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 1908.
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’être. 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.
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.