My Michelle Moment: America Does Itself Proud

American democracy is a tattered thing.
One could devote a lifetime to describing its major failings, many of
which are baked right into the institutional structure of the practice.

American democracy is a heartbreaking
thing. To be a progressive, caring citizen of this country is
to live a life of almost unmitigated disappointment and startling affronts
to a compassionate moral code.

American democracy is a chimerical thing.
In my half-century on this planet I'm not particularly sure it has
ever quite shown up in any serious fashion.

American democracy is a tattered thing.
One could devote a lifetime to describing its major failings, many of
which are baked right into the institutional structure of the practice.

American democracy is a heartbreaking
thing. To be a progressive, caring citizen of this country is
to live a life of almost unmitigated disappointment and startling affronts
to a compassionate moral code.

American democracy is a chimerical thing.
In my half-century on this planet I'm not particularly sure it has
ever quite shown up in any serious fashion.

To be an American means to suffer serious
anguish, not only because of the horrifically stupid things your people
can do, but precisely because of the unique potential of this country
to do better. There actually is something to the idea of American
exceptionalism, in ways that are completely antithetical to those used
by regressives when they hijack the idea, but also in ways that progressives
are often blinded to because of our laudable compulsion towards egalitarianism.
But this country is unique in that it is founded on ideas, not geography
or ethnicity or some other form of empty primordialist affinity.
And that uniqueness still resonates today in the standards we hold for
ourselves. To have violated them so egregiously of late is all
the more devastating than to have never held such standards at all,
as is often the case elsewhere. To be American means not having
the easy comfort of jaded cynicism to resort to when your government
or your fellow citizens break your heart.

We talk a lot about democracy here, but
I'm wondering how much of it I've ever actually witnessed in my
lifetime. Sure, there were decisive elections in 1964, 1972, 1980,
1984 and 1994. Voters were presented with real alternatives in
those races, and they went heavily one way, suggesting that the fundamental
democratic principle of rule by the people was truly at work.
But in every one of those cases, I would argue, there was massive deceit
on the part of the winning team, to the extent that voters didn't
really know what they were choosing after all. Lyndon Johnson
campaigned as a guy who would never "send American boys off to fight
a war that Asian boys should be fighting for themselves". But
the reality of his Vietnam policy, which came slamming home less than
a year after the election, could hardly have been more different from
the promise he made as a candidate. In fact, it was a monstrous
lie, since Johnson knew full well before the election what he was going
to do in Vietnam. Then, not much later, Richard Nixon used every
dirty trick in the book to win in 1972. Both of these guys ultimately
got caught and lost their presidencies because of their deceits.
They got off easy. We did not.

Reagan began the onslaught of the new
conservatism (aka the old regressivism) in 1980, a tradition which carries
forward to this day, right through from his two elections and terms,
the Gingrich abomination of the 1990s, and the Bush horror of this decade.
Regressives won a lot of these elections hands-down, but in every case
employed weapons of mass deception in order to fool voters into assisting
economic elites in the picking of their own pockets. I don't
believe for a moment that George W. Bush cares about terrorism, or that
he ever thought Iraq was a genuine threat. I don't believe for
a moment that Newt Gingrich was morally offended by Bill Clinton's
lies about getting a blow-job in the White House. I don't believe
for a moment that Ronald Reagan cut taxes on the wealthy because he
thought it would be good for the economy. Using racism, red-baiting,
homophobia, xenophobia, bogus tax cuts, national security crises real
and imagined, and horrid swiftboating smear tactics, regressives have
been able to steal elections - literally, when they couldn't do
it figuratively - by tricking voters into enabling the kleptocrats
to come into power and grab everything not bolted to the floor.
As well as the floor itself, if necessary.

And then, of course, added to these elections
in which the people have spoken without actually knowing what they're
saying, there have been the stolen national elections of 1960, 2000
and 2004, each of them, by definition, as genuine and powerful an abuse
of democratic principles as one might imagine, and therefore as deep
a body blow to the polity as could be construed. Put it all together,
and it's enough to make a fella cry. As many of us have, on
many an occasion these last decades.

