Congress, the President, and the Two Majorities

I’m no expert on electoral politics, but I’m starting to wonder if we conservatives have been focusing on the wrong thing. I’ll explain.

If you’ve never read the late, great Willmoore Kendall’s essay “The Two Majorities in American Politics,” you should. In that piece, he grapples with what he calls the “unexplained mystery of our politics: the fact that one and the same electorate maintains in Washington, year after year, a President devoted to high principle and enlightenment [Obama’s second inaugural ring a bell?] and a Congress that gives short shrift to both” (italics in original). Said another way, he’s grappling with the question of why American voters are apparently schizophrenic, preferring that the presidency be a bastion of progressivism and that the legislature be more conservatively inclined. (Keep in mind, we’re talking about a general rule, to which there have been noteworthy exceptions, of course, like Reagan.) Anyway, Kendall’s answer, to boil it down to its barest essence, is this: Congressional constituencies, since they represent smaller segments of the American people, also better reflect the inegalitarian, more hierarchical nature of such smaller communities (and, mind you, this is something inherent in every community, for reasons I won’t bother to explain right now), which by the very nature of the case makes them more conservative. Thus the tendency for Americans to wind up with a liberal president and a conservative Congress.

Well, if that’s the nature of our system, then why don’t we conservatives try to capitalize on that a bit more? I’m not saying to abandon any effort to win the presidency; I’m just arguing that, when all is said and done, conservatives might gain more ground by winning and maintaining control of Congress, instead of pinning so many of our hopes on the idea of having a Republican president. Don’t give up the executive, that is; just give pride of place to Congress. And when we suffer electoral defeats like the 2012 presidential race, don’t despair. That’s not necessarily a sign that the American people have finally repudiated conservatism; it’s just sort of to be expected.

A further point: Not only is it more likely that conservative ideas may win in congressional elections than in presidential ones, but there’s also the fact that, in the end, winning Congress is really more important than winning the presidency. There’s not a whole lot that a liberal president can do without congressional approval. On everything from legislation to presidential appointments to foreign policy issues, a president needs congressional backing. (And then, of course, there’s the impeachment power.) In order to do anything noteworthy, a liberal president would have to moderate at least somewhat in order to work with a relatively conservative Congress. In short, by focusing on Congress, we can really pull this country to the right.

But don’t the 2012 election results prove that I’ve got this all wrong? Nope. As Michael Barone noted last November, all in all 2012 really wasn’t that great for the Democrats, actually. I think his analysis in Human Events really vindicates Kendall’s insight: Conservative ideas play best in smaller constituencies.

And that’s why I think 2014 and 2018 will matter more than 2016 and 2020.