The fear of radicalism runs deep in our national DNA. So does the love of it. It’s democratic politics as the ultimate on-again/off-again romance.
The Founders themselves feared that various centrifugal tendencies — faction, passions, democracy itself — would turn the country away from its republican virtues and hence from its shared purpose and ideals, replacing these with various radical enthusiasms. Our progressive friends who at the moment are in a rage about the limits our Constitution puts on democratic passions are a very good example of why those limits were put in place.
Americans have frequently followed a pattern of flirting with radicalism of one kind or another — usually nationalism, and usually in a time of war — and then retreating from the edge when the crisis has passed. Woodrow Wilson’s “war socialism” pulled the United States in a distinctly national-socialist direction, and Warren G. Harding’s “return to normalcy” campaign pulled it back. After the trauma of the Great Depression and World War II, the grasping autocracy of Franklin Roosevelt’s government — his New Deal was a frankly nationalist enterprise, from its politics to its aesthetics — limped on during the Truman administration but was dissolved during the Eisenhower years, a time of broad and deep but not radical conservatism.
The somewhat milder radicalism of the Kennedy-Johnson programs and the more genuinely radical movement against their war in Vietnam resuscitated Richard Nixon, who ended the war and, like Eisenhower (whom he had served as vice president), took a consolidating and cautious approach to the social-welfare initiatives of the preceding administrations. Nixon had a few radical tastes of his own, such as wage and price controls, but it was his venality and abuse of power that provoked a national reaction in the form of Jimmy Carter, who brought to an end the career of the rather more promising Gerald Ford. (A liberated Ford presidency is one of the great what-might-have-beens of modern American politics.) Carter’s failures, which damaged Americans’ pride, begat Ronald Reagan. The radicalism of the Reagan administration — which was radical in the sense of being the first (and last) ideologically and programmatically conservative presidency — was unusual in that the rejoinder to it came in the form of the “kinder, gentler” politics of his vice president, George H. W. Bush, rather than the installation of a president from the opposite party. We think of vice presidents as likely presidential contenders, but Bush was the first sitting vice president elected to the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836. (And before Van Buren, it was Thomas Jefferson.) The vote for Vice President Bush was a vote for moderated continuity — for the same, but less of the same.
George H. W. Bush was the president at the end of history: The Cold War was over, economic menaces such as runaway inflation seemed to be a thing of the past, and the great game was won. Jesus Jones went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts with a catchy song about perestroika. The millennial party was getting started early, and so the nation decided to let their guard down, take a break from granddad and his apple-a-day prudence, and live a little with Bill Clinton, the former milk-and-water student radical who promised to spend a bit of that peace dividend on such comfort projects as national health care and the like.
And then something strange happened: Instead of reacting to radicalism with a push for a new return to normalcy, Americans reacted to the relatively moderate “New Democrat” and his celebrity pretensions with a dose of radicalism in the form of Newt Gingrich and the 1994 Republican “revolution.” George H. W. Bush was held in low esteem as a compromiser, but his son George W. Bush of Texas soon was riding high. He was a lot like his father (that is to his credit) and much more like his brother, the governor of Florida, than is generally admitted. George W. Bush was no right-wing radical, but he pushed the right cultural buttons (Texan, evangelical, the owner of a professional sports franchise, and as much of an anti-East Coast elitist as a product of Phillips, Yale, and Harvard Business School could be expected to be) and he came to Washington as a conservative reformer oriented toward education and other domestic concerns. There might have been a return to normalcy, even after the agony of the Florida recount.
The events of September 11, 2001, put that possibility forever into the past. The George W. Bush who had been skeptical of nation-building became the George W. Bush of the democracy project. The peace dividend evaporated, along with the peace. The nation was at war, and the Long War, like the two world wars, bred radicalism — radicalism that ran hard in both directions. But the world wars ended. The Long War does not.
The trauma of 9/11, the divisions of the Iraq War, and the fearful disorientation of the financial crisis left Americans agitated and anxious — but not in a way that put them in the mood for another return to normalcy. The pendulum began to swing madly: The trauma of the Bush years begat the Obama presidency; the radicalism of the Obama presidency begat Trump; the radicalism of Trump (which is not, for the most part, a matter of policy) begat . . . much that is undesirable: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “resistance,” and the mainstreaming of socialism as a basic current of the Democratic party; Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in a crazypants radicalism arms race over whether we should confiscate the accumulated savings of the affluent at a rate of 2 percent a year or at a rate of 8 percent a year; a turn toward a politics of implacable hatred and demagoguery in both of the major political parties.
It is sobering to realize that there are young Americans serving in Afghanistan today who had not been born on September 11, 2001, who have only known post-9/11 politics and a post-9/11 America, with all the angst and paranoia that goes along with them. This profoundly abnormal period in our history is their normal, the only world they have ever known. For them, there is no return to normalcy and no possibility of it. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” These young Americans were not around to hear all those fine speeches about how turning away from our national ethos of liberty and citizenship, turning toward fear and hatred and turning against each other, would mean, in the inescapable phrase of the time, that “the terrorists have won.”