The chattering classes, represented on the op-ed pages of our major newspapers and the standard guest lists of mainstream talk shows, remain divided in theory at least into liberals and conservatives. E. J. Dionne and David Brooks, who appear together every Friday on All Things Considered, are typical examples. They are well-educated. The cataclysm of the late 1960s divided the highly educated, turning a fringe figure like William Buckley into a respected conservative, and gradually turning the left away from economic issues and even from foreign policy in favor of social issues such as affirmative action, women's rights and gay rights. But rational discourse still prevailed among a certain set of thinkers. They are suddenly awakening to find it more threatened than ever before. On the right, the monster they have tolerated and often encouraged seems ready to devour them at last.
Brooks himself, who has been extraordinarily tolerant of the right wing while insisting that President Obama's faith in centralized power has alienated the country, awakened last week to the impending demise of Republicans he agrees with. Even Orrin Hatch has had to move his voting record rightward to protect against the sort of challenge that toppled his colleague Robert Bennett. Brooks wants the Republican leadership--whoever they are--to show more courage--but the whole rise of the post-New Deal Republican party has been fueled by appeals to racism, crass nationalism, social conservatism, and religious fundamentalism. Such ideas have never been absent from American life, but they only get a real hearing when our political leadership--which never varies too much from our economic leadership--stoops to promote them. That's what Republicans have been doing since Nixon and Reagan, and now solid House and Senate majorities stand ready to overturn the customs of the last 40 years and encourage employers not to cover birth control in their health insurance policies. Nor is this political cynicism: no sane person can believe that this stance is going to hep the Republican Party in November. It is ideology that has fed on itself, in the echo chamber of Clear Channel, Fox News, and the Drudge Report, and it now exercises discipline as fearsome as Jacobins or Stalinists--even without the threat of a guillotine or a bullet in the back of the head. (As this post went to press, I heard that Rush Limbaugh has issued an apology for his outrageous comments last week. That is a sign that he had found the limits of contemporary discourse, but I doubt that it's going to affect him very much for very long.)
George Will has been increasingly hysterical about Obama of late, but he has just predicted that either Santorum or Romney will lose. He hopes however that the Republicans can gain control of both houses of Congress, and that that will prevent Obama from accomplishing anything for the next four years. More gridlock, he has concluded, is the answer. No wonder he, unlike Brooks, did not lament the retirement of Olympia Snowe, who like Rhode Island's Lincoln Chaffee really wanted to work across the aisle, but gave up.
The Democrats, however, are nearly as helpless, because they have either focused on social issues--the only ones about which they appear to care passionately--or trusted to rationalist assumptions to take care of our economic problems. Beginning with Clinton, they too have given into the invisible hand, symbolized by NAFTA, the ebbing of union power, and the steady erosion of the middle class. Even President Obama has adopted Republican policies on several key issues. His Race to the Top is similar in its philosophy to No Child Left Behind, relying on test scores and charter schools, as Diane Ravitch points out in an excellent two-part article in the New York Review of Books. As Ravitch points out, the "school reform movement" is driven in large measure by the idea that we can fix education without fixing poverty--a highly dubious assumption that also seems to assume that we have a shortage of highly skilled labor, something I do not see. In the same journal, the environmentalist Bill McKibben, writing on "fracking," mentions that President Obama has endorsed the practice, whose environmental hazards are carefully shielded from investigation by various political authorities. There is essentially no political response to our dreadful long-term political prospects. Why?
I think the answer is generational--and tragic. Every generation tends to take its parents' achievements for granted while looking for something new to contribute. Our parents' and grandparents' great achievement was the New Deal legacy: a well-regulated economy with high upper-bracket marginal tax rates and a deep commitment to high unemployment, good jobs, and readily available public services, including cheap, high-quality public education. Having grown up in this modern garden of Eden, elite Boomers wanted something different. On the right they wanted the unfettered freedom to make money; on the left, they wanted gender equality, more opportunity for minorities, and gay rights. The academic left in particular lost interest in how the modern world got to be what it was, focusing relentlessly on its imperfections. Both sides have gotten what they wanted. The loser is the broad mass of the American people, whose lives and prospects are suffering regardless of their race, creed, color or sexual orientation.
It seems more and more likely that this year's election will do some good, quite possibly by dealing Republican social extremism a final, fatal blow. The contraception controversy is exactly the kind of issue the President needed to energize the women and young people who made up so much of his base last time. Even if Mitt Romney is nominated--and I think his chances now are only about 50-50--he will have to put another extreme conservative on the ticket and adopt many conservative positions. The Republicans will probably lose some ground in Congress, too, but there's no way Obama can start his second term in a position comparable to his first. Even if he did, he seems bereft of any ideas that would get the country on a new path.
The chattering classes have lost their relevance largely because they insist that, despite ups and downs, all is basically well in America. That, too, is the legacy of their parents and grandparents, who left us such a remarkable, even if imperfect, legacy. But all is not well, not least because of the almost complete lack of commitment throughout our society to anything greater than the individual himself, or perhaps his nuclear family. With the advent of Gen X to power that is not likely to get much better. The nation that eventually conquered the Depression, won the Second World War, and spread its umbrella over the free world trusted authority. Now we do not--and authorities accept this and rarely even try to earn our trust. There is nothing new about any of this. History includes many such periods, the late nineteenth century among them. They lead in turn to great opportunities to those yet unborn, who can rediscover values worth uniting around and re-create a sense of common enterprise. That evidently was not our destiny.