If you haven’t already had read it, let me recommend George Packer’s piece in The New Yorker on the “fall” of conservatism. He weaves together a thousand threads of the story in a way any magazine writer knows is terribly difficult to pull off. For the article Packer had a long conversation with Pat Buchanan, who, for the younger folks among our readers, isn’t just a vinegary TV right-winger with a punchy turn of phrase. Buchanan is a very important figure in the last half century of American history — for the forces of darkness perhaps, but important no less for that.
Buchanan gave Packer a copy of a confidential memo he wrote for Richard Nixon in 1971. (“A little raw for today,” he warns Packer.) The memo is about what Buchanan and his Nixon aide colleague Kevin Phillips called “positive polarization,” ways to divide the country for political advantage. Some of you will remember the key line that Buchanan ends on because it’s quoted in Jonathan Schell’s magnificent 1976 book, Time of Illusion. The aim, wrote Buchanan, was to “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”
Those of us who look at politics from moment to moment tend to look at gaffes, campaign strategies, the foibles of this or that politician. But it’s always important to step back from the particulars to see the broad sweep of political and social change. It’s almost always dominated by long term trends — demographic, ideological, economic. But particular events can pivot history off in dramatic new directions.
Back in the early part of this decade two friends of mine, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority. It’s a very good book — and not just in the sense of the happy prediction. Unluckily, though, for the authors it came out just a few months before the Democrats’ big thumping in the 2002 midterm elections. And because of that, the book, after a lot of initial fanfare, got sort of pushed to the back of the collective shelf.
But I’m starting to wonder whether we might not see the first decade of this century similarly to the way we now look back on the 1970s. Packer’s piece is a loosely structured review of Rick Perlstein’s new book Nixonland. (I just dipped into it for the first time a few nights ago and it was like eating some incredibly rich food. I can’t wait to get back to it.) Nixon’s resurgence began in those mid-sixties rumblings which we can now see from the perspective of history were the onset of the era of conservative ascendence that we’ve been living in now for the last four decades. But it wasn’t an unbroken trajectory. The Democrats had a huge year in the post-Watergate 1974 mid-term elections, with a big class of new self-consciously reformist House Dems. Then Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976.
In retrospect this was only a Watergate-induced hiccup, an Indian Summer of mid-century liberalism and Democratic ascendency, in a decades long trend toward conservative dominance. And I’m beginning to wonder whether we might eventually see the 2002 and 2004 elections in a similar light.
I say this for a couple reasons, and hopefully not just out of wishful thinking. Clearly much of the Republican party’s current state of disrepair is due to the disastrous record of George W. Bush. But all of it? There’s a great deal of continuity between the demographic and regional voting trends we see today and those Judis and Teixeira noted through the 90s and the first years of this decade. 9/11 juiced President Bush’s standing and massively reinforced the advantages Republicans have historically had on national security issues — at least over the last forty years. And the Bush White House pressed that advantage mightily. But hidden underneath was the same ideological and electoral decay. Perhaps we will see the Republican party in this period as akin to the doped up athlete whose drugs enable him to achieve amazing feats in the short-run but also lead him to gravely exacerbate existing injuries because they inure him to the pain.