Reflections on an alleged end of an era

E.J. Dionne argues that the “center” in American politics is moving towards the left. I think he’s correct, though we may be one major terrorist attack and/or recession on a Democratic president’s watch away from having to revisit that view.
But what I want to comment about is Dionne’s claim, uttered often now by others on the left as well, that we are witnessing a “discrediting of the conservative era.” Any move away from a set of policies can be called a “discrediting” in the weak sense. In that sense, the Eisenhower years discredited the Roosevelt-Truman era and they, in turn, were discredited during the 1960s. But does the present unpopularity of Republicans and conservatives discredit the “conservative era” at a more meaningful level?
I assume that the era of which Dionne speaks begins in 1981 and runs through the present. During this period we had eight years of a true conservative presidency, twelve years of center-right presidencies, and eight years of a nominally liberal presidency during which nothing very liberal occurred in the realm of domestic policy. By modern historical standards, it may be fair to call this a conservative era.
How has the nation fared during this era? That question cannot adequately be addressed in a blog post. However, it seems clear enough that the economy has thrived. Where previously the economy grew roughly two out of every three quarters, from 1981 forward it grew in more than four out of every five. Moreover, during the conservative era, the U.S. became and remained the world’s only superpower. And far fewer lives were lost in wars during this time than durng the previous 25 year periods dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.
But to understand the real success of the conservative era, one must focus on the state of America during the 1970s. The best study I know of on this subject is David Frum’s under-appreciated book How We Got Here: The 70’s. On topic after topic — e.g., crime, the family, education, the economy — Frum demonstrates the high degree of deterioration that occurred in the span of (generally) about ten years. Although Frum’s subtitle states that the 70s “brought us modern life,” I’m struck by the extent to which we’ve regained some (or in certain instances all and then some) of the lost ground.
Why did things spin so close to out-of-control during the 70s? One can try to answer this question at many levels. At one level, the answer seems plainly to lie in excessive social experimentation and engineering. The conservative era, to oversimplfy, reined in such adventures, which is what one would expect out of a conservative era.
It’s possible, though far from clear, that we’re poised to embark on a new era of large-scale social experimentation. If so, we can only hope that things will work out better than they did in the 1970s. In any event, I’m grateful that I was able to live essentially all of my productive life so far, and to raise my family, in stable prosperous times during which the pace of social experimentation decelerated sharply.
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