TCS Daily


The New Political Epoch: It's the Forest, Stupid

By James K. Glassman - August 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Watching John Kerry give his acceptance speech, I was reminded of Richard Nixon.

Kerry not only said he would make short shrift of an annoying war -- but he also appeared shifty and sweaty, jowly and sallow, bobbing and weaving in front of the camera and "racing furiously," as the Washington Post's Tom Shales put it, through his text, as though he wanted to get finished in time to get to Locke-Ober's for supper. No wonder there was barely a bounce.

On the other hand, maybe I don't know what I am talking about. The headline on a Salon.com article reviewing the speech said, "The pundits on Kerry: He nailed it." Oh, well. Instant political analysis is not my strong suit. I am sick of it -- of the talk about who'll win West Virginia, the hair-splitting polling, the speculation over whether a terror attack will help George Bush. This is short-termism. It misses the forest for the trees.

The truth is that something profound has been happening in America since 1980 -- a massive political sea change. Even if Kerry wins this time, it's hard to see the tide reversing.

Between 1932, when Roosevelt beat Hoover, and 1980, when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter, Democrats held the White House for 32 of 48 years, two-thirds of the time. For 44 of those years, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, usually by wide margins.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter swept into office with 292 House seats and 61 Senate seats. In the next election, running on hopes that he would end the malaise, temper inflation (13 percent), cut taxes (top rate: 70 percent), and roll back communism (gaining a foothold in Latin America), Reagan won a broad victory, whose foundation was laid in 1964, when Barry Goldwater took the party out of the country-club locker room, and whose superstructure was built by -- gasp! -- conservative intellectuals in universities and think tanks.

The Republicans launched their own epoch, holding the White House for 16 of the next 24 years--again, two-thirds of the time. They have controlled the Senate for 14 of those years and the House for 10. Of the 50 governors, 30 are now Republican, including the top executives of the four largest states. Republicans control 21 state legislatures, versus 17 for Democrats (11 are split); as recently as 1990, Republicans controlled just six to the Democrats' 30. And have I mentioned the Supreme Court? The secular trend, as they say on Wall Street, appears well-established, and even if there is a brief bear market (or bull market, if that's your persuasion), it is difficult to see why a long-lasting reversal -- a new cycle -- would develop.

Like most political epochs, this one is deeply rooted not in ideology but in demographics, economics and sociology. Republicans have come to power for three reasons: First, the generation that suffered through the Depression and saw the Democratic Party as savior is dying out. Hard-core New Dealers are being replaced as voters with a generation that grew up with Reagan.

Second, Americans are growing richer and becoming investors, sharing in the ownership of businesses, not merely seeing themselves as oppressed "labor" to overbearing "management." Half of all U.S. families own stock.

Third, a counter-cultural revolution, rooted in Generation X, has developed in reaction to the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, which live on, benignly, in art but not in social policy. Crime and welfare dependency have dropped, religion is on the rise, drug use is declining, kids like their parents. The technology boom, part of this revolution, is based on libertarian (free-market conservative) ideals and entrepreneurship.

My colleague Karlyn Bowman at the American Enterprise Institute notes that in the 1970s Americans identified themselves as Democrats over Republicans by an average margin of 21 percentage points; in the 1980s, the lead has dropped to 11 points; in the 1990s, to 9 points; today, the parties are roughly even.

Republican hegemony is not nearly as entrenched after 24 years as Democratic rule was. The key fact is that the parties are running neck and neck. That's why the animosity toward Bush -- especially within America's liberal establishment -- is so hyperbolic.

Democrats need to find a way to harness the great social changes of the past two decades. They will never regain lasting power if they, like their pundit pals, continue to view politics in the short term. It's the forest, stupid.

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