America's experiment with neofascism is coming to an end.
He came to office in a coup d'etat and consolidated power after 9/11. George W. Bush may be our worst president in history--certainly in recent times--but he is also one of the most important. Imposing his sweeping vision on everything from the tax system to why we wage war to eliminating your right to an attorney, his legislative and stylistic legacy will long outlive his administration.
He has been wildly successful at getting what he wanted. The irony is, his radical achievements have set the stage for a dramatic political shift to the left.
In my 2004 book "Wake Up! You're Liberal!" I argued that liberalism went into crisis after winning most of the cultural battles of the 20th century--the New Deal, civil rights, equality for women, gay rights. By 1980 once dynamic ideology was reduced to defending its gains against a roll-back campaign by an insurgent New Right. In electoral politics, a dynamic party offering new proposals, even ideas recycled from previous decades, tends to defeat a party that comes off as stodgy and defensive.
Bush's neofascists find themselves in the same unenviable position as the Democrats of Jimmy Carter's time. (Old-school conservatism, Goldwater's prescription of isolationism and limited government, is dead or dormant.) Now that they've won acceptance of preemptive warfare, torture, elimination of the estate tax, and spying on American citizens, Republicans are fresh out of new ideas.
As people who lived in Nazi Germany and Communist China attest, what starts out as exciting soon turns tedious. Long stretches of political radicalism leaves citizens exhausted, overwhelmed, and longing for "normalcy." Sound familiar?
You can see the leftward shift everywhere. Bush's approval rating, 91 percent after 9/11, is at 30 percent. Even most Republicans say Iraq is going badly. "I think this [the Iraq War] is the most expensive, stupidest thing we've ever done," says Debbie Thompson of Wilmette, Illinois, a staunch pro-war Republican. The military, from privates in Iraq to armchair generals in Washington, openly derides him and his war in the media.
Have you noticed? Those pro-war "Support Our Troops" car magnets are disappearing faster than the Clinton budget surplus.
Newt Gingrich, mastermind of the 1994 "Republican Revolution," compares Bush's current political impotence to Carter's and describes the Republican Party as in "collapse." Especially telling is that the ex-House Speaker--famous for his hard-right, take-no-prisoners style--says the GOP must move left in order to win the next election.
The polarizing strategy Bush used to win in 2004, Gingrich says, was "maniacally dumb" because it focused on the right-wing base to the exclusion of party moderates and has diminished the Republican Party to its worst state since Watergate. "You can't be a governing national party and write off entire regions," he tells The New Yorker.
Things look bad for the Republicans, but Democrats too are being pressured to move left. Hillary Clinton's vote in favor of the war has become her biggest political albatross. Even Barack Obama's claim that he would have voted no if he'd been in the Senate back in 2002 is being met with skepticism. And the decision by Congressional Democrats to yield to Bush's demand for another $100 billion to finance the war, no strings attached, could reduce the enthusiasm of liberal voters--and thus their turnout--on Election Day.
Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an Army Specialist killed in Iraq who became a star of the antiwar movement, articulated the frustration of more than two-thirds of the public. "I've been wondering why I've been killing myself and wondering why the Democrats caved into George Bush," she said on May 28. She announced that she would no longer be active in the peace movement or have anything to do with the Democratic Party. We are following the lead of South America, where decades of right-wing excesses prompted the election of socialist governments. Disgusted by politicians who don't even pretend to care about them or their concerns, American voters are finally ready to embrace progressives who work to put them first. The question is whether the Democrats will rise to the opportunity to lead them.