Five years ago, I wrote a piece about future political realignment for The Wall Street Journal, called “The Next Great Divide.” (The interested reader can find it at the Wall Street Journal website, but he will have to fork over $2.95 to see it, even subscribers. In fact even the author, I am not happy to report.)
I noted that countries that trace their political traditions to England usually have two-party, big-tent political systems, divided by a single overriding issue. In this country, that issue was first the size and power of the federal government. Then there was a muddled period (the 1824 election went into the House) before a new divide opened up, sectional in nature, with the tariff and then slavery as the crucial issue. After the Civil War
there was another muddled period (the 1876 election was only settled at the very last minute, and many other elections in this period were very close). The next great divide was between capital and labor. The Republicans had the better of the argument between 1896 and 1929, but the Great Depression put the Democrats in charge and they were able to push through a broad array of programs on behalf of the have-nots in this country.
The liberal programs proved so successful that the have-nots began to disappear from the body politic, which became dramatically more skilled, more educated, and more affluent. A country of haves and have-nots became a country of haves and have-mores. The third great divide began to close up, and we are now back in a muddled period, characterized by close and divided elections and personal vituperation, just as we had in the 1820s and in the post–Civil War era.
So what’s next? Good question. Three factors might be noted, however.
First, the left half of American politics hasn’t had a new idea in 50 years. It is still committed to economic policies geared to a country with widespread poverty. On foreign policy it is increasingly isolationist. Its main sources of support are all backward looking: labor unions, civil rights organizations, bureaucrats, and tort lawyers. Meanwhile the right half, intellectually moribund in the ‘’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, has been a ferment of ideas, by no means all of them good (in fact some of them terrible). But at least they
are ideas that would have been unfamiliar to Franklin Roosevelt and Arthur Vandenberg.
Second, we live in the most technologically revolutionary times at least since the steam engine, only now change is happening much more quickly than it did 200 years ago. To demonstrate this, here’s a quick thought experiment. Some latter day Rip Van Winkle has just woken up from a half-century sleep. He says, “What’s new?” In answer you hand him an iPhone, which kids are acquiring by the millions. See what I mean? And, to coin a
phrase, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The world of 2057 will be far more different from today’s world than today’s is different from the world of 1957.
Third, the new technology is rapidly reducing the control of old political power centers (the mainstream media, political parties, governments, labor unions, central banks) and raising that of new centers, most prominently perhaps the blogosphere (just ask Dan Rather). How it will all play out is anyone’s guess, but it is not good news for the conservative party in American politics.
And that party today is the Democratic Party, deeply wedded to old ideas and fighting hard to maintain the old ways of doing things and sustaining the political power of fading forces, like organized labor. That’s the very essence of conservatism.
My guess—or perhaps more accurately, my wish—is that American politics will divide, at least in the near future, over how fast and how far to allow market forces to dictate change, just as in the middle third of the twentieth century it was over how far and how fast to introduce the liberal programs. That change is coming as surely as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, and market forces will drive it—all those kids mobilizing coalitions
over their iPhones. The argument will be over the hows and whys and wheres and whens and whethers. Globalization and the ever increasingly out-of-date monopoly nature of
government are two major areas where these battles will surely be fought. I expect the Democratic party to be on the conservative side of most of these battles and to lose most of them as well, unless an American Tony Blair arises. I certainly see no sign of him in the current bunch of Democratic contenders.
It’s going to be very exciting, and I’d love to stick around and watch it unfold over the next half a century.
Unfortunately, I expect I’ll find that I have an appointment in Samarra before then.NSCO627MPARISONS627 4061
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here