Deciding which year offers the closest parallel to the present forces conservatives to think how they will adjust to the new order. Just how radically have public attitudes shifted?
Actually, the year that offers the closest historical parallels to the present might be neither 1932 nor 1980 but 1976, and that analogy helps us understand the directions in which the country will be moving. Both in government and opposition, people might want to hold off on planning for the next New Deal, still less for a coming generation of liberal hegemony. In three or four years, the main political fact in this country could well be a ruinous crisis of Democratic liberalism.
Why 1976? That was the year Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford for the presidency by a slim but convincing margin: Ford won 48 percent of the popular vote, a little more than John McCain’s 46 percent. Democrats did significantly better in the House in 1976 than they did last month. They held a two-to-one majority of seats, and they retained a supermajority of 61 in the Senate. Broadly, however, the 1976 results look similar to 2008.
The mood of the country in 1976 also parallels our present situation, with a pervasive sense of disgust at politics as usual and widespread fears of national decline. As if the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate fiasco were not catastrophic enough, foreign-policy disasters in Africa and Asia suggested that the U.S. was losing its hegemony. The oil crisis pointed to a vast transfer of wealth and power to the Middle East, while many pundits predicted environmental catastrophe. The sharp economic downturn resulted in heavy unemployment and rising inflation. A concatenation of scandals tarnished once-trusted institutions: corporations, the military, intelligence agencies, police, and, of course, the politicians.
So disaffected was bicentennial America that it sought leaders unconnected to the establishment. In Jimmy Carter, voters found a candidate whose main qualifications were his lack of experience and connections within the Beltway or corporate worlds. Like Barack Obama, Carter claimed to rise above failed partisanship, while his New South background allowed him to symbolize racial healing. Carter, like Obama, sold himself mainly on the virtues of his character. He presented himself as a man of simple honesty, faith, and decency, and his lack of a track record allowed voters to see in him what they wanted, however far-fetched those hopes might be. If they hadn’t believed it, they wouldn’t have seen it with their own eyes. Above all, Carter promised change, a message that carried weight as long as its details remained nonspecific. The problem with messiahs from nowhere is that when they do exercise power, people discover to their horror what their leader’s actual views and talents are. The disillusion can be dreadful.
The rhetoric and psychology of the Democratic Party in 1976 also foreshadows the present day. And as they did in 1976, Democrats now show every sign of repeating the blunders that led to a generation-long discrediting of liberalism. As the phrase goes, they have learned nothing in the intervening years, and they have forgotten nothing. And they will soon face a barrage of issues that they have neither the will nor competence to understand. Liberal triumph in 1976 led inexorably to evisceration in 1980. The same trajectory is likely to recur in the Obama years.
The key mistake Democrats made in 1976 was failing to realize what brought them to power. Democrats won because of public dissatisfaction with the previous regime, which had overseen the economic crisis, and also because of a wider fear that America would have to live with diminished expectations. But although they won on largely economic grounds, Democrats acted as if they had a sweeping mandate for cultural transformation—for social libertarianism, affirmative action and egalitarianism, dovish internationalism, and idealistic notions of human rights. These ideas dominated a radical Congress and were enthusiastically adopted by the cohort of Carter appointments to the judiciary. They all ignored a basic principle: just because people are unhappy where they are does not mean they are willing to go anywhere you try to lead them.
In 1976, liberals were wrong on multiple counts, and all the signs point to them repeating the same mistakes. Even if Obama plays Mr. Moderate, the congressional party contains more than enough take-no-prisoners far leftists to torpedo any chance of bipartisanship or restraint.
Specifically, liberals believe that the public will support radical change in three highly sensitive areas, and in each area they will overreach to the point of self-destruction. In domestic affairs, they believe the culture wars are over and that revolutionary social changes like gay marriage can now advance unchecked. They think that popular concern over environmental problems will translate into a blank check for limitless government spending and the decisive transfer of U.S. sovereignty to international agencies. And liberals are now sure that all that foolishness with international dangers and crises is firmly behind us so that we no longer need the military or intelligence capabilities developed to respond to them. As the coming three or four years will show, they are dreadfully wrong on all counts.
In the 1970s, liberal hubris manifested itself especially in domestic politics. Democrats focused obsessively on race and class, to the exclusion of culture, morals, and religion. Reading the situation in those terms allowed liberals an easy framework for explaining opposition to their policies, which must be based on overt or disguised forms of racism (and that was before they had a President Obama). If every social problem boiled down to matters of economic and racial justice, then there could be no legitimate grounds for concerns that presented themselves as cultural or religious.
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