It's fair to say that this is not the very worst of times in American history.
The British are not marching through the homeland, burning down the White House. We are not murdering each other by the hundreds of thousands, as we did during our Civil War. A fourth of us are not unemployed, as was the case during the Great Depression. And Joseph McCarthy - though not necessarily his techniques and his amorality - seems safely ensconced in his grave, despite Ann Coulter's attempt to revive him (wow, how sick is that?).
It could be worse, true. But this is, nevertheless, an ugly time in the historical journey of this nation, and the peril of the present moment runs far deeper than middle America has begun to appreciate. Just as a single plane crash is often more horrifying to people than is the plethora of everyday car wrecks ultimately inflicting much more carnage on the society in total, so it is that far too many of us are not noticing our slow-motion national wreck, even as it transpires before our eyes.
Make that wrecks, actually, for the crises are multiple, and they are extensive.
You can play all the statistical games you want (Hey, have you heard? National debt as a ratio to GDP over the population growth vector times the inverse of Chinese export subsidy allowances is actually not at historic highs!), but the truth is that we're handing over an obscene pile of IOUs to our own children. Right now, each American taxpayer owns about $60,000 worth of federal debt, a number which is growing by about $2,000 with each year's additional deficit, and which is compounded each day by additional interest on the loans as well.
You can bury your head so deep in the sand that the soles of your feet get sunburned, but the idea that "we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here!" still cannot be made into a sensible conclusion for sentient creatures. The nasty truth about Iraq will not go away. Every additional day there is another day of fodder feeding the booming output for the American hatred factory, as it stamps out enemies of the United States faster than you can say "IED". Even if we weren't bankrupting ourselves in Baghdad, and even if we hadn't broken our Army there, as well as our National Guard and Reserves meant for domestic crises, and even if we hadn't made the rest of the world hate us, this adventure would still be a crisis of first proportions for the United States.
And, perhaps most historically egregious of all (which is really saying a lot!), you can keep cranking up your air conditioner till the knob breaks off in your hand, but that won't change the facts about the environmental destruction that a society in deep denial is causing to its one and only life support system. Boy, is history going to judge us harshly on this one, assuming there are any people left around to be historians. And, boy, will we deserve that.
The list (sigh) goes on and on. From Florida to Ohio to the (In-)Justice Department itself, American democracy is in crisis on more fronts than I care to count. Our civil liberties are under siege. Jobs are flying out the window. Our healthcare system is the pride of the planet, as long as you're willing to leave aside those pesky countries of the First and Second Worlds (and even some of the Third). And so on, and so on.
It is truly a dark hour for America, and all roads lead to the same explanatory address: the country has been hijacked by a movement of regressive kleptocrats who have not governed well in large part because their intention never was to govern well - but rather, instead, to liquidate every asset from the beast before then dumping its tattered carcass in a fire sale. There are no parallels for this in our political history. Only the leveraged buyout does it justice. Think of this as the Gordon Gekko model of governance. Woo-hoo.
Add to that, however, the political parallels that do exist. Bush embodies the worst of all American presidencies (and notice they're almost all Republicans). If you took the drunken bungling of (Bush's cousin) Franklin Pierce, and combined it with the corruption of the Grant administration, the imperialism of McKinley, the incompetence of Harding, the coldheartedness of Hoover, the militarism of Eisenhower, Constitution-smashing of Nixon, the nationalist arrogance of Reagan, and the ham-handedness of Poppy Bush, you might begin to approximate the disaster of the current Resident. It's as if Doctor Frankenstein's assistant not only brought back the sociopath's brain from the morgue, but every other part as well, and they stitched them all together to make the present monster.
So, yeah, this is some pretty awful stuff, though we also don't want to overstate the case. This isn't bad like Civil War bad. But it is still quite disastrous, and it will get worse, even if we were to at least stanch the bleeding today, without taking any remedial steps. Say impeachment were to put an end right now to our lovely little national project of inflicting greater and greater damage upon ourselves (one of "Rumsfeld's Rules" - and, man, should he ever know: "If you are in a hole, stop digging"). We'd still be suffering for a long time to come. These guys have been so cynically clever with their project from the beginning, and one of the smartest things they've done is to temporally disengage consequences from their causes. We're going to pay huge costs for their mistakes, that's for sure. But they've made sure that those fees mostly come later, not during the time the damages are being done. Kinda like Best Buy selling stereos. We have the "No Payments Till January of 2009!" government, and it works. Turns out you can sell wars, deficits and environmental destruction that way too, not just appliances.
One of the many benefits of doing that (take careful notes here, all you would-be Machiavellis) is that it produces a condition amongst the public in which some substantial political wisdom and some real attention to governance are required to recognize in the present tense how profoundly destructive such regressive policies actually are. Regrettably, not many Americans can claim either of those two qualities, let alone both.
