The great wheel of history turns, and another generation has taken its place at the top. While there are many things that can be said about the historic election just past the most obvious is that the change we have seen is simply due. The many faults in the Republican coalition which cracked apart during the last 8 years were, in many cases there at the start. A wise person with an eye to history would consider the faults that are present in the new majority to see what problems lie ahead – even though that seems like a major downer right now.
The Republicans more or less ruled for 28 years, from Reagan in 1980 to Bush in 2008. They set the agenda and, more importantly, controlled the language of the debate. This is roughly one generation, and that pattern is consistent with what we see in American history stretching back as far as you want to look. Their coalition of Christian Conservatives, Fiscal Conservatives, and Libertarians had obvious fault lines and potential danger points from the very start.
This is where the party cleaved at the end of this run. Christian Conservatives rightly point to the complete lock on power from 2000-2006 and see that nothing happened to advance their agenda – no bill banning abortion, gay rights, or anything else dear to them came from the tremendous monopoly of power that the party held. Sarah Palin was necessary as a sop to them, but their lack of energy to support a “Maverick” was obvious. Obama’s election became obvious when deregulation bore the very bitter fruit of an expensive bailout.
What problems do the Democrats have coming into this? I can think of several:
Common Culture. The Culture Wars waged by the Republicans were devastating to Democrats. The party found itself unable to respond, slipping from a party that emphasized “fairness” to a party that found little meaning in “right” and “wrong”. That allowed the Christian Conservative message, which is that we are adrift and unable to raise our children, to dominate. The left needs its own cultural message, based on filling the spaces between us with a basic sense of decency and fairness once again. They can’t punt like they have for the last generation and expect to stay in power because we have to be able to organize – and that means we need some common language between us.
Public Finance. Obama’s election has pretty much killed public finance of campaigns once and for all. His methods, which relied on an average of $100 or less per person, may not seem like a problem right now. But this implies a sustained level of passion that seems unlikely to continue. When everyone gets a bit lazy, the lack of reasonable limits and public finance will come back to haunt the Democrats.
Institutions. We are in the midst of a political re-alignment away from the definitions of which institutions you support to a debate on the nature of institutions themselves. No major institution has not been under assault in the last generation, from churches to government to the basic idea of employee benefits from a corporation. That won’t change, and will in fact intensify. Democrats, who are known to support government institutions as a way of curing social problems, will be under a lot of stress to develop networks that extend through non-profits and other ways of reaching people more directly. It will be difficult to navigate, and it will fracture the coalition largely along generational lines.
These are just the first three I could think of. I’m sure there are more, and I’ll reach them as I can. But we have to watch our weaknesses if we are going to build on the tremendous promise we have from this election. I may be a big downer at times, but the wheel of history is even nastier than I am.