11/12/2011 05:48 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2012

Too Far Right On a Bleak Night

Last Tuesday night was a bleak one for the Tea Party as election results came in. Although a few of its candidates were elected (Republicans captured the Virginia State Senate by 96 votes but lost a similar effort in Iowa), by and large their ideas were not just defeated -- they were overwhelmingly rejected for being far too radical.

The biggest defeat for the Republican leadership was Ohio, where Governor John Kasich's signature "no right to organize for public servants" bill was repealed overwhelmingly in a referendum, 61 percent to 39 percent. Just as importantly, in an off-year election, voter turnout soared, with 400,000 more Ohioans going to the polls than had turned out in 2010. And an election-eve poll showed that if the presidential election were held today, the Buckeye State would give President Obama an 11-point victory over his nearest Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Since it would be almost impossible for the Republicans to win without Ohio, this is stunning evidence of just how badly Tea Party extremism is hurting Republican chances in 2012.

Perhaps less surprisingly, Republican efforts in Maine to prune back excessive democracy by repealing election-day registration were also overwhelmingly rebuffed, 59 percent to 41 percent. This is the first time the public has had a chance to vote on the Republican campaign to deny ballot box access to as many voters as possible. Even if Maine was especially unfertile ground for such an effort, it's still reassuring to see how little public support the idea has.

But if Maine is stubbornly independent, Mississippi is equally stubbornly anti-choice. So advocates of reproductive rights were worried that an extreme ballot measure that declared a fertilized egg to be a human being might pass, threatening not only access to abortion but also to family planning and in vitro fertilization. But the measure failed, getting only 40 percent of the vote.

What's interesting about these rightwing defeats is that they were accompanied, for the first time in years, by substantial defections of voters who consider themselves mainline conservatives. While Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said he would vote for the "egg is a person" bill because he opposes abortion, he also said that he had "concerns" about the "ambiguity" of Initiative 26. In Ohio, as well, there was widespread grumbling and defection from Republican elected officials not eager to go after the civil rights of police officers, firefighters, nurses, and teachers.

What can these results tell us about both the current national mood and what might happen in 2012?

One interpretation is that the right has simply gone too far. Governor Kasich, America's least popular chief executive, summed up the lesson of his defeat in Ohio by saying, "We tried to do too much too soon." And in Mississippi, many leading opponents of abortion actually opposed the "egg is a person" proposal because they believed it could provoke a serious Supreme Court rebuff.

But another, more intriguing interpretation is that these stinging defeats for the right are part of the growing global narrative of public distrust of leaders -- of all kinds and ideological stripes. In this narrative, people threw out so many Democrats in November 2010 because they felt that those Democrats had not stood up for ordinary people against insiders and the privileged. Instead, they were bailing out banks and auto companies (but not homeowners) and requiring ordinary citizens to buy health insurance (but leaving drug companies free to price gouge).

But disenfranchising voters (Maine) or depriving public servants of the right to protect themselves (Ohio) or imposing a religious definition on the practice of medicine (Mississippi) were all seen as simply part of the same pattern -- the out-of-touch actions of a leadership class that has lost sight of the idea that it exists to serve ordinary people, not privileged insiders.

The day after the election, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman drew some intriguing comparisons between the Occupy Wall Street movement here and the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare in India. And it's undoubtedly true that the single issue on which Occupy Wall Street and the real grassroots of the Tea Party strongly agree is probably the influence of big money on our politics.

But if the real rebellion is coming from neither the right nor the left, but from the outside, and if the real demand is for leaders who will take the side of the ordinary person, then I'd argue that two big conclusions are staring us in the face:

First, the most urgent priority for the Democratic party leadership should be to free itself from dependence on insider campaign contributions and influence.

Second, the current Koch-brothers version of conservatism is in an almost impossible bind, because it corruptly attempts to harness anti-establishment voter sentiment in cynical subservience to the policy interests of that same establishment.

Yes, the Democrats can still easily lose. But, long-term, the Republicans can't really win -- unless they completely rethink their ideology.