Friday, November 14, 2008

What if history isn't repeating itself?

Yesterday I went home after a very frustrating day at work of inventories and a futile search for a computer which nobody has used for over a year. It's been sitting in a corner gathering dust in somebody else's work center and somebody finally moved it somewhere where I cannot find it. Such is life for an equipment custodian. I went down for an hour nap around 6:30 last night and just woke up twenty minutes ago, at 5:30 this morning. I did some rather intense dreaming, but for all its vividness, it was remarkable mostly for its absurdity. It featured Homer Simpson using a magic beard to propel himself over a wall. Finally after things went badly, we all started running, but I found myself trapped in a cage with a large guard dog with security guards bearing down on me with rifles. I realized there was only one way out: I woke up.

After eleven hours of sleep, I got some water and went outside. The sun is just now rising and I can see the full moon to the west from my balcony. Sitting out here on my twelfth story balcony, seeing the full moon and two planes passing in the night over my tropical island paradise, I decided it was time for blogging.

I've given a lot of thought to this past Presidential election, and sentiment aside, I always try to place these things in some sort of historical context. You can usually look back at history and see when something similar has happened in the past, no matter how new and unique a particular event may seem at the time. I've been trying to contextualize the 2008 Presidential election, and while a number of past elections seem to fit on the surface, the comparisons fall apart upon further analysis.

Is it like 2000? In all senses, no. Then Governor Bush and Vice President Gore were running during a time of economic prosperity. Bush ran against Clinton's character and Gore ran on his and Clinton's record. Gore's margin of victory was so narrow that he actually lost. What followed was eight years of mismanagement and strife that set the stage for 2008.

Is it like 1992? Again, no. We were in a recession, but Americans didn't want to fundamentally change the way we did business; they just wanted someone they thought could do it more competently than President Bush did, so they elected then Governor Clinton.

Is it like 1980? In some ways, yes. Reagan represented a fundamental shift in how the government did business. He wasn't simply running to the right of President Carter, but also to the right of President Nixon, and that's how he governed. Reagan set the stage for the next twenty-eight years. Even President Clinton was forced to govern to the right of himself as a consequence of the political climate of the time.

But upon further analysis, 2008 is actually the antithesis of 1980. What Reagan represented was a turn away from responsibility and service. You shouldn't have to pay high taxes, he said. You shouldn't have to worry yourselves about what's going on overseas, he said. Those Soviets are the Evil Empire, and you shouldn't have to think about it any further than that. We're Number One. Reagan simply asked Americans to trust him to do the right thing, whatever that may be. The Reagan presidency marked the beginning of America's great apathy toward its government. After Watergate, Americans simply concluded that “they're all a bunch of crooks” and voted for the guy they found personally likable – the guy who wouldn't ask anything of them, but who would take care of things himself while they turned on the TV and tuned out of their government: seemingly forever.

2008 can be likened to a great awakening of the body politic. Suddenly, everybody's paying attention. Suddenly, everybody is greatly concerned about the future of their country – even those who don't support Obama. I'm not just talking about the millions of people who either donated to or volunteered for Obama's campaign, although that's significant enough in of itself. I'm also talking about the disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters who for a time refused to vote for Obama because they believed so strongly in her candidacy. I'm also talking about the disaffected Republicans who, although they may not have liked the performance of their current standard-bearer, believed enough in Republican ideals that they still supported McCain. I'm talking about disaffected Republicans who were so fed up with the direction their party has taken that they chose, for the first time ever, to vote for a Democrat for President of the United States. And, of course, I'm talking about evangelical Republicans who'd almost given up on being relevant in politics, only to find their new standard-bearer in Sarah Palin.

America isn't tuning out like they did in 1980. They're finally tuning in. And while I have no idea what kind of changes this sort of resurgent democracy will bring, I do think that I can safely say that the days of the next American Idol commanding more attention than the next President of the United States are drawing to a close. People are really paying attention, and what that means for our next President is that he's going to have to govern accordingly. Gone are the days when a President can pull a fast one on the American public and simply ask them to trust him. Bush saw to that when there were no WMD in Iraq.

