Still, there are some currents in our political life that do run through both parties. And one of them is the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.There is simply no evidence that a majority of Americans supports any radial change in the system.
You see this on the right among hard-line conservatives, who insist that only the cowardice of Republican leaders has prevented the rollback of every progressive program instituted in the past couple of generations. Actually, you also see a version of this tendency among genteel, country-club-type Republicans, who continue to imagine that they represent the party’s mainstream even as polls show that almost two-thirds of likely primary voters support Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz or Ben Carson.
Meanwhile, on the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions. In 2008 that contingent rallied behind Mr. Obama; now they’re backing Mr. Sanders, who has adopted such a purist stance that the other day he dismissed Planned Parenthood (which has endorsed Hillary Clinton) as part of the “establishment.”
But as Mr. Obama himself found out as soon as he took office, transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens. That’s not to say that he’s a failure. On the contrary, he’s been an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J. Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none.
Nor is there any evidence that a sufficiently loud or skillful bully pulpit could do more than nudge the national mood a fraction of a point. Bernie Sanders is always saying that if we could just get the billionaires out of politics, "the people" would rise up and demand change. But the most important grass-roots movement in recent American politics has been the Tea Party. Sanders has plenty of fans among the poor, but so does Sarah Palin.
Politically, we are a divided country, and always have been. Fantasies of radical change --"realignment," "revolution," "real conservatism" -- are just that. Forget them.
The good news is that change is still possible, but it has to be achieved one painfully ground-out little victory at a time.