"If something is defined as real, it is real," goes a common dictum of the
social sciences. The passive voice, however, conceals an uncertainty: Defined by
whom? What if, for example, two antagonists define their conflict in opposing ways?
As American forces strike in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and the
Taliban say this is a religious war--a view that reportedly has resonance through
much, though not all, of the Islamic world. If not merely our adversaries but
millions of others define the war as religious, is that the reality?
Although they get little respect from political analysts, the forces of irony have been hard at work in the new Congress. They showed their subversive influence when the House Republican leadership chose Representative Thomas Bliley of Virginia to chair the committee in charge of health legislation. Bliley, a long-time advocate of tobacco interests, is an undertaker by profession.
Political parties rarely make deep changes in their societies by winning a single election. Once in power they generally need to reinforce their support, repeat their triumphs at the polls, and so change the terms of politics that even their opponents adjust their positions. That is what Margaret Thatcher did, and Tony Blair may be in a comparable position now that he has won a second landslide victory. The prospects for George W. Bush are, thankfully, much less certain. If the first phase of his presidency is any indication, he may be Thatcher-like in his ideological convictions but not in his long-term impact on politics.
Liberal public inspiration is in short supply these days. To be sure, with
his environmental, energy, and tax policies, President Bush is doing his best to
unify moderates and liberals, and the Democratic Party may emerge stronger as a
result. But a believable progressivism that can inspire deep commitment as well
as win majority support requires more than a defensive coalition.