In 1962, Daniel Bell published a book called The End of Ideology. The title struck a nerve because it reflected the view, common at the time, that the United States was about to leave behind the brutal, ideological politics that had characterized the 1930s and the early Cold War. The 1960s, it was believed, would be a decade of cool pragmatism. Keynesian models would be used to scientifically regulate the economy. Important decisions would be made empirically.
Instead, we got what Francis Fukuyama later called The Great Disruption. The information economy began to disrupt the industrial economy. The feminist revolution disrupted gender and family relations. The civil-rights revolution disrupted social arrangements. The Vietnam War discredited the establishment.
These disruptions generally were necessary and good, but the transition was painful. People lost faith in old social norms, but new ones had not yet emerged. The result was disorder. Divorce rates skyrocketed. Crime rates exploded. Faith in institutions collapsed. Social trust cratered.
As community bonds dissolved, individual autonomy asserted itself. Liberals championed the moral liberation of individuals. Conservatives championed their economic liberation. The combined result was a loss of community and social cohesion, and what Christopher Lasch called a culture of narcissism.
Instead of ending ideology, the Great Disruption produced ideological politics. The weakening of social norms led to fierce battles as groups vied to create new ones. Personal became political. Groups fought over basic patterns of morality.
Republicans tended to win elections because liberals were associated with disorder and conservatives with attempts to restore it. Yet both sides were infected with the same pulverizing style. Politics wasn't just about allocating resources. It was a contest about values, lifestyles and the status of your tribe. This venomous style dominated politics straight through the two baby boomer presidencies - of Clinton and Bush.
But societies do mend themselves, slowly and organically. In 2002, Rick Warren wrote a phenomenally popular book called The Purpose Driven Life. The first sentence was, "It's not about you." That was a sign that the age of expressive individualism was coming to an end. New community patterns and social norms were coalescing.
Crime rates had begun to fall, along with teen pregnancy rates and a rash of other social indicators. Young people flocked to perform community service. Couples created families that sought to harvest the gains of feminism while preserving the best of traditionalism.
In the cultural realm, the Great Disruption came to an end. New social norms and patterns settled into place. Barack Obama exemplifies the social repair. The product of a scattered family, he has created a highly traditional one, headed by two professionally accomplished adults. To an almost eerie extent, he exemplifies discipline, equipoise and self-control. Under his leadership, as Peter Beinart noted in Time, Democrats came to seem like the party of order while Republicans were associated with disorder.
Obama's challenge will be to translate the social repair that has occurred over the past decade into political and governing repair. Part of that began on Tuesday with his emphasis on the themes of responsibility, cohesion and unity and his rejection of the culture, which lingered in the financial world, of anything goes.
Part of that will be done with his governing style. Obama aims to realize the end-of-ideology politics that Daniel Bell and others glimpsed in the early 1960s. He sees himself as a pragmatist, an empiricist. Politics is not personal with him. He does not turn political disagreements into a status contest between one kind of person and another. He is convinced that most Americans practice their politics between the 40-yard lines.
Part will be accomplished with his aggressive outreach efforts. Already he has cooperated with Republicans. He has rejected the counsel of the old liberal warriors who want retribution and insularity.
But the real test will come in the realm of policy. The next few months will be occupied with the stimulus package. And anybody who is not terrified by the prospect of spending $800 billion hastily has not spent enough time studying the difference between economic textbooks and the way government actually operates.
But after that, folks in the Obama camp hope to create a Grand Bargain. That would mean building on a culture of cohesion and tackling the issues that require joint sacrifice - like reducing deficits, fixing Medicare and Social Security and reforming health care. These problems were insoluble during the era of division and distrust. In the climactic season of his presidency, the winter of 2010, Obama would seek to fundamentally restore balance to American government.
If he can do that, the Great Disruption would truly be over. The next chapter in American history would begin on firmer ground.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o
The New York Times, Editorial Department, 229 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.
© 2009 New York Times News Service