When did this political moment begin?
And would you change it?
Hello friends, enemies, and those caught between! Happy Saturday! This is a discussion post. I am eager to hear your thoughts so please put them in the comments or tweet at me or Substack Note me or write them down and put them in a bottle and throw them into the sea. The good bottles always find their way to the shore.
A question I like to ask people is, when do you think this political era began? I don’t mean in a political science/realignment election sort of way. I mean, when do you think that most characteristics of our current situation mostly began?
There are no right or wrong answers to this question, but I think it’s interesting to think about.
A list of answers people have given me, in reverse chronological order:
The Pandemic: Changed everything.
Trump: Changed everything
Obama’s second term: The second term is when the left picked up more steam in the Democratic Party, and a lot of social media influences really started to change things.
Trayvon Martin’s murder: Rightly outraged the nation and set the table for the racial awakening that happened throughout the next few years.
Obama’s election: which made liberals believe things were possible they hadn’t thought were possible before and created a huge GOP backlash. You could also call this “the Tea Party.”
The financial crisis: Changed everything and paved the way for Obama to enter office with huge congressional majorities that allowed him to actually accomplish many parts of his agenda. Created distrust in financial institutions and the economy and pushed populism into both parties at new levels.
Hurricane Katrina: which shattered a lot of belief in the ability of the government to solve problems
Bush’s policy failures in 2005: both immigration reform and entitlement reform. Those two things failed for different reasons, but they each involved the Republican base writhing loose of the elite control.
The war in Iraq: which was hugely controversial and ultimately shattered the bipartisan belief in how America should project power in a post-COld War world. It also made people more distrustful of the government and 50 other things etc…
The 2002 congressional elections: this was the election when Bush really politicized the war on terror to great success. It alienated and terrified Democrats and gave Bush the bounce in his step to attempt some of his biggest failures.
9/11: changed everything. It shattered the happy-go-lucky American and Western view of safety and prosperity that had taken root after the Berlin Wall fell. It changed cable news. It changed normal news. It changed the way the country interacts with the world.
Bush v Gore: Let’s put every element of the 2000 election in this one. Democrats discovered the evil of the electoral college and started to find fault in some of our electoral system. It reduced trust and respect for the Supreme Court. It literally created our blue vs. red maps. It supercharged polarization. It did 50 other things as well.
Clinton’s impeachment: The GOP was willing to break norms to impeach a president they hated for a blow job despite him having record-high approval ratings.
The 1994 Gingrich Revolution: This was when the stakes of our current endless culture war were really made most apparent.
You can go further back than this. The end of the Cold War is an obvious answer. Lee Atwater is an answer. Talk radio is an answer. Reagan’s election is an answer. Nixon getting pardoned. Nixon doing Watergate. The 1972 election, with the democrats getting wiped out in a campaign in which every DLC democrats cut their teeth. 1968: Nixon’s silent majority. Chicago DNC. LBJ not running for reelection. The civil rights act. The 1964 Goldwater wipeout which set the table for the conservative resurgence. JFK getting killed, etc…It’s a Billy Joel song.
This isn’t all the answers I’ve gotten. But they’re the most common ones. None of them are wrong answers. My answer is typically 9/11 because it was just unparalleled in its total reshaping of not only the US political system but also in just how Americans thought about their place in the world and their own safety.
This isn’t a post with a thesis. I want to know what you think about it and answer for yourselves. But instead of just asking you what was the moment that inaugurated our political moment, I want to go a step further. Whatever moment is your answer, do you think we would be better off if it had gone the other way?
This isn’t a time machine question. The answer to every “If you could go back in time, would you stop X Y Z,” is inevitably, no. Because you’re introducing unknown risk and making sure your children will never be born. This is an academic “what if?” question.
It’s fun to imagine the road not taken, but it’s also healthy, so long as you avoid falling victim to it. Regret haunts like the devil, but it is also, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “an illumination that comes too late.”
And in a time when too many people look into the vast tomorrow and see darkness, illuminations are things you should keep at the ready.
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