Nonsense about America being a “center-right” nation holds true only with rough averages and no consideration of causality. Conservative ascendancy in this country has always followed some massive disruption of the country’s equilibrium. To the extent the Republicans have been the Conservative party (which was not the case at all times—sometimes they were the party of reform, sometimes the Democrats were more conservative, sometimes both parties were conservative) their power has followed (1) the Revolution. The Federalist Party were essential Tories who just didn’t want rule from England. But they wanted English law, English castes, and some of them even wanted a king. Their power was broken with the election of Thomas Jefferson and they ceased to exist when they didn’t want to fight the War of 1812. Their legacy as a party is largely the highly centralizing jurisprudence of Justice Marshall.
From 1800 to 1861 America, with a few hiccups, was without massive concentrations of wealth, vast disparities of wealth, or internal conflict. Except for Native Americans and slaves. The former have never achieved resolution, and the latter, well that situation led to the second major disequilibrium, (2) the Civil War, when the opposition party wasn’t able to elect anyone. The Civil War was the most massive disruption in American history. It had its roots in the Founding, and its legacy is still palpable today. The Conservative ascendancy following it peaked 35 years later, and didn’t really break down until 1932. The Populists and Progressives were counterforces that naturally arose trying to return the country to its equilibrium to resist the centralizing of wealth in the railroads and trusts. This counterforce was not strong enough to prevent concentrated wealth from spinning into its own vortex, and then it went into hiding. After a failed coup attempt in the first years of FDR’s administration, concentrated wealth took a back seat to national unity in war.
The next disruption is more a series of contemporaneous events that I have spent a long time trying to identify the root causes of. My best guess is that they all stem from the Post-WWII order, but it’s hard to say. This disruption included (a) civil rights, (b) bleaching of gender roles, (c) atomizing of industry, (d) economic globalization, (e) transition to a net oil importer, (f) military failure. Starting in the early 60s, peaking in approximately 1968, this disruption’s fallout led directly to our current blight. Starting with Nixon, whose personal failures caused a brief interruption, and with three independent peaks—1984, 1994, and 2002, Conservatism was ascendant, even in the policies of most Democrats, including Bill Clinton (I reject the notion that universal healthcare will make rich people poorer the way redistribution of wealth does. It will, in fact, make them richer. It will also make poor people richer. Not caring about this distinction is part of the disease that has toppled the latest iteration of Conservatism.)
This era was on its way out in 2000. People were happy with the moderate economic policies of the Clinton years, and remembered what had preceded them after the Reagan-Bush I fallout. The world was as peaceful as it’s ever been, and old social prejudices were breaking down. But it was snapped back by the Florida Coup and by 9/11. I think Americans felt that they had gone soft in the 90s and 9/11 was their punishment. That’s not quite right. America had gotten selfish and insular in the 90s, letting its wealth power instead of its military power work its magic on the rest of the world.
These events simply blocked the emerging counterforce that pulled us back towards a sort of Eisenhower+Inclusion era, and the concentration of wealth once again worked itself into a vicious cycle that has wreaked enough damage on our economy to cause a populist fever to rise. It’s not directed at Republicans, really. It’s directed at wealth. People who don’t understand economics don’t really understand that the TARP isn’t really coming “out of their pockets” and that injecting capital into a liquidity trap is the best thing we know to do. They are mad at the bankers’ perqs—the corporate jets, the bonuses, etc. (Corporate jets can actually make a company more efficient by letting its high paid executives be where they need to be on the schedule the company demands, and the bonuses are really just part of the bargain and are only called that for legal reasons—they should be outraged at the salaries in the first place, which make the jets efficient, and the bonuses are just part of them.) They are mad that the feel like they are paying for these things. Well, they’ve ALWAYS been paying for these things. But paying them through taxes feel different, I guess.
People haven’t quite permitted themselves to understand that the cheapest and most efficient solution—nationalization—isn’t the same as socialism. If you nationalize something to fix it and then privatize it later, it’s just optimizing capitalism, after all. So, here we are. Knowing we need to do something, but not quite permitting ourselves to do it all yet.
This will probably permit a equilibrium era for a while. I think it would be reasonable to expect 2-4 Presidential terms and another 10 years of Congressional control. The way out of this for Republicans (not necessarily Conservatives, but Republicans—think Eisenhower, TR) is that there is no organized leftist power in this country, but liberals think the Democratic party is that. It’s like phantom limb syndrome. The Republicans have been the Conservative power, and the Democrats have been the equilibrium party. With brief glimmers as the exception, there has never been a party pulling left on the equilibrium.
Just as the Conservatives don’t understand they swim against the tide pulling this country to the right (hence the non-ironic labeling of this country as “center right”) liberals think they are the equilibrium. They are not. They think that Democrats are the party of the left. They are not.
Understanding these misidentifications makes a lot of sense of a lot of weird political events. Just think about 1968. Nixon was far more easy to identify with the equilibrium of the past than any of the Democrats, except maybe RFK who was ironically more progressive, because the leftists in the country identified with the Democrats! No Democratic candidate in 1968 would have abolished nuclear weapons, pulled out of anywhere except possibly Vietnam, or dressed like a flower child, or started real socialism in the country. It was an illusion.
We risk the same now. Many leftists have thought that President Obama, since his early candidacy, was just kidding about his proclamations and that he was really some kind of leftist revolutionary. When the entire country isn’t unionized and there isn’t single payer health care and no more military by 2010, leftist disillusion may interrupt the Supermajority power of the Democratic party.
This is the opening—an opening for which I almost feel treasonous to write about—that Republicans can exploit.
Too many liberals are brusquely anti-religious, expect every ethnic strife to be resolved a la Ghandi, and never think war is necessary. Many of them also have Neo-Luddite illusions about environmental policy. Now, I don’t know many Democrats in power, and Obama certain doesn’t, that actually operate on these assumptions. But if they get identified with your neighbor that even is against going after bin Laden, well, it doesn’t matter what they will really do. Ask Hubert Humphrey. The fact that Obama appears to be pretty religious doesn’t even matter, either.
This is not to say, of course, that we should adopt Christian law, that we should support ethnic cleansing, or wage indiscriminate war, or continue to plunder the economy. It just means that all of these things must be approached as chess, and not as checkers. To the extent that antsy liberals lack patience, they will put enough cracks to let the Republican darkness get back in.
Therefore, my masochist advice to Republicans is actually to not oppose some of the more radical changes, but instead wait for the inevitable equilibrium violating move. My advice to Obama and the Democrats is to restore and make robust the equilibrium by restoring the middle class first, and then let the other things work themselves out.
That won’t happen, and Charlie Crist will probably be president in 2016 or 2020. I just hope that some stuff gets done in between.