A piece in The New Yorker awhile back offered the following important observation about the American political landscape, testimony to the lasting impact of Reagan's revolution from the right more than thirty years ago:
Polarization...has affected the two parties differently. The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, “Off Center,” documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, “Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left” and “House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.
Two well-known Washington political analysts, Thomas Mann, of the bipartisan Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agree. In a forthcoming book about Washington dysfunction, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” they write, “One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Mann and Ornstein have expanded on these points recently in The Washington Post. What they do not note is that the attributes they correctly note in the current Republican Party are familiar ones from many episodes in history that ended, shall we say, unpleasantly. For example, it could surely correctly be said of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1930 that it was "ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."
That is at least part of what is at stake in today's U.S. Presidential election. Even if Obama wins, the threat remains, until the Republican Party changes or until it disintegrates entirely. The two consequential U.S. Presidents in the last hundred years have been (FD) Roosevelt and Reagan: both changed the terms of national discourse, so much so that those who followed them have been closer to them in policy even when from the opposite party (on domestic policy, Nixon was much closer to Roosevelt than, say, Clinton). Obama, alas, has not changed the terms of the national discourse, and has either been politically or constitutionally incapable of doing so. Even if he wins another term, the risk of disaster will remain until a Democratic leader can do what Roosevelt did.