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Lessons of November

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All over America, pundits are spinning the wisdoms and trends revealed by the New Jersey, Virginia, mayoral, and Maine votes. No doubt, much is simple spin, and many fine observations lurk. This short article will try to bend the debate in a very different direction. I believe that hordes of voters went yesterday and voted for Republican candidates and discriminatory marriage platforms even though they voted for and like Obama. I also believe they are expressing an anger that liberal and conservative pundits alike do not understand. Our political and intellectual establishments are wed to notions of liberal and conservative rooted in aging debates and policies of dwindling relevance to today's challenges.

American liberals have tended to believe in greater government involvement, particularly in equality increasing redistribution and social welfare provision. America's conservatives have tended to favor greater scope for deregulated private enterprise and spending on police, military and enterprise friendly public goods. We still talk as if these are our alternatives. Cable news, the web, and papers are full of screaming arguments and accusations along these lines. The problem now is that no one really believes or acts on these priorities anymore. We have seen the state be used to redistribute wealth upward more than downward for 30 years. We have watched the welfare provision of the state starved, reduced, and often directed toward those of means. Likewise, we have seen conservatives embark on radical public subsidy of private enterprise, micromanagement of personal morality and massive expansion of the role of the state. All of this is to say that the broad battle lines of conservative and liberal are little more than tired old rhetorical lines.

No matter how hotly and regularly we watch various folks attack each other from these ideological corners, these debates seem a million miles away from lived experience. This is the message from Tuesday 03 November 2009. The lower income 80% of Americans are watching their incomes, place in the world, job security and sense of self collapse. The markets have not offered them the riches and rewards they sought. Stock markets, mutual funds, pensions, labor markets, jobs, benefits have failed to deliver on high hopes. Likewise, they have stood back as government interventions fail to solve their problems. Many schools are underfunded and underperforming. State aid has flowed more generously to transnational firms than households in trouble. National healthcare proposals have languished and been watered down. State and local governments are firing employees and cutting back services. The state has not functioned according to the liberal agenda in decades. The private market has not functioned according to the conservative edicts of efficiency and fairness.

Our politics are out of touch with the challenges and recent events of American life. The public is angry and scared. We have watched Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, the tech bubble, the housing bubble, and the health care debates with growing skepticism about liberal and conservative claims alike. We desperately need to restructure our economy to pay middle class wages and produce world class goods and services for foreign and domestic purchase. It is every bit as important that our political parties, rhetoric, and debate be firmly rooted in the realities of contemporary America. Until this happens, we will continue to see unpredictable crowds rush toward and away from whomever they like personally, or feel less betrayed by lately. This might just be a valuable lesson to take from the most recent voter actions.