Joshua Zeitz blogged on Wednesday that some liberal pundits, such as the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne, are happily opining that the present troubles of the Bush Administration are turning the President into a lame duck if not a dead duck. Perhaps so, perhaps not. A week can be an eternity in politics, and a few bits of good news (such as a successful election in Iraq, a better than predicted situation in New Orleans, etc.) or bad news for Democrats (such as a budding scandal in the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee that The New York Times—surprise!—has not considered news fit to print, although its public editor is now wondering why), and the situation can look very different.
Mr. Zeitz notes that the Watergate scandal of the Nixon era—far and away the greatest political scandal since World War II—gave the Democrats only a temporary boost. He argues that Watergate was evidence that government doesn’t work and conservatives always benefit in the long term from such evidence. I disagree. I think Watergate was evidence that while men are frail and always will be, the Constitution is not frail and government did indeed work. Nixon had no option but to resign in disgrace, a historical scarlet letter he will carry forever.
The Democrats reaped only temporary benefits from Watergate not because it made the people distrust government, but because the tides of history are against them and they won’t or can’t admit it yet.
It is an old saying in international politics that “Great Powers shuffle on and off the stage of history noisily.” So do great political movements, including what I will call modern American liberalism. (Political labels almost always create false dichotomies, which are handy in polemics but not in reasoned discourse, so please don’t take the labels herein too seriously: liberalism, Democrats, the left, etc. are all synonyms here.)
Born in the post-Civil War era, when industrial capitalism was also aborning and capital was in the saddle, liberalism made only fitful progress at first (such as with the Sherman Antitrust Act and the income tax that the Supreme Court overturned in 1895). But the election of 1896 turned out to be a watershed election, and the right half of the political spectrum would be the dominant power for the next 32 years. The Republicans only lost the Presidency in that era in 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt split the party. (Woodrow Wilson, despite being an incumbent with many accomplishments and with a grave foreign situation, barely won reelection in 1916.)
But the great crisis of the Depression changed everything in American politics, and the left swept to decisive power in 1932 under one of the most charismatic and talented politicians in American history. Over the next 40 years liberalism transformed the country and its social and economic system, and very much for the better. It accomplished virtually all of the goals it had set in its days before power: fairer labor laws, a social safety net, civil rights, effective financial regulation, women’s rights. It transformed the country from one of haves and have nots to one of haves and have mores, a land of opportunity for everyone such as had never before been dreamed possible.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, shell-shocked at being out of power after all that time, didn’t know what to do. They felt they had a natural right to run the country and couldn’t understand that the world had changed. They were reduced to demanding a return to an earlier time, complaining that those now unaccountably in power were destroying all that was right and good about the country, and demonizing “that man in the White House.” One of the most famous New Yorker cartoons of the era showed a group of well-dressed middle-aged people telling friends to “come along, we’re going to the Trans-Lux to hiss Roosevelt.”
But like all political movements, liberalism eventually ran out of intellectual steam. It had accomplished its early goals and, discovering that a secular Kingdom of Heaven had not appeared on earth, insisted on more of the same, even when the evidence was clear that more of the same wasn’t working. It began living increasingly in the past. Today, it seems for Democrats that domestically it is always 1937, in foreign affairs 1968. The civil rights movement triumphed forty years ago, but Democrats are forever screaming “racism!” when race has nothing whatever to do with the situation (such as in New Orleans).
With the Democrats having nothing but old and hopelessly out-of-date ideas, Republicans finally woke up and began developing a whole series of new ideas—good, bad, and indifferent ones—to meet new problems. And they began to win elections as a result. I’m now 61 years old. Since I turned 21, my entire adult life in other words, only once has the Democratic candidate for President won a majority of the popular vote. That was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter won a considerably less than impressive 50.46 percent. When another charismatic and politically gifted man, Ronald Reagan, won the Presidency, in 1980, it was another watershed election. Because of gerrymandering and the value of incumbency, Congress remained largely in Democratic hands. Then in 1994, in one of the most remarkable elections in American history, the Democrats were swept from power everywhere. That year, except for Senator Chuck Robb defeating the controversial Oliver North in Virginia, and the iconic Senator Ted Kennedy surviving in Massachusetts, the Republicans won everything in sight from sea to sea, and they have been the unquestionable majority party ever since.
And how have the Democrats reacted? Exactly like the Republicans in the 1930s. They can’t understand why they are no longer in power, believe that they ought to be (it’s amazing how many Democrats blame the people—demos in Greek, for being too stupid to vote the “right” way), demand a return to an earlier era and earlier ideas, and, most of all, demonize “that man in the White House.”
The Democrats will not become the majority party again until they deserve it. They have to stop reliving past triumphs (and, paradoxically, insisting that those triumphs didn’t accomplish what they did); they have to develop twenty-first-century ideas to solve twenty-first-century problems; they need to find new leaders.
Meanwhile, The New Yorker should run a cartoon showing aging but obviously prosperous hippies in a high-tech living room, talking on a cell phone and telling their friends to come on over, they’re going to turn on CBS and hiss Bush.