Published: November 18, 2012
WINNING an election doesn't just offer the chance to govern the country. It offers a chance to feel morally and intellectually superior to the party you've just beaten. This is an inescapable aspect of democratic culture: no matter what reason tells us about the vagaries of politics, something in the American subconscious assumes that the voice of the people really is the voice of God, and that being part of a winning coalition must be a sign that you're His chosen one as well.
This means the losing coalition must be doomed to wander east of Eden, and liberals have been having a good time with this idea of late. "Those poor, benighted Republicans!" runs the subtext of their postelection commentary. "They can't read polls! They can't reach Hispanics! They don't understand women! They don't have a team of Silicon Valley sorcerers running their turnout operations!"
Back in 2011, the Obama White House earned some mild mockery for its "win the future" slogan. But now that the president has been re-elected, the liberal conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have done just that - that Republicans are now Radio Shack to their Apple store, "The Waltons" to their "Modern Family," a mediocre Norman Rockwell to their digital-age mosaic.
Maybe it's too soon to pierce this cloud of postelection smugness. But in the spirit of friendly correction - or, O.K., maybe curmudgeonly annoyance - let me point out some slightly more unpleasant truths about the future that liberalism seems to be winning.
Liberals look at the Obama majority and see a coalition bound together by enlightened values - reason rather than superstition, tolerance rather than bigotry, equality rather than hierarchy. But it's just as easy to see a coalition created by social disintegration and unified by economic fear.
Consider the Hispanic vote. Are Democrats winning Hispanics because they put forward a more welcoming face than Republicans do - one more in keeping with America's tradition of assimilating migrants yearning to breathe free? Yes, up to a point. But they're also winning recent immigrants because those immigrants often aren't assimilating successfully - or worse, are assimilating downward, thanks to rising out-of-wedlock birthrates and high dropout rates. The Democratic edge among Hispanics depends heavily on these darker trends: the weaker that families and communities are, the more necessary government support inevitably seems.
Likewise with the growing number of unmarried Americans, especially unmarried women. Yes, social issues like abortion help explain why these voters lean Democratic. But the more important explanation is that single life is generally more insecure and chaotic than married life, and single life with children - which is now commonplace for women under 30 - is almost impossible to navigate without the support the welfare state provides.
Or consider the secular vote, which has been growing swiftly and tilts heavily toward Democrats. The liberal image of a non-churchgoing American is probably the "spiritual but not religious" seeker, or the bright young atheist reading Richard Dawkins. But the typical unchurched American is just as often an underemployed working-class man, whose secularism is less an intellectual choice than a symptom of his disconnection from community in general.
What unites all of these stories is the growing failure of America's local associations - civic, familial, religious - to foster stability, encourage solidarity and make mobility possible.
This is a crisis that the Republican Party often badly misunderstands, casting Democratic-leaning voters as lazy moochers or spoiled children seeking "gifts" (as a certain former Republican presidential nominee would have it) rather than recognizing the reality of their economic struggles.
But if conservatives don't acknowledge the crisis's economic component, liberalism often seems indifferent to its deeper social roots. The progressive bias toward the capital-F Future, the old left-wing suspicion of faith and domesticity, the fact that Democrats have benefited politically from these trends - all of this makes it easy for liberals to just celebrate the emerging America, to minimize the costs of disrupted families and hollowed-out communities, and to treat the places where Americans have traditionally found solidarity outside the state (like the churches threatened by the Obama White House's contraceptive mandate) as irritants or threats.
This is a great flaw in the liberal vision, because whatever role government plays in prosperity, transfer payments are not a sufficient foundation for middle-class success. It's not a coincidence that the economic era that many liberals pine for - the great, egalitarian post-World War II boom - was an era that social conservatives remember fondly as well: a time of leaping church attendance, rising marriage rates and birthrates, and widespread civic renewal and engagement.
No such renewal seems to be on the horizon. That isn't a judgment on the Obama White House, necessarily. But it is a judgment on a certain kind of blithe liberal optimism, and the confidence with which many Democrats assume their newly emerged majority is a sign of progress rather than decline.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/DouthatNYT.
I agree with this. And the NYT, even.