The New Liberal Order

The Obama presidency is just the beginning. Why shifting attitudes about government could make Democrats the ruling party for a generation

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Win McNamee / Getty

The scene in Chicago during the exuberance of election night 2008.

The death and rebirth of American liberalism both began with flags in Grant Park. On Aug. 28, 1968, 10,000 people gathered there to protest the Democratic Convention taking place a few blocks away, which was about to nominate Lyndon Johnson's Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, thus implicitly ratifying the hated Vietnam War. Chicago mayor Richard Daley had warned the protesters not to disrupt his city and denied them permits to assemble, but they came anyway. All afternoon, the protesters chanted and the police hovered, until about 3:30, when someone climbed a flagpole and began lowering the American flag.

Police went to arrest the offender and were pelted with eggs, chunks of concrete and balloons filled with paint and urine. The police responded by charging into the crowd, clubbing bystanders and yelling "Kill! Kill!" in what one report later termed a "police riot." Across the country, Americans watching on television gave their verdict: Serves the damn hippies right. Democrats, who had won seven of the previous nine presidential elections, went on to lose seven of the next 10.

Forty years later, happy liberals mobbed Grant Park, invited by another mayor named Richard Daley, to celebrate Barack Obama's election. This time the flags flew proudly at full mast, and the police were there to protect the crowd, not threaten it. Once again, Americans watched on television, and this time they didn't seethe. They wept.

The distance between those two Grant Park scenes says a lot about how American liberalism fell, and why in the Obama era it could become--once again--America's ruling creed. The coalition that carried Obama to victory is every bit as sturdy as America's last two dominant political coalitions: the ones that elected Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. And the Obama majority is sturdy for one overriding reason: liberalism, which average Americans once associated with upheaval, now promises stability instead.

The Search for Order

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