I’m going to have to revise my “The Last Century: Huh?” essay some time, because I can now much more easily answer the question I was struggling with: what happened to liberalism?  The answer is, the sixties happened.

That’s a generation ago now, so let me refresh your memory:

  • We were trapped in a hopeless war (and with a draft, it affected all young men)
  • Blacks were demanding change, bordering on revolution
  • The crime rate was tripling
  • Young people were rebelling: rock and roll, long hair, sex and nudity, drug use
  • Authority was being questioned, at every level from insolence to pranks to a sprinkling of outfight terrorism

It was easy to feel that things were out of control.  And if you were on the right, there were even more reasons for alarm: loosened immigration, ballooning government, civil rights enforcement (i.e. “coddling of criminals”), feminism, the legalization of abortion, the decline of traditional Christianity.

Liberalism didn’t produce all this; some of it was inevitable; some of it (e.g. the black power movement) started out calm but radicalized in the face of reactionary opposition; some of it came from voices much farther to the left.  But if you were upset about these things, the nuances didn’t matter.

Much of modern Republican history and policy makes sense if you realize that, for the right, it’s still 1968.  They don’t really see Clinton or Obama; they see Abbie Hoffman and Malcolm X.  (And to a large extent they took their inflammatory rhetoric and even their threats of violence from the ’60s left.)

Somewhat ironically, politics in the ’60s didn’t look like this.  The major parties were both run by staid old fogies who’d been formed in WWII and got along well enough together.  Lyndon Johnson was no rabble-rouser; Nixon governed largely as a liberal.  He did start to develop the “southern strategy”, which peeled off white Southerners from the New Deal coalition, but that didn’t bear fruit till 1980.

The thing is, it’s 2009.  Most of the excesses of the ’60s are long gone– Democrats have moved to the right, and the far left is so inconsequential it’s not even worth mocking.  Other bits have become mainstream: megachurches play rock ‘n roll; reactionaries are happy to vote for a woman (and her kid’s having a baby out of wedlock is somehow no longer deplorable but bravely pro-life).  Race relations are far from great, but segregation isn’t coming back and there are just too many nonwhites to make racism a winning strategy.  The rising generation doesn’t have a problem with gay rights.

Unfortunately, the mainstream of the Republican Party hasn’t got the memo.  Palin, Gingrich, Limbaugh, the birthers, the town meeting disrupters– they’re standing up to 1968 with 1968 tactics, more furiously than ever. 

It’s a pity, because a democratic country needs a responsible opposition… something like the actual 1960s Republicans, in fact.  We’re facing some important issues: a near-depression, two major industries failed, health care reform, global warming, Islamist fascism, and more.  It’d be helpful to have an opposition that could keep Democrats honest, and not ruin the country if they happened to win an election.  Instead we have people in tinfoil hats, making up issues out of whole cloth and spreading confusion and lies. 

There is a more realistic sector of the Republicans, as well as a fraction of the Democrats, which isn’t trapped in 1968.  Unfortunately they’re trapped in 2007 instead.  It’s understandable that last year’s financial collapse, and the not-unrelated GOP electoral collapse, haven’t sunk in yet.  People don’t quickly abandon their hobbyhorses, and often people’s response to a crisis is to reinforce their worldview, not question it.  But the triple whammy of financial collapse, health care costs, and global warming is a death blow to the reflexive trust in The Market and hatred of government.  As Krugman put it, what’s saved us from a second Great Depression is big government.

It’s by no means tinfoil-hat craziness to worry about the deficit.  It’s a little suspicious since all the big thinkers of the GOP from Alan Greenspan to Dick Cheney fully endorsed Bush’s tax cuts and thus enormous deficits: it’s not intellectually coherent to object only to Democratic spending.  But the larger problem is that right now, the last thing we need is a stingy government.  “Make sure the economy fails even more” is not rational or constructive opposition.

A two-party system normally works to moderate both parties.  This broke down as the Republicans found a way to end long-term Democratic domination of Congress seemingly by breaking the old rules– moving away from the center rather than toward it.  They were so proud of their success, too, filling bookstores with their scurrilous books about liberals and their permanent majority. 

It’s hard to imagine today’s GOP adapting.  There are rational voices– Meghan McCain comes to mind– but the hotheads are still in control and see no point in cooling down.  It’ll probably take a few more election losses before things change.