WASHINGTON — History takes time. To understand the historic decline of the Democratic Party I have found it useful to reach back to a book I wrote in 1984, The Liberal Crack-Up. It is a diagnosis of what was then the core philosophy of the Democratic Party, liberalism, and a prognosis of its future. Doctor Tyrrell was not optimistic, but history takes time.
Today the Democratic Party has lost both houses of Congress, the presidency, many state offices it had controlled for at least two generations. It is about to be outpaced throughout the federal judiciary. The liberal crack-up began with the defeat of that liberal fantastico, Jimmy Carter. It picked up steam during the 1990s, when the Democrats lost the House and the Senate and many state offices — and the media’s legend endures that President Bill Clinton is a political genius. His genius is in self-promotion. He is a cunning huckster. But the liberal crack-up did not reach the point of no return until November 2, 2004. Then on that glad and glorious morn, that reductio ad absurdum of a liberal presidential candidate, Jean-François Kerry, the Democratic elites, and all the liberals in the media beheld Victory. It was to be a return to their vicarious lives as Kennedys!, Roosevelts!, Progressives!
Alas, by November 3 their delusions became very difficult to maintain. Sure there are many who still think they won. Doubtless Jean-François, his balmy wife, and many in his entourage still feel as morally and intellectually superior as they did in the expectant hours of November 2. Yet clear-headed students of politics today recognize that the Democratic Party has suffered a catastrophic defeat. Some, such as Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, are politely suggesting that their party is in need of a philosophy transplant, something less narcissistic, less out-of-this world, than the troubled philosophy that since the 1960s has been at its core, namely, liberalism.
Some will say liberalism was the very core of the Democrats’ beloved New Deal, but they err. The liberalism of the New Deal was leavened with urban machine politics, Southern conservatism, and that wild and woolly philosophical hybrid, western populism. The liberalism that became rampant in the Democratic Party beginning in the late 1960s drove out all other intellectual impulses. Yes, a poseur such as Jimmy Carter might make a feint towards fiscal conservatism, but he could not resist his education lobby, his environmentalists, or his “minority rights” careerists. And he was most in his element lecturing Americans on their “inordinate fear of Communism” and their “malaise.” Today he is just another “blame-America-first” megalomaniac.
Boy Clinton was not a lot different. His 1992 big spending plans (he called it “infrastructure”) and healthcare colossus were kept in check by the country’s growing conservatism manifested most inescapably in the Republican ascendancy on Capitol Hill in 1994. His vaunted balanced budget was achieved at least in part by his niggardliness toward the military. His whole egotistic lifestyle was late-twentieth century liberalism replete with zoo sex in the office and hand-holding with visiting preachers and therapists. Then came Al Gore and after that the football-throwing, snow boarding, wind-surfing, bungee-jumping fantasist whose self-important huffiness over being called “French-looking” made teasing him such a delight.
At the heart of the liberal crack-up, which I first diagnosed in 1984, is the impulse to politicize everything from food to sex to happenstance — and to moralize. The liberal of the liberal crack-up is a free-floating moralizer. Such liberals are also dramatists of the most adolescent variety. No human experience is beyond their melodrama. There is no misfortune that they will not exploit for votes. Their politics is built on a world of extremes. The conservatism of President George W. Bush, a conservatism that has been governing America for most of the past 24 years, remains to these liberals shocking, dangerous, or “extremist,” as they say.
The liberalism of the liberal crack-up is what is “extremist.” Even a sensible idea or a fine principle is exaggerated to the point that it becomes preposterous and untenable. Thus in the last election the perfectly sensible and tolerant solution for stable homosexual couples’ legal difficulties, namely, civil unions, was not sufficient. No conscientious liberal of 2004 will be content until the Nation adopts homosexual marriage. Nor will the good liberal accept such limitations on abortion as parental consent for minors. Naturally the good liberal will only accept the most extreme criticism of the Iraqi war. The good liberal increasingly sees politics as a realm dominated by conspiracies and lies. The inflamed drama of liberal politics has become too much for ordinary Americans to endure. The liberal crack-up is beyond therapy. It is history.