In the end, Americans were simply fed up. They were tired of being lied to, tired of watching their country’s blood spilled pointlessly in the deserts and alleyways of Iraq, along with its fiscal sanity and its good name around the world. They were tired of the hypocrisy, of the posing, of the fakers who shamelessly dictated morality before being carted off to jail or rehab. They wanted their country back.
That’s not as simple an undertaking as it seems. When you come right down to it, our governing system essentially offers the citizenry two choices, Column A and Column B. Over the past few years, voters had gotten into a habit of picking the Republican column with some consistency, because a substantial proportion liked what the Republicans had to say. No, the Republicans didn’t always play clean, and no, the Democrats haven’t always been able to get their message across as clearly as some would have liked. But Americans aren’t blind or stupid. If they were, they wouldn’t have done what they did this week.
The fact is that the voters repudiated the GOP this week, not because an overwhelming majority disliked what Republicans have to say, but because a lot of ordinary folks were fed up with hearing one thing and seeing another. They voted for the Democrats because they wanted the Republicans — these Republicans — gone. They wanted people they could trust to say what they mean and to manage our affair without bungling everything in sight. And so, despite the gerrymandered districts that were supposed to protect incumbents forever, despite the push-polls and racist advertising, despite the cockamamie voting machine breakdowns that would embarrass a banana republic, they turned out in record numbers and threw the bums out.
What happens next? If wishes came true, we’d like to see the new Congress convene on January 2 and begin building the America we’ve longed to see. They would begin drafting a national health care system worthy of its name, rewrite trade legislation to include labor and human rights standards, reform our own labor laws, raise taxes on rich folks who aren’t carrying their weight, put some sanity in our environmental laws, restore civil rights protections for minorities and a whole lot more.
But wishes don’t just come true because you want them to. In the real world, you have to work hard and earn what you want. This newspaper has never (well, rarely) wavered in its ideas of what social justice means. We believe compassion and economic fairness make good policy, and we think most Americans can be convinced of these simple truths.
But they haven’t been convinced yet. Except for the good people of Vermont, Americans didn’t vote for social democracy this week. They voted for sane government. Maybe some day, if progressives work hard, they can show Americans the simple sense of what forward-looking governance means. But they haven’t done that yet. If progressive Democrats ignore that fact and begin acting as though they had a mandate to enact their every wish, they’ll find themselves out on their tails in two years, and the next time it will take more than a dozen years to recover.
Americans voted for the Democrats this week in large part because the Democrats finally got smart and figured out what the voters had been telling them for decades. The managers of the Democratic congressional campaign, Senator Chuck Schumer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, understood — as many Democrats did not — that Red State voters would be willing to switch sides if they were offered candidates who looked and sounded like them. As we note in our profile of Emanuel and Schumer in the Forward 50 list this week, the two Democratic leaders were able to see past their own liberal beliefs to understand that Americans want to be governed from the center. They created a party of the center, and Americans saw it, and behold, it was good.
And so America gave Congress to the other guys. That’s how it works in our two-party system. You can take one or the other — even though, as a poet once said, neither of them are always what they seem.