In the gloom of the 1981-1982 recession, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a letter to a supporter about the upcoming midterm elections. “The issue, plainly put, is whether the center will hold -- in both parties,” said Moynihan, then a Democratic senator from New York. “In three decades of government and politics I have felt myself living in a comprehensible and creative political environment. Of a sudden, I am not certain. Of a sudden, both parties are under attack from extremes.”
Of a sudden, America has swung back to the right after a leftward shift in the 24 months since Barack Obama stood in Chicago’s Grant Park -- remember that? -- as the symbol of a new age in which the extremes of both sides were quieted by crisis. In retrospect, it was the briefest of political ages (which, given the unimpressive longevity of political ages, is saying something). At first, in both tone and substance, the Obama administration was more reminiscent of New Frontier technocracy than of Great Society liberalism. At the moment, it is evoking nothing so much as the well-meaning but inept Jimmy Carter era.
Appropriately for the Democrats, the election fell this year on All Souls’ Day, also known as the Day of the Dead. Republicans won a net of at least 60 seats in the House -- more even than the GOP took in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 victory -- and at least six in the Senate. Governorships flipped from blue to red. The best news for the Democrats was the re-election of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada, followed by Joe Manchin’s senate win in West Virginia. Manchin, the state’s Democratic governor, won the seat by deserting Obama -- in one campaign ad, he fired a rifle bullet through a facsimile of the cap-and-trade bill.
A thumpin’ indeed. But has Obama really been repudiated on substantive grounds? He is no radical; the relative lack of enthusiasm for him among liberal Democrats is proof enough of that. And yet much of the country thinks he is just to the right of Mao. Push a bit, though, and you begin to see that the opposition is more atmospheric than philosophical. A Bloomberg National Poll conducted in late October found that by a 2-to- 1 margin, likely midterm voters think taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program will not be recovered. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
Facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things. The purportedly anti-business Obama has presided over rising corporate profits and a successful rescue of the American auto industry. Yes, there have been regulatory and rhetorical excesses. The proliferation of 1099s and the occasional presidential snarl at the private sector have helped create a disproportionate but a deeply felt sense that Obama is waging “war on business.” This is less a war, though, than a police action. The Congressional Budget Office believes health-care reform will ultimately bring down the deficit and estimates that the stimulus package saved 3 million jobs.
I recently spoke with a Mississippi relative who is addicted to Fox News and distrusts the president. Asked to describe how, precisely, Obama’s policies have hurt him -- he is comfortably well-off -- there was a bit of sputtering and then silence. Since politics is not rational -- it is, after all, about people -- it’s pointless for the White House to complain that voters just don’t understand what Obama has done. They know what they think they know.
Tuesday marked a victory, to paraphrase President John Kennedy, not of party but of a dispiriting habit of politics in which conflict reigns. Inherently dramatic and exciting, conflict is more interesting than cooperation, struggle more exhilarating than the substantive working out of differences.
Pity the president -- any president, really. We are living in a frenetic political period. While it is in no way as frenzied as that of the 1960s or as apocalyptic as that of the 1930s, it is as momentous as the 1950s or the 1980s, eras that set the contours of ensuing decades.
The Dwight David Eisenhower years ratified the New Deal- Fair Deal understanding of government’s essential role in society, and the Ronald Reagan-George Bush 41 era established an anti-statist ethos that would climax in Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration that “the era of big government is over.” In the future, the Bush 43-Obama age will come to be seen either as a time when Americans chose to fund a larger role for the public sector -- for military spending, entitlements and bailouts -- or as an hour in which we chose to finance that larger role for the public sector through irresponsible borrowing, hoping to defer the reckoning forever. This is perhaps the central question of the age: Will we pay our way in real time, or dine royally now and leave the check for future generations?
At this point in an essay such as this, composed and published in the tumult of a contentious election, the author traditionally clears his throat and undertakes to advise the president on how, in two of the most epic cliches in contemporary journalism, he should “hit reset” and “get his groove back.”
Not here, not now. I believe that we, the people, are complicit in creating and sustaining a political culture in which we bounce from one party to another and from one issue to another like so many bumper cars at a state fair. And so my counsel, for what it is worth, is directed not at the White House or Congress but to the voters, of whom I am one. Here are three points that, if borne in mind, could lead us back to the “creative and comprehensive political environment” of which Moynihan spoke three decades ago.
Consider the source. Partisanship is as old as politics. Yes, the Founders hoped, in their dreamier moments, to avoid the “spirit of party” and faction. But Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton understood that parties were necessary to advance one’s vision of life. And as they discovered almost immediately after George Washington took the first presidential oath in April 1789, they were leading a nation in which opinion would always be divided and partisan clashes were inevitable. The key thing, as Jefferson put in it his 1801 inaugural address, was to remember that not every difference of opinion is a difference of principle.