All of which could have ground the country
into a despair and cynicism from which it would be impossible to emerge.
But it didn't, and if it isn't too smarmy to regurgitate the word
yet one more time (at least we won't have to hear 'maverick' anymore),
in this election I saw an outpouring of hope the likes of which I can't
remember in my lifetime. This was the most I've ever seen Americans
engaged in the choice of who will manage our shared public domain, a
function we've largely divorced ourselves from in a fashion so remarkable
it was as if it was the government of some foreign land in question,
and these were other people's lives at stake. According to one
preliminary estimate, however, this election produced 136 million voters
at the polls, or 64 percent of those eligible, the highest turnout since

Moreover, this was the most broadly emotional
election I've ever seen. People were engaged in it at a very
personal and profound level, and there were a lot of them. There
was a radiance in the air about the election that was unique and powerful
and pervasive. Everybody everywhere seemed to burst into tears
Tuesday night, whether they lived in America or not. People seemed
unable to stop talking about it, before and after. I was sitting
in a doctor's office examining room earlier in the week, rather impatiently
overhearing the doc and another patient going on and on about election
politics for fifteen minutes. After a while he finally comes into
my room, whereupon he and I proceeded to go on and on about election
politics for thirty minutes. Finally, his receptionist banged
on the door to remind him that he had two other patients waiting.
I had the feeling that this was not the first time that had happened
in his office, and it certainly wasn't the first time I had observed
ordinary, non-political-junkie citizens engaging deeply in this process.
I've never before seen so many people so plugged in to their national
politics. I'm pretty sure we can thank George W. Bush for that,
above all.

For this reason, and several others,
I had a Michelle moment during election week. For the first time
in a very long time, I felt a little pride about what my country was
doing. This election felt to me like nothing so much as a reclaiming
of our country from some truly evil predators who had hijacked it, and
a restoration of democracy - and, really, sanity - to our political
sphere. Of course, those notions can be overstated. There're
still a lot of adherents to regressive politics in the mix. Quite
a lot, actually, and many of them have big microphones, and many more
listen to what those bloviators say. But the same notions can
also be understated, as well. This is not likely to be a victory
of just a single election. The more subtle but also more powerful
effects of a successful Obama presidency - and I have very high confidence
that it will be the most successful presidency since FDR - will be
to renormalize American political culture around a mix of classic and
contemporary values of genuine virtue, and to bury forever the toxic
ideological experiment in regressivism we've endured these last thirty
years. The skill and dignity and seriousness of purpose that Obama
will bring to the White House will quietly but massively enhance the
damage to the right's reputation that they've already well begun
inflicting upon themselves. People will look back on this Cringe
Decade and wonder - just as the rest of the world has been doing all
through it - "What the hell were we thinking?"

The answer, of course, is that we weren't.
We were feeling, instead, and what we were feeling was frightened and
selfish and small-minded. And what politicians like Reagan and
Bush were masterful at was making those importunings from our darker
angels seem legitimate. It was okay to feel like America was better
than the rest of the world, and we should go out there and kick some
ass on inconvenient brown people who happened to be sitting on top of
our oil. It was okay to put a little chump change in our pockets,
even if it meant handing over massive debts from our little party today
for our children to deal with tomorrow. It was okay to kill even
pathetically small efforts at remediation for less privileged members
of the society so that the middle class could put a few extra pennies
in their pockets. And, worst of all, it was okay to remain willfully
ignorant about what we were doing, its impacts, and why we were really
doing these things. What's more pathetic than a complicit marionette?

