There is a lot of sensationalism in the media right now, especially among progressives. That is because a Republican, Scott Brown, just won the remainder of Ted Kennedy's senate term in sparkling-blue Massachusetts in a special election yesterday. The narrative is reading: Democrats Failing, America Tilts to the Right; electorate punishes Democrats for liberal agenda.
Take a deep breath. America isn't going down the tubes. We are not embarking upon a resurgence of Republicanism. Does anyone believe, even for a second, that Massachusetts voters are actually tilting conservative? Trust me, folks: if you haven't suddenly tipped to the Right, neither has Massachusetts.
Something else is going on.
Obama's rise to power was as much about demographic changes in the United States as it was a repudiation of Bush. Black, Asian and Latino Americans are becoming populous enough in many states that Democrats can lose by huge margins among white people but still win the election - minority groups are reluctant to vote for a party that is all about protecting privilege, which they don't have, and the Republican party is, indeed, all about privilege. The young people turning 18 right now are more liberal than their still-voting grandparents by huge margins; if only people under 25 could vote, gay marriage and legalized marijuana would already be a reality. That has been an incredible benefit to Obama and the reason why he won in so many states in 2008.
But young people don't vote in special elections - and the special election for Kennedy's seat was no exception - so what you run with on January 19, 2010, a special election, looks more like the electorate of 1992.
Most liberals say they "would consider voting for a Republican," even if it's only a half truth, but for those who were being straightforward, Scott Brown happened to be one of the ones they would consider it for. In Massachusetts, 22 percent of Democrats chose Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley. Brown is more liberal that most Republicans nationwide and is now the single most liberal Republican in the Senate - he would not win a GOP primary for president unless he tacks far to the Right after arriving in the Senate, which would incidentally kill him in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Massachusetts voters are, quite reasonably, put off by the Democrats' line: "we can't do anything with our meager 20-seat majority" so are saying, shit guys, quit being babies and put up with 59 seats.
If Obama weren't the president or if the Democrats only had a 50 or 55 seats in the Senate, Massachusetts voters would not have sent a Republican. But most people do like the idea of "balance" in government and aren't buying the line that Democrats are totally crippled by the Republican minority - remember, Republicans got a war and a horribly disastrous tax cut under the Bush administration, with much smaller majorities.
Some angry liberals who wanted a more progressive healthcare bill voted for Brown out of spite of the Democrats. Brown is also really, really good-looking, once modeled nude for Cosmo (which makes him seem tempered in socially-liberal Massachusetts), and yes, that has an effect on voters. He is not a "radicalized" Southern-style Republican, he matches the culture of Massachusetts, and even then, he would not have won had Coakley not really messed up and arrogantly assumed the election was over at the primary.
Saying this election spells doomsday for Democrats is like saying "the roads are too icy for ANYONE to drive" after a passed-out-drunk driver driving a car with no brakes plowed through a broken stoplight and hit a fence in March.
This narrative is even good: the media like to view everything through the lens of massive trends, and will begin looking favorably on a party or coalition after it has hit some sort of painful, rhetorical "rock bottom." I'm glad that Democrats' "rock bottom" is happening during a 1-race special election rather than a midterm or presidential election year.
This doesn't dictate what will happen in November 2010. President Obama is going to give his State of the Union Address in two weeks and re-set the agenda in light of this (painful) learning experience. For the next 10 months we are only going to be seeing Democrats bring up issues that at least 55% of Americans approve of, and they're going to move through them more quickly so they can actually show some progress - something progressives and hard-up middle-class Americans can mutually celebrate.
If Democrats don't do that, they absolutely deserve to be voted out of office for incompetence - but I have more optimism than that.