Following up on an essay he'd written 10 years earlier called "Tides in American History," the historian Arthur Schlesinger argued in 1949 that conservative and liberal periods alternate within 30-year intervals, give or take a few years.
He predicted that the conservative period that began with the accession of a Republican Congress in 1947 would end around 1962, and that a return to conservatism would happen around 1978. He was pretty close to the mark on both counts.
The historian's more famous son, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., revived the thesis in a New Yorker essay in 1992, when liberals couldn't believe their luck that the Reagan-Bush era, which for a time looked like those conservative Chinese dynasties that lasted centuries, ended after 12 years.
"To justify bringing the hypothesis up now," Schlesinger wrote, "I can say that in the days when the Democrats were said to be doomed by the Republican lock on the Presidency by the manipulation of race, by the hatred of politics, by the culture of contentment, I kept invoking the family thesis that the tide would turn in the nineteen-nineties."
Junior was cheating a bit: Bill Clinton had been elected two weeks before he published the New Yorker piece, so it was more hindsight than prediction. And this time the thesis didn't hold. Clinton only stalled the Reagan tide.
He didn't turn it back. Schlesinger may argue that George W. Bush defied the family thesis only by cheating his way to a victory in 2000. But Bush didn't win alone.
If in 1956 Schlesinger could write that "in a sense all of America is liberalism," an observer today could justifiably say that in a sense all of America is conservatism.
Bush is only its crude percolate. The Supreme Court that finally elected him has a conservative wing and a very conservative wing. Its last liberal, Harry Blackmun, retired 10 years ago.
The Reagan-Bush-Bush appointments have remade the federal judiciary into a synod of grand inquisitors and hanging judges. (The 9th Circuit heretics in San Francisco are the exception that prove the rule.) Except for a two-week interval in 2001 and an 18-month stretch that ended in November 2002, Congress has been all Republican for 10 years.
Monopolies breed contempt: Congress has been less a balancing political force than an incubator of ideological extremes where even Republican moderates are only as tolerated, and as resented, as the spotted owl is tolerated and resented by Northwestern loggers.
Then there's the media, segments of which seem liberal only the way some Supreme Court justices seem liberal when compared to their reactionary brethren. The liberalism is relative, not commanding.
The major television networks and the national newspapers have so confused credibility with middle-of-the-road deference to authority that they are more apologists of power than the challengers you'd expect liberal media to be with a conservative establishment.
The election of President Bush was facilitated not by the Supreme Court, whose makeup ordained it to spin a legal yarn on behalf of its favored son (a liberal court would have done the same had the roles been reversed).
It was facilitated by a national press corps that let Candidate Bush coast on a bubble of promises as exuberantly deceptive as the stock bubble of the late 90s. When the stock bubble burst, the economy tanked, exposing the corporate corruption bubbles are made of.
When the Bush bubble burst -- those bogus promises of job creation and balanced budgets, of compassion at home and humility abroad -- the media mended the president's fortune in the dog-wagging splint of war and patriotic gore. The charade wouldn't have been so convincing had there been such a thing as a liberal media. All of America is indeed conservatism.
Maybe it isn't that Schlesinger got the cycle wrong, but that the fluid meaning of conservatism and liberalism has made the cycle irrelevant.
Emerson once defined the difference between liberals and conservatives as the difference between the party of hope and the party of memory. These days liberals are just as likely to pine for a Jeffersonian past as conservatives are likely to pine for a Hamiltonian past, although Jefferson was a small government, anti-tax zealot and Hamilton was a central government monarchist in democratic drag.
Hope today is everyone's rhetorical currency. But conservatives act from the premise that they know all there is to know and are willing to impose their brand of hope by force.
Skepticism, doubt, restraint: Those concepts once defined traditional conservatism, but they have no place in the dogmatic and popular certainties of neoconservatism. Opportunistic strategy -- what's too politely and inaccurately referred to as "ideology" -- has won out.
Clobbered, co-opted, mired in self-doubt, the liberal alternative is a void.
The Schlesinger cycle may kick-in again in November. But a Democratic president alone won't change a one-party state of mind.
Tristam is a News-Journal
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