The shutdown of the federal government led by the right wing of the Republican Party confirms what some observers have seen as the transformation of American politics, which began in earnest with the Great Recession and the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama. While many have decried this era of partisan gridlock and warfare in Washington, others see it as the most hopeful sign in decades that the conservative ideology which took hold in the Reagan era is finally doomed to extinction.
Although most Americans are exasperated by the stalemate in Washington and by the extreme tactics of the Tea Party, students of history will recognize the symptoms of generational change. With older, conservative white male voters losing their dominant electoral position to younger, minority and female voters, the Tea Party movement represents an extreme reaction to the demise of the old political order. As has happened over and over again throughout history, the old order will fight to the death to preserve their power, even as it slips away.
In their insightful book Millennial Majority, authors Morley Winograd and Michael Hais point out that the 2012 election was a watershed of political change and that the emerging electorate is more socially tolerate, more favorable to government and more supportive of international multilaterialism than the older, more traditional American voters. They also point out that any transformation of a political order involves real struggle as the dying order fights for survival.
Seen in the light of history, the calls for President Obama and the Democrats to be more conciliatory towards the Republicans are misguided. After the wake-up call of the 2012 election, the Republicans are clearly in survival mode. The shutdown of the government is only one example -- restriction of voting rights in North Carolina and Texas and opposition to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants are further examples of their desperate fight. As is clear from these recent battles, there is no reason to negotiate with people who are threatening to bring down the government.
It is more apparent than ever that history is on the side of the new politics of social inclusion, economic progress and international multilaterialism. The narrow interests of a dwindling group of ultra-conservatives will not slow the march of history. This will be a prolonged and costly struggle, but the end result is clear. Ironically, by engaging President Obama in these high-stakes battles, the Republicans may be cementing his legacy as a truly transformative president.