Perhaps that is finally all behind us.
This election was not a landslide, but it was nevertheless absolutely
a watershed. And, in fact, if you combine it with the results
from the last election, in 2006, it does represent a landslide.
However, not one favoring Democrats so much as rejecting Republicans.
Not one favoring Obama so much as rejecting Bush. And not one
favoring progressivism so much as rejecting regressivism. These
are huge developments, especially for all of us now emerging from the
desiccated wasteland, the carnage-strewn battlefield, the scorched earth
landscape that has been eight years worth of Bush. But it is important
not to over-interpret, and therefore misinterpret, what just happened.
To begin with, consider that even in 2008, even in just about the worst
year imaginable for the GOP, even with a charismatic leader like Obama
running a letter-perfect campaign, even with an lousy opponent like
McCain running a strategically inept campaign, even with Sarah Palin
dragging down the ticket, and even with a once-in-a-century economic
meltdown hitting right before the election - even with all that, Obama
won with only a five to six percent margin of the popular vote.
I'm sad to say it, but if we're honest we'll recognize that the
second most astonishing thing about his victory - apart from a black
man winning the American presidency - was how big it wasn't.

That's a sobering conclusion, which
is just what it should be if we are to succeed going forward.
The rest of the journey to a restoration of progressive, and sane, American
politics starts now, and it won't be an easy one. The good news
is that Americans are in fact pretty liberal, even though they largely
don't know it. The fact that they don't is a tribute to the
marketing genius of the GOP Mad Men, who are of course merely hired
guns for the plutocrats bathing in wealth all these decades now.
But they're good at what they do. So, if you ask people to self-identify
ideologically, many more will now say they are conservative than liberal.
However, oddly, nowadays many more will call themselves Democrats than
Republicans. And even more tellingly, on issue after issue after
issue - almost completely without exception - the majority of Americans
take the liberal position when asked by pollsters, and usually by overwhelming
numbers. We may not be Sweden, but we are a lot more liberal than
we think we are, and than regressives want us to think we are.
They have successfully turned the liberal brand into a pariah label,
but they haven't been able to take the progressive tendencies out
of our political culture. Americans want the war in Iraq ended,
and no more such nightmares. They want a national healthcare system.
They want responsible environmental stewardship. They want to
retain the Roe v. Wade abortion policy status quo. They want to
end torture. They want good relations with our allies. They
want fair tax policies and a fair distribution of wealth. And
so on, and so on. These are liberals, any way you cut it, except
by name. Again, this branding is certainly great testament to
nefarious marketing genius, but, fortunately, does not actually represent
the country's politics. In fact, Obama and the Democrats have
a very good piece of material to work with if they seek to weave this
center-left fabric into the garment of a new, broad, robust and genuinely
popular progressive consensus in America.

Meanwhile, the second piece of good news
from Election 2008 is the mirror opposite of the first. For every
bit of hopefulness we may see on the left and among Democrats, there
is disarray and disaster on the right. Even better yet, they don't
really comprehend why. And, best of all, they have no remedy for
what ails them.

Some of the Neanderthal set (with apologies
to cavemen everywhere for the unflattering comparison) seem to at least
have figured out that they have been demolished in the last two years.
But, because they believe so fervently - one might say religiously,
eh? - in their disastrous doctrines, they are completely unable to
fathom what went wrong. The equation is actually as simple as
it gets: They ruled. It sucked. It's over.
What's hard to get about that? The problem, of course, is that
giving up theological beliefs is never easy, especially when doing so
comes attached with a whopping measure of embarrassment, guilt, shame
and admission of stupidity. And so, even in a campaign year when
these regressives disassociated themselves completely from the most
regressive president ever, they still have not made a break from their
regressive politics, and can only stand back in shock and awe, trying
to figure out why the rest of the country has now joined the rest of
the world in doing so. Talk about your isolation. Red state
politics nowadays have more in common with Russian authoritarianism,
Chinese devotion to the public interest, Sudanese human rights, Iranian
theocracy and North Korean militarism than with the rest of the world
or even the rest of America. That ain't exactly the most fetching
company to be keeping.

