I have this problem. Whenever I try to explain what's happening in American politics-I mean, what's really happening-I wind up sounding a bit like an unhinged conspiracy theorist. But honestly, I'm not. My politics are actually quite moderate. (Most real lefties, in fact, think I'm a Washington establishment sellout.) So please give let me a chance to explain myself when I tell you the following: American politics has been hijacked by a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane. (Stay with me.)
The scope of their triumph is breathtaking. Over the course of the last three decades, they have moved from the right-wing fringe to the commanding heights of the national agenda. Notions that would have been laughed at a generation ago-that cutting taxes for the very rich is the best response to any and every economic circumstance, or that it is perfectly appropriate to turn the most rapacious and self-interested elements of the business lobby into essentially an arm of the federal government-are now so pervasive, they barely attract any notice.
The result has been a slow-motion disaster. Income inequality has approached levels normally associated with Third World oligarchies, not healthy Western democracies. The federal government has grown so encrusted with business lobbyists that it can no longer meet the great public challenges of our time. Not even many conservative voters or intellectuals find the result congenial. Government is no smaller-it is simply more debt-ridden and more beholden to wealthy elites.
And yet the right-wing ascendancy has continued inexorably despite continual public repudiation. The 2006 elections were only the latest electoral setback. The right has suffered deeper setbacks before, and all of them have proven temporary. In 1982, after the country had entered the deepest recession since the 1930s, Republicans were slaughtered in the midterm congressional races, losing twenty-seven seats in the House of Representatives. Ronald Reagan, whose election two years earlier had seemed to augur a new conservative era, trailed his likely 1984 Democratic challengers by double digits in the polls and seemed destined to be a lame duck. "What we are witnessing this January," wrote the esteemed Washington Post reporter David Broder in the first month of 1983, "is not the midpoint in the Reagan presidency, but its phase-out. 'Reaganism,' it is becoming increasingly clear, was a one-year phenomenon." We know what happened the next year.
And the conservative revolution has had its obituary written many times since. In 1986, Republicans lost the Senate, and shortly thereafter Reagan saw his approval ratings sink as he became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal. In 1992, Democrats won back the White House along with both chambers of Congress, and there was widespread talk of "a conservative crackup." It happened again after the public turned on the Republicans following their 1995 government shutdown, and once more after the public rebelled against the Clinton impeachment. By the late 1990s, the Republican revolution had again been written off.
And yet the Republican right keeps coming back, and back, and back. Their fortunes rise and then dip, but each peak is higher than the last peak, and each dip is higher than the last dip. Consider the present situation. Things have gone about as badly as they could have in George W. Bush's second term. A Republican administration started and lost a major war in Iraq; presided over an economy that has failed to deliver higher wages for most Americans; contributed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the near-wipeout of a major American city; launched a failed assault on Social Security, the most popular social program in the history of the United States; and saw its members suffer an almost unprecedented string of sexual and financial scandals. Still, Democrats find themselves holding only the slimmest of majorities in the House and Senate. Even if they hold their majorities in Congress and win the White House in 2008, the structural forces in Washington will make it nearly impossible to roll back any significant chunks of the Bush tax cuts, let alone take on crises like global warming or the forty-five million Americans lacking health insurance.