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A Day of Reckoning for the Conservative Movement
Publish Date:Tuesday, November 7, 2006
I was 17 when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Since then the great back story of American politics has been the ascendancy of the conservative movement, and its ally, the Republican Party. One of the big questions we will all be talking about in the days to come will be whether or not this story of conservative ascendancy has come to an end, and whether we are entering a new period in American history.
I believe we are.
The last 100 years of American politics can be put into three rough historical periods. Period 1 ran from TR to FDR, and was a battle for the mastery of a new reform-minded and modern politics eventually captured by the Democrats, and philosophically located squarely in the progressive camp. Period 2 was FDR to Reagan, and was an era of Democratic ascendancy and consolidation of power, and a triumph of progressive values. Period 3, the conservative ascendancy, began in 1980 and saw great triumph in 1994, and again in this decade. Today as a result of their recent success, the Republican Party and the conservative movement has more political and ideological control over the government than any time since the 1920s.
The question about conservatism has always been could it mature enough as a governing philosophy to replace 20th century progressivism, and provide America with a true alternative governing approach? I believe the Bush era has answered that question, and the answer is no. Given the extraordinary failure of conservative government to do the very basics - keeping us safe, fostering broad-based prosperity, protecting our liberties, balancing the books and not breaking the law - I think history will label this 20th century conservatism a success as a critique of 20th century progressivism, but a failure as a governing philosophy. It never matured into something more than an ivory-tower led and Limbaugh-fed correction to a progressivism that had lost its way.
Despite the many billions spent in building this modern conservative movement, history will label it a grand and remarkable failure. And I think we will look back at 2006 as the year this most recent period of American history - the conservative ascendancy - 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. My own belief is that 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.
I believe 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.