More importantly, though, where do they
go from here? I see three choices for the Republican Party, each
of which essentially represents a different form of suicide. It's
sorta like, how do you want to go out? Pills? Gunshot?
The rope? One possibility for the GOP is to cling to the status
quo. Things might actually improve slightly for them if they were
to do so, now that they can return to the role of carping critic, rather
than having to actually take responsibility for governing. But
probably not. They can continue to be obstreperous, as they have
for two years now, using their minority caucus in the Senate to filibuster
every piece of legislation the Democrats put forward. I wouldn't
want to be in that gang if they do, however. Americans are seriously
scared about the economy and healthcare and other major issues, and
they want remedies. In a desert of starving people, how long do
you think it would be before whiney losers standing on the tracks blocking
the relief train had the living shit kicked out of them? I'm
sure Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, perhaps the two remaining moderates
in the entire Republican Senate caucus, get this, and would either depart
from such filibuster attempts or take the opportunity to depart from
the GOP altogether. Now that Chris Shays got his pink slip, there
will not be a single Republican from anywhere in New England in the
new House of Representatives. I don't think that fact is lost
on the two senators from Maine, and perhaps a few others like them.

A second alternative is to move to the
right. Amazingly, many Republicans have been making the case that
the GOP's problem was that it wasn't conservative enough.
That Lil' Bush wasn't true enough to the principles of Ronald Reagan.
Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that the myth of Reagan
departs further from reality every day, and that Reagan himself was
far less true to these much-vaunted principles than the faulty memories
of regressives allow them to recall. More to the point is this:
Do Americans want more tax cuts for the wealthy right now? More
national debt? Spending cuts on popular programs? Less government
safety net, just as the economy starts to resemble the surface of the
moon? More corporate control and profiteering in our healthcare
system? More wars based on lies that diminish our security and
claim the lives of our children? More alienation from the rest
of the world? More torture? More regulation of our sexuality,
our reproductive systems, our right to die with dignity? More
intervention of blowhard hypocrite religion-mongers in our political
sphere? More corruption? More ignoring, and indeed exacerbation,
of looming environmental catastrophe?

Not conservative enough? Are these
guys kidding? What is the number of their drug dealer, man?
Where do they score such great hallucinogens?!?! I'm jealous,
dude. I haven't been that high since I saw Blue Oyster Cult
play in 1973.

Finally, what remains, then, as a third
option would likely be viable for the party itself, yet still represents
existential suicide. Imagine a dead body propped up in a chair,
sitting in the corner, largely ignored except for the increasingly foul
smell. The GOP could return to the days of Rockefeller and Ford,
end the hijacking by the radical right, and become once again a moderate-conservative
party. Of course, this presumes that the radicals in the party
who control it so completely - to the extent that there really isn't
a rivalry with moderates anymore, chiefly because there aren't really
moderates left there with whom to fight - that these folks would relinquish
the vehicle they've commandeered. Fat chance of that happening,
Me Bucko. The freaks who have been salivating over Sarah Palin
couldn't even stand John McCain because he was too liberal for them.
What can you say about people for whom Mike Huckabee is considered insufficiently
right-wing? Do you see these troops lining up to march fervently
behind the milquetoast moderation of Dick Lugar? Do you see the
twenty-three percent of Texans who still think that Barack Obama is
a Muslim skipping a week's worth of losing Lotto tickets so that they
can send a campaign contribution to their new hero, Arlen Specter?

Of course not. More importantly,
though, even if they took this tack, doing so would effectively destroy
the GOP's entire raison d'etre. It's a mistake of profound
magnitude to see Republicans as some sort of normal party, the purpose
of which is to aggregate the passions and policy preferences of a great
mass of citizens. The truth is that it is, instead, a vehicle
for kleptocrats whose only real purpose is to loot the country as completely
and as rapidly as possible. Since these already wealthy members
of the plutocracy represent the narrowest share of the population, they've
always had to create a scenario in which they could surreptitiously
attract legions of shock troops to assist them and enable their pirating.
Hence, god, gays and guns. Hence racism, xenophobia, foreign bogeymen
and national chauvinism. What's crucial to remember is that
the party is a shell, and a shell game. Take away the looting,
and the animating purpose of the whole affair is expelled like air rushing
madly out of a freshly blown tire. All that's left is that body
propped up in the corner.

In short, I see nowhere for the GOP to
go looking forward. I predicted two years ago that the party could
actually cease to exist in rather short order, and I think that is even
more likely now.