Few took his point -- then or now. More than two centuries on, Americans are likely to see division as insuperable. Is the partisan feeling substantively different in 2010 from what it was in 1801? No, and therein lies an underappreciated problem. The 18th and 19th centuries were dominated by an explicitly partisan press. Newspapers were funded by politicians -- Andrew Jackson grew so unhappy with his party’s during his presidency that he founded his own, and edited copy -- and the tone could be violent and vitriolic.
That changed for the better beginning in 1896, when Adolph Ochs, a Tennessee publisher, bought the New York Times and started attempting to cover the news “without fear or favor.” Now the media world that Ochs created is breaking apart all around us. So the question is not whether our political culture is better or worse than it was in the early years of the Republic, but whether it is better or worse than it was in 1980 or 1990. And the answer is yes, it is worse.
That is because so much political information is coming from a thriving class of provocateurs, on the Internet and some cable news outlets, who have an economic stake in the perpetuation of conflict rather than in the solution of problems. That’s why it’s crucial for voters to consider the source of what they read and hear. If there is a set ideological orientation, be aware of it, and judge what you absorb accordingly. As Moynihan liked to say, everyone is entitled to his own opinions -- but not to his own facts.
Calm down. It is a difficult time for many. Unemployment is too high, investment too low, pro-growth policies too scarce. According to Gallup, only 21 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the country
Still, the world is not ending. In November 1964, as voters chose between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson, the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote a piece for Harper’s magazine on what he called the “paranoid style in American politics,” a tendency on the part of some people -- on both left and right -- to overdramatize the temper of the time.
The paranoid, he wrote, “is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. … As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”
Conviction matters, deeply, and devoted partisans are often people of goodwill. We would not want (and could not have) a country or a politics without True Believers, for they delineate the terms of debate. The truth does not always lie between extremes, and compromise is not always the correct course. But sometimes it does, and sometimes it is. The best way to decide whether this or that hour is one of those times is to stop and think.
Don’t settle for the status quo. With only a few exceptions, two competing parties have dominated American politics for a century and a half. Today we have Republicans and Democrats who fight one another with Shermanesque tactics, hurling themselves into total political war over -- well, over what, exactly?
Lower the Volume
The partisan clamor with which we live is not commensurate with the actual distinctions between the two parties. We have a Democratic president who has increased the projection of U.S. force in Afghanistan, rescued the financial sector, and cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. (And who, by the way, has little time for issues such as marriage equality or gun control). We have a Republican Party whose last president created vast deficits, grew government, and who, in crisis, all but nationalized the banks.
Although both sides of course vigorously dispute all this, the fact remains that shifts in party control do not have to create seismic structural changes. Health-care reform, a seeming exception, does not even quite count. Remember that the bill Obama signed did not mandate universal coverage -- a central progressive cause for more than a century. Could it be that the parties, either consciously or unconsciously, understand that they are largely part of the same established ethos, and that the fury of the contests between them reflect what Freud once called the “narcissism of small differences”?
Voters should think more creatively and demand more options. Americans love free markets except in our politics, where we are strangely satisfied with having only two brands. There is clearly room for an independent force. A scrambling of the existing parties and a reordering of outdated ideologies are overdue.
The Tea Party is not exactly the embodiment of a moderate third-way movement -- it fits more in the Hofstadter paranoid tradition than it does with the emergence, say, of the Republican Party 150 years ago. But its success in propelling relative outsiders into positions of power underscores the system’s fundamental instability. The Tea Party activists are onto something, and others of perhaps more moderate views and temperament could learn from their example.
Hopes about third ways may be ephemeral and doomed. Here, however, is one great perennial truth: Politicians, dependent on their clients for their daily bread, will fill any demand that makes itself obvious, urgent, and consuming.
The exact content of that demand is still to be determined, but one thing is clear: There is a market opening for an enlightened pragmatism. The shade of Daniel Patrick Moynihan is worth one more consultation. “In some forty years of government work I have learned one thing for certain…The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society,” Moynihan said in a note preserved in Steven R. Weisman’s new book, “Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary.” “The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
Interaction -- not collision. Tuesday was a win for brute force. But now come Wednesday, and Thursday, and the day after that, and the day after that. The jobless will still be jobless, the poor will still be impoverished, and our competitiveness will still be in peril. It is up to the winners -- and the losers, come to that -- to begin the work of restoring Moynihan’s creative and comprehensive culture.
(Jon Meacham is a former editor of Newsweek and author of the bestseller “American Lion.” A version of this column is posted on Businessweek.com. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Eric Pooley in New York at Epooley2@bloomberg.net