American democracy is at a watershed. The so-called “social contract” governing American politics since 1945 has broken down. Although the talk of a “Republican Revolution” is surely hyperbolic, the conservative Republican agenda has significant political momentum, and it seeks to effect a serious transformation of the infrastructure of postwar liberal democracy—a drastic retrenchment of federal social policy, a reduction of the fiscal and policy resources of the federal government, and a devolution of political power to state and local governments. The conservative vision rests on a rhetoric of pseudodemocratic populism that counterposes a mythic America to an unsavory cast of characters—variously called “liberal elites,” “the Washington establishment,” and “the counterculture”—who are purported to rule America and to be responsible for the corruption of its economy and its soul. It is no exaggeration to say that this vision represents a repudiation of the spirit of progressive social reform that has prevailed in the United States for the past century.
This assault on liberal politics is the surface expression of deeper difficulties confronting American liberal democracy. Our party system is in disrepute, and public faith in and engagement with the political system has plummeted. American political culture is fractured along racial lines and riven by “culture wars” that have badly damaged the social consensus on which postwar liberalism rested, and these fractures have helped to fuel the emergence of a potent, if small, movement of right-wing extremists. Accompanying the growth of alienation and resentment is a breakdown of the conditions of economic growth that helped to sustain postwar liberalism. New forms of global investment have created a “lean and mean” economy in which relatively secure and high-paying employment increasingly has given way to insecure low-wage jobs. The real wage of the average American worker has stagnated, and inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth have grown.