Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Progress and the Pendulum

cross-posted at http://dagblog.com

I'm watching the snow through an airport window, thinking about the posts I've meant to get to in the last hectic week or so, and about the things I have to do and the places I have to fly over the next ten days. But for today, it'll have to be a short one, and mostly a metaphor.

We're at the end, more or less, of a decades-long rightward swing of America's political pendulum swing in this country. We'd gotten to the point where lots of sensible proposals seem like wild-eyed leftism, and where many of the conversations at the right end of the spectrum have come untethered from practical policy and basic reality. Essentially, the conservative movement has driven the country off the road, and now we're beginning a long, slow leftward hitchhike to the middle. The end of the swing was deeply frustrating for most progressives, including me, and the 2008 national election seemed to mark the beginning of that return to sanity. But it's been frustrating for lots of progressives (again, including me) that momentum of the last year hasn't been greater. Lots of people were hoping Obama would turn the country around and start to gain some enormous ground, very very fast. All I can say to my fellow liberals, progressives, and lefties, is this:

Look at a pendulum sometime. If you don't have one handy, and grandfather clocks aren't part of your decorating scheme, look at a kid on a swing. Notice that when the pendulum reaches the far end of its swing, it slows down. Then, for a very brief period, it actually stops. (This is easier to see if you're watching some 8-year-old girls who can really fly on the swings. Look at that moment where they're essentially stopped in midair.) After the stop, it picks up momentum again, this time in the opposite direction. It starts moving pack to the mid-point slowly, then faster, and as it passes through the middle of its arc it's going at its maximum speed. That's the momentum that carries it back the other way, until it reaches the other end of its swing, runs out of energy, and pauses before returning.

I would suggest that we've just has a thirty-year pendulum swing end. The motion back in the direction lefties prefer isn't terribly fast right now, and isn't as fast as it's going to get. Gradually, as with real pendulums, we will reach the middle of the political spectrum at blazing speed and keep moving, moving along further and further until, in a couple of decades perhaps, we've swung too far out past the concerns of the avergae voter and the pendulum will start falling back toward the center. I don't know when that will be. But the pendulum always starts the return with a little hesitation. That doesn't mean it's not going to pick up speed.

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