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Realignment Revisited

It’s been nearly a year since I wrote a post titled “What Realignments Look Like.” In it I reflected on how disorienting it was to see the Democrats take the White House, increase their margins in the Congress, and confidently pursue a progressive policy agenda. Having politically come of age during Reagan’s presidency, when the Republican critique of liberalism seemed to permeate the political consciousness of the nation, such a thing seemed unthinkable. Through the two decades separating the end of the Reagan era and the election of Barack Obama, I was convinced that the only electorally viable liberalism was a moderate, centrist liberalism. The post-1994 Clinton administration served as a model.

During 1990s, Bill Clinton's modest ambitions ... seemed perfectly reasonable to me—a severely chastened form of liberalism being the only one possible in a world in which the failures of Great Society social programs were obvious to just about everyone. In this world, Republicans set the parameters of political debate and established the requirements of electoral success. And when Democrats challenged these limits, as Clinton tried to do during his first two years in office, they paid a heavy price. This America was a center-right nation—one pragmatic enough to entrust the presidency to a moderate Democrat like Clinton, but only if he played by the rules established by the Reagan revolution.

Writing twelve months ago, I wondered if Obama had managed to begin a partisan realignment that would shift “the political spectrum to the left for a generation, while also managing at long last to bury Reaganite conservatism.” I didn’t consider it likely, but I thought it was possible. No, the 44th president had not “reawakened the liberalism that's been slumbering in the soul [of the American majority] since the summer of 1968.” Still, Obama seemed to be a master of selling liberalism as a non-ideological form of pragmatism, as if he were saying to the American people, “Hey, I'm not a big-government guy; it's just that the Republicans made such a wreck of the place that I have no choice but to do some big things to clean up the mess.” Maybe that message would succeed in persuading the country to go along with what would otherwise appear to be a overly ambitious progressive agenda.

A year later, with a massive stimulus package having done little to lower unemployment, the deficit going through the roof with no end in sight, health care reform on the verge of collapse, and the electoral tide turning sharply against the Democrats even in liberal strongholds like Massachusetts, things look very different. Or rather, they look very much the same as they have since 1980, when the winds of public opinion began to blow from the right. The United States might not be a center-right nation, but it shows every sign of being a nation in which more people oppose (or can be demagogically goaded into opposing) a progressive policy agenda than support (or can be rallied into supporting) it.

It’s understandable that liberals would lament this fact. But they shouldn’t allow their disappointment at electoral reality lead them to do something civically irresponsible, like punishing the Democrats by failing to support the party in 2010 and 2012, thereby insuring the political resurgence of the Republicans. Easily the most enduring sentences of my year-old post are the ones in which I describe the post-Bush condition of the GOP. (I’m referring to Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher, whose 15 minutes of fame ran out about 2 minutes after my post went live, but one could easily substitute Sarah Palin, the leaders of the “tea party” movement, or even prominent members of the House Republican caucus for good ol’ Joe.)

Having badly bungled a war, shown gross incompetence in responding to a natural disaster, and presided over the near-total collapse of the nation's (and the world's) financial system, the leadership of the Republican Party thinks it's a good idea to follow the advice (or rather, to pretend to follow the advice) of some guy who (to put it delicately) has no fucking idea what he's talking about. I'm not sure I'd go so far as David Brooks in describing this ideology as "nihilism," but whatever it is, it has no business getting within a stone's throw of the White House any time soon.

If anything, things have gotten considerably worse over the past year in this respect, with the Republican Party imposing ideological purity tests in a futile desire to placate its infuriated populist wing and party leaders (and leading intellectuals) proposing nonsensical alternatives to the nation’s very real problems. 

However dispirited liberals feel at the moment, surely they can agree that the post-1994 Clinton administration, for all of its triangulation-inspired humility, was better than a Dole administration would have been—and that given the genuinely alarming condition of the current Republican Party a less ambitiously progressive Obama administration is still vastly preferable to just about any GOP alternative.

“Anything But The Other Guys” isn’t a particularly inspiring slogan, especially in comparison to the (let’s face it) exaggerated expectations for change many progressives entertained during the 2008 campaign. But the phrase captures the most pressing fact about the present political moment: Today’s Republican Party is unfit to govern and so must not be permitted to win the presidency. Everything else—including health care reform and climate change legislation—can and should be treated as negotiable. If the Democrats conclude that compromise or caution will make a Republican resurgence less likely, then they should take that path, for the good of the country. Until the Republicans come to their collective senses, depriving them of power must be the most urgent aim of progressive politics.