After an election that was supposedly going to change everything, nothing seems to have been changed at all. The political pendulum has hardly swung. The political landscape seems just the same as it did the day before the election: a divided government presides over a divided people. A map colored red and blue of this one nation indivisible would show it just about equally split between Obama and Romney voters. Very well. Divided we stand, too. This country has endured far sharper divisions and not just endured but prospered and advanced.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the savvy Frenchman who toured Jacksonian America, left us more than a perceptive impression of that one era. He left us a sanctuary and height from which to view and appraise the workings of all of Democracy in America, to use the title of his two volumes of inexhaustible perspective on American politics, culture, and the American spirit in general. He left us a sense of proportion, which is always lacking immediately after a presidential election. Even one like this, which has proved neither the End of the World nor The Coming of the Messianic Age, depending on which partisans were doing the prophesying.
Today would seem an especially good one to recall Tocqueville's description of the great flood that is every American presidential election -- and its anticlimactic aftermath:
"Long before the appointed moment arrives, the election becomes the greatest and so to speak sole business preoccupying minds. ... The entire nation falls into a feverish state; the election is then the daily text of the public papers, the subject of particular conversations, the goal of all reasoning, the object of all thoughts. ... As soon as fortune has pronounced (the outcome) this ardor is dissipated, everything becomes calm, and the river, one moment overflowed, returns peacefully to its bed."
The candidates who only the day before were denouncing each other now say their polite platitudes, felt or not, and life in these United States continues as before, except in this case even more so.
Let us now congratulate the loser, too. Mitt Romney conducted as good a campaign as could be expected in the lackluster circumstances, and surely better than any of his rivals for the Republican nomination might have. Or does anyone seriously contend that a Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich could have done better at the polls than Mr. Romney, or even as well? How about Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain? Rick Perry? Please.
Beyond the what-might-have-beens lies obdurate political fate: Mitt Romney lost because he was up against the most powerful of forces. No, not some secret conspiracy but inertia, which tends to be a powerful force of its own.
There is much ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith observed, but it may not be as powerful as just plain, immovable inertia, the tendency of things to stay as they are. However unsatisfactory their drift, which may now continue in the wrong direction, or no clear direction at all, whether we're talking about the economy or the decline of American leadership in the world's increasingly dangerously affairs.
These are the times that try conservatives' souls, when we seem up against no clear opposition but an airy inertia. Yet we've persisted through much greater challenges. A little perspective, please. However disappointing the election returns Tuesday, the Republican Party remains the engine of new ideas in a political climate that otherwise seems bereft of any proposals except Stay the Course, however disastrous it may prove.
The challenge for the GOP is to find leaders who can explain those ideas convincingly to We the People despite all the confusion and scaretalk they may stir up. Paul Ryan, the party's vice-presidential candidate this year, showed it can be done. And will be done again.
Now is no time to take refuge in more radical and less popular ideas than Mr. Romney's candidacy represented. That way lies not victory but a fantasy world that offers only more defeat.
In such times, let us hold on to the counsel Whittaker Chambers offered his young friend Bill Buckley after another Republican defeat:
"If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in, and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people -- why, somebody else will. There will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into singularity. The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."
Whittaker Chambers, like Alexis de Tocqueville, could be writing today.