Finally, in addition to the upsides of
improved Democratic Party fortunes and a Republican Party falling to
pieces, there are other huge positive developments emanating from what
transpired this week and this decade - too many to elaborate on here.
But there is one, in particular, that is worthy of mentioning, particularly
because it is both general and truly radical - in the literal sense
of going to the root - and therefore has the capacity to indirectly
affect so many specific issue areas.

The high point of the 2008 campaign,
for me, was Obama's Philadelphia speech on race. I liked the
content of his remarks very much, but what I really appreciated most
was the tone of the speech. If any politician in my lifetime has
spoken to the American public with such intelligence and maturity, or
has given remarks that demanded such sophistication and thoughtfulness
of his or her listeners, I don't remember it. Maybe Jimmy Carter
did, or Bobby Kennedy - I don't know. I do know at least that
it has been a very, very long time indeed. If Obama can continue,
going forward, to do this over and over again, using the bully pulpit
that only a president has, and that a charismatic president has especially,
he can raise the level of discourse in this country dramatically.
Simply by framing and discussing issues in these terms, he will force
the press and the opposition and the public to follow along. As
was the case with his race speech, this could result in advancing the
dismal state of our national dialogue from one which chiefly features
two-dimensional dumbed-down cardboard characterizations, to another
which is built around more honest representations of our political realities.

The effects this change in tone might
have across the board could be remarkable, especially since the entire
regressive program is so heavily dependent on ignorant citizens imbibing
simplified and emotionalized characterizations of complex, multi-sided
and nuanced issues. Imagine, to take just one example, if we could
finally talk about the Middle East in terms transcending the white hats
(Israel) versus black hats (the rest) paradigm that so readily facilitates
our foolish and destructive policymaking there. Imagine if we
could be allowed to think seriously and intelligently about America's
place in the world, starting with the realization that we spend more
on 'defense' than all other countries in the entire world - that's
about 195 of them combined! - despite the absence of any existing
serious threat to our security. Imagine if we could talk intelligently
and knowledgeably about how our economic system compares to those in
Europe, for example, and what our policy choices mean in terms of quality
of life for Americans. What if we could acknowledge that the polarization
of wealth in this country ranks us down along with banana republics
throughout the world?

Sometimes the most powerful and profound
political changes in a society are the subtlest and quietest in their
evolution. Race relations in America, for example, were clearly
changed by civil rights legislation. But they were even more affected
by the change in consciousness, often generational, that turned racist
attitudes from de rigueur to unacceptable in polite society. Indeed,
it is arguable that the legislation and the judicial rulings could never
have transpired without the less tangible psychological changes preparing
the ground for them. Race relations will again change dramatically
with the existence of the first black president, much more in this psychological
and cultural sense than in a legislative sense. But I raise the
question more as an example of a broader possibility than to focus specifically
on race. If Obama's style of governance can demand more of the
media and more of the public in terms of a sophisticated processing
of our politics, this can only be good news for progressives in America.
The dirty little secret of the right is that a thinking public is a
death sentence for their lies. Ten minutes of Limbaugh makes that
abundantly clear to anyone with half a brain.

Looking ahead, there are surely some
reasons to be wary about what comes next. There are many indicators
to suggest that neither boldness nor serious progressivism are part
of Barack Obama's DNA, though there are also numerous others to suggest
just as emphatically that they are. But that's for the months
and years to come. The new president will have plenty of opportunities
to disappoint us, though hopefully he'll decline to avail himself
of very many.

In the meantime, there is so much to
celebrate and for which to be thankful. It starts, of course,
with the end of the Reagan/Bush/Cheney/DeLay/Scalia/Rove regressive
nightmare, and it would be more than enough, frankly, if it simply ended
right there. But it doesn't. We have a new president coming
to office who represents our society's very best in almost every respect.
And this is so because we, the owner's of this democracy, reached
back into our history to remember and locate the best within ourselves
in order to make that happen.

Emerging from so many years of political
darkness - so many moments of utter astonishment at the evil my country
was practicing, so much heartache from the destruction done in our name,
so much hopelessness after thirty years of Reaganism-Bushism - emerging
from these shadows and tentatively poking my head out into the light,
one thought kept recurring to me over and again last Tuesday:

It was a good day to be alive.

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