Amid all the election blather last year, pundits missed the larger, even historical story of 2012 — that America’s political tectonic plates seem to have shifted, which they do only every few decades. Conservative intransigence notwithstanding, we now live in a fundamentally different political environment than the one we had lived in since the 1980s. The America that has routinely been called “conservative” is conservative no longer.
To realize how significant a transformation this is, just think back about nine months ago. Despite a bruising primary campaign, Mitt Romney was not only a viable candidate for the presidency, he had at least a 50-50 shot to win. The Tea Party flexed its political muscles. Democrats were stymied. President Obama’s favorability ratings hovered in the mid-40s.
When he won anyway last November, the standard analysis was that America’s demographics had moved in his direction: blacks, Asians, young people, women, and especially Hispanics. There is a lot to be said for this analysis, and it does help explain not only Obama’s victory but also something buried within the raw election data: that as the demographics shifted, so too did political opinion. Americans thought differently than they had. We seemed to go to bed on the night of Nov. 6 in a conservative country and awoke Nov. 7 in a more liberal one.
Yet what militates against a strictly demographic interpretation is that demographics don’t change overnight while our politics have. Just think: The number of Americans favoring same-sex marriage is at an all-time high. For the first time, an NBC poll shows that a majority of Americans support legal abortion. A near majority of Americans now believes in a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Other polls show that a majority of Americans do not support cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, or other programs that primarily benefit the poor. Huge majorities want higher taxes on the wealthy. And if one needs any further evidence, the ratings of Fox News last month were at their lowest since 2001.
So why did Americans suddenly embrace their better angels? Posed that way, the question may answer itself. For 30 years, conservatives have made their primary appeals to a hyperactive sense of American individualism and to an equally hyperactive sense of personal injustice. What was the matter with Kansas may not have been clever Republican manipulation, as Thomas Frank concluded in his book of that title, so much as Republicans’ ability to activate the ideas that individualism trumped community and that it was less important for people to serve their own economic interests than it was for them to punish freeloaders who were getting what they didn’t deserve. In the Republican formulation the undeserving were never Wall Street fat cats; they were always the poor and the powerless who wanted what you had.
This reactionary populism took the umbrage that ordinary people felt toward a system that seemed unfair and unresponsive to them and redirected it at people who were even more victimized. But it is hard for Republicans to maintain the pretense that they were simply defending traditional American values of hard work and fair play when they couldn’t help themselves from showing contempt for their populist allies. Romney’s remarks about the 47 percent of Americans who “take” may have been standard conservative boilerplate, but exposed in the harsh light of a campaign, the message was stark: Half of you are parasites.
Politically speaking, it was imbecilic, but the conservatives had long ago opted out of politics, opted out of the hurly burly of negotiation and compromise for a kind of quasi-religious orthodoxy that believed any negotiation, any compromise, was breaking faith. As much as anything, this ideological devotion has been responsible for our gridlock. You could no more broker with a political zealot than you could with a religious one. It is also precisely what made conservatives so forbidding. Every battle for them was Armageddon.
What most liberals didn’t anticipate is that if you couldn’t beat these zealots, they might eventually beat themselves. What we’ve seen over the last nine months or so is not so much a liberal victory as a kind of political mass suicide — Republican hari kari. And the primary reason that political opinion has changed may be that snarling, angry, pusillanimous post-Reagan conservatism reached a critical mass of self-satisfied extremism that turned people off. In effect, the Republican Party jumped the shark.
Call it “political metaphysics” because there really may not be any other explanation for it, but most Americans didn’t want to see themselves as hateful. They didn’t detest gays, or feel that a woman who was raped should be forced to bear a child from that crime, or that their fellow citizens were moochers, or that poor sick children should be left to fend for themselves, or that unemployment was a product of laziness. Put simply, Americans realized they didn’t like what Republicans stimulated in them.
And so we live in a newly invigorated country with a more tolerant spirit. The Republican Party has its lowest favorability ratings ever. Meanwhile, Obama delivered an inaugural address with a surprisingly full-throated defense of a government that fosters community rather than polarization. He should have entered office in 2009 declaring that he had our backs, but he has come to realize that we now have his. He knows the plates have shifted.
Neal Gabler is the author, most recently, of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.’’