A year ago this month, the air over American liberalism was thick with champagne corks. Barack Obama, the newly elected president, was poised to be inaugurated, and he in turn would inaugurate the long-prophesized new progressive era. A year later, the champagne corks are hardly flying, and if this is to be morning in America for American liberalism, it seems to have come with a pretty nasty hangover.
The notion that the left is owed its turn has been, for some, an immutable law of history.
For instance, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the late activist-historian, argued in "The Cycles of American History" that every 30 years or so, America swings like a pendulum between government activism and conservatism, between emphasizing public purpose and private gain. The 1930s and the 1960s saw statism in the saddle; in the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, markets were ascendant. Based on his (very simplistic) theory, Schlesinger predicted that the 1990s would be a new progressive decade like the 1960s and 1930s. This was a widespread hope among liberals at the end of the Reagan-Bush era. As Dennis Hopper put it in a deservedly forgotten 1990 movie, "Flashback": "The '90s are going to make the '60s look like the '50s."
They were wrong, as even Schlesinger conceded. Bill Clinton might have had big ambitions when he entered office, but the failure of HillaryCare and the success of the Contract with America put an end to that. Americans didn't want anything like a replay of the 1960s. As a result, Clinton spent most of his tenure clinging to the polls, terrified of straying too far from the political center, and the healthy tension between him and the Republican-controlled Congress led to welfare reform, tough anti-crime measures and a reduction of the deficit.
Some hoped that Al Gore would pick up the ball of idealism after Clinton dropped it. But the Florida recount settled that. In 2004, both Howard Dean, the front-runner, and John Kerry, the ultimate nominee, styled themselves as heirs to the now-overdue rebirth of Kennedy-era activism. They lost.