Reading Norman Podhoretz's The Bloody Crossroads (1986), I came across this striking passage from his essay "The Adversary Culture and the New Class":
The sixties ended, however, not with a revolution but with the election of Richard Nixon: Richard Nixon, who better than any single figure in American public life seemed to epitomize everything in opposition to which the adversary culture had always defined itself. But the response to this defeat was not withdrawal. It was, on the contrary, a new determination to mount an effective political challenge, this time 'working within the system' to get rid of the usurper who had seized the throne and to place political power at long last into the proper hands. This effort, which called itself the New Politics, sought to forge a coalition of two disparate elements: those who were, or felt themselves to be, deprived of the full benefits of middle-class comfort and security (the blacks and the poor) and those who were, or felt themselves to be, deprived of the full benefits of political power (the New Class). Operating through the candidacy of George McGovern for President, the New Politics came infinitely closer to actual power than any political movement associated with the adversary culture had ever done before, and though it suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in 1972, it participated centrally in the succesful campaign to drive him from the White House in 1974. Two years later, the presidential candidate backed by the New Politics, Morris Udall, lost out to an ambiguous figure named Jimmy Carter who then went on as President to staff his administration with veterans of the New Politics and more recent converts to its point of view. Full political power, then, had not been achieved, but obviously great progress had been made.
What struck me about this passage was its relevance. While the Carter administration may have been staffed by many members of the New Class and those sympathetic to adversary culture, it would be hard to describe the man from Plains as such. Carter, a religious man, had an ostentatious pious streak, and neither his foreign nor domestic policies were as left-wing as some of his apologists would have liked.
Nor was the next Democratic president, Bill Clinton, a "true" member of the New Class, even though at times he shared its politics and had journeyed upward through its institutions. The realities of American politics in the early 1990s, and Clinton's shape-shifting nature, limited his ability to put the New Politics into action during his first two years in office -- and by the end of his presidency Clinton had moved so far to the right on economic and foreign policy that many in the New Class would abandon Al Gore for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election.
It was not until Obama, then, that America elected its first New Politics president. From his writerly and intellectual talents to his elite academic pedigree, from his confidence in government's expert abilities to his technocratic disdain for political debate, Obama is the perfect vessel for the New Class's long-frustrated ambitions. And his core of support -- what Michael Barone calls the "top-and-bottom coalition" that brought him to office -- is exactly as Podhoretz describes the original New Politics coalition in the 1970s.
What remains to be seen is whether the imperatives of office drive Obama to move rightward like his predecessors, thus alienating the New Class. Or whether the combination of economic doldrums and an unpopular liberal agenda lead the American people to reject him first.