Last week's historic election repudiated the grandiose, left-wing governance schemes of President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress. Conservatives are still toasting the victory. But the election, and the two years leading up to it, hold lessons that go well beyond this election cycle. America, it turns out, is a far more resilient nation than we had feared.
When Obama walked through the White House doors in January 2009, several factors suggested that, from a conservative point of view, the world was coming to an end.
Obama had billed himself as postpartisan and pragmatic. But he demonstrated quickly that his "hope and change" program meant not just a tilt to the port side but a hard-left tack. He pushed relentlessly for schemes of unprecedented scope --from a quasi-governmental takeover of health care to potentially economically debilitating cap-and-trade legislation. Conservatives feared that even if such changes prompted grumbling they would eventually embed themselves in voters' expectations.
Obama's allies in his campaign to remake America, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid, steered the liberal juggernaut through a Democrat-heavy House and a filibuster-proof Senate. This trio's bare-knuckle, Chicago-style approach seemed almost invincible. They rammed through a deeply unpopular health care bill by using end runs around Senate rules and bald-faced buyoffs, including the infamous "Cornhusker kickback" and "Louisiana Purchase" that finally snared support from Sens. Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu.
Conservatives could also point to larger factors that seemed to signal an ominous long-term trend. After Obama's election, liberal commentators proclaimed that a permanent realignment of single women, young people, blacks and Latinos would soon render conservative politicians extinct. In his 2009 "The Death of Conservatism," Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, announced that the decades-long "Reagan Revolution" was dead and buried and that Big Government was here to stay.
To these prophesies, many conservatives added cultural concerns. They warned of a softening of character and a decline of civil society that threatened to push Americans into government's smothering embrace. They cited the deterioration of the family -- society's most fundamental governmental unit -- and a campaign by elites to redefine marriage itself. And they pointed to an erosion of religion and other cultural guideposts that hold us to a standard higher than "give me mine."
As conservatives looked across the Atlantic, their gloom increased. They feared they saw the end game of Obama's welfare state in chaotic Greece and France, with their ever-expanding public sectors, powerful unions and insatiable sense of entitlement.
But last week's repudiation of Big Government confirmed that we were wrong to be tempted by despair. The election demonstrated that there is something in the American spirit that rejects the siren song of the nanny state.
The gains were sensational -- at least 61 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the biggest electoral shift since 1948. In the Senate, a pickup of six seats may bring de facto control, as some Democrats there show newfound zeal for working with Republicans. (Divided House and Senate control may be the best scenario for Republicans going into the presidential race of 2012). Republicans now hold at least 30 governorships. The GOP gained more than 680 state legislative seats nationwide -- giving it the greatest number of seats since 1928 -- and now has majorities in both legislative chambers in 26 states.
In Minnesota, Republicans won majorities in the both the House and Senate and saw newcomer Chip Cravaack defeat liberal icon Jim Oberstar in the Eighth Congressional District. The governor's race may be close enough to trigger a recount.
Hopefully liberals will learn a lesson about political hubris and overreach. But the election holds a more important and reassuring lesson for conservatives: Americans can stand up to liberalism's temptations. They can see government "candy" for what it is and have the wherewithal to reject it as undermining the ideas at our nation's core: liberty, free enterprise, opportunity and self-determination.
The grass-roots revolt began with ordinary people standing up, one by one, at town hall forums to proclaim their opposition to Big Government. Legions of activists and candidates -- completely new to politics -- reenergized demoralized conservatives. The Tea Party movement grew spontaneously, as citizens said "no" to replacing America's founding vision of individualism and limited government with a statist model that will restrict freedom in the name of redistributionist "fairness" and encumber future generations with a crushing public debt.
The great lesson of this election is that America may not be on an inexorable slide to soft political tyranny and cultural drift. Our nation is built of sterner stuff than we dared to hope.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at email@example.com.