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What Realignments Look Like

I don't know about you, but for me these are disorienting times. I had just turned eleven years old when Ronald Reagan first won the presidency. That means that pretty much from the beginning, my political consciousness has been shaped by the Republican critique of liberalism. (For those following this blog regularly, here I mean liberalism as a partisan outlook, not a form of government.) During 1990s, Bill Clinton's modest ambitions thus 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.

Far more so than Election Day last November, or the transition, or even the recent battle over the stimulus package, the past week has felt like a turning point, a transition, a pivot into something new. Barack Obama's speech last Tuesday and the budget outline he released two days later were so bold, so astonishingly ambitious, that I hardly know how to respond. A Democrat setting the agenda? Putting Republicans on the defensive? Proposing vast new programs, taking charge, setting national goals? As recently as six months ago, I considered such a thing almost inconceivable, a liberal's pipe dream, a conservative's fevered nightmare. And yet here we are.

How did we get here? One of the strongest chapters in Alan Wolfe's timely and indispensible new book The Future of Liberalism provides us with what I think is an important part of the answer. Simply stated, Reaganite conservatism axiomatically disdains government, and that creates a perverse incentive for conservative politicians to run government badly (or at least not to run it well), since the failure of government confirms conservative prejudices and (in theory) provides the movement with additional evidence in favor of its ideology. We just saw a particularly vivid example of this pathologically self-destructive dynamic at work in Bobby Jindal's otherwise inexplicable attempt to turn the Bush administration's utter ineptitude after Hurricane Katrina into a GOP talking point.

But as the CPAC farce this weekend has definitively demonstrated, the problem isn't limited to Jindal. It runs to the core of the ideology that every Republican is now expected to endorse and espouse under threat of excommunication. That's why the party's embrace of the insufferable Samuel "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher is such a perfect expression of what the anti-government impulse that led to Reagan's victory in 1980 has become after 28 years in power. 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.

For the moment, a majority of Americans seem to agree. But will the country really stick with Obama as he attempts to enact his stunningly ambitious agenda? They just might. But not because the 44th president has reawakened the liberalism that's been slumbering in their souls since the summer of 1968. As National Review's Rich Lowry noted in a brief post last week, Obama is defending his agenda not in ideological but in pragmatic terms -- saying, in effect, "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." And as Lowry recognizes, that's an argument that just might persuade the American people to go along for the ride, shifting the political spectrum to the left for a generation, while also managing at long last to bury Reaganite conservatism.

Welcome to the realignment.