By some time in the mid-'90s, much of the New Deal coälition — the main-stream of America's political left and the base of its Democratic Party — had largely ceased to believe.
It was hard to see its positive programmes as successes. Keynesianism as it was then understood in America had led to stagflation in the '70s. Programmes intended to lift people from poverty had instead creäted a
permanent under-class, of disintegrated families. Nearly everyone was beginning to understand that Social Security was a pyramid scheme of some sort. And the increasing intrusions of the state that were intrinsic to these programmes put the lie to any claim that the center left had much concern for individual liberty.
The main-stream of the media had increasingly aligned itself with the left, and had grossly over-played its hand, which brought disrepute upon both.
Meanwhile, a cluster of ideologies known jointly as
conservative were drawing upon various sorts of economic and moral arguments (largely cribbed from libertarians) for reduced state control of the economy, some of which arguments were quite difficult to meet.
Then the Soviet Bloc collapsed. Most Americans on the left had abhorred various aspects of those states, but had also seen those states as concrete proof of the practical viability of extensive state control of national economies. And, even as the left tried to turn hopefully to
the Swedish model, the political system in Sweden began to unwind that model. Uncertainty developed over whether much if any degree of state intervention were sustainable over the long run.
It wasn't that most or all of the left converted to a rival position. They didn't become conservatives; they didn't become libertarians. They still wanted to believe in the New Deal, in the New Frontier (rather imperfectly remembered!), in the Great Society; they just really didn't. (Some would haul-out the Call to tell themselves other-wise, attempting to build conviction with a chant.) Many of them did switch their foci from supporting extensive state intervention on behalf of human welfare to supporting extensive state intervention on behalf of environmental protection; this allowed them to keep pushing for the same institution (the state) to be directed against many of the same enemies, but now the talk was of life-boat scenarios, rather than of promoting general affluence.
But, in 2008, the American political left again believed.
The ground-work for that resurgent belief had been laid by Republicans, especially by those in Congress from 2001 to 2006, and by the Presidential Administration of George Walker Bush. They had promoted dramatic deficit spending, greatly expanded the intrusions of the state into the every-day lives of Americans, and taken the United States into two wars, each of which they grossly mismanaged. They had also partnered with Congressional Democrats in what amounted to an extensive corrupting of financial markets, which led to a collapse while Republicans held the White House and had majorities in both Houses of Congress. And since the Republicans had styled themselves as
conservatives and believers in market economics while doing these things, it was easy for the left to see this wave of disasters as a refutation both of conservatism and of reliance upon unregulated markets. That, however, is still essentially negative — less a certainty of the left that they were right than that their opponents were wrong.
Belief returned with Barack Hussein Obama. That was why he, and not one of the other Democratic candidates, got the Presidential nomination; that was why he scared the Hell out of so many with firm precepts in opposition to those of the left. Obama conveyed himself in a manner that people associate with intelligence, with alertness, with education, and with good judgment. And, while as a candidate he was deliberately vague about much of what he would seek as President, he postured as if it would be those things to which all reasonable people agreed. His ambiguity allowed people of various ideologies to see in him what they wanted to see in him (thus making him electable), but it was easiest of all to see him as resuming the project of the New Deal coälition, especially as he described what seemed just that when he was more forth-coming. For such a man to act as if he believed made it again possible for them to believe.
The belief of the left didn't subsequently develop more to sustain it beyond this cult of personality. And belief on the left in Barack Hussein Obama has been dying. Where policy has been at his discretion, he has often not done what he promised them and the nation that he would do. Where the left has seen a need to fight or an opportunity to crush their opponents, he has often seemed in the eyes of the left to fold. And often they must choose between admitting that their policies are simply mistaken, or asserting that the Administration didn't, after all, effect those policies. (For example, that it wasn't sufficiently aggressive.)
So we are sliding back towards a state-of-affairs where the left does not believe. It does not seem plausible to me that Obama's reputation could be rescued except perhaps by his premature death, and the experience with Obama has, for the time being, inoculated people against the effects of a similar personality.
I cannot help but wish, vainly, that those on the left would do better this time than to dig-in and wait for their belief to be restored.