Imagine, for example, that American politics were a counterinsurgency (“COIN”) operation of the kind we’re now waging in Afghanistan and that the contending parties are the conservative and liberal ideological communities. According to COIN doctrine, success turns on the battle for hearts and minds, i.e., the capacity of winners to persuade a critical mass of the unaligned population that they not only have a more attractive vision of the common good, but the clout to make it happen. If neither side can bring that combination of assets to the fight, the unaligned population is likely to deny victory to both sides by hedging its bets on the future. On the crude analogy we’re pursuing, this week’s election was a battle in the continuing ideological war between conservatives and liberals over the hearts and minds of political independents and ideological moderates.
I’ve remarked before about the significance of the fact that since the 1980s, while we speak regularly about “movement conservatism,” it never occurs to us to speak of “movement liberalism.” The terminological distinction marks the fact that conservatives have been waging a generational war over hearts and minds without much in the way of liberal opposition. It’s only since Obama’s inauguration that it makes sense to think of the Tea Partiers as Special Forces in a COIN operation since, before that, it had been thirty years since there’d been a liberal insurgency to counter. One of the attractions of our analogy for liberals is that conservatives and Tea Parties fit more snugly into the role of the Taliban.
However you cast the players, it still makes sense to ask how the COIN campaign is going. William Galston's election post-mortem provides us with the makings of an answer:
Let’s pursue our analogy one step further: maybe things would be going better for liberals if their techniques for countering the conservative insurgency owed a little more to the military philosophy of David Petraeus and a little less to the governing philosophy of Hamid Karzai.“The ideological composition of the electorate shifted dramatically. In 2006, those who voted were 32 percent conservative, 47 percent moderate, and 20 percent liberal. In 2010, by contrast, conservatives had risen to 41 percent of the total and moderates declined to 39 percent, while liberals remained constant at 20 percent. And because, in today’s polarized politics, liberals vote almost exclusively for Democrats and conservatives for Republicans, the ideological shift matters a lot.
“To complete the argument, there’s one more step: Did independents shift toward Republicans because they had become significantly more conservative between 2006 and 2010? Fortunately we don’t have to speculate about this. According to the Pew Research Center, conservatives as a share of total Independents rose from 29 percent in 2006 to 36 percent in 2010. Gallup finds exactly the same thing: The conservative share rose from 28 percent to 36 percent while moderates declined from 46 percent to 41 percent.
“This shift is part of a broader trend: Over the past two decades, moderates have trended down as share of the total electorate while conservatives have gone up. In 1992, moderates were 43 percent of the total; in 2006, 38 percent; today, only 35 percent. For conservatives, the comparable numbers are 36 percent, 37 percent, and 42 percent, respectively. So the 2010 electorate does not represent a disproportional mobilization of conservatives: If the 2010 electorate had perfectly reflected the voting-age population, it would actually have been a bit more conservative and less moderate than was the population that showed up at the polls. Unless the long-term decline of moderates and rise of conservatives is reversed during the next two years, the ideological balance of the electorate in 2012 could look a lot like it did this year.”