There were other historical comparisons made. There was fear of a repeat of 1968. That hasn't happened. There were no riots in the streets, there were no assassinations of major public figures. 1968 was the year America lost the last vestiges of its innocence and gave up on hope. 2008 is the year that, just based on the mere fact of an African American being elected President, America has begun to realize that hope never actually died and that fundamental change really is possible. It's like America blacked out for forty years and is suddenly asking itself, “wait, how did I get here?”

It's not 1960. 2000 was really a lot closer to 1960. Kennedy ran to the right of Nixon on foreign policy in order to appease the Cold War fears of the day. Obama actively ran against an on-going war (note of caution: Nixon also ran on a promise to end the war in Vietnam in 1968, so Obama supporters hoping to see an end to the war in Iraq will need to remain vigilant, even during an Obama presidency. Now, Nixon ran on a “secret plan”, while Obama made his plan public. But the point remains: stay on top of this. We haven't won this fight until the last man is out.)

You could make a case for 1952. General Eisenhower ran against Governor Stevenson, who was burdened by being from the same party as the very unpopular President Truman. There was an unpopular war in Korea from which the public was largely disengaged. Neither candidate was a sitting President or Vice President, and that's actually the last time that has happened. Mostly, however, Stevenson was burdened by the simple fact of not being Eisenhower, much the way McCain was burdened by the simple fact of not being Obama. But ultimately, Eisenhower's election was an affirmation of people's approval of his performance in World War II and an easing of their concerns of having a dovish Adlai Stevenson as President in the midst of the Cold War. In 2008, the American people have simply said, as the Wisconsin state flag does, “FORWARD”. Obama's election is not about what he has done, but about what people hope he will do. Indeed, that has largely been the greatest criticism of his campaign. What's he done? What's he accomplished? The answer really is, “not much... yet.”
I'll end with another year people have compared it to: 1932. In that year, people voted Herbert Hoover out of office in favor Franklin Roosevelt. This has mostly been based on the economic issues of the day, which even a superficial analysis will show are not as dire today as they were then, mostly thanks to the safeguards which were put into place by Roosevelt in the years following. People have raised the possibility of a generation of Democratic Presidents similar to the generation of Roosevelt and Truman. But again, this is faulty. What we're seeing is not a rejection of Republicans per se, but a rejection of politics as usual, which is to say a rejection of, once again, “trust me” politics. If Democrats expect the American people to simply go back to sleep after this election and simply go along with everything they do, they're in for a big surprise. The Republican party will return as a legitimate force in national politics within the next eight years. I'll caveat that by saying that it will be longer if the evangelicals manage to make Sarah Palin the standard-bearer of the party. The Republicans can no longer cheaply win elections by appealing to the worst in people. The gratuitous use of Obama's middle name to score cheap political points didn't work this time around. That in of itself should send them a signal: they can't use those types of dog whistles anymore. They're going to have to stop being lazy and win on the merits of their ideas, and that means they're going to have to actually come up with some new ideas. Supply side economics isn't a winning policy position anymore. They're going to have to retool and come up with something new. If they don't, then yes: we'll see a generation of Democratic Presidents. If they do, then I think we'll see a purge of the business-as-usual Democrats who've only managed to stay in power because they're not Republicans. That means you, Harry and Nancy. You're on notice: if you don't recognize the winds of change all around you and adapt to them, you'll be swept away by them eventually, too.

And let that serve notice to our President-elect, as well. We're not looking for another Clinton administration of small, incremental change. We're looking for fundamental change: a new New Deal. Think big. Act bigger. And most importantly, listen to the people. I'll give you a name of someone who's been really good about that: Russ Feingold. Bring him into your administration. He's been in the Senate for sixteen years and hasn't lost touch with the reasons he came to Washington in 1992. You can learn a thing or two from him if you're really interested in changing Washington instead of being changed by it.

But what of the historical context? How do we place this election in the larger scheme of things? Has a man who belongs to a race of people who were once enslaved by his nation ever been elected its leader? When viewed in that context, this election is almost Arthurian. But we can't afford those types of mythical comparisons. This isn't a story book we're reading: it's real life. That means that we simply have to admit that we have no idea where this is going, and if for no other reason than that, we all must stay engaged in the navigation of our ship of state for the next four years.


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