Our Conservative Country

And that’s that.

The ballgame is over.  We, the people, have decided to reinstall President Barack Obama for a second term.  The man who became the first black person elected to the nation’s highest office is now the first black person elected to the nation’s highest office twice.

In giving this Democrat its re-branded seal of approval, America reaffirmed its standing as a fundamentally conservative country.

First, some numbers for your edification.  A total of 43 individuals have been president of the United States, 34 of whom assumed the office directly (the remaining nine inherited the job from a president who died or resigned).  Of those 34 elected to a first term, exactly half—17—were elected to a second term.

What is noteworthy about this elite class of presidents is how they tend to cluster.  Five of our first seven chief executives—that is, the ones not named John Adams—were two-termers.  The middle of the 20th century saw extended tenures for Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower (with accidental president Harry Truman’s narrow 1948 victory in between).

And now we have elected and re-elected three presidents in a row—Clinton, Bush, Obama.  In the history of the republic, such a hat trick has occurred only once before, with Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.

What is the take-home message here?  Why do I say we are a conservative people?

To be conservative is to be extremely wary of change.  As a general principle, Americans are extremely wary of change.

In presidential terms, this translates into giving the incumbent an enormous benefit of the doubt, even in the face of the most obvious of shortcomings.  That cliché about “the devil you know” is apparently true.  Few things are more terrifying than the unknown.

If I may interrupt myself:  I am very much a proponent of the idea that one can only glean so much from the collective action of 100 million people; that an election does not always have a unifying meaning; and that the people do not always “send a clear message” to Washington and the powers that be.  Voters are individuals, and each of us has our own reasons to cast our ballots as we do.

Here is what we know.  The last three times in which the American public has had the opportunity to stick with the leader it had, it did.  The most recent instance in which we opted to throw the incumbent out—the year was 1992 and the man was George H.W. Bush—it was amidst a lousy economy with a smooth-talking alternative by the name of Clinton.

This year, we were also faced with a lousy economy and a challenger who offered the wherewithal to make things right.  All the same, we chose to dance with the man that brung us.  What gives?

I risk making an unholy spectacle of myself by invoking the nonsensical piffle that “9/11 changed everything,” but if that attack on the homeland changed anything in our collective psychology, it was to make us more forgiving of our leaders on matters of fighting foreign foes, and more skeptical of replacing them in the middle of a battle.  This explanation was arguably the long and the short of why George W. Bush was given a second go-around, and it is not entirely unreasonable to apply similar logic to Obama, who has sufficiently proved his mettle on the world stage.  (One-termer Jimmy Carter, mishandling the Iran hostage crisis, was judged to have failed such a test.)

Then there is the perennial issue of Congressional incumbency.  Polls consistently place the U.S. Congress as the least-liked branch of government, and yet 85 percent or more of House incumbents have been re-elected in every race since 1950.  In the Senate, re-election rates have been at 75 percent or higher every year since 1982.

The fact is, we are a people who do not want to rock the boat, however much we protest to the contrary.  We demand so-called “change,” but rarely vote for it.

We know Social Security and Medicare are about to go bankrupt, but we resist any real attempts to overhaul them.  Now that the Affordable Care Act is more or less enshrined in our system, opponents will find it progressively more impossible to repeal, either in part or in full.

For good or ill, we err on the side of respecting precedent, out of fear for what might transpire from the new and the untried.  Such an impulse is a manifestly conservative one, even when put upon a manifestly liberal leader.

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