When Rome was "falling," did it feel like it? When all of the tasty, leafy fronds started vanishing, did the dinosaurs say, "So this is what extinction looks like"? When British troops signed up for a quick war, they expected to be "home by Christmas." They certainly didn't say "goodbye to all that" -- in the words of Robert Graves -- until long after they realized "all that" had in fact disappeared.
I'm beginning to wonder if the political moment is much, much, more significant than most of us realize. The rules may have changed in ways no one would have predicted two years ago. And perhaps 10 years from now we'll look back on this moment and it will all seem so obvious.
In 2008, American liberalism seemed poised for its comeback. The pendulum of Arthur Schlesinger's "cycle of history" was swinging back toward a new progressive era. Obama would be the liberal Reagan.
Now that all looks preposterous. Of course, considerable blame can be laid at a White House that seems confused about how to relate to the American people when the American people don't share the White House's ideological agenda. Indeed, the White House seems particularly gifted at generating issues that put it crosswise with the majority of voters, from the Arizona immigration lawsuit to the cotton-mouthed explanations about whether or not it considers NASA's primary mission to be boosting the self-esteem of Muslim youth.
But it would be foolish to over-read the importance of much of that. Politicians are sometimes dealt bad cards and play them well and sometimes they are dealt good cards and play them badly. But the basic political rules stay the same.
But what about when the rules change? For nearly a century now, the rules have said that tough economic times make big government more popular. For more than 40 years it has been a rule that environmental disasters -- and scares over alleged ones -- help environmentalists push tighter regulations. According to the rules, Americans never want to let go of an entitlement once they have it. According to the rules, populism is a force for getting the government to do more, not less. According to the rules, Americans don't care about the deficit during a recession.