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The Coming Progressive Era
Listen now, right here It's going to be a beautiful year
(Mark Knopfler, "We Can Get Wild")
Sometimes, being condemned to repeat history is not such a bad thing.
Welcome to 1932, redux. Almost all the elements are there, fortunately. And not a moment too soon.
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt and a dire national emergency combined to wrestle the republic away from the death-grip in which the Republican oligarchy of the time was holding it, and in doing so dramatically expanded outward the envelope of progressive government in America, as well as establishing a progressive governing coalition that lasted four decades and more.
Many of the same conditions apply today. Not all, to be sure, but then there are also additional factors pointing in the same direction which were not present in Roosevelt's day.
That said, in politics - it is often rightly remarked - a day can be like a lifetime, and anything can happen. Especially given the capacity of the current governing crew to do anything in pursuit of power - and I mean anything - any predictions regarding a post-Bush/Cheney era necessarily come attached to some massive caveats. There's an attack on Iran, to start with, which Bush has apparently promised several people - including Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu - he will launch before leaving office. There are the current activities of the party in California, doing what they do best, winning elections the only way they can. Now they are attempting to rig the state's Electoral College delegation to steal about 20 votes from the Democrats and throw the same number to the Republicans, for a net switch of plus-or-minus 40, making it highly difficult for Democrats to win the presidency even after the disaster called Bush. And, of course, there's also the question - very real in my mind - as to whether Darth and the First Marionette will voluntarily leave office at all, or whether they will pull a Putin/Giuliani and engineer their own permanent dynasty.
Even aside from their insatiable lust for power, they would have every reason to do so. Can you imagine what would have happened to these guys so far if they hadn't had the ability to control prosecutorial power and to define state secrets these last years? I assure you that they themselves can well imagine, and they're not anxious to walk away from Washington for that reason alone. Unfortunately, moreover, it's all too easy to see how it might be done. Trump up another 'foreign' crisis. Seize power in the name of democracy. Deploy the party hacks for another Brooks Brothers riot like the one in Florida in 2000, with GOP brownshirts intimidating anyone in their way. Get the same 5-4 Supreme Court majority that put you in office in the first place to keep you there by giving it all some sort of legal blessing. Then stand by and watch as the Democrats do nothing, the press says nothing, the elder, pre-Neanderthal statesmen of the Republican Party stay silent, and a hapless public nurses its beers and ball games, oblivious to the death of the republic.
All of that could happen. Indeed, if you look at the trail of tears running like a river from Florida to Ground Zero, to Max Cleland, the Swiftboaters, Ohio, Guantánamo, Baghdad, Congress and beyond, all that in fact has been happening.
But for the sake of this discussion, let's leave that aside. Let's assume that - either because they wouldn't try something that brazen or because the public would finally have had enough of this nightmare if they did - we actually have a relatively untainted election in 2008 and inaugurate a democratically chosen president in January 2009.
Under such conditions, what is likely to be the electoral result? I think a repeat of 1932 is definitely a strong possibility. That election represented a massive mandate to change the status quo, a supernova of American political history. The Great Depression was at its worst in 1932, with no government relief of which to speak. President Hoover didn't seem to care, or at best appeared oblivious to people's suffering. In any case, he was clearly unwilling to break with tradition and contemplate a new role for government, even during a dire national emergency. After decades of Republican rule, Americans were as thirsty for change as a frat party with a broken keg spout.
The situation is similar today, though not as drastic, and without 1932's concentrated woes in the economic sphere alone. Yet this is a country extremely desirous of change, and we still have another 13 months of BushCo unraveling to come before the election. Astonishingly low levels of support for the Catastrophic Kid have been recorded since 2004, now hovering around 30 percent. And we know what happened to the Republican Congress in 2006. Meanwhile, since 2003, more than half the country has been telling pollsters that America is on the wrong track. In the last year or so that percentage has been running at record 70-75 percent levels, representing a huge gathering storm.
