Sometimes the best way to understand where we are today is via comparison to something in the past
One of the high points of the 1968 Republican National Convention came when a speaker did an extended spoof of his party’s perceived stodginess. Frankly acknowledging that with the electrifying currents of the youth movement, counterculture, free love, psychedelic drugs, and Woodstock swirling all around, his more tradition-oriented party might seem a little out of touch, the speaker did a wonderfully appealing bit of self-mockery featuring, among other things, the differences between Republican and Democratic girls and boys. (Republican boys, for example, were allowed to date wild-and-crazy Democratic girls, but they were expected to eventually settle down and marry nice dull, sensible Republican girls.)
In most of my memory, that’s the way the two parties have sorted out. The Democrats have been the more free-thinking, experimentation-oriented party of “If it feels good, do it.” The Republicans have been the more sober-minded source of concern about “What’s good for you.”
Today, that traditional pattern no longer applies. In many cases, the two parties have actually switched positions.
Take the federal budget surpluses that began appearing at the end of the 1990s. The Democrats approached these like householders struggling under credit card debt who had suddenly received a large and unexpected bonus in their pay envelope. Realizing what a rare opportunity this presented to get out from under an onerous and fundamentally unhealthy condition, the Democrats were adamant that the money should be used to pay down the national debt. (In other words, they wanted to do what was Good for Us.)
The Republicans? They basically encouraged people to go out and have a party. Spend the money on fancy cars, Caribbean cruises, whatever. (Their approach: If It Feels Good, Do It.)
Or consider the two parties' differing reactions to the American penchant for big, beefy, gas-guzzling SUVs. Democrats and the left tend to fret a lot about fossil fuel consumption, air pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, the Kyoto accords, and so forth. Republicans and the right are more likelly to blithely dismiss all that, telling us once again that If It Feels Good, we should go ahead and Do It.
When we’re hungry, Democrats and the left exhort us to “live lightly on the earth” and eat lower on the food chain. They’re constantly pushing things like tofu at us. Republicans and the right? Hey, how about a nice, thick, juicy steak?
Almost no matter where we look today--from animal rights to energy policy, equal opportunity to the environment--the Democrats are the ones telling us what we ought to do, and the Republicans are the ones talking about our prerogative to do whatever we want.
At the same time, Democrats and the left have given up their erstwhile romantic role as “revolutionaries”--and ceded it to the very party they once so vigorously opposed.
Of course, being an American “revolutionary” in the past 50 years or so has always been largely a matter of striking poses. Real revolutionaries’ lives tend to be in constant danger--a condition that hardly applied to 1960s students with posters of Che Guevarra on their walls. But there was something inherently sympathetic about ragtag bands of student protesters going up against the vast and intimidating mass of The Establishment.
Now those same protesters have themselves become The Establishment, particularly on college campuses and in other bastions of respectable public opinion. And having imposed a regime of Political Correctness so stultifying that it eventually earned the derision of almost everybody else in America, they enabled a brand-new crop of conservatives to co-opt the title of “revolutionary” simply by speaking out in opposition to their hegemony. The “revolutionary” mantle has thus passed from the disciples of Timothy Leary and Jerry Rubin to people like Ralph Reed and Newt Gingrich.