Jonathan Chait

The Millenialist Temptation

By

Ross Douthat's column today makes a sharp point about the myth of the realigning election, and how this encourages partisans to dream of total victory:

This “realignment theory” was embraced by many scholars because it fit the historical record so well. Every 30 to 40 years, it seemed, the American political order had decisively turned over: in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans trounced John Adams’s Federalists; in 1828, when the Democratic-Republicans split into the Democrats and the Whigs; and then on down through Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 victory, William McKinley’s 1896 consolidation of a Republican majority, and the emergence of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition....

This dream has hovered over national leaders from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. But it has loomed larger in the last decade, as our politics have grown more polarized and our country has suffered through a series of dislocations and disasters. Events like 9/11 and the Great Recession have persuaded partisans on both sides that a dramatic realignment is imminent; the breadth of the ideological divide has convinced them that it’s necessary.

Douthat somewhat misleadingly conflates the millenial aspirations of Democrats and Republicans, when the former have shown far greater willingness to compromise, even in their moments of triumph. But I think this observation provides the right context in which to understand the appeal of Drew Westen's nonsensical argument that President Obama has broken the liberal dream. The reality is that Democrats won two huge victories in 2006 and 2008 running against a wildly unpopular incumbent presiding over a terrible economy. They then advanced their agenda in the face of powerful systemic constraints, and lost their majorities because they were holding power during an even more terrible economy.

The liberal dreams of what policy and political outcomes Obama's election would lead to were always wildly unrealistic. The correct interpretation of these events is that things change and nothing is as great as it seems in the throes of victory, or as terrible as it appears in the wake of defeat. Instead the predominant liberal reaction is that Obama betrayed their hopes, and we've entered a new period of blackness that will not lift until a new progressive champion rides in to vanquish the right once and for all.

Loading Related Articles...
Article Tools
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

Show all 9 comments

You must be a subscriber to post comments. Subscribe today.