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No new conclusions, I think, can be drawn from the results of the national election, as it simply gave a faint endorsement of the status quo. The American people still like to believe in their president and trust in him: it is hard for an incumbent not to get re-elected. This is actually something to be grateful for.
But the change in momentum of the campaign was curious and needs explanation. Why did a strong Romney lead after the first debate disappear during the final two of weeks of the campaign, overwhelmed by a surge in the opposite direction? I suspect part of the phenomenon was a kind of willful avoidance of reality by some voters -- a doubling down on the idea that government can keep providing benefits by printing and borrowing money -- the way that someone deeply in debt might max out his last credit card by going away on an extravagant vacation. Irrational exuberance can do wonders to banish worries.
And when the second most popular search term for the Republican Vice Presidential candidate was "Paul Ryan shirtless," followed closely by "Paul Ryan abs," and President Obama made regular appearances on late night talk shows and radio shows, to discuss such weighty matters as the music on his iPod, one wonders about the sobriety of the electorate. We are, perhaps, too distracted by Facebook and Twitter to ponder the effects, on service of the national debt, of a return of historic interest rates of about 6 percent.
Romney also seems to have figured after the second debate that he had it locked up except for drawing in some moderate and independent voters; so he made a play for them, softening his attacks on Obama, downplaying social conservatism, and generally trying to appear non-threatening. In the third debate on foreign policy, he deliberately backed away from confronting Obama on Libya, not even to correct Candy Crawley's misrepresentations of the second debate. But when the Romney campaign itself stopped making their case for why it was essential to vote against Obama, the voters forgot that as well, and Romney just on his own began to look like what Obama claimed he was: someone who would strip away regulations and return the economy to its position before the financial crisis, while cutting government benefits besides.
Strangely, in this circumstance, Libya and Sandy became positives for Obama. If Romney was not attacking the Obama administration for its response to these attacks, then the Obama campaign had space to portray these disasters simply as attacks on the country, which he of course had no responsibility for. And everyone rallies around a President when the nation is threatened, especially when he is an athletic and youthful President wearing a handsome bomber jacket, and walking arm-in-arm with a state governor who formerly was his harshest critic.
It is just possible, too, that the election is a kind of bellwether of the condition of the economy to come. The Romney campaign was telling voters to ask themselves, "Am I better off now than four years ago?" The Obama campaign was posing a different but related question: "Am I better off than I will be if the other guy gets elected?" But what if the electorate -- again, a basically conservative group, in the sense that it has an inherent wish to keep the leadership it has -- was instead asking itself, "Do I expect things will get better?" Assume that the business cycle is taking its normal course (although dampened) and that, despite some worrying developments in Europe and China, some small signs of improvement do really portend a turnaround. I don't mean that people look at the jobs numbers and infer that the economy is getting better, but rather that each voter knows his own situation, and assesses it, and makes up his mind about whether, if the country keeps to its present policies, he can reasonably expect to start doing better. On this scenario, then, ironically, Obama's slender margin of victory in 2012 was more an expression of hope than in his first election -- not hope in Obama this time around, but a realistic expectation of better times.
Dire conclusions may not be warranted by the results of the election, but they do seem warranted by the state of our electorate. Apparently no one cares about the common good, because each campaign presumed that the only way to win votes was to argue that individuals or members of interest groups would have more cash in their pocket if its candidate was elected.
Religious liberty is most definitely part of the common good of the United States, yet despite the bishops' impassioned pleadings and prayers, the HHS mandate seems to have been irrelevant for the election. Similarly, the issue of the protection of unborn children has apparently receded from public discourse, as concern for the right to life of 1.3 million children was quickly classified by the mainstream media and in popular consciousness as part of a supposed "war on women." Catholics, poorly catechized, have neglected their role of fixing in public opinion the idea that the natural family is the basic cell of society. They have failed to defend the principle of subsidiarity, or grasp the importance of private property for wealth creation, which Leo XIII taught in "Rerum Novarum."
And yet how many Catholics will study the Catechism in the Year of Faith?
Michael Pakaluk is Chairman and Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University.