There are a couple of things that stand out from the welter of mere data that we should pay attention to. The first is the rise of Progressivism. The Progressive Movement has had supporters and champions from all over the political spectrum. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (who despised each other) are both routinely called "progressives." What is Progressivism?
At bottom, Progressivism is an elitist philosophy of government that sees ordinary citizens as helpless or incompetent without the aid of an omnicompetent government. Government, or "experts" consulted by government, should make people's lives better. This requires an enormous growth of government to accomplish, and an increasing intrusion of government into ordinary people's lives. In Europe, Progressivism was called "Fascism," and was first much hailed. Benito Mussolini was admired by mainstream American commentators for "making the trains run on time."
During World War I, Woodrow Wilson's administration began policing ordinary people's opinions as well as mandating price and wage controls. They hoped this would continue after the war, but the nation "returned to normalcy" under the Republicans. With the coming of the Great Depression, the old Wilsonites advocated government takeover of everything. "We planned in war!" they said, meaning we should plan (i.e., control ordinary decisions by everybody) in peacetime. Much of the New Deal came from this impetus.
After World War II, the great age of the Multi-national Corporation was born. American corporations spread out over the globe. "What's good for General Motors is good for the USA!" some said. Some Republicans were in favor of this, though President Eisenhower warned of a "military-industrial complex" that bore an interesting resemblance to what Soviet Communism later called "the metal eaters' alliance." The great problem of the Multi-national Corporation wasn't its militarism, however, which only reflected the age in which it was then operating. The great problem of a multi-national is that it is accountable to nobody. No nation's laws can restrain it.
Government -- including the U.S. government -- eventually took notice of this threat to its sovereignty. Some years ago, there was a lot of negative press being generated about it. Congress passed a few laws and the Multi-nationals moderated their behavior a bit, but what happened behind the scenes was a renewal of the kind of conspiratorial cooperation between the two that we see today. Big Government and Big Business became partners. Eventually, Big Government declared certain corporations (but not others) "too big to fail." And all of us got stuck with the price tag for bailing them out.
The rise of the Tea Party was a spontaneous reaction to the ever-more intrusive role of government and its ever-more irresponsible stewardship of the economy. The Tea Party folks have had to fight to be recognized within the Republican Party, which officially says it believes in small government. Actually, the GOP really just believes in smallER government -- smaller than what the Democrats are proposing. And that means that the Democrats have been allowed to set the bar for the new normal. As long as the establishment Republicans are less outrageous in their infringements on liberty or offering smaller handouts than the other side, they're seen as the adults in the room. The Tea Party challenged that notion. How that will all work out is still unknown.
Meanwhile, the Democrats continue to work both sides of the street, taking more money from Wall Street than anybody while saying that they're for the Little Guy. Their motto is We're Only Trying to Help (and those other guys are racist fat cats). And they have finally lost all sense of shame about promising people things. If you had told me four years ago that anybody could blow as much money as the current administration has (and for no discernible benefit) and still be asking for more, I'd have thought you were on something.
The Democrats are now unabashedly the party of Big Government and Big Bailouts. The Republicans are the party of Not So Much. Whatever sensible folk once were part of the Democratic Party, they have been driven out; there are no conservative Democrats any more. Which doesn't mean that the Republicans are a consistently better alternative. At the rate we're going, the only question is whether we'll all go over the cliff in two years or twenty -- unless one party recovers a sense of reality.
Can the Tea Party sympathizers yank the GOP back into line with its historic commitments to Small Government and Small Business? Not just to win the next election, but to govern that way? And will the public finally see that Less is More? All that remains to be seen.