Originally posted on Tomdispatch.com
All elections are, in some sense, turning points. They register, however murkily, shifts in popular sentiment. But this recent off-year election has excited more than the normal number of pregnant speculations and, of course, put one question in particular in boldface type: Did it signal the end—or at least the beginning of the end—of the conservative counterrevolution that first gained traction with Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980?
A turning-point election is something special indeed. Everything about the country’s political chemistry changes as its geopolitical makeup is reshuffled, as cities, towns and whole regions start voting in a new way. Suddenly, the normal fault lines in political demography no longer apply as ethnic, racial, gender and socioeconomic groups simply stop voting the way everyone expects them to.
Turning-point elections can inaugurate new distributions of wealth and power. Social classes and elites accustomed to rule find themselves struggling to hold on to or compelled to share power they once felt entitled to wield unilaterally. The whole political economy becomes subject to serious reordering. With so much at stake, such elections can ultimately be the occasions for revolutions in the country’s moral tone, its basic cultural and ideological orientation.
Upheavals of this magnitude make up part of our relatively recent history. Here are a few examples: Pittsburgh and the state of Pennsylvania were fiefdoms of the Republican Party, and of the industrial elite which controlled that party, from the end of the Civil War through the stock market crash of 1929; nor did the GOP electorate there consist solely of industrialists and the middle classes. Hundreds of thousands of industrial workers—Italians, Slavs and other immigrants working the steel mills, coke ovens and coal mines—belonged to that cohort of Republican loyalists as well. Then, in four short years, between 1932 and 1936, both city and state became bastions of the New Deal Democratic Party.
At just this same time, Afro-Americans, who since Emancipation had been steadfast supporters of the party of Lincoln, began voting (where they could) in overwhelming numbers for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and have remained steadfast Democrats ever since. Meanwhile, the South, which had emerged as a one-party region after the Civil War, stayed loyal to the Democratic Party for a century until, in the election of 1968, it began its mass defection to the Republicans.
As late as the 1929 crash and Great Depression, free market ideology, social Darwinian morality, and the political and social pre-eminence of the country’s business elite made up the legitimate foundations of the republic. Within the historical blinking of an eye, however, that legitimacy vaporized in the presidential election of 1932—replaced by the regulatory and social-welfare state of the New Deal with its ethos of social obligation, economic security and industrial democracy.
Turning-point elections that register—and help usher in—such remarkable transformations are rare in American history. Arguably, there have only been three: 1860, 1932 and 1980. The elections of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan—each in its own way—opened the door to fundamental reform. Clearly the abolition of slavery, the overthrow of industrial autocracy and the triumphant counterrevolution against the New Deal with which these three elections are associated qualify as turning points in the grand sense.
Why Does the Ancien Régime Die?
Rare as they are, one might ask why turning-point elections happen at all. Marking as they do the emergence of a new political order, they are, it seems, brought on by a general crisis in the old order, an impasse or breakdown so severe it can no longer be addressed by the conventional wisdom of the political status quo. The secession of the Southern states in 1860 was, of course, such a crisis. So was the Great Depression. So, too, was the convergence of imperial defeat in Vietnam, the overthrow of the racial order of the ancien régime and the de-industrialization of the American heartland. Secession, depression, defeat, these have been the “big bangs” ushering in new political universes.
Systemwide crises prove fatal, first of all, because they exhaust the repertoire of political solutions available (or imaginable) to the ruling circles of the old order. Elites become increasingly defensive and inflexible, so much so that their actions aggravate rather than alleviate the crisis at hand. In the early years of the Great Depression, for example, Andrew Mellon, President Herbert Hoover’s secretary of the treasury, suggested that the way out of the cataclysm was to “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” In doing so, he was falling back on the orthodoxy of his robber-baron ancestors and exposing not only the callousness of the old regime, but its incapacity to do anything constructive about the national calamity.
An exhausted political order does not, however, fall apart and exit the scene simply by virtue of its own downward momentum and social stupidity. Alternatives, embryonic but visible, usually gestate within the old political organism even before its weaknesses become disabling. Before one of the two major political parties emerges to represent a new political dispensation—we are, after all, talking about the United States, where generally everything happens within the claustrophobic confines of the two-party system—battles rage internally for the soul of the party.
