. Fifty-three percent of Americans support Medicare-for-all (and 70 percent support a public option). In exit polls, 57 percent of voters expressed support for Black Lives Matter. In Florida, while moderate Democrats up and down the ticket fell flat, voters passed the $15 minimum wage that the left has been pushing for years. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) observed, every swing-district House Democrat who co-sponsored Medicare-for-all kept their seat." (emphasis added)
Downie's piece is excellent, and I commend it to everyone.  But I want to focus now on Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney's attempt to spin the election results by echoing Rubin's and Spanberger's claim that America is fundamentally conservative, which Downie mentioned but did not cover in sufficient detail.
Romney, of course, deserves credit for being the only Republican senator to vote to convict Trump on one count in the impeachment trial, although he was completely incoherent when he tried to explain why he voted to acquit on the other count.

Currently, Romney is also earning some very well deserved credit for being one of the few Republicans to acknowledge the reality of Biden's election victory.  Romney went on "Meet the Press" three days ago and seemed to be saying something along those lines, but if one looks at the transcript of the interview, it is actually fairly difficult to find a definitive statement to that effect.  Romney siad that every previous losing candidate (including Romney himself) conceded for the good of constitutional democracy, but he framed his entire response by saying that Trump is different and cannot be expected to change now.  Romney might as well have said, "Whaddaya gonna do, huh?"

Romney then prattled on a bit about how Trump has the right to pursue recounts and legal challenges, concluding with this: "But if, as expected, those things don't change the outcome, why, he will accept the inevitable."  Why?  Why does Romney -- who only seconds before had said essentially that "Trump's gonna Trump" -- believe that Trump will accept losing, whether Romney thinks it is inevitable or not?  Trump does not accept losing, and he never has.
Romney sensibly talked about how Trump's rhetoric is dangerous, but he chose to say so in these words:
"I think when you say that the election was corrupt or stolen or rigged, that that's unfortunately rhetoric that gets picked up by authoritarians around the world. And I think it also discourages confidence in our democratic process here at home. And with a battle going on right now between authoritarianism and freedom, why, I think it's very important that we not use language which can encourage a course in history which would be very, very unfortunate."
Susan Collins (who inexplicably retained her Senate seat last week) could not have said it any less convincingly.  It would be "very, very unfortunate" to follow an authoritarian path?  Say it again with even less feeling, Mitt!

Again, however, my purpose in this column is not to talk about whether the Republicans will actually force Trump to leave office.  Statesmanship has been defined down so completely that Romney's weak tea is being held up as an example of principled leadership, simply because he said that Trump will probably not prevail in his challenges to the election and that it is unfortunate that Trump is talking like an autocrat.  This is no profile in courage, to say the least.

But it is the rest of Romney's "Meet the Press" interview that interests me here, because he sandwiched those comments about Trump's reaction to the election between assertions about the supposed conservatism of the American people -- statements that simply defy reality.
This should not surprise anyone, of course.  Romney, after all, sold his soul to the hard right wing long ago, weaseling away from his own record as governor of Massachusetts to run to John McCain's right in the 2008 primaries.  Then, when he actually won the nomination in 2012, Romney kowtowed to the extreme conservatives in his party by picking a running mate (the now-disappeared con artist Paul Ryan) who was an electoral drag on Romney, just as McCain had done with Sarah Palin four years prior.  Romney also shamelessly lied his way through the 2012 general election campaign (especially the debates).

And Romney has not let up since then.  He was completely in favor of filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat on the Supreme Court last month, justifying his decision by making the gobsmacking claim that America's courts have been too liberal for too long.

Again, this is who Mitt Romney is: a hard-right conservative who gets credit for the very, very occasional stand on principle.  Note, by the way, that even Romney's vote to convict Trump on one count of high crimes and misdemeanors was hardly a profile in courage, because he knew that his vote would not change the outcome.  He is there when the conservative movement needs him, all the while happily dishing out his particular brand of unctuous hokum to gullible journalists.

What, then, was his big message on Sunday -- the message that he repeated on both sides of his tepid response to Trump's outrages?  Romney decided that it was important to say that the election results, notwithstanding Biden's win, proved that America is conservative.  When the moderator made the point that some Republicans had voted against Trump but had voted for down-ballot Republicans, Romney used that as an opportunity to make this pivot:
"[A]ctually the president did better in Philadelphia this cycle than he did four years ago in terms of the percentage of the vote he received. So there are some arguments which argue against suggesting that the election is going to get reversed. But at the same time, I think you make an important point, which is a lot of Republicans, a lot of voters, voted for Republicans but did not vote for the president. And that suggests to me that conservative principles are still in the majority in our country."
Republicans voted for Republicans, and that means that conservative principles are the majority view?  Most ridiculously, Romney said that "I don't think the American people want to sign up for the Green New Deal and for Medicare for All and so forth," pointing in part to Republicans' ability to hold the Senate as proof of that proposition.

Remember, however, that Republicans were favored to hold the Senate until the pandemic came along and polls started to make once-hopeless Democratic challengers look plausible.  It was exciting to learn that McConnell's challenger in Kentucky briefly looked to be surging, and it was thrilling that Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn seemed to be in trouble.  But when all was said and done, powerful Republican incumbents from red states won reelection easily.  If Democrats had actually picked up seats in any of those states -- not just Kentucky, South Carolina, and Texas, but also Alaska, Montana, Iowa, or Kansas, all of which were at one point or another considered possible reaches for Democrats -- that would have been a big deal.  Democrats, however, picked up seats in Arizona and Colorado and lost an accidental Democratic incumbent in Alabama, and that was about it.  Both Georgia seats are going to runoffs.

Romney, then, is saying that because Republicans in red states won their seats, allowing the Senate to continue to be dominated by a party that represents 15 million fewer Americans than Democratic senators represent, the people have rejected progressive policies.  Beyond the Senate, he says that the Republicans' ability to gerrymander congressional and state legislative seats is proof of Republicans' popularity.  He even says that "we conservatives will make sure and stand up for the great majority, in my opinion, of the American people who believe that conservative principles serve us better."
The "great majority, in my opinion, of the American people" believe in conservative policies?  That is not a matter of opinion.  The people of Florida by huge margins tried to re-enfranchise ex-felons in 2018 (but the state's Republicans stopped it) and last week passed a $15 per hour minimum wage, even as the state went for Trump (due in large part to the peculiar mix of national origins in this state).  Conservative policies are losers, and Republicans win in spite of them by suppressing votes, stacking courts, and generally fighting against democratic accountability.

Again, Mitt Romney is given all kinds of credit for doing occasional things that deviate from the debased norms of his party.  He has, however, long been just as conservative as the rest of his party.  Now, he wants to spin the election results to somehow suggest that America has rejected progressive ideas.  He is wrong, and so are Rubin, Spanberger, and the whole crowd of people who have trained themselves to ignore what Americans actually want.  This is magical thinking, reinforced in the echo chambers of punditry.  That Americans are mostly conservative is a zombie idea.  Will it never die?