Truly this is one of the worst of times. But, all that said, I actually believe that we stand today on the precipice of a possible reversal of this ugly chapter in our history, and one of considerable potential magnitude. Call it a case of national-scale lemonade-making. Without question, there are a lot of ifs involved for this to transpire. More challenging still is that hitting a few of these conditionals is not enough - we more or less have to do them all. But if we do - and I honestly don't think that even the collective series is all that improbable - there is real potential here for something positive to happen. And not just a Clintonesque, non-Bushist, version of kinder, gentler corporate marauding. I'm talking about something more akin to a latter day revival of the New Deal. In short, a truly progressive political agenda for America.
The first thing that has to happen to achieve this is more of the same of what we're experiencing right now. This is well more than possible - it's highly probable. I don't think Bush and Cheney are going to be impeached and convicted in the time remaining, and I know for sure they're not going to change their policy stripes in a last-ditch effort to save this presidency from its unsalvageable fate as the worst in American history. The fundamental mistake that Americans - even those who have come to revile this administration - still make in assessing them is to believe that their problem is incompetence, arrogance, ideological rigidity, political aggressiveness or even petty corruption. All those things are true, of course, in spades, but they also serve to mask a deeper core which is significantly worse. Like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, this administration fundamentally exists to steal the national patrimony from you and I and deliver it into the hands of an already fabulously wealthy plutocracy.
Given that core mission, it is impossible to imagine them reversing the tax giveaways to the rich. Indeed, Bush is seeking to make them permanent. Given that raison d'ÃƒÂªtre, it is impossible to imagine a serious effort on global warming when so much oil and coal money is at stake. Given that purpose, it is impossible to imagine a reversal on Iraq short of Republicans in Congress dusting off their white robes and pointy hats and forming a little posse for a brief cruise down Pennsylvania Avenue (which could happen if Bush continues to be the one-man GOP unemployment machine that he's become of late). Short of that, however, what would Blackwater or Halliburton, let alone ExxonMobil, say if we bailed on Iraq? No, John Bolton will be out trick-or-treating for UNICEF before we see these guys change stripes.
Of the several things that need to happen for an American progressive revival, you can count this one as a sure thing. Bush will certainly continue to pursue his disastrous policies. Moreover, my gut has never been surer of anything than that scandal in this administration runs deep and wide. I doubt seriously that it can all continue to be bottled up, even though the contemporary Democratic Party would probably attempt the physiologically impossible act of running from its own spine, should it ever happen to accidentally stumble across it tucked away in a broom closet somewhere. Bush will keep pursuing his unpopular policies till the bitter end. Scandals great and small will continue to emerge during the same period. And the public's attitude toward him will thus migrate from exhausted disdain to active disgust to simmering anger to and perhaps even to a bubbling boil. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a good thing for those of us hoping to advance a progressive agenda in this country.
Bush's follies will also, secondly, continue to increase the visceral unease of America's great apolitical center, a cohort which generally avoids politics, and does so in part for good reason. These are the people who could be readily persuaded that Saddam was a threat and that if the president says we need to go to war, no doubt he knows best. They're also the people who think, four years later, that something was not right about that whole Iraq thing, and that probably the troops ought to come home. More importantly, they're the people who generally see that the country is a train gone off the rails. Indeed, that is the very question which pollsters continually pose to them, and the proposition that America is on the right track today has pathetically few subscribers. A whopping 25 percent of us agree with that notion, with nearly three times as many disagreeing, the worst it's been in at least a decade, if not ever. Sixty percent of Americans think things are going worse today than they were five years ago, versus 18 percent who think they are better. More Americans think things will be worse five years from now than think things will be better. More Americans think the next generation will be worse off than think it will do better. And 76 percent of us say they are angry about the way things are going in the country, compared to only 21 percent who report themselves as being content. The portrait these numbers paint is not exactly a picture of health for any modern polity.
Most Americans couldn't identify the exact source of their anger and their anxiety, but they know that things are not working right, and they have lost faith in the present government to solve these problems. To make the leap to progressivism, there needs to be more of that, and given time there will be. The flame underneath this kettle must be turned up, to the point where the Bush administration and the regressive movement it leads are not only seen as unable to solve the problem, but as its actual source. Maybe Reagan was right, after all, at least if we slightly modify one of his most famous aphorisms: "(This) government is not the solution, (this) government is the problem."