So it was that the pre-New Deal Democrats were still run by John Jacob Raskob of the DuPont-General Motors interests and kindred laissez-faire circles among the country’s business elite in the North (together with the Bourbon landlords and new industrialists of the South). But even before the Depression hit, reform-minded elements in the business community and the labor movement were challenging the party’s old guard, coalescing around a program of government regulation, industrial democracy and the development of a mass-consumption economy underwritten by Keynesian-inspired fiscal policy.
Likewise, several years before President Lyndon Baines Johnson abdicated the presidency in 1968 and long before Ronald Reagan’s 1980 triumph, the Barry Goldwater right wing of the Republican Party overthrew, at least temporarily, the Rockefeller moderates who had made their peace with New Deal liberalism and controlled the party since the end of World War II. Goldwater’s vitriolic victory and presidential nomination at the 1964 Republican Party convention made clear that this was far more than an intramural squabble. It pre-figured the end of the New Deal order and signaled that a minority within the Grand Old Party was already prepared to wage an uncompromising struggle against apostates from the conservative credo.
Turning-point elections then are not natural events like hurricanes or tsunamis, occurring in the course of some impersonal cycle of political evolution. Old political orders are supplanted by a willingness to risk party disunity in order to achieve some higher purpose.
When Does the Bell Toll—and for Whom?
Turning-point elections have invariably been presidential elections. (Two others are often included on the short list by scholars—Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828 and William McKinley’s in 1896.) This is commonsensical enough. A vote for a president is, after all, a more straightforward national referendum than voting for hundreds of congressional representatives and senators.
Of course, in everyday life, things seldom prove quite so straightforward. While it is convenient to bookmark change according to the year in which a new president takes office, some of the most decisive changes in political demography and geography, in public policy, in the balance of power or in the moral-ideological profile of the new order have come in subsequent elections, both presidential and off-year.
This is more than an academic point at the moment, because 2006 was, of course, a midterm election. Does this automatically disqualify it as a turning-point one, or can a congressional election measure up too? The short answer is: sometimes.
Arguably, to take one example still in memory, 1966 might be seen that way. Although President Johnson and the Democrats had won a staggeringly overwhelming victory in 1964, the subsequent off-year vote for Congress demonstrated a significant shift to the Republicans in the South and parts of the West, regions that were absolutely critical to the dominance of the old political order.
Southern disaffection with the Democrats had, in fact, already been apparent in the 1964 presidential primary campaign of Alabama’s notorious segregationist governor, George Wallace. It would make itself felt decisively in the presidential election of 1968 when the combined votes for Republican candidate Richard Nixon and Wallace, running on a third-party, states-rights ticket, would account for 57 percent of the popular vote, sending Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic Party to an unexpected defeat. (Indeed, historians might have landmarked 1968 as a turning-point election except for one thing—Watergate—which functioned as a kind of seven-year political coitus interruptus.)
Sometimes, however, off-year elections that looked significant at the time—for example, the Republican capture of both houses of Congress in 1946—end up leaving the political fundamentals intact. In that case, the New Deal order would remain hegemonic for another quarter-century or more.
So too, a mere shift in presidential party affiliation need augur little. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided for two terms in the 1950s, but never thought to challenge the fundamentals of the New Deal. Indeed, it was an Eisenhower era bon mot that Social Security constitutes the “third rail” of American politics, that tampering with it would be an act of political suicide.
Similarly, Democratic President Bill Clinton served twice but accepted the basics of Reagan-era conservatism, memorialized in his boast (which was also a confession) that the “era of big government is over with.” Eisenhower was a Republocrat, Clinton a Democratan. If anything, their administrations indicated just how firmly entrenched the political order of the moment remained, so solidly it could be entrusted to the putative opposition.
What, then, about 2006? At first blush (and lacking a crystal ball), it would certainly be safer to conclude that it wasn’t a turning-point election. The Democratic congressional victory was a slim one, particularly in the Senate; but even in the House, the present 31-seat margin conceals a remarkable number of extremely close individual races that were, in the end, Democratic victories. Moreover, the media, before and after the election, have made much of the fact that a significant number of Democratic winners in both houses belonged to the “Blue Dog” wing of the party; that they were recruited by the party’s leadership and won exactly because they were social conservatives, Republican-lite candidates, only make-believe Democrats.