Franklin Roosevelt cobbled together a remarkable New Deal coalition that was devastating in 1932, but Democrats had already began savaging the GOP oligarchy two years earlier, picking up 8 Senate seats and 52 House seats in 1930. Those are serious numbers, but it turned out that that would be just the warm-up act. With FDR leading the ticket and two more years gone by stuck with Hoover sitting in the White House doing little but asking for patience during the severe Depression, the Democrats in 1932 picked up an additional 12 seats in the Senate, and an astonishing 101 more in the House. Then, of course, there was the presidential contest, the results of which would have been humiliating to Hoover under any circumstances, but doubly so as a rejection of his incumbency. FDR swept 42 of 48 states, riding 57 percent of the popular vote to an Electoral College blowout of 472 to Hoover's pathetic 59. When the dust was all cleared after the 1932 election, Democrats controlled 59 of 96 Senate seats (or 62 percent), 313 of 435 House seats (72 percent), and they joined together under the Democrat in the White House for a massive mandate for change. I guess that explains why they sang "Happy Days Are Here Again".
Quite arguably the exact same process is happening now. Republicans are deeply reviled for having taken the country off its historic path in nearly every way possible to do so. This is, of course, a disaster made by the entire party (not just one president), which effectively controlled all three branches of government from 2001 until 2007, with some minor exceptions in Congress and the courts. That means that GOP presidential candidates are stuck between the roughest of rocks and the hardest of hard places. They must run far away from the Party and the current president to have a prayer of winning in 2008, but they also simultaneously cannot plausibly do so, and even if they did it would only result in them alienating their own base. If the Democrats have even the slightest clue in their heads (which is doubtful other than the Clintons, who know how to win elections), 2008 will be a referendum on George W. Bush and the party of Iraq, Katrina, Osama, Schiavo, Rove, Foley, Social Security destruction, debt, devastation and more. You wouldn't want to be holding them cards, even if you weren't already as pathetic a figure as Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson, leading as demoralized a bunch of losers as is today's GOP.
I suspect the repeat of 1932 is already underway. Like then, today you have a hegemonic Republican Party which has had ample opportunity to show its policy wares, generating a long line of angry customers demanding a refund on the damaged goods they bought. One of the great architects of the earlier GOP domination was Mark Hanna, who pioneered the noxious stew mixing money, corporate power and fear-mongering into the modern presidential campaign and was, therefore, the hero of one Karl Rove. But Rove got more than he bargained for in worshiping Hanna. And also less. He built himself a little empire, using the same tools, sure enough. But it was supposed to last a generation or two, like Hanna's did. Alas, just the opposite has likely occurred. Rove's empire generated enough revulsion such that his McKinley, George Bush the Inferior, is now widely considered the worst president ever, even by serious historians, and even by conservative ones. More importantly, it lasted just long enough to produce what appears to be precisely its opposite reaction - a generational realignment in favor of the Democratic Party. Or, more properly, in favor of the Party That Happens To Not Be The Republican Party.
2006 looks a lot like the warm-up, mid-term election, of 1930, where the anger was just beginning to bubble over. Last year, Democrats picked-up 6 seats in the Senate, and 31 in the House, capturing control of both houses from the Republicans. Not bad at all, by historical standards, but not enough to govern (even if the Dems had anything resembling political courage coursing through their veins, which they most assuredly do not). There's the president with his veto pen. There's the 40-plus Senate votes available to filibuster anything to death. And there, just in case Democrats were willing to push an issue and could then get it past filibuster obstructions, is the absence of the two-thirds supermajority needed in both houses to override a presidential veto. So, as in 1930, one more election is required.
Clearly, Hillary Clinton (the, gulp, presumptive nominee) is no Franklin Roosevelt. But it is worth remembering that in 1932 Roosevelt was no Roosevelt either. His main commitment was not to a progressive agenda, but rather to doing something - anything - which was enough to lead to resounding victory over Hoover and his band of merry Republicans, satisfied to bear-hug their economic orthodoxy while Americans literally died in the gutter.
If Clinton, like her Bubba before her, gives every impression of being the worst thing imaginable that the Democrats could gin up to occupy the Oval Office (Lieberman doesn't count, now that he's an independent), that's because she is, or at least well could be. But it is important to understand that, at the end of the day, that's really a misreading of the Clintons, which is actually a hopeful thought. I've seen presidential scholars and historians struggle and pull their hair out trying to figure these people out. Are they liberals? Sometimes! Are they moderates? Sometimes! Are they conservatives? Well, don't tell the regressive right in America who live to hate Bill and Hill, but as a matter of fact, yeah, they are. Sometimes. You could ask Ricky Ray Rector, the poor SOB whom Governor Bill flew home to Arkansas to execute during the campaign of 1992. Except, of course, that Ricky Ray is dead. This despite the fact that he was so mentally impaired that he asked to have the pecan pie served to him for his last meal saved to be eaten later. Or you could consult with the tens of thousands of American jobs that used to be located here before Clinton made NAFTA and WTO happen, without environmental or labor protections, of course. If, that is, you can find them. They left the country long ago.
