The Ending of the Conservative Era ?
GILLIAN PEELE AND JOEL D. ABERBACH
The 2008 victory of Barack Obama was widely seen as a dramatic turning point in the political history of the United States. Not only did the election bring an AfricanAmerican to the presidency, but the Democrat’s success on the slogan of “change we can believe in” seemingly brought to a close a long period, running from the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, in which the Republican Party and conservative values had dominated the country’s political discourse.
Obama’s triumph and John McCain’s defeat were thus generally seen as signaling something more fundamental than the triumph of a charismatic Democrat over a Republican standard-bearer. Indeed, it was interpreted as portending much more than a strong endorsement of the Democratic Party over the Republicans, although the 2008 congressional election results certainly made it a very good year for Democrats, whose position was greatly aided by the dire state of the economy. The 2008 elections appeared to many to mark a shift of national mood and a decisive rejection of the conservative ideas that had shaped the modern Republican Party and of the broad and multifaceted conservative movement that had become a major force in American political life. The nature of the Democratic triumph thus raised questions not just about the future of the Republican Party but about the coherence and resilience of the wider conservative movement. Even if Obama himself deliberately projected a centrist approach that eschewed ideology, many observers saw in the 2008 elections the death of American conservatism and a reorientation of the country’s public philosophy towards progressive values and liberalism.1
One powerful factor leading commentators to predict an unhappy future for the American right was its internal disunity. By November 2008, there were already several signs that the conservative coalition was under strain, with bitter controversies about the content and conduct of policy under George W. Bush. The handling of the economy, the management of the war in Iraq, and the adoption of policies such as No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug benefit smacked of big