Part I: Slouching Towards Washington: The New Millennial Arc

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

— W.B. Yeats

I thought a lot about my reasons for starting this blog over the past semester, particularly in connection to a class I took at Harvard taught by Richard Parker, a noted economist, co-founder of Mother Jones and a driving force behind the success of Greenpeace. The class was called “Presidents, Politics and Economic Growth,” and it covered the intersection between foreign policy, finance, politics and history from the Great Depression through the present day. Borrowing from historian Stephen Skowronek, Parker describes the emergence and collapse of political arcs in presidential politics that act to constrain or empower our leaders on a broad array of issues. For example, the Roosevelt arc – a belief in activist government, Keynesian management of the economy, and American involvement in world affairs – dominated politics right up through the 1970s, until supplanted by the Reagan arc – Austrian economics, small government, belief in the primacy of markets to solve social problems. A related theory is the Overton window, which posits that there is a narrow band of policy proposals the public will accept at a given time – a window shaped by the prevailing beliefs of the political arc.

three-presidents

Pictured: three guys lucky enough to lead the country at its hour of maximum clusterfuck.

Today, in the wake of the financial crisis, declining American power and the emergence of Millennials as a political force, I believe we are seeing the formation of a new arc (hence the quote from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” above and the title of this piece.) The question is, what will this new political reality look like?

Perhaps July 24, 2013 will be remembered in future decades as the birth of this new arc in American politics, when the children of Roosevelt and Reagan slipped the surly bonds of partisanship to define a new era. On that day, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment offered by Representative Justin Amash (R-MI, Third District) that would rein in the National Security Agency’s data collection methods. The amendment failed 205-217.

The moment encapsulated many of the factors driving the emergence of the new arc. At 34, Amash is one of the youngest members of Congress. The son of Arab-American immigrants, he is also a rising star of the Republican Party’s ascendant libertarian wing. His amendment came within twelve votes of passage because he was able to garner widespread support from Democrats wary of NSA abuses; more Democrats supported the amendment than Republicans, though significant numbers in both parties voted Aye.

The Amash amendment is the most prominent example of the emerging alliance between progressives and libertarians that will upend American politics and establish the contours of the new arc. Driven by the political maturation of the Millennial generation – tech-savvy, disdainful of institutions but believers in activist government, racially diverse and optimistic about the future – the new arc will be shaped by collaboration, competition and conflict between libertarians and progressives over government’s role in our nation and America’s role in the world.

Evidence of this new political ferment is growing. The unlikely alliance of progressive gadfly Ralph Nader and libertarian icon Ron Paul on a number of issues, including military budget cuts, civil liberties and international trade, is a prominent example, and journalists and bloggers have written on the evolving trend. Over the following weeks, I will outline the emergence and character of libertarian thought in American politics; explore the political maturation of the Millennial generation and its consequences; identify a few root causes for the coming shift in political arcs; and conclude with thoughts on the shape of the coming arc.

Next time: the evolution of libertarian thought in modern American politics