The Magazine

A Moment to Be Seized

Jan 14, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 17 • By DAVID BROOKS, FOR THE EDITORS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

HAS SEPTEMBER 11 fundamentally changed the nation's political landscape? The common view among political consultants seems to be that it hasn't. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, appearing at a Hudson Institute event on January 3, argued that though change is more exciting than continuity, continuity has been more common in the past and is more likely in the near future. The war probably won't have a partisan impact in either direction, he said. The issues that dominated the past few years--the economy, health care, education, and so on--will likely end up dominating 2002, and, for that matter, 2003 and 2004. This echoes the sentiments expressed three weeks earlier by Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, at an American Enterprise Institute gathering.

Can this really be true? The nation suffers a horrible trauma. The rules of normal politics are suspended. A war of a new kind is launched. The president's approval ratings shoot up to 90 percent and hover near there for at least four months. And in the midst of all this, we are supposed to believe that national politics will come to rest at approximately the same place it was before?

The professionals reach this conclusion because they study a certain set of data. If you ask voters what issues are important to them, they list things like health care, education, and jobs--pretty much the same concerns they had before September 11. Fear of terrorism, which topped the list for a while, is fading--and isn't obviously partisan in its implications. Hence, the pros see domestic stability underneath the foreign policy drama.

But there is history here that contradicts the continuity thesis. Do most national traumas leave the nation unchanged? The Oklahoma City bombing sucked the air out of the Gingrich revolution, giving Bill Clinton the upper hand. The Iran hostage crisis guaranteed that the 1980s would be unlike the 1970s; Americans wanted a more assertive set of policies, abroad and at home. The Kennedy assassination meant that the 1960s would be unlike the 1950s. A senseless act of violence, it loosed passions and energies that played out in unexpected ways. It thawed issues that had been frozen. On a larger scale, World War I brought the Progressive era to an end and heralded the quite different politics of the 1920s, just as World War II quenched the activism of the New Deal.

Through it all, Americans continued to care about the fundamental things: education, health care, jobs. But politics was dramatically different, nonetheless.

The war on terrorism may well have a similarly large effect on American politics. And there are data that support this view. For the past forty years, faith in government has eroded. In 1960, three-quarters of Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing. By the mid- 1990s, only one in five said that. Now faith in government has skyrocketed, with over half of all Americans expressing confidence in government. Similarly significant majorities tell pollsters that the country is on the right track--despite the recession.

Those numbers will fall a bit, but what they indicate is real. They indicate self-confidence. The American people now have confidence in their fundamental institutions: in the military, in the presidency, even in Congress. These and other institutions have seen their ratings soar.

A person with self-confidence is different from a person without self-confidence. So is a nation. It may not have moved right or left. It won't necessarily have changed its priorities. But it has changed along another dimension. It has enlarged the scope of its aspirations. It dreams on a different scale. A self-confident nation believes it can control its own destiny. It assumes that if it launches an initiative it will be able to complete it, so it is more prone to launch new initiatives. When it starts down a road, it does not allow itself to be paralyzed by the commentators who warn that the path ahead leads to a quagmire.

September 11, the public reaction to September 11, and the progress of our arms in Afghanistan may well have made the country more daring. Americans used to regard power and politics as marginal. Now the voters are like a man suddenly aware of his muscles, looking around for something to use them on, some cause to contribute to.

That restlessness would be pernicious, if channeled in the wrong direction--into a Great Society pipe dream, say. But if the energy were challenged intelligently, then it could lead to the sort of constructive activism we saw during the Civil War, during the first Roosevelt administration, and during the Reagan administration.

In other words, this is a moment to be seized. The party that seizes it can break the 49-49 deadlock that has gripped American politics of late.