As usual, when great events overtake me, my thoughts turn to Joseph Campbell. The literature of comparative mythology has been formative in my approach to life and my understanding of the human condition. We keep telling the same stories to ourselves, again and again, in different forms and different contexts, unfolding different facets of universal themes. One of those themes is that of the Fall and subsequent Redemption. Whether we speak of Jonah/Jesus/Moses (et. al.) in the Judeo-Christian mythology, or the European Troubador/Courtly Love literature, or the multiple avatars of the Hero's Journey which show up pretty much everywhere, there is a persistent motif of overreach, collapse, exile/quest, and Return.
There is little question that the Republican party has crumbled into a state of incoherence and decadence at least since 2004 (and arguably as far back as 1994), and last night was its moment to Fall.
I think what so often gets lost in our policy discussions (even the ones which manage to stay civil) is the fact that between the Liberal and Conservative positions there are clear differences between two more-or-less equally valid and coherent world-views:
Liberals believe in the perfectibility of humanity through the rational implementation of deliberate societal engineering which creates the conditions for an equitable access to society's resources, for the benefit of all. The role of government is to determine what will best serve its citizens, and to devise the means by which to make it so. It is, in essence, a revolutionary world-view, since it holds to the idea that you improve the lot of the individual by re-making society to serve him.
Conservatives believe in the perfectibility of humanity through the removal of as many obstacles as possible to the individual's ability to identify and pursue her interests and maximize her resources through her own industry and ingenuity. It recognizes that inequities will arise, but that they are the results of differential levels of inventiveness and effort within a given, fair marketplace of opportunities. The role of government is to stay out of the way, to be thrifty with the collective resources (since they will be put to the most good in the hands of individuals making rational decisions about how to deploy them for their own ends), and to address any systematic and unjust impediments to the availability of opportunities to compete in good faith. It is, in essence, an evolutionary paradigm (which, yes, is ironic, given some of its proponents' positions on the concept!), since it holds that any top-down societal engineering will be inherently inferior to the collective variation-and-selection which will emerge from the mass of decisions made by individuals to improve their own lots.
The Republican party has failed miserably in its mandate to be the champion of the Conservative world-view. It has allowed itself to fall prey to the allure of K Street lobbyists, to dole out pork like it was a never-ending state fair, and to operate the economy on logarithmically escalating deficits without breaking a sweat. And all the while, it has had the hypocritical temerity to drone on about the importance of "limited government" and "fiscal responsibility." Last night, the country cried "bullshit."
One of the things which had appealed to me the most about John McCain was that he had a long and proven record of fiscal conservativism (to the unending annoyance of his fellow Republicans!). It was my hope that his election would bring this issue to the front burner and restore the clarity of the contrast between the Liberal and Conservative perspectives, so that the people could make a more informed choice about which they preferred, when mid-term elections came around in two years. Alas, the damage was too extensive for such an on-the-fly retool.
Congressional Republicans had so tarnished the brand that there was no clear distinction between the top-heavy, spending-rich approach of Liberalism, and the lean, unintrusive, free-market approach of Conservatism. It is hardly surprising that so many Americans voted for a "change." The tragedy, in my eyes, is that they have voted for those who would do, as a matter of policy, much of what those they voted out have been doing out of sloppiness and greed. Again, this is not to say that Liberalism is inherently bad, any more than Conservatism is inherently good. It is simply that the distinction was so muddied that that the decision was in part based on corrupted data.
Still, this too is part of what happens in a marketplace of ideas, and therein lies the opportunity before us. The Conservative perspective has been forced out of the village and now must wander in the purifying wilds in search of a vision. Meanwhile, the Liberal perspective has its moment to make its case, largely uncontested (though, thankfully, the filibuster option is preserved in the Senate, where it will perform its function to thwart the perennial hubris of the long-frustrated conqueror). It is a thing fervently to be hoped that Conservatives will find their 'spirit guide' and return to the clarity of purpose which will enable them to make their case to an American electorate which will be able to discern the contours of these competing paradigms, and decide whether to let them back within the city walls.
While I'm on the subject of Hero's Journeys, though, it would be badly remiss of me not to note with considerable pride in our Nation that a Black man has just been elected president of the United States! Just about within my lifetime, American Blacks were getting sprayed down with fire hoses for demonstrating peacefully, and now a generation of kids (notably, mine) will have no objective basis for the idea that any door is closed to folks of color. The very idea will seem silly to them. Whatever else comes of this, I don't know that I would have much to say to anyone who failed to see that as a staggering advance in the evolution of our society.
I have very pronounced policy differences with President-Elect Obama, and grave concerns about the direction in which he may take our Nation. But that is for another day. Today, I am proud and impressed with our great Republic for taking an immense step toward a truly post-racial society. It's about bloody time!