Decorum and a Consistent Ethic of Liberty: Three Quick Thoughts on the Midterms
Far wiser observers of the scene have better election post-mortems, so I’ll restrict myself to three observations about yesterday’s surprising midterms.
1. MAGA turns off more folks than it turns on. For the past six years, Trumpworld has insisted that the vulgarity, swagger, and embarrassing preening of the 45th president was part and parcel of his appeal – and deserving of imitation. The GOP turned viciously on its courtly moderates, declaring that civility and decorum were trademarks of “loserdom.” If you wanted to win, it helped to be a fist-pumping boor with an allergy to compromise. For the most part, the Trumpiest candidates with the most appalling manners either failed in the primary (Eric Greitens in Missouri) or they stumbled into the general election, only to underperform expectations and the polls (Don Bolduc and Blake Masters). The takeaway? Character matters (check out the ticket-splitting in Georgia), but so too does basic decorum.
People are tired of clown shows. People want dignity and results, and the promise of the latter does not mean they are willing to give up on the former.
2. Abortion rights matter. I live in L.A., and I am closely tied to a great many parents who were outraged at school closures and vaccine mandates. A lot of us were unnerved by how Democratic officials used COVID as a pretext for a mammoth expansion of state power. The culture of medical surveillance, with vaccine card checks at restaurants, was genuinely terrifying for many. The GOP had a natural opening to folks like us, particularly when GOP governors in states like Florida and Georgia reopened businesses and schools quickly while refusing to mandate vaccines.
The GOP blew that chance. The right’s rhetoric on “medical freedom” did not jibe well with their response to the Dobbs decision. As Republicans across the country promised to ban all abortions, allowing few or no exceptions, it was hard for classical liberals to take their rhetoric about body autonomy seriously. (To be fair, the mandate-loving Democrats were just as inconsistent.) Anecdote is not evidence, but I know a great many people who were open to Republican arguments on economics, crime, and COVID – but were turned off by the GOP promise to follow up on Dobbs by introducing a federal abortion ban in Congress should they retake power. I don’t want my children to be forced to take a jab of dubious efficacy, but I also don’t want my daughter to not have the option her mother and grandmothers enjoyed.
Classical liberals don’t really have a home these days, as the Libertarians are an unserious people. On issues like toxic Wokeness, COVID lockdowns, and crackdowns on free speech – all issues that trouble a great many traditional liberals -- the GOP had an opening. Hardline intransigence on abortion shut that door tight.
3. Millicent Fenwick lives. Not really, of course; the great New Jersey Republican Congresswoman left for the grander party in the sky 30 years ago. But in my large family, made up as it is of many generations of liberal Republicans, Fenwick is the great icon. Millicent was an elegant and passionate advocate for that fusion of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism; she was a great believer that government should be both small and competent. She was staunchly pro-choice, but that didn’t stop her from being one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite members of the House.
It is popular on both right and left to say that there are no true socially liberal/fiscally conservative folks left. The GOP has purged its ranks of pro-choice classical liberals; the Democratic party has moved sharply to the left on economic issues. There are, we are told, no more liberal Republicans like Fenwick: Brooks-Brothers-clad types with a quiet, modest commitment to both public service and the quaint idea that people should be allowed to do what they like behind closed doors.
And yet. With 100% of the vote in, Gavin Newsom has won re-election with 57.7% of the vote. (A smaller margin than DeSantis in Florida.) With 100% of the vote in, Proposition 1 – which enshrines abortion rights in the California constitution – has passed with 65% of the vote. That means, if my basic math skills do not fail me, that some 6.3% of Californians who went to the polls – more than 350,000 people – voted for a Republican for governor and for abortion to remain legal. (UPDATE: 7.3%. My math skills DID fail me.) That’s not a huge number, and the margins may shift slightly as the late absentees are counted, but the takeaway is clear: the intellectual and cultural heirs of Millicent Fenwick are still here.
Liberal Republicanism is, to borrow from the Princess Bride, mostly dead – but the Prop 1/Newsom vote split suggests a wondrous revival may yet be possible.