Letter from Boston

Dear Friends of Istituto Acton,

Europe, here we come. I write en route to Rome from Boston, where I witnessed the debacle of the November 6 US presidential election with the Romney campaign. It was a somber event from the start, with just a few scattered moments of applause for various state results. In the end, Romney carried just two more states (Indiana and North Carolina) than John McCain did in 2008, which was a much tougher year for Republicans. The popular vote was very close, with Obama collecting just a bit less than 51 percent and Romney at 48 percent, though the electoral vote total magnified the margin considerably, as it is meant to do. Every close state race broke Obama’s way. Romney came out to concede the race to his supporters early Wednesday morning, gracious in defeat.

Leading up to Tuesday evening, many conservative prognosticators thought Romney would prevail, some even predicting a significant electoral college victory, while liberals thought the polls in the battleground states favored Obama. The liberals were right, despite Obama’s weak economic record, his terrible performance in the first debate, unpopular policies such as his health insurance reform legislation, and the shameful, inept handling of the murder of the US ambassador to Libya. To make matters worse, the elections saw three states (Maine, Maryland and Washington) vote in favor of same-sex “marriage,” which won popular support at the polls for the first time in American history, while Minnesota refused to ban same-sex “marriage” in its state constitution.  So the question for those of us who favor strong religious principles and free-market economics is: What went wrong?

In a country as large and diverse as the United States, there is no single reason why Obama won. It appears that the Obama campaign simply outworked the Romney camp in the key battleground states of Ohio and Florida, with twice as many offices in those places. The shifting demographics of the country also seem to favor the Democrats, especially with an increasing Latino population, 75 percent of whom voted for Obama. More surprisingly, Asian-Americans also came out strongly in favor of Obama, with 73 percent support going to the Democrat, and many white potential voters decided to stay home, which certainly hurt Romney. Obama became the first US president to lose the white vote and still win the election. As the astute political analyst Michael Barone put it, mechanics and demographics won out over fundamentals. The Democratic attacks on Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who doesn’t care about immigrants or the middle class, perhaps a tax cheat and even a murderer seemed to have worked as well. Romney’s reticence against these attacks and refusal to fight back may have hurt him, proving that admirable personal virtues may not always be winning ones politically. The irony is that Romney had no problem trashing his Republican opponents in the primaries; perhaps he calculated he would not be able to attract those who voted for Obama in 2008 if he criticized the president too harshly. Romney also showed a political tin ear on several occasions, with his 47% comment, claiming he liked to fire people, and saying that his wife owned two Cadillacs, all of which confirmed the negative stereotype Obama portrayed. He also refused to defend the record of Bain Capital in restructuring failing companies and turning them into successful ones.

I remain baffled, however, how the deeply conservative the electorate is, conservative in the sense of maintaining the status quo, even though a majority of the voters are not pleased with the direction of the country. As a nation, we voted for more of the same, even though the same is simply not sustainable. “Live for today, because tomorrow we shall die” is not the slogan of a healthy society, is it?

Obama is much less popular than four years ago, though it could be that many of his supporters simply did not want to admit the first African-American president failed after one term. This is only the second time in American history we’ve had three consecutive two-term presidents and it’s very hard to see Clinton-Bush-Obama as progress over Jefferson-Madison-Monroe. It’s also strange that so many of the battleground states that Obama won are led by very successful and popular Republican governors. If voters were consistent, they should have had little trouble turning over the reins to another Republican executive at the federal level. We’ve become oddly complacent about our politics.

I repeat: Europe, here we come. Just as countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy are struggling with their debt and entitlement problems, the American electorate has shown the same intransigence, a stubborn refusal to say “no” to the expanding role of government. Because it can deliver tangible benefits to the people, the party of government is always going to have some rhetorical and practical advantages over the party of the free market because the former doesn’t require people to work and often fail before succeeding. It coddles rather than demands, so who wouldn’t prefer the former? It’s also easier for politicians to take credit for these benefits than it is to say “vote for me because the diffuse, anonymous free market is superior.” Historically and ideologically, however, most Americans had rejected the government path. Not anymore, and given the shifting demographics, perhaps not anytime in the near future either.

The pity is that most immigrants are more religious and family-oriented than the native population and I find it hard to believe that they would want to come to the US to receive welfare rather than work. I may be naïve, but the virtues of faith, family and freedom ought to be popular among immigrants, even if they don’t share the same anti-government animus of American conservatives. The promise of the commercial republic is that it raises the living standards of the poor better than any other political-economic system, and this promise should still have much appeal. We need to do a better job at explaining and making this happen, especially for the lower- and middle-classes.

It’s tempting to despair for the future, though Christians never should. We know that in politics, neither victory nor defeat is permanent. No one likes losing, which is one reason why competition is not always preferred to cozy arrangements to limit it and guarantee winning by default. But losing is necessary and even salutary if we can learn from it. I’d rather have the chance to compete and lose rather than paper over our differences in the name of some false sense of security and cooperation because it’s always those on top who want to keep out the upstarts. One advantage America still has over Europe is that our elections reflect a choice between different visions of society – thankfully we’re still free and big enough to hold competing visions - so we’ll get another chance to right the ship during 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential elections.  But for the moment, we’re licking our wounds.

I’ve been in the US since October 17, giving talks on religion, economics and the free society in Washington, DC, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, and Newport, Rhode Island, leading up to the election. I tried to make the case that the modern entitlement state is a substitute for, rather than a natural consequence of, Christian charity. The version of the welfare state that wants to replace God, fathers and entrepreneurs with civil servants is not one that inspires much affection or ardor, and I still think that is the case. It’s good timing that Pope Benedict has launched a year of faith, because we’re going to need to re-examine why we believe what we do. Those of us who thought America was exempt from European maladies will have to find a stronger antidote than what we’ve been taking. We know that God doesn’t lose battles, but we need to do our part in making this happen because He won’t do everything for us. And neither should the state, despite the dispiriting election results.

Kishore Jayabalan