The Great American Ideological Crackup

Shortly after the 2004 presidential election, I was chatting with a senior figure in the Democratic Party when, inevitably, the talk turned to why John Kerry had lost. My interlocutor's theory of the case: the voters did not know the truth about George W. Bush. Why didn't they know the truth? I asked. The reply: because of Roger Ailes.

On hearing that a particularly dopey man we both knew had gone to rehab for drinking, a friend of mine once sent me an e-mail that said: "You know, that's an awful lot to blame on alcohol." To adapt the image, the 2004 victory is an awful lot to credit Ailes with. The head of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel, Ailes (whom I know) is a talented and influential man. He rose from The Mike Douglas Show to become a maker of presidents, from Nixon to Bush 41, and his channel is a big player in our politics. But if he and Fox News were as omnipotent as Democrats fear, John McCain and Sarah Palin would be in the White House.

Still, to many liberals, Murdoch and Ailes are the scary Wild Things of the last decade or so in American politics, the men on whom many of the evils of the world can be blamed. For these progressive true believers, the White House's recent attack on the channel as a partisan machine is a welcome signal of a feisty, fighting Obama administration.

Liberals should savor the moment, because the Ailes bashing may be about all they get. As Anna Quindlen notes in our cover this week, the left is frustrated with Obama, believing him too quick to compromise on progressive principles and too open to staying the course on George W. Bush's policies, particularly on national security. A year after Obama stood in Grant Park, a figure of history, he has not brought about a liberal kingdom of God—or even a "public option."

From Guantánamo to gays in the military, the Obama administration has surely not been progressive in the way we have understood and used the term for two generations. A Democratic president who is not pushing for mandated universal health care and has no apparent interest in engaging issues of gay marriage and gun control is not the traditional liberal's long-expected messiah.

Which puts the Fox News affair in an interesting light. To the base, the White House looks tough, willing to hit back—all while the base is getting few of the substantive reforms it has fought for. I am not suggesting that the Obama administration has staged the Fox protest as a bread-and-circuses ploy in order to give otherwise dissatisfied Democrats something to cheer, but no matter what the intention, the contretemps has made the White House seem more progressive than it is.

The whole thing feels like the last war, or a song that has not worn well, or a guest who has overstayed his welcome. The White House–vs.–Fox News mini-saga belongs to an era that effectively ended last fall, when President Bush radically enlarged the role of the federal government in the economy and Obama won the presidency. It was clear then, and is even clearer now, that the issues which long defined the right-left divide (hawkishness abroad, a limited role for government at home) are in spectacular disarray.

We have been here before. The analogous moments that most easily come to mind—moments of economic turmoil and political realignment—are 1933 and 1981. And so the 44th president has the chance—only the chance; success is not at all certain—to follow in the tradition of the two men who defined politics in the last 70 years: Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. FDR's transformed the role of the state, shaping reality for presidents from Truman to Carter. Then, after 1981, the eponymous Reagan Revolution politically replaced the ethos of the New Deal. Bill Clinton's announcement of the death of big government was, in its way, the apogee of Reaganism.

But we are now living in a post-Roosevelt, post-Reagan universe. What comes next will not be post-partisan, because faction is an intrinsic human impulse. Nor, for the same reason, will it be post-ideological. The question, rather, is what new ideologies—or what new permutations of perennial ideological impulses—will form to order our politics in the face of asymmetrical warfare, religious extremism, and an intensely globalized economy. That is a developing story that no cable channel is likely to cover very well.