Nor did the victorious Democrats display a coherent programmatic alternative, however much they emphasized their opposition to Bush administration foreign and domestic policies and the atmosphere of sleaze that surrounded the White House. Differences within the Democratic Party on many issues were visible for all to see.
It would, however, be a gross exaggeration to see in those tensions an embryonic Goldwater-style civil war pitting one form of political economy and worldview—say that of the Democratic Leadership Council—against an insurgency ready to break with the past. There was no Goldwater-like faction armed with its own ideological vision and itching for a fight. You would have to throw into this mix the open question of whether the prevailing political order—the one presaged by Goldwater and inaugurated by Ronald Reagan—actually verges on a more general crisis of legitimacy, the sort of systemwide breakdown that has, in the past, opened the door to something truly new.
The Beginning of the End?
Despite serious doubts about the deeper significance of the 2006 election, there is, in fact, a good case to be made that it may turn out to be one of those rare turning points, or at least a signal that one is looming on the near horizon.
To begin with, polls indicate that the election represented an explicit repudiation of the Republican Party as a party; at least, as explicit as one could possibly expect in a midterm election. Try as they did to argue beforehand that all elections are local, Republican leaders knew that not to be the case, not this time; indeed, that’s precisely why they traipsed around the country vociferously denying what they deeply feared was true.
Under normal circumstances and by its very nature, in the American electoral system—monopolized by two amorphously constituted parties of little distinct ideological or programmatic identity, and with its multiple disincentives to any kind of independent party representation—it is usually excruciatingly hard to register voter sentiment on behalf of a party rather than a candidate. But the election of 2006 was not normal in this regard. There are indications that significant numbers of Americans voted against the Republican Party and, with less enthusiasm to be sure, for the Democratic Party.
Perhaps most tellingly, in numerous races moderate Republicans, who remained quite popular with their constituents and had enjoyed long tenure in office—the best known case is Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island—succumbed to Democrats who were often no more to the “left” than they were. Notwithstanding the inherent fuzziness of what either of the parties stands for, voters seemed ready to conclude that the Republican Party and the administration of George Bush could be fairly associated with the disaster in Iraq, the shameful incompetence and callousness of the response to Hurricane Katrina, the rank and systemic corruption associated with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the crony capitalism of the oil companies and Halliburton. Voting for the Democratic Party was a way of repudiating all that, even if any particular Republican candidate might be blameless.
Then, there is the matter of the “Blue Dogs.” It turns out that rumors of their ascendancy were not so much exaggerated as mischaracterized. True enough, Senate candidates like William Casey in Pennsylvania and James Webb in Virginia were well-known supporters of such social conservative causes as gun ownership or the “right to life.” But these were hardly the issues they ran on. On the contrary, the campaigns of Webb and Casey, not to mention Sherrod Brown’s Senate campaign in Ohio and those of many fellow “Blue Dogs” running for House seats, stressed opposition to the war in Iraq and anger directed at big pharma, big oil, tax breaks for the rich, and free-trade globalization agreements like NAFTA.
Far more often than not, economic populism, not social conservatism, is what lent the Democrats, and in particular the Blue Dogs, an edge. This same sentiment could be felt, both before and immediately after the election, in the overwhelming support for a quick congressional move to raise the minimum wage and to empower Medicare to lower prescription drug prices by bargaining with the big pharmaceuticals. Even more remarkable, given the perilous state of the labor movement, is the emergence of a House majority in favor of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for millions of workers to join unions, a development critical to shifting the balance of political and economic power.
It would be premature to speak of a fully formed populist/New Deal-like alternative within the Democratic Party or to suggest that people were voting for such a possibility in 2006. Nonetheless, when the Democratic leadership anointed its opening agenda as the new governing party in Congress with the resonant phrase “the first 100 hours,” echoing FDR’s first 100 days, there was nothing accidental about it.
