Marc Dunkelman is vice president of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Approaching the end of his first year in office, President Obama has had what historians will likely consider a banner year. Fresh after the inauguration, the administration managed to pull the nation back from the precipice of an economic free fall. Congress has never been so close to reforming healthcare. And, while receiving little public notice, the administration has made substantial progress re-orienting Washington's approach to education, focusing on how to improve community colleges nationwide.
But despite those accomplishments, voters appear to remain frustrated and angry--see most recently Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts special election--and incumbents of both parties sense their vulnerability. The specter of backlash in the upcoming mid-term elections has driven a spate of retirements, including 14 Republican and 11 Democratic House incumbents. The question is why? Why are voters so disillusioned?
The answer, strangely enough, may be connected to the heady events of 20 years ago, when the collapse of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Soviet Empire. The specter of worldwide communist domination had finally been defeated. And waiting in the wings was the full power of globalization--as Tom Friedman explained in The Lexus and the Olive Tree--set to replace the Cold War as the new world order.
At the same time, experts and scholars around the country were beginning to debate Francis Fukuyama's new claim--later detailed in a book titled The End of History and the Last Man--that liberal democracy had triumphed in the centuries old battle to discern the ultimate model for governing human society. With the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama argued, the West's underlying model for government had defeated the last of its major competitors, leaving but a few small challenges peppered around the globe.
Like it or not, two decades later, much of Fukuyama's thesis appears to have been borne out. Even though the fear of Islamic fundamentalism reverberates around the world, and an air of authoritarianism haunts those who live in China and Russia, liberal democracy may be even stronger now than it did in the heady days of the Soviet Union's disintegration. If the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen gave us any indication, whatever tension once existed between the West and the East has been subsumed by new bifurcation between the developed world and the so called Third World's emerging middle class.
Moreover, as globalization has widened and deepened, nations around the world have become more invested in liberal democracy, not less. China may be a far set from embracing a system of free elections, but they have abandoned the command-and-control model which once defined their economy. The American credit crisis last year wreaked havoc on China's manufacturing sector, revealing just how interconnected the two economies are. And as the Chinese have become the U.S.'s largest creditors, the likelihood that China would return to some sort of pre-Nixonian isolation becomes that much more remote.
Maybe most notably--as far as how it speaks to the electorate's continuing disgust with Washington--the End of History has fundamentally changed the ideological debate within American politics. A growing portion of the American electorate became politically aware after the end of the Cold War. Much as they believe that the United States stands at the vanguard of an effort to protect civilization from violent fundamentalists, the mission that defined the nation's purpose for the bulk of the Cold War and even before--to keep the world safe for freedom and democracy--has never been entirely replaced.
And so, what's left? Without the mission of winning history, Washington has more frequently come to be viewed--particularly by Americans who came of age after the end of the Cold War--as simply another bureaucracy that demands its revenue and provides too little in return. To them, the political debate turns less on ideology, and more on the bottom line. More than anything, they want government to be run by a capable board of directors, and a proficient chief executive. They want value for their dollar. And most of all, they want government to be competent.
The new post-Cold War ethic helped to animate the throngs who supported Barack Obama's candidacy for president. The viral response among young people was driven less by his promise to deliver on some sort of ideological dogma--he explicitly distanced himself, in fact, from the partisan battles of the past. He was their champion because he promised to change Washington--to rescue the ship of government from the failed foreign policy and abysmal economic strategy that had doomed the previous administration.
Today, the sense that incumbents will suffer in November's midterm election is driven by a recognition that voters remain frustrated. Whatever Washington's successes, in the eyes of a public beleaguered by a slowly recovering economy, the continued bickering and lethargy of the legislative process is simply unacceptable. Unencumbered by the big ideological debates which defined the 20th century, the emerging electorate just wants government to do its job, and to do it well. No competent corporation would abide the dysfunction so plainly evident when Americans flip past C-SPAN on the dial. And, in turn, many must conclude, no bureaucracy answerable to that silliness should have a claim on their tax dollars.
Two decades ago, the end of the Cold War marked a sea change in the world of international relations. But it also began to change fundamentally the way Americans think about Washington. Animated by the mission of winning the battle for history, Americans had a different view of American democracy. Today, absent the specter of communism, Americans have begun to apply a new standard of competence when they judge government. And incumbents have every reason to beware.