Think of this as Volume 17, Number 11 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
A crisis for which current thought has no answer creates new stories from the old opposition, which overthrows the old older and is then validated by a new political coalition.
Until this point it's possible to see the failures of the past as emanating from some extremist fringe, some virus within the old order that, once eradicated, makes it viable again. But then the old mainstream goes too far, the new majority identifies the whole of that mainstream as anathema, and a new generation's politics are made solid, the way starch exploding in heated liquid creates a stable pudding.
I saw this a generation ago, in 1973. Liberals, desperate to gain the last possible advantage they could through court action (since courts are the branch of government that most resists change) handed down decisions like Roe vs. Wade. Roe was a great decision for women but, as even feminist lawyer (now justice) Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, it was a decision that held within it the seeds of a profound backlash, since it went beyond what legislators and voters were willing to do and enshrined abortion as a natural right.
When people see that they're about to lose power, not for a year or several but for the rest of their lives, it leads to desperate measures. The mainstream of a political movement goes crazy, and takes its own future down with it.
In my youth I watched it happen to Democrats, although the view was obscured by Watergate, which created the false dawn of the Carter years. Now, with no scandal with which to fight back, I'm watching it happen to Republicans.
President Obama is, at his base, a history professor, and intuits this transformation even as he leads it. He understands that, in giving the other side ample supplies of rope, they will hang themselves. All he has to be is who he is, a liberal reformer, a Stevenson Democrat like his mother, an internationalist whose own politics were forged in opposition to the old mainstream.
Each of our crisis Presidents was like this. Richard Nixon developed his politics in opposition to a liberal consensus. Franklin Roosevelt emerged from Woodrow Wilson's populism. William McKinley agreed with “Mugwumps” like Grover Cleveland, endorsing progressive change against infrastructure monopolies, on behalf of a new mass manufacturing era. And Abraham Lincoln famously wore his suit in the style of Henry Clay, whose Whig Party sought modernization in the face of Democratic intransigence aimed at placating the Slave Power.
But this is the time that tries a new politic's soul. Neither Lincoln nor McKinley survived this fifth year of their Presidencies. Nixon by this time had carved his own political obituary from insecurity that had become paranoia. Even Roosevelt found himself losing popular support, although the struggle of his time turned out to be for democracy itself, against the rise of German and Japanese absolutism, and it would eventually claim his life.
What's most vital to realize is that the actions of the old mainstream create their own backlash, that a Crisis President does his best work symbolizing rather than implementing change, and that in our system the economy leads, the people follow, and the politicians can only dance on the historical tide. I think Obama knows this, which is why his best moves, hopping onto a stage, or placing one foot behind the other as he stands, are a dancer's moves.
What is happening, beneath the surface, is a profound economic change, ingenuity overcoming our dependence on scarce, expensive fossil fuels, devices slowly creating the new abundance we'll need to fight the environmental battles ahead. That economic change is leading to new social and political arrangements, based on a new dominant medium, the Internet replacing television, and a new dominant paradigm, which for lack of a better term we'll call Obamaism.
What is happening on the surface, of course, is something completely different. We're obsessed over the budget, with Republicans united only in saying no. We're horrified by the spectre of Republican governors fighting the very concept of democracy, Republican legislators attempting to impose an obsolete social structure on the rest of us, on Republican judges kowtowing to the vast economic power of oil that funds it all.
My point today is that it's all a sort of Gotterdamerung, the twilight of a generation's political gods. If it seems that Republicans have become crazy it's because becoming a minority party makes you crazy, makes you desperate to cling on to what power you can, to institutionalize it if you can, to write it into the Constitution. It's the last hiding of nuts by squirrels before the long winter closes in.
But what is fall for some is spring for others. For Obamaism this is indeed March. It seems that the cold will never let up, that spring may never come. But, politically, it will. That's when the real challenges of our time begin, when the new generation takes over, and my generation, the generation that fought the War against the War, that fought Nixon and Reagan and Bush, moves off the stage and is replaced by our children.