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Moynihan and the midterms

What the late senator's newly published letters say about politics today

On the 12th of February, 1982, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a letter to a political supporter musing about the upcoming midterm elections. “The issue, plainly put,” Moynihan said, “is whether the center will hold — in both parties. I am a born Democrat and a practicing one, but without the least hesitation I agreed to serve in the cabinet of the two previous Republican presidents. In three decades of government and politics I have felt myself living in a comprehensible and creative political environment. Of a sudden, I am not certain. Of a sudden, both parties are under attack from extremes.”

Of a sudden, America has reverted rightward after an allegedly leftward turn since President Obama took office. But Moynihan’s words, which I read in a splendid new volume of the late New York senator’s letters, give us a chance to think about just how it is that we got here, for the roots of what’s happening now lie not in 2008 or 2009, but in past decades. It was a big week for the Republicans only 24 months since the evening Barack Obama appeared in Grant Park in Chicago as the symbol of a seemingly new age in American politics in which the extremes of both sides were largely quieted by crisis.

As we know, that Halcyon era was not to be. The question now is what manner of era is coming upon us now? The right, and much of the mainstream media, argues that the 2010 elections represent the American people’s disapproval of growing government. But the idea that the last two years have brought us a kind of socialist renaissance is founded more in fantasy than in fact. President Obama is no radical; the relative lack of enthusiasm for the incumbent on the part of Democrats is proof enough of that.

I think Tuesday marked a victory, to paraphrase President Kennedy, not of party but of a dispiriting habit of political being in which conflict reigns. Inherently dramatic and exciting, conflict is more interesting than cooperation, struggle is more exhilarating than the substantive working out of differences. We are living in an age of bumper-car politics in which voters and office seekers and provocateurs live for the next collision, and the game is all.

I was thinking of these things while reading the Moynihan letters, which already seem as remote in their way as the correspondence of a Victorian statesman. Moynihan loved the cut and thrust of politics — all great politicians do — but he served presidents as diverse as Johnson and Nixon. Aside from Robert Gates, it’s difficult to think of a comparable American figure now — an official who could hold high office in administrations of different parties. At the end of his life, Moynihan said, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”

Interaction — not collision. This week was a win for brute force. But now comes next week, and the week after that, and the week after that. And the jobless are still jobless, the poor still impoverished, and our competitiveness still in peril. It’s up to the winners — and the losers, come to that — to see if we can begin the work of restoring Moynihan’s creative and comprehensive culture. If we don’t, then hold on — the bumper cars will just keep on crashing into each other, and into all of us.