Wednesday, June 25, 2008
America’s Next Chapter
New York Times Op-Ed by Gary Hart, former US Senator
THE novelties of race and gender have largely distracted the nation from the more profound aspect of the 2008 presidential election: This campaign presents the potential for a new cycle of American history.
The idea that American politics moves in cycles is usually associated with the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., but it has an even longer currency. Ralph Waldo Emerson noted the political oscillations between the party of memory and the party of hope, the party of conservatism and the party of innovation. Henry Adams believed that “a period of about 12 years measured the beat of the pendulum” during the era of the founders. Schlesinger, borrowing from his historian father, estimated that the swings between eras of public action and those of private interest were nearer to 30 years.
What matters more than the length of the cycles is that these swings, between what Schlesinger called periods of reform and periods of consolidation, clearly occur. If we somewhat arbitrarily fix the age of Franklin D. Roosevelt as 1932 to 1968 and the era of Ronald Reagan as 1968 to 2008, a new cycle of American political history — a cycle of reform — is due.
The Republican coalition — composed of the religious right on social issues, the radical tax cutters or “supply-siders” on economic issues, and the neoconservatives on foreign policy — has produced only superficial religiosity, a failed war and record deficits. Traditional conservatives, who are dedicated to resistance to government intrusion into private lives, fiscal discipline and caution on military interventions, have yet to re-emerge, and may not. The character of the next Republican Party will result from an intraparty debate that has yet to begin and might occupy a decade or more.
Democrats, meanwhile, have yet to produce a coherent ideological framework to replace the New Deal, despite an eight-year experiment in “triangulation” and an undefined “centrism.” Once elected, Barack Obama would have a rare opportunity to define a new Democratic Party. He could preside over the beginning of a new political cycle that, if relevant to the times, would dominate American politics for three or four decades to come.
Senator Obama has two choices. He can focus on winning the election to the exclusion of all else and, like Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” ask, “What do we do now?” after it is over. Or he can use his campaign as a platform for designing a new political cycle and achieve a mandate for starting it.
Noting the power of “custom and fear,” and “of orthodoxy and of complacency,” Schlesinger believed that “the subversion of old ideas by the changing environment” would give a new leader the best chance to create a new cycle of reform and innovation.
No individual can entirely determine the architecture of a historical cycle. But much of the next one will be defined by how we grapple with a host of new realities, ones that reach beyond jihadist terrorism. They include globalized markets; the expansion of the information revolution into places like China; the emergence of new world powers including India and China; climate deterioration; failing states; the changing nature of war; mass migrations; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; viral pandemics; and many more.
Senator Obama’s attempt to introduce the next American cycle should include, at minimum, three elements. National security requires a new, expanded, post-cold-war definition. America must transition from a consumer economy to a producing one. And the moral obligations of our stewardship of the planet must become paramount.
These themes and the policies that flow from them, if made the centerpiece of the 2008 election (perhaps along with alternatives that others might suggest), could produce the mandate required to begin a new historical cycle. This post-New Deal, post-Morning in America era would be more in tune with the current century and its realities than the continued political circling that confuses most Americans, who repeatedly and overwhelmingly report that they know America is adrift.
They are right. And they are right because they instinctively realize that old politics, old parties and old policies are increasingly irrelevant to our lives, to our revolutionary times and to our country’s future. The next cycle of American history is as yet unframed, awaiting a national leader who can define a new role for government at home and a new role for America in the world of the 21st century.