Democracy Restored But No Shift in Values

Muqtedar Khan
Muqtedar Khan Former Brookings Expert, Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations - University of Delaware

November 8, 2006

Americans want change, but it is not clear in what directions. The Democrats have taken everything; the house [228-206] with an emphatic margin, perhaps also the Senate [51-49, when the dust clears] and the gubernatorial positions [28-22]. The message that America has sent is that people are deeply disenchanted with status quo. President Bushs’ disapproval rating [hovering near the 60s] and the opposition to the Iraq war [also in the 60s] have brought the Democrats home. Ohio is emblematic of these elections. In 2004 it gave George W. Bush the White House, but now it has elected Democrats to the Congress, to the Senate and as Governor.

But do we now know what Americans want? Like the Democrats they have a clear craving for a new direction but only a vague vision of what it might be. While it is clear what the voters have rejected — Republican hubris, crony politics and power mania – it is not obvious what they have voted for, except change.

In the past six years, the U.S. had become a one party state with the Republicans in control of the Senate, Congress and the White House, and with conservatives in majority in the Supreme Court. Now with the Democrats winning the Congress and the Senate the system of checks and balances has been restored and democracy has once again come back to America. The elections have reintroduced balance, oversight and accountability to American democracy.

The first thing to recognize about the current midterm elections is that it was not just a referendum on Iraq, if it was so, both Ned Lemont an anti-war Democrat in Connecticut and Lincoln Chafee an anti-war Republican in Rhode Island would not have lost. This election was about change. Americans are seeking a new leadership, certainly new direction, but perhaps not a shift in values.

Exit polls indicate that no single issue determined the shift in politics, with corruption, economy, terrorism and Iraq equally shaping voter’s choice. Interestingly, neither “morality” nor immigration was cited as a key determinant. The category of “corruption” however represents voter’s disenchantment with the morality party. Republicans as well as Republican issues have clearly lost America’s favor. Even on terrorism and immigration, issues considered as key elements of the Republican suit, the Republican edge was statistically insignificant [51%-46%]. Exit polls also indicated than 2:1 voters were more concerned with national issues than local issues suggesting that Americans are more concerned with what was happening to America than with their immediate fortunes.

While Republicans lost decisively, conservatism has not receded even marginally.

This election is not a victory for, or the new invigorated liberal streak within the Democratic base. The conservative base held true to its values. The election results indicate that it is not America that has changed but that it is the two parties who have changed. The Republican Party has been recognized for what it has become, a power hungry, corrupt, hypocritical, fiscally irresponsible political mafia. Consequently, voters, mostly independents, abandoned the Republicans and migrated towards the New Democrats.

The Democrats on the other hand, at least many of the new winners, have moved to the center, embracing conservative values and adjusting their politics to fit the existing values of American conservative mainstream. Many of the winners like Brad Ellsworth [IA] and Jim Webb [VA] are social conservatives. Some of the new Democratic winners are opposed to gay marriage, support the second amendment, and are pro-life. It seems that the Democrats who embraced social conservatism and allowed the strong discontent with the war in Iraq and Republican corruption to substitute for political vision, won.

This is a victory for a new Democratic Party, a victory for Nancy Pelosi the Democratic leader but not for Pelosian liberalism.

For those who are deeply disturbed by the growth of conservatism and the Christianization of American politics, this midterm victory for the Democrats is not a harbinger of good news. It is a bit depressing. Democrats won; but only by becoming more conservative and by not investing any clarity in their slogan “New Direction for America”. This is not a new direction for America; it is a new disguise for the Democrats. This election will ensure that come 2008, both Democrats and Republicans will be competing for the “center”, social conservatism with a touch of moderate political liberalism.

Nancy Pelosi will be the first ever woman speaker of the House. She has an important challenge to face. She will have to lead the Democratic Party in a way that will not hurt the Democrats in 2008. She will have to lead the house in a way that will not grid lock the government and replace a do nothing Republican Congress with a new direction Congress. And interestingly, she has the opportunity to preview America to what it means to have a Democratic woman at the helm. Her performance will surely impact on Senator Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects.

For President Bush, this election was a Katrina. It has stripped him of his imperial status. Now he will have to explain his policies, and provide proof for whatever claims he wishes to make to justify his foreign policies; policies which increase terrorism and make America more insecure. He can either chose to ignore the democratic will of the American people, like his friend Tony Blair in UK and continue to wage crusades abroad based on his faith and convictions, or he can learn from Governor Schwarzenegger. The Terminator read the smoke signals months ago and made adjustments and has survived to govern another day. If President Bush turns a blind eye to this bonfire of signals, then come November 2008, we will once again become a one party state.

If this Democratic victory puts an end to American Presidential unilateralism, then it is surely a good day for America and the World, in spite of the intransigence of American conservatism.