There is a third condition that is very much required in order for a progressive renaissance to occur. It is an obvious one, but given the Constitution shredding we've all lived through these last six years, it must nevertheless be overtly articulated: Bush and Cheney must actually leave office on January 20, 2009. I still have concerns about this, though fewer than I did a few years back. It worries me, though, that we've taught these reprobates an unfortunate lesson - namely, that you can steal elections, trash the Bill of Rights, blow off Congress, manufacture a war, and steal the national crown jewels - all without much more consequence than a bit of photo-op grumbling by an anemic opposition party, the occasional off-script question from an otherwise completely obsequious press, and the latent hostility of a powerless public. After all that, would it be so much to fake another international crisis and suspend elections? If you can kill habeas corpus after nearly a millennium of it being woven deep into the fabric of Western cultural tradition, could you not readily spike an election or two under conditions of 'national emergency'? And let us not be under any illusions about the massive incentives that exist for them to stay in office, not least of which is to avoid losing the ability to block investigations of their crimes once they're out of power. The Bush junta has plenty of good reasons not to go when their (stolen) term expires. And then, of course, there is the matter of that mysterious underground bunker Cheney has been building, and the giant prison complexes recently constructed for as-yet unspecified purposes...
But let us assume that Bush and Cheney find a happy home for prolonged pillaging in some scandal-waiting-to-happen corporation headquartered in Dubai or somewhere. The obvious next set of conditions needed for a progressive revival in America is that there is actually a bold progressive candidate to replace them, that this person wins the election, and that he or she does in fact then govern as a progressive.
From what I can see, only one realistic possibility exists for this to happen, and that is for Al Gore to make a run for the presidency.
Even leaving aside Gore's resume, which makes him the ideal candidate in terms of experience and preparation (and, man, have we ever learned how much those things matter!), and even leaving aside that he has been out in front of everybody in the mainstream on everything, including the two most important issues of our time - Iraq and global warming - Gore is the ideal candidate for other even more important reasons.
I could be wrong, but my take on Gore is that he's walked away from the bullshit part of politics, forever. I think that if he ran, he would run with a sincerity and a passion for real issues that have been long and tragically absent from an American political landscape far too frequently populated with either scary sociopaths of the right or apolitical opportunists of the center. Indeed, given what Gore has already committed to the public record, both verbally and in print, he would almost have to run as the sort of straight-talking candidate John McCain can only pretend to be in countless consultant-crafted, focus-group tested, 30-second spots. And I don't think the importance of this quality, were it to actually show up, should ever be underestimated. Even though they far too often cave-in to the guy who tells them what they want to hear, Americans also desperately crave authenticity in their politics. The first person to come along and really speak honestly with the public is going to turn a lot of heads. First in shock, then in admiration, finally in devoted support.
So is the first Democrat who can throw a punch, and doesn't fall down the minute a punk like George Bush or Newt Gingrich rolls out another embarrassingly juvenile schoolyard taunt. Today, I look at Gore and I see a man on fire. I see a guy who is not only angry, but angry for all the right reasons. And I see a candidate who could be devastating in response to the right-wing cheap shots sure to be tossed out by the GOP in 2008. I think Gore would be willing to call out the purveyors of political filth on the right, to dress down their facilitators in the media, and to publicly humiliate both when they pull their egregious stunts. Indeed, I think he knows that to do otherwise is political suicide. If he does run, I can't imagine him running the sort of weak campaign like the one he mounted in 2000, or the inexcusable disaster that Kerry (who absolutely should have known better) put forth in 2004. I can't imagine him not dismissing the GOP and its surrogate pundits by saying "You're the same folks who've gotten everything imaginable wrong these last years, so shut up already. We're done with you and your disasters."
Those previous Democratic bids were cautious campaigns of calculated centrism, devoted to winning the presidency for the candidate, as opposed to for any sort of cause. Today, I don't think that is what animates Al Gore, for he has been anything but the centrist candidate who is cautiously building a foundation for one last run. Instead, he has more or less done all the things you're not supposed to do when you run for president nowadays, especially as a Democrat. He's called out the Bush administration for the disaster that it is, and he did so early and without mincing words, at a time when the Clintons and the Edwards of this world were voting for the Iraq war resolution so they could run for president. He's made noise about a crucial issue everybody wanted to ignore, and did so at the cost of being subjected to great personal ridicule. He has avoided all the political pandering of pathetic politicians running hither and yon across Iowa and New Hampshire, promising everything to everyone, and trying to be all things to all people.
All of this is important, and for more reasons than simply electing a non-regressive president in 2008. What we've learned in the last six years is what regressives are capable of when they're in power. What we'd already seen, from the previous decade, is just how damaging they can be even when out of power. It's ludicrous to imagine that another Clinton presidency would be any less hounded from the get-go than was the first one. And while Hillary might be somewhat more effectual at countering the vast right-wing conspiracy than Bill was, it will always be at the service of her personal power and glory, never to serve a progressive policy agenda. For there to be the possibility of a progressive revival in America, it will require a candidate who gets in the face of the radical right during the campaign, in order to lay the groundwork for doing the same during the presidency. Hillary might be able to do that, but what distinguishes Gore is that he goes even one better, doing it in service to a public agenda, rather than a personal one. That brings a lot of people around behind him in support for their champion.