Anyone trying to locate the Clintons ideologically would have just about as much luck with Jack the Ripper. The ideology of the Clintons is not liberalism, conservatism or any other 'ism' but Clintonism. They are completely amoral and unconcerned about anything but themselves. In a way, that actually makes them worse than contemporary Republicans, but in another way that also makes them possibly quite useful to progressives, since - lacking any real ideological guiding star - they will simply become whatever creatures that events and pressures make them to be.
This is where we can be a bit hopeful, I think, even though the thought of Clinton being the next president is the great emetic of 2007. She'll be whatever public sentiment wants her to be, including possibly quite progressive if that's what we demand. She is also likely to be responsive to the public will as indirectly expressed through Congress. Hillary won't be triangulating against her own party in Congress, like Bill did, if Democrats win overwhelming majorities in 2008 and there is a public demand for action.
Both of those eventualities, it seems to me, are highly likely - in fact more likely than a Democratic presidential victory, which I also see as substantially probable. Almost every card imaginable is lining up in favor or Democrats sweeping into a 1932-like rout next year. To begin with, of course, there is massive anger and disgust with the Republicans and they way they've governed these last six years. This is likely only to get worse, if for no other reason than that this president is not going to end the Iraq war during his tenure in office. Then there is the money which, for the first time probably in human history, is now flowing to Democrats in far greater amounts than to Republicans, as if we've fallen into some bizarro parallel universe of some sort. Even Wall Street is abandoning the GOP. When did that ever happen? The party, meanwhile, is having a very hard time attracting quality candidates to run, and increasingly, an equally difficult time keeping incumbents on board. Who wants to risk losing a brutal and humiliating campaign, stuck to an ugly party label, only to be relegated to the hopeless minority in Congress even if you do win? This would be the political equivalent of going kayaking in a hurricane in order to catch a single fish. Most people - even Republiclones - are not that dim or that masochistic. On top of all this, and just by happy coincidence, the math of the Senate rotation is especially daunting for the Greasy Oleaginous Party this year, as they are stuck defending twice as many seats within the one-third of the body up for election this cycle as are the Democrats.
As if all this weren't bad enough for the GOP, the foam-at-the-mouth wing of the party has finally had enough of being played for fools and is now openly courting defection and the idea of running a third-party candidate against both Republicans and Democrats. It seems there is a limit, after all, to how many times the oligarchs can game the religious right and fellow-traveler shock troops, exploiting them for their money, labor and passion, while tossing them nothing but the occasional Supreme Court justice bone to shut them up. The money wing of the GOP (the one that really counts, and the one that lately has been doing quite a lot of counting, thank you very much America) found that out over immigration, the ultimate wedge issue. Now they're finding it out again over the Giuliani candidacy. It seems the Frankenstein monster has a brain of its own, even if it is the abnormal one stolen from the medical university. (This is actually more than a bit scary for the long run. Recall that the United States helped create al Qaeda to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, only to find that the organization had a few of its own subsequent ambitions as well. In this way, the Money Right may come to rue the day it created its army of angry white males out of the body parts of hate, fear and insecurity, all juiced to life with the electro-current of Limbaugh Lies. It's certainly okay with me if the monster consumes its creators - more deserving fellows never there were - except that we're all likely to get swallowed up in that bloodbath too. Anyone remember a certain Timothy McVeigh?)
Finally, the issues are all running against the GOP. Or maybe it is The Issue. What voter, outside of the Dirty Thirty - those 30 percent of Americans remarkably still clinging to this president - wants another four or eight years of the same idiocy, the same torture, the same incompetence, the same arrogance? More to the point, this race may well come down to a simple choice between a candidate promising an endless war in Iraq and another promising to get out. Republicans could have a worse platform than that on which to appeal to voters, but they'd truly have to work at it. Maybe Bush could revive the draft before next November if he really wanted to demonstrate how much damage a single individual can cause to a 150 year-old institution.
