This article is a sequel (of sorts) to an old article of mine: Political Charts: Where do you Fit?
After the New Deal, American politics was divided into two groups:
The "left" was generally in favor of active government involvement in the economy and was socially moderate.
The "right" preferred simple government and was socially traditional.
Foreign policy opinion was muddled and tended to align based upon the economic policy of the nation in question. If the country was a banana republic, the left took the hawkish position. If it was a communist country, the right was hawkish.
Many people act as if this paradigm is still in place, and our political rhetoric acts as if nothing has changed. However, it is obvious from recent events that this paradigm no longer operates. Politicians who act like this paradigm still exists seem out-of-place. The presidential campaigns of John Edwards and Ron Paul come to mind. In many ways, these two campaigns are perfectly suited for the 1952 election. Too bad it's 2008.
The chart at top right is the Mitchell political chart (explained in the article linked to above). On that chart, the post-New Deal political alignment would pit the lower-left half of the chart versus the upper right. Hawkish Cold War liberals and Southern Democrats would fall towards the bottom and lower right. Liberal intellectuals and Marxist-leaning types would fall in the lower left. Eisenhower Republicans would be on the right to lower-right and Taft Republicans would be upper-right. Anyone toward the upper left was largely irrelevant to politics.
This post-New Deal alignment is depicted in the second chart with a color scale indicating how radical someone was depending on their location. You'll also notice a black arc on the chart. I call this the "Arc of Respectability." If your political opinions were near the arc, those opinions were "normal" and "reasonable." The further from the arc, the more "weird" your political opinions would be.
In the 1960s a shift began. As new generations arise, they will tend to react against the current political order. Partly they will act against the status quo (i.e. toward the center point of the arc of respectability). But, partly they will act against whatever is considered reactionary and stale in public life (i.e toward the left side of the arc). The result is that over time the arc of respectability will rotate clockwise.
In the 1960s, we see a number of major political changes. First the so-called New Left emerges. This movement is Radical (i.e. toward the middle-left of the chart). At the same time, a significant portion of the lower right of the chart (Neoconservatives) become part of the "right" rather than the "left." In addition, the more obscure parts of the "right", toward the top of the chart become disillusioned and become known as libertarians. The third chart shows the eventual political alignment that resulted. Until recently, this is the political world we have all known.
The 2000s appear to be the start of another shift. The neoconservatives aren't just a part of the right, they in large part define the right. Communitarian types like Senator Joe Lieberman are now considered "right" rather than "left." The political right is increasingly favorable towards strong government action and its traditionalism appears to have peaked. The libertarians are increasingly thought of as left-wing especially since so many of them are anti-war. Progressivism, once the hallmark of the most out-there lefty is increasingly treated as the political center and Democratic Party has an internal power struggle between an establishment that would fall on the lower-left of the chart and a middle-left Netroots.
The last chart depicts where we will likely be in ten to fifteen years. The political alignment is 90 degrees to the post-New Deal paradigm. Instead of a neoconservative center, there is a progressive center. The far left is Individualist (a combination of anti-traditionalism and anti-statism) and the far right is neoconservatism (hawkish, mildly traditional and instinctively pro-corporate).
A good bellwether issue is opinion on the War in Iraq. In general, opposition to the war falls in the upper left of the chart ranging from the Netroots on the middle-left, more radical anti-war types in upper-left to libertarians in the upper part of the chart. Concerns over "bad strategy" and "lack of clear national interest" tend to be found among progressives in the lower-left and paleoconservatives in the upper-right. While "stay the course" is generally found among the bottom, lower-right and middle-right.
Along with the Iraq War comes a cluster of related issues: concerns about torture, civil liberties, corrupt government contracts and private military corporations. All of these tend to reinforce a "new left" that is cautious about the power of government, rather than enthusiastic like the New Dealers were. The political center will still be in favor of an active government, but it will be tempered by a "libertarian" left.
The post-New Deal politics was essentially an argument about whether or not the government would intervene to change the pre-New Deal economic order. To be on the left, you simply had to believe that any intervention was better than none at all. The right thought it was best to leave well enough alone. But that's always what the "right" thinks -- regardless of the issues at stake. The "right" in any particular time period represents the old "left" ideas of decades ago. Sure the "right" today apologizes for an industrial plutocracy, but in the mid-19th century they were the "left" building that corporate world upon the ashes of agricultural aristocracy.
The new political alignment will to some degree be a harmony of the old right and left positions and to some degree it will be entirely new. There will be debate about the role of government but now instead of debating what new role it will play in our lives, we will be more likely to discuss the boundaries of power -- in what way should government power never be used, regardless of the ends? If the New Deal can be characterized by the statement "Do something rather than nothing," in the future we may say "Do it right or don't do it at all."