Common-Sense Populists: The Real Winners in November

A few weeks after the election, conservative pundits and mainstream media outlets continue to portray the November election as a victory for centrists, "Blue Dog" Democrats and even social conservatives. As Media Matters has pointed out, the two starkly different Time magazine covers when the GOP won in 1994 and the Democrats triumphed in 2006 show the conventional wisdom at work. When Gingrich and his acolytes took over, the magazine showed a herd of elephants under the heading, "GOP Stampede," while this month's issue, featuring two intersecting math vector circles, proclaimed , "The center is the new place to be."

But most commentators have been mistaking style over substance. Senator-elect Jon Tester's flat-top and support for gun rights shouldn't obscure the driving forces behind the Democratic victory: concern over Iraq and the cost of corruption that pandered to special interests. In addition, there was strong support for such economic fairness issues as the minimum wage, as shown by that issue's success in state referendums. And a study on the election's populist mandate released by the Campaign for America's Future showed support for fair trade by a two-to-one margin in contested elections. Indeed, voters appeared to reject trade agreements that penalize American workers because the issue played a significant role in a few dozen key victories, according to an analysis by Public Citizen.

But the soundest corrective to the conventional wisdom on the November election is likely found in that report done by Campaign for America's Future, based on polling by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. When the report was released last week, the co-director of the progressive policy group, Robert Borosage, declared:

"This election marks the end of one-party misrule in Washington. Voters are looking for a change in course in Iraq. And they're looking for legislators who will put government on their side, challenge entrenched corporate lobbies and policies and change an economy that doesn't work for them. This marks the end of a conservative era that has been mugged by a reality that it got wrong. Now the struggle begins for what comes next."

The report went on to note that more ad money was spent on portraying the threat of Big Pharma than scare-mongering over Osama Bin Laden:

Voters' growing concerns about the Iraq war and economic issues were reflected in the election cycle's evolving campaign ads. A new Campaign for America's Future study of eleven contested races - five for the U.S. House of Representatives, four for the U.S. Senate and two for governor - found that the largest sums of campaign advertising were spent on economic ads that featured remarkably populist messages. The cost of corruption - candidates voting in favor of the interests of corporate lobbies and donors rather than working families - attracted the most combined ad money.

"The signature race of this election was Sherrod Brown versus Mike DeWine," said Borosage. "A socially liberal candidate beat a McCain Republican by emphasizing populist economic issues."

Democrats featured remarkably populist attacks on Republicans catering to corporate interests - Big Oil and Big Pharma - and what this cost voters in higher prices, and jobs getting shipped overseas. More money was spent on ads depicting Big Oil and Big Pharma as threats than on ads warning of Osama bin Laden. Remarkably, little advertising money was spent on social issues.

All that hardly squares with the notions about the meaning of the election offered by everyone from conservative pundits to network anchors (as gathered by Media Matters):

On the November 8 edition of CBS' The Early Show, CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer asserted: "These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats. They are not like some of the liberal firebrands that are in the House right now." He further stated: "The problem that [House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi [CA] is going to have is not so much with the Republican White House, but with her own party."

On the November 8 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that, because it "could not win this election being liberals," the Democratic Party "nominated a bunch of moderate and conservative Democrats for the express purpose of electing a far-left Democrat [sic] leadership." He added: "[L]iberalism didn't win anything yesterday; Republicanism lost. Conservatism was nowhere to be found other than on the Democrat [sic] side of the aisle."

As usual, the right-wing commentators, and their enablers in some media organizations that should know better, have been promoting spin about the election rather than the facts: on the central issues of corruption, the economy and the war, the Democrats are far more united -- and progressive -- than the punditocracy has cared to admit.