In the last year of his Presidency, George W. Bush was asked his thoughts about his legacy. He sincerely responded that historians are still debating the role and influence of the first George W, George Washington, so he figured they would be doing the same about him long after he leaves this earth.
For two solid generations, the New Deal school of historians had a firm grip on the narrative of Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. Hoover, clinging to laissez fare notions of federal government action, dithered as the stock market crashed in 1929, which paved the way for Roosevelt’s historic government activism that lifted the US out of the Great Depression. While Ronald Reagan is slowly receiving due credit for derailing the long electoral success of the New Deal Coalition, events of the past few years have now brought greater skepticism towards the New Deal historians’ narrative, as well.
Beginning with the 2006 mid-term elections and continuing through the historic 2008 Presidential elections, many historians schooled in the traditional New Deal narrative could not resist the comparisons with 1930 and 1932. Much like Hoover and Roosevelt, George W. Bush and Barack Obama would now play these similar roles, ushering in the next generation of governmental activism. Reaganite policies of a more deregulated government in economic policy, lower tax rates and strong US dollar would be replaced with a more Western European model of a generous welfare state and higher tax rates.
Using history as a guide, the American electorate would support the massive stimulus, the expansion of government regulation in our capitol markets and in the deliverance of health care. 2010 would resemble 1934 when the voters rewarded Roosevelt and the Democrat Party with a third consecutive electoral triumph in mid-term Congressional elections. However, as 2009 wore on, it was clear that the American electorate is not so easily consigned to repeat university inspired narratives.
The 2010 elections ushered in a wave of new GOP Governors and Senators, returned control of the House of Representatives to the Republican Party and the greatest number of state legislators since 1928. The genuine outrage exhibited towards the legislative process galvanized a Tea Party movement that is the largest grass roots uprising in the country since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. 2011 finds the Democrat coalition, primarily its backbone of government and service employee unions, on the brink of a generational minority status. What happened to make many accomplished historians so out of step with the temperament and mood of the people?
Much ink will be spilled in the coming years but the most direct explanation is the removal of monopoly control over the flow of information by an elite print, broadcast and radio media largely dominated by the New Deal historian narrative. The deregulatory legacy of Ronald Wilson Reagan looms large more than twenty years after he left office. With the advent of talk radio, cable television news and most especially, the Internet, the days of CBS/NBC/ABC in television and the New York Times/Washington Post in print no longer dominates the daily news flow. The seminal moment in this evolution of information was likely the infamous Dan Rather news story with its forged documents regarding former President George W. Bush’s National Guard service in the run up to the 2004 Presidential election. Within a matter of hours, bloggers were able to clearly demonstrate the documents were manufactured, making this the story for days if not weeks when in previous years the legacy media would have dominated the airwaves with a President being untruthful in a seriously damaging way.
The current fast paced movement of information allows for center-right viewpoints to be a robust part of the American conscience in ways hard to fathom for those who grew up in the Cold War era. This shift has made it difficult for President Obama and Congressional Democrats to get the kid glove treatment of generations past and explains why 2010 is most certainly not 1934.
Does this foretell that 2012 will not be 1936? Only time will tell but the Tea Party template of genuinely reducing the size and scope of the Federal government shows no sign of abating. The ruling classes in DC may wish all of this was a one time “temper tantrum” to famously quote Tom Brokaw after the 1994 elections, but it is clear the American electorate has shifted. Whatever happens in the run up to 2012 and beyond is still anyone’s guess. I believe it safe to predict the GOP nominee will carry more than Maine and Vermont in the Electoral College like Alf Landon, although President Obama will likely carry Vermont again. Some bets are safer than others.