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The Ornery Observer
November 11, 2008

American Prosperity Brings Leftward Political Turn
by Paul Gottfried

I recently came across two statements that have evoked radically different public reactions. One is by Minnesota Republican congresswoman, Michele Bachmann, who told Chris Matthews on his television program that Obama holds “anti-American views,” like certain other members of Congress. The far more significant remark, however, was by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, expressing the hope that the election of Barack Obama would not result in the belief that our war against racism is over. This lady wished to remind us that “Obama winning the presidency does not translate into the end of racial stereotyping or the end of racial inequality.”

Congresswoman Bachmann’s remark produced negative responses even in her solidly Republican district, where an obscure Democratic challenger raised piles of money in an attempt defeat her in the November 4 election. (She prevailed, but by only two percentage points.) That is because most Americans do not think that Obama and the Democratic Left are “anti-American.” Quite to the contrary! Obama and the Princeton professor, who is quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, stand very much within the current American mainstream, which has been taking form since the 1960s. It is rather Bachmann who may be the increasingly isolated American.

Equally questionable is a statement by Jonah Goldberg that Obama’s vision of “America’s promise” is a “defense of collectivism.” Apparently, “millions of Americans don’t share this vision. They don’t see the economy as a pie, whereby your slice can only get bigger if someone else’s gets smaller. They don’t begrudge the wealthy their wealth.” If this is the case, why did Obama sweep to an easy victory, obviously getting votes even from Fox viewers?

Certain variables have caused the United States to swerve to the social left, such as the media, public education, the entertainment industry, a leftward-drifting Christianity, and the expansion of the democratic welfare state. These variables have caused positions that were once considered strange, such as support for gay marriage and the application of the Fourteenth Amendment to illegals, to become commonplace. At the end of the campaign, McCain and the “conservative” Sarah Palin took positions to the left of where liberal Democrats once stood, issues such as feminist legislation, immigration, and many economic issues.

What has allowed this country, together with Canada, Western Europe, and other areas heavily influenced by us, to move leftward since the 1960s is the enormous rise in disposable income and consumer goods. Although the rate of economic growth in welfare state democracies is typically just above one percent, the possibilities for consumer gratification have grown exponentially since the 1950s. Americans are used to living well, and they wish to have the government finance their pleasures as well as their needs.

Many people complain about medical costs but seem blind to the fact that they are living much longer than people were before, and they are taking advantage of expensive medical technology. The comparisons between what is now happening because of the sagging stock market and the sufferings caused by the Crash of 1929 are downright silly. Americans are not going without food and shelter, as they were in the millions after the Great Depression, because their investments and retirement funds have taken a dip. Our citizens may have to cut back on their vacations and send their kids to less expensive colleges, but the fact that so many dare to compare themselves to the homeless and starving who were beset by a far worst disaster in the past is indicative of the high levels of self-pity and historical ignorance that prevail.

A cushion of prosperity has made it possible for Americans to become fashionably radical as well as pampered. We now exhibit as a kind of reflex “sensitivity” to causes that earlier generations, faced by more basic material problems and embedded in more traditional societies, would have scorned. This material improvement has made people comfortable enough to turn their backs on inherited communal attitudes and family roles, and they have voted for the most leftist government in American political history. The election results elevate the supreme embodiment of this change, in a victory against the most liberal GOP presidential candidate ever nominated by his party. But these trends will not save the new president if he turns out to be an economic bungler. Most Americans are not keen on transferring their earnings to designated victims’ groups or Washington bureaucrats.

People voted for the far Left out of peeve as much as ideological conviction, because their material assets seems currently endangered or excessively limited. These voters want the state to shower them with entitlements and tax rebates. But they did not vote in most cases to fund the clients of ACORN or to be denied jobs for themselves and college slots for their kids in order that others receive government privileges. The Democrats and their embattled partisans should not treat their victory as an occasion for massive economic redistribution at the expense of those who switched sides to support them. If the Democrat partisans overreach, they will surely lose this fickle following.

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The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2008 by by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.  All rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Newspapers in October 2008. All rights reserved.

Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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