The prospect of a good-natured, well-intentioned, highly qualified and unintimidated presidential candidate - and, especially, president - scares the hell out of regressives. It is both a measure of their fear, their political and policy bankruptcy, and the correctly perceived threat of a Gore candidacy that they've already begun hurling their cheapest pot shots at him, though the guy is nowhere near having even announced yet. With more than just echoes of the character assassination done on him in 2000, columnists from the Washington Post and the New York Times have mocked Gore and his new book, suggesting that he is arrogant, pompous and foolish. But these ladies doth protest too much!
I think today's Al Gore frightens these people very much. His presidency would follow our era's Pierce/Grant/McKinley/Hoover/Eisenhower/Nixon/Reagan meltdown, thus setting the stage for maximum receptivity to real and significant change. He likely would not be intimidated or shut down by personal assaults or fabricated scandals. (In fact, if he was really smart, he would inoculate himself against them by warning the public right from the beginning to expect that they are coming, reminding them of what was done to Clinton. Then each time another bogus scandal was proffered he could simply offer a Reaganesque display of disdainful tedium, along the lines of "There you go again". He could also publicly challenge members of the media to also investigate their sources, as well as the allegations of those sources, and he could play a game of resignation brinksmanship with Republicans making warrantless accusations, as in "If you're right Senator, I'll resign. If you're wrong, you resign. Agreed?".) Gore would also likely not be afraid to continue to explain to Americans the depth of the pit the GOP has dug for us these last years, perhaps launching continuing investigations into war profiteering and other scandals. In short, Gore could take progressives from a position of playing weak defense to one of playing offense, and leave the right stuck licking their wounds in a collapsing world of hurt. My own guess is that regressives will completely crumble at the point anyone stands up to them and starts hitting back, and thus the attacks already being mounted on Gore - it is imperative to them that anyone who would do so be silenced, preferably by means of ridicule. But I suspect Gore now well knows what so many of us learned in kindergarten, that the best way to deal with a bully is to push back. Hard.
The same is true when it comes to the matter of taming of press. I would expect them to also fall apart the minute they are outted. Imagine if, when they tried their usual deprecations, candidate Gore turned to the public, going over the heads of the media, and simply said "When are you going to investigate the Bush administration?" I think the American media knows full well how culpable they are for the mess that is Bushism. I think they are scared to death that anyone might expose them for their part in that disaster, for their cowardice, their complicity and their cooptation. We know for sure that the press can readily be bullied. A truth-speaking Al Gore could keep them constantly on the defensive for their rightward bias, their favoring of Bush, their savaging of Clinton and their complete failure to do their job during the Bush administration. He could do what the right has done for twenty years now - but using intimidation based on truth rather than on lies - and make them self-conscious and self-editing, just as the whole 'liberal bias' shtick has so successfully worked for the Dark Side.
But, of course, righting the wrongs of the last quarter-century is just the beginning. There is a lot to say for that alone, but the point of governing (as long as we are indulging our fantasies here) should be to advance an agenda which positively serves the public interest, and here is where we can envision the possibility of a progressive resurgence in America, without first having to imbibe massive quantities of hallucinogens in order to make it seem remotely plausible.
Lord knows I've had my heart broken by too many politicians not to be a bit cautious. Moreover, the old Al Gore could sometimes make Bill Clinton look positively liberal. But nowadays I think a Gore presidency would very likely be different. I think it would be bold enough to end the war, to seriously address global warming, to create a real universal national healthcare program, to begin re-balancing the distribution of wealth in the United States, to restore the Constitution, to appoint progressives to the federal courts, to restore America's participation in international institutions and its reputation in world opinion, to implement a full-scale alternative energy program, as well as job development, stem cell research, and a whole lot more. I think the majority of the American public already wants all of those things, and it might be very easy to achieve them under the combined circumstances of a completely failed conservative experiment, a clearly articulated progressive vision, and a bold agenda-setting president showing aggressive and fearless leadership in pointing the way.
Which I think is precisely why Gore, the non-candidate, inspires such over-the-top ridicule from conservatives and the press. His capacity to expose them and their lies, to put a label on their failures, and to chart a path toward a popular politics of potential watershed magnitude, makes him nothing short of a regressive's nightmare. This could be the second coming of FDR, not only politically and ideologically, but in terms of a generational-scale realignment, much as the New Deal coalition dominated American politics for forty years.
No wonder they've already started savaging him, even while he says he has no plans to run. Like a hurricane gathering energy at sea, they recognize his potential.
And like a Potemkin village on the shore awaiting the storm's devastation, they also recognize the complete vacuousness, and therefore the utter vulnerability, of their own project.
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 (mailto:email@example.com), 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.