Some Republicans - in Missouri and Kansas of all places - have even started a trend (or revived Jim Jeffords') of jumping ship to the Democrats, which is likely to become a tidal wave soon. This thing has the potential to become a virtuous cycle, where each bit of bad news for the party precipitates more bad news, which in turn... In my judgement, it is truly not too much to imagine this being the beginning of the end for the GOP, or perhaps a period in which it exists merely as a rump party in Mississippi, Utah, and other equally progressive outposts. If that is the case, and if having two major parties is ultimately endemic to American politics, and if conditions favor a progressive era, it is even conceivable that a new party could rise to prominence - to the left of the Democrats. Those are a lot of ifs, to be sure, and it is also surely the case that the GOP recovered from 1932, from the devastating blow-out of 1964, and from the post-Watergate smashing of 1974, only to morph into a powerhouse in 1980, 1994 and 2002. But at the same time, I would never have imagined the demise of the party as within the realm of possibility just seven short (well, actually excruciatingly long) years ago. What is different this time, above all, is that the party was taken over by radicals well out of the mainstream of public opinion, that it governed in its full unadulterated glory these last years with no one but themselves to plausibly blame for what transpired, that it failed dramatically at everything it touched, and that it really has nowhere else plausibly to go besides its toxic brew of international aggression, kleptocratic economics and sex-obsessed punitive social policy, all cut with a healthy mixer of nastiness, hypocrisy and congenital deceit. Mmmm. Yummy formula for drawing votes, eh?
Calling this a perfect storm may not do justice to the tsunami headed the GOP's way. They'll be lucky if they wind up as well off as the Tories in Britain after Thatcher, exiled for a dozen or more years, and only saved from utter oblivion by Tony Blair's combination of you-feel-like-you-need-a-shower-after-listening-to-him smarminess and his stupidest-gamble-this-side-of-Germans-betting-on-fascism decision to climb into bed with George W. Bush (sorry, there aren't enough showers in the Western Hemisphere to clean up from that image).
Of course, Democrats seem to possess a seemingly infinite capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and that's even without reference to their pathetic ideological self-neutering, desperate as it is to avoid controversy of any sort, anywhere ("Oh, sorry - did we offend you by appearing to actually take a stand on an issue? We'll make sure it never happens again."). Even as we speak, they are busy squandering away what little trust the voters gave them in 2006. We should make no mistake but that nobody actually votes for Democrats these days. Instead, they either vote for the Republicans, or against them. How else could it be since you'd need a microscope to find what it is Democrats stand for.
But since those are the present choices, Democrats are likely to get one more chance in 2008, and they're likely - with one exception - to sew up total control of the government, with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and little need for overriding vetoes. The one exception, interestingly, also has parallels to 1932, where the Democratic Congress and Roosevelt found its New Deal legislation frequently being shot down by the residual right on the Supreme Court. The same thing would happen after 2008, but, like then, can only go so far. The Court - or at least the swing voter Anthony Kennedy - knows that its power is dependent on its legitimacy, and that its legitimacy in turn depends on not legislating from the bench too often, particularly in the face of not just Congressional and presidential, but also the public will, and even more so when there is considerable hunger in the land for change. That's a freight train that not even these troglodytes are dumb enough to stand in front of for very long.
Interesting things could well happen in 2009. This country will not ever be Sweden, but it could conceivably get within shouting distance. People have seen the alternative and it ain't pretty. Baby Boomers, likely to continue being the 800-pound gorilla of American society all the way until they leave a glut of unemployed undertakers in their wake, will be wanting economic security and social freedom, both policies of the left. Clinton will be pulled in that direction, and won't even resist much if the public is already there. She just wants power. Then she'll want re-election, then she'll want a legacy. And all of that is fed by popularity, not any sort of real agenda or principle she'd be bringing to the table. In the coming years we can safely expect an exit from Iraq, no other wars of aggression, national healthcare, a semi-serious global warming policy, an end to the trampling of civil liberties, an approximation of tax and budgetary sanity, good relations with much of the world, bible-thumping sex police thrown out of American government and confined instead to their personal S&M basement dungeons, civil rights decency for minorities and gays, and perhaps even halfway serious campaign finance and electoral system reform.
It ain't everything I'd want, but honestly, it ain't bad either, and I mean that even without resorting to a slam-dunk comparison against the present nightmare (anybody can do better than these guys, just by showing up).
The last major item not on that list would be the general reeling-in of grossly bloated corporate power in America and the world, which is where we can pretty safely bet that Clinton would draw her line in the sand - not that Congress would be pushing much in that direction anyhow.
But, hey, you know, we need to save something to bitch about in 2012 anyhow, don't we?
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.