Vox populi -- the voice of the people -- was uttered Nov. 4. But what did they say, and what will President-elect Obama and the Congress do based on that voice? All we know for certain about the first question is that about 66 million people cast their votes for Obama, and about 58 million cast their votes for McCain. Interpreting why they voted that way will be the first subject of contention. From all across the political, ideological and interest group spectra, there will be fierce claims that the election proved this or that. For Obama, this is an exercise in claiming he now has a mandate for (fill in the blank). For the losers, it will be claimed that in voting down McCain, the public did not oppose this or that.
Now, if you can make the case that the people's vote endorses your position, then you assert that vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God).
If you are on the losing side, then you may find convincing the advice of Alcuin of York, the great English scholar and top adviser to Charlemagne: "Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit." ("And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, because the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.")
But beyond the cynicism and preposterous spin involved in this exercise of "mandate, mandate, who has the mandate?" is a very serious business. For both the winners and the losers, the greatest danger is that they come to believe their own spin. Shortly after the election, I was in a radio show debate, and my liberal interlocutor asserted that the vote for Obama proved that the public finally had rejected "Reaganism" -- from free, deregulated markets to all those traditional and religious cultural arguments that Republicans "have been using to confuse the people."
I can only hope that Obama and his team assume that his 53-46 percent win at a moment of calamitous economic news and a vastly unpopular president constituted a rejection of every non-leftist impulse in the public. It is revealing that the exit polling disclosed that the public self-identified itself as 44 percent moderate, 34 percent conservative and 22 percent liberal, which was statistically identical (45-34-21) to the numbers after Bush's 2004 victory. Moreover, the fact that 20 percent of self-identified conservatives voted for Obama -- or 6.8 percent of the electorate -- shows that if McCain had held all the self-identified conservatives, he would have won the popular vote.
No one can know for sure why any of the approximately 124 million voters voted the way they did. Obviously, there were some conservatives who voted for a liberal. Maybe they were punishing the Republicans. Maybe they just admired Obama as a man. Maybe they liked his tax cut promises (though not his position on abortion). Likewise, there were some liberal Hillary supporters who voted for McCain just because they didn't like the way Obama treated their heroine.
But if the Obama team is susceptible to over-interpreting their mandate (as most winners do), the Republicans run the risk of underestimating what forces have been unleashed by this election -- taking undue comfort in the fact that the ideological center of gravity of the electorate does not appear to have moved leftward in this election.
Consider that in 1980, when Ronald Reagan won his first presidential election, the public was self-identified as 46 percent moderate, 28 percent conservative and 17 percent liberal. But by the 1984 Reagan re-election, the public had shifted to 42 percent moderate, 33 percent conservative and 16 percent liberal -- a statistically significant shift to the right. In those four years, Reagan had persuaded 5 percent of the electorate to move largely from moderate to conservative. And that 5 percent has stayed conservative for 24 years, right through the 2008 election. It is that 5 percent that has made America a center-right country rather than a centrist country -- allowing a fairly conservative Republican Party to win congressional and presidential elections most of the time.
That is why it is so vital for both the Republican Party and a newly aroused conservative movement to work feverishly to make the case to the broadest possible public for our right-of-center views during the next four years. Obama has not made his case yet. Just as Reagan won in 1980 in part because a lot of moderates were tired of Carter -- double-digit interest rates, stagflation, Soviets in Afghanistan, Iranian hostage crisis -- so a lot of moderates voted for Obama because of the housing market crash, financial crisis, drop in 401(k) account values, and two wars.
Obama will try to convert those temporary moderate and conservative votes of his into permanent liberal and moderate voters -- just as Reagan did in reverse between 1980 and 1984. If we conservatives can make our case, the election of 2008 will be a blip, just a kick-the-bums-out election. If Obama makes his case, he may have moved the center of political gravity to the left for a generation. Every conservative man and woman, to battle stations.