The Corner

The Wishful Thinking Period

I’ve got a full plate this morning, but I just can’t let this little ruby-slipper-clicking, wishing-it-were-so, prediction by Simon Rosenberg over at Daily Kos go without comment. He writes:

Despite the many billions spent in building this modern conservative movement, history will label it a grand and remarkable failure. And we will look back at 2006 as the year this most recent period of American history – the conservative ascendency – ended.

So like two heavy weight boxers stumbling into the 15th round of a championship fight, the two great ideologies of the 20th century stumble, exhausted, tattered and weakened, into a very dynamic and challenging 21st century. This next American era will not be one dominated by these two exhausted ideologies of the past, but will be a battle for the mastery of a new, as yet unarticulated 21st century governing approach suited to the challenges we face today and built around the media and people of our time. The core direction of this battle is not the left-right one fought at the end of the last century, but will be more about forward and backward. Meaning that the way we will have to measure progress from now on is to look at how a party or ideological movement captures the three main dimensions of this emergent, post-liberal/conservative politics of our day – a new governing agenda capable of tackling the challenges of our time, and new political arrangements built around the emergent media and people of the 21st century.

2006 will become known as the year American conservatism reached its peak, and our 20th century politics fought one its very last battles. The future will belong to those who master this “new politics” of the 21st century. Friends, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that it is our movement, and our values, that leave these old and tired battles behind and get about mastering this new politics of the 21st century.

Me: Uh-huh. By my very rough calculation, Progressives and liberals have declared the dawn of a new age of “new politics” about once every fifteen minutes for the last century or so. And guess what? It’s always more or less the same politics. Clinton’s “third way” “new covenant” promised to get beyond left and right and move forward not backward. Ditto, Gary Hart, the neoliberals, the Atari Democrats, the industrial strategists et al. The Great Society promised that we’d be entering into a wonderful world where everyone was rich, and social meddling bureaucrats road to work on unicorns — or something like that. JFK’s “new politics” said that Progressive minded experts needed to transcend left and right and run the country by their own expertise, because all of the important questions about how to run government had already been answered. The new politics of FDR — then called “the New Deal” lest people forget — promised the same thing. Indeed, before that the very term “political science” was created to describe the “new science” of politics which would move the country forward (i.e. in a Progressive direction) and trascend the “stale dogmas” of the past. There’s no coincidence at all to the fact that Woodrow Wilson was the President of the fledgling American Political Science Association.

Rosenberg is playing perfectly to type. Liberals always say this sort of nonsense — it’s of a piece with liberals who say “I don’t believe in labels” — in order to short circuit arguments they don’t want to have. Rosenberg’s no Lionell Trilling but this silly “new politics” stuff is a bit like Trilling’s declaration that conservatism was dead just as it was coming to life. “For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation,” Trilling proclaimed in 1950.

Now, I don’t say any of this because I’m particularly bullish on conservatism’s immediate future. It’s got problems. But they’re not as fundamental as the problems liberalism faces. Conservatism has a problem putting its ideas into action. Liberalism has a problem figuring out what it’s ideas are. Taking the liberal mish-mash and simply declaring it a “new politics” doesn’t make it so.

It’s entirely understandable and predictable that in the wake of this election liberals would go into wishful thinking mode and declare that they’ve escaped history. But that doesn’t make it any less absurd.

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