Does that headline seem a little overblown? Well, don't worry, it's not from me. But it's entirely possible that in the wake of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts's special election to fill the Senate seat left vacant following Ted Kennedy's death, you've seen a few similar headlines around the blogosphere. I know I have. Not shockingly, they're all from liberals. Now I'm not going to say that liberals shouldn't be upset about the Brown victory. After all, if you subscribe to that particular political philosophy, then Brown's election is a stinging rebuke, and will almost certainly derail the "progressive agenda" for the time being. That's a hard pill for some people to swallow. However, I think that a little perspective is needed. Let's get this out of the way right now: the election of Scott Brown was a straight-up referendum on Barack Obama's presidency. Obama made it so by heading to Massachusetts to campaign for the bumbling Martha Coakley, and didn't even attempt to deny when stumping for her. But Scott Brown also made it so by running on an explicitly anti-Obama platform. It's not like Brown was trying to hide his conservative stripes from the electorate. In fact, what makes his victory so astonishing is that he actually ran as a tax-cutting national security hawk who promised to be the forty-first vote against Obama's health care monstrosity. A full 72% of the electorate believed that Brown was at least somewhat conservative, compared to only 22% that saw him as a moderate. And he won! In liberal Massachusetts, a state that hadn't elected a Republican Senator since 1972, he won a seat that hadn't been held by a Republican since Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952. Add that to the fact that fully 56% of voters said that health care was the issue that most influenced their vote; that 50% of voters said it would be better to pass no bill at all than the bill before Congress; and that 51% percent of voters flat-out oppose the current health bill (with 41% percent strongly opposing it), and it becomes difficult to see the election as anything other than a slap in the President's face. (All figures from Rasmussen Reports.)
And you know, that's not a shock either. What President hasn't faced some sort of rebuke from the public? It happens. In fact, it's meant to happen. Our particular form of democratic republicanism is structured to enable the electorate to let their government know when it's going to far. The Founding Fathers were fearful of rapid change spurred by momentary eruptions of public outrage, and when they wrote the Constitution, they installed mechanisms to prevent it. There's no question about that. Insofar as the results of the election reflected the will of the people of Massachusetts - and by extrapolation the will of the American people, who have repeatedly shown themselves to be strongly against the President's current health care proposal - the system worked.
But the liberal literati seem to think that far from being a perfect example of the electorate exercising its power over the government through the system, Brown's election demonstrates that American democracy is in fact broken. Yes, their interpretation of the results is that because the public consciously chose to derail the Obama agenda, the system has in fact failed. How do they arrive at that conclusion? Well, I can't claim to know what lurks in the mind of every liberal, but my instinct tells me that the reaction comes from a paradox, which is a necessary condition of the liberal philosophy as it exists in modern America.
The fact is that the progressive agenda that drives liberals cannot be fully enacted by the will of the American people. This is because it is in many ways fundamentally at odds with the traditional American ideas of individualism and self-reliance, and consequently is relegated to minority status among American philosophies. (Witness this Gallup poll, which found that only 21% of Americans identified themselves as liberals by the end of 2009.) However, the general thinking among progressives is that despite their agenda's unpopularity - and they recognize it as unpopular, or else they wouldn't feel the need to disguise it every election cycle - it must be enacted in the name of social justice. And there is the dilemma. Liberals recognize that their policies are not widely supported by the American people, yet they believe that those policies must be implemented in the name of righting societal wrongs.
When the electorate votes them into office, liberals naturally celebrate. They seem to think that the people have finally come around to them; that they have accepted the progressive agenda and recognized the genius of their enlightened leaders. In short, the agenda has won people over. But when they are voted out of office, liberals refuse to believe that their agenda lost people. Instead they panic, because suddenly the system no longer serves their goals. They realize that under a system in which people can turn against the enlightened agenda so quickly, no true "progress" can be made. Consequently, this system - the system of American democracy - has failed them. It is at this point that they claim to have lost faith in democracy.
I'm not going to pretend that conservatives always handle electoral defeats with grace and dignity. But I will say that I've never heard a conservative rail against the system itself simply because the people have dealt them a defeat. Most conservatives simply try to figure out how to win next time, how to win the people's favor once more. Liberals, though, seem to want to cut the people out of the process entirely, because to them, anything that stands in the way of enacting the progressive agenda now must be eliminated.
But that's nothing new. It's just the logical extension of a philosophy that holds at its core the belief that not only does an enlightened elite knows what's better for a country than the citizenry as a whole, but that it is the right of that elite to see its agenda implemented, regardless of public opposition.
And so you see, the latest electoral setback that liberals have endured - the victory of Scott Brown - may have inspired headlines like the one above. However, for liberals, faith in American democracy did not just evaporate because of Scott Brown. It vanished a long time ago, when they chose to embrace a philosophy that holds as its highest virtue the service of "social justice," rather than the service of the will of the people.