Interested in a deep-think read?
A 5,000 essay
over at the Nation about how historians have viewed the conservative movement in the 20th century (and up 'til today). A representative sample:
... the general interpretation of the United States in the twentieth century was one of liberal victory followed by tragic decline. Today a new vision seems to be emerging--one that sees the liberalism of the midcentury as always hemmed in by hostility and limited by its internal tensions. In the latest scholarship, the old narrative has been turned upside down: more and more, historians are depicting the century as one of conservative strength only briefly interrupted, some going back still further to see all of American history shot through with the power of forces sharply opposed to equality and democracy.
It does appear that the mid-century New Deal - Great Society period was the exception, not the rule. That seems clear from those charts on income inequality. The only period where it dropped was from 1930 - 1980. Before and after that, the free-market/individualist philosophy had the upper hand.
It's important to note that people alive today, at least the graybeards, think of that liberal period as normal since that's what they grew up under. However, a newer generation of historians who witnessed Reagan - Gingrich - Bush, don't see it that way.
But, as the essay notes, things may not be so binary. Over time, many liberal policies are implemented and are popular (Social Security, Medicare). But it's clear that at a minimum, a passive attitude towards politics on the left is a prescription for failure. Economic interests are not everything. Nor are ones of social justice. There are a lot of deeply held conservative views out there, and a messaging apparatus as well, that keep conservatives potent, or potentially so.
A final comment: The unmixing of the parties, with the Republicans becoming situated in the Old Confederacy as a Christian white party, is extremely significant. The near-identical match up of the Gore/Bush race in 2000 with the split during the Civil War tells you that we may be entering a period of regional politics. If that's the case, it will be less liberal/conservative divisions that dominate, and more parochial interests which can lead in any direction.
Speaking as someone who held his nose and voted for McCain, I think that what we saw in the last election was an immense frustration on the part of Conservatives that McCain was not giving them anything of what they wanted. He was a lousy candidate.
There was also enormous resentment over McCain's campaign finance law -- which many Conservatives regard as an outright betrayal of the First Amendment. In short, it wasn't so much a rejection of conservatism as it was a personal rejection of McCain. American conservatives said "no thanks" to a very unconservative candidate. This is not an indication that conservatism is disappearing.