Realignment—a decisive shift in the balance of power between political parties, creating new coalitions and leaving one party and one ideology with lasting dominance—occurs far more often in the minds of partisans than in reality. Karl Rove believed that the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 would enshrine a permanent Republican majority. Within a couple of years the president and his party were discredited. In 2008, with the collapse of the financial system and the historic campaign of Barack Obama, some people—I was one—thought a Democratic realignment might be at hand. Obama’s victory, with big majorities in Congress, would close the book on decades of conservative ideology, anti-government politics, deregulation, the amassing of vast fortunes, the widening of vast inequalities. A new era of liberal reform was going to sweep aside the rubble left behind by the right and finally begin to solve big problems.
It didn’t turn out that way. It seldom does. The Obama movement was more personal than ideological. He campaigned as a visionary but governed as a technocrat. After the election, Obama for America was supposed to become Organizing for America, but instead it basically disappeared. At the end of the campaign the candidate had called the financial meltdown “the final verdict” on a “failed economic philosophy,” but this turned out to be a tactical shift in response to events. Obama wasn’t an ideologue—he distrusted sweeping historical claims—and he dropped that kind of language in the White House. As president, he devoted himself to the details of policy making and fruitless efforts to strike deals with the opposition. He lost his connection to the mood of the country, which grew feverish with discontents that took no clear ideological form.