American politics stands at an unusual crossroads.
Buoyed by victories in the 2008 election and feeling vindicated by the financial crisis, liberal Democrats headed into 2009 feeling that their hour had come. The fallacies of Reaganite free-market economics had been exposed; Americans were returning to the old time religion of the New Deal. History, which for liberal Democrats had been running disastrously off the rails since Richard Nixon's election in 1968, was finally back on track.
But history isn't following this script. Since the election -- if you believe the polls -- Americans have become more conservative, more skeptical of labor unions, more worried about government debt, less worried about global warming, less liberal and less supportive of the health care overhaul.
In the short term, that has meant trouble for the administration and for the congressmen and senators facing the voters at town halls. But what does it mean for the country and for where American politics might be headed?
First, this new rightward drift may not be any more of a long term trend than the voters' swing to the left in the last election. Voters are still rattled by the financial crisis; the United States is still fighting two wars abroad, and Iran's nuclear program may draw us into a third. The whole country seems afloat on a tide of red ink and millions of Baby Boomers wonder if they will ever be able to retire. Voters have a lot of information to process, most of it unpleasant. It's not surprising that the polling is volatile.
But there is, I think, a cold dark fact at the heart of this that means trouble for incumbents of all kinds, but especially for Democrats. The fact is that the liberal society we've built since the New Deal looks less and less capable of honoring its promises. It's not just Medicare and Social Security; there are a lot of state governments out there that have no way of paying for all the pensions they've promised their workers over the years -- and no way to pay for all the services they've promised the voters. Private sector labor unions seem to drive jobs overseas or to saddle their employers with unpayable costs. Public sector unions drive state and local governments into fiscal dead ends as well. People look at public schools and the postal system and they don't see much sign that the old institutions work very well. (I'm not saying this is all 100% true -- only that it looks that way to a lot of people.)
Most voters wish this wasn't true. They would like to vote themselves higher wages, free health care, and higher pensions that kick in at younger ages. Many, perhaps most voters are nostalgic for the time when one breadwinner working 9 to 5 at a secure factory job could keep a family of four in the heart of the middle class. But more and more people think those days are long gone and that there's no going back. And if liberal society can no longer deliver the goods, people don't want to pay its bills.
It's not just the money and it's not just liberals who need to worry. As the promises of the liberal society look increasingly shaky, the experts and the professionals and the think tanks seem less and less worthy of respect. The 'experts' -- including me -- generally supported the war in Iraq. 'Experts' were confident about the New Economy being fail safe and bust-proof. Other 'experts' say that we can handle budget deficits of a trillion plus, that a new health care entitlement will cut costs without trimming services to Medicare patients, that a cap-and-trade bill won't cost jobs, that enlightened immigration reform will work and so on and so on.
It isn't a liberal or a conservative thing in the end. It's that the American people are losing faith not only in the promises of the liberal society but in the experts and the professionals who design, administer and explain it. Increasingly, the lower middle class and the middle middle class want to fire the snooty upper middle class know it alls who collectively have gotten the country into such a mess.
How this all will work out, I don't really know. But it's a big deal and it isn't going away anytime soon.