So, too, certain demographic and geopolitical trends that showed up in 2006 are suggestive of changes to come. The Latino vote, which in the 2004 presidential election was relatively evenly divided between George Bush and John Kerry, went a whopping 70 percent for the Democrats this time. And that wasn’t even the biggest percentage shift in voting behavior from the 2004 election in favor of the Democrats. That took place among white, non-college-educated working people who, for some time, have made up the core of the conservative populist constituency of the Reagan counterrevolution. Although all the numbers are not yet in, estimates suggest that about one-half of the shift toward the Democrats came from white working-class voters.
Regionally, the Democratic Party made significant gains in the Rocky Mountain West, while clearing away the remnant outposts of Republicanism in much of the Northeast and driving Republicans from Rustbelt outposts in Ohio and Missouri. The logic of that trend—which doesn’t, of course, mean that it will be realized—is to regionalize the Republican Party in the South. In this way, the southernization of national politics, which was the great accomplishment of the Reagan political order, might be replaced by the southernization of the Republican Party.
Even the early talk about presidential candidates seems portentous. On the Democratic side there is no one to the right of Hillary Clinton, certainly a sign of a shift in the party’s center of gravity. But odder than that is the candidacy of Barack Obama. It seems to signal a thirst for a messiah. Such a quest can be symptomatic of many things, some bad, some not as bad.
Obamaism is a real mystery. Others have already noted that messiahs don’t normally come from the middle as he most emphatically does. Moreover, the charisma that surrounds the prince of banality from Illinois is even harder to decipher, attached as it is to nothing tangible or providential as was Robert Kennedy’s lightning 1968 ascension before his assassination, his candidacy held aloft, rightly or wrongly, by the energies of the antiwar and civil rights upheavals.
Something—though it’s hard to tell what—may be blowin’ in the wind.
Breakdown and Paralysis
Perhaps the better question, then, is: Will the presidential election of 2008 turn out to be a turning-point election of historic proportions. The greatest unknown is whether or not the status quo is headed for a breakdown crisis severe enough to clear the ground for such a transformative moment.
Signs certainly point in that direction. The convergence of imperial defeat, economic insecurity and rampant corporate malfeasance might be enough all by themselves. But the sudden change in the political status of global warming—once the dim, background hum of some far distant disturbance, now more like the heart-stopping premonitory theme music from the soundtrack of “Jaws”—magnifies the crisis of the whole global order, at home and abroad. Anatole Lieven has called it global capitalism’s “existential challenge.” Life as we’ve known it may be beginning to end. Congress is already holding hearings about the natural apocalypse to come, and all but the most ostrich-like politicians acknowledge global warming as an urgent reality; a fact on the ground, so to speak, no longer a debatable theory.
The Bush administration—and so the old order—has staked a lot on Iraq, not just its geopolitical and global economic ambitions. Its already severely diminished status as a moral exemplar of democracy and civil liberties won’t survive this latest plunge into military mayhem. Moreover, the president’s “surge” plan is a mortal threat to the secret source of the regime’s strength at home. The politics of fear and imperial bravado, which once won it legions of followers, may, in the aftermath of the surge, reach its own turning point as those voters abandon ship as fast as they once climbed aboard. Can the administration or the old order survive a fiasco of such proportions?
Iraq is also the equivalent of a budgetary bunker-busting nuclear device. It exacerbates an already aggravated economic dilemma. Despite a Noah’s flood of statistics that seem to support a Pollyana-ish view that we live today in the best of economic good times, millions of Americans experience the opposite—a yawning gulf of insecurity affecting their health, retirement and employment prospects. They share a gloomy sense of moving backwards, of decline.
Once upon a time, poverty was associated with the super-exploitation of those who toiled for meager reward. Then, in mid-20th-century America, poverty came to be associated with the lack of work, with those so marginalized they were shut out of the main avenues of modern commerce and industry. Nowadays, we are rushing back to the 19th century. Today, 30 million people in the United States work long and hard and still live in poverty.
Insecurity even more pervasive than this once supplied the energy responsible for supplanting laissez-faire capitalism with the New Deal. Might we be approaching something of that scale and scope today? Though there can be no definitive answer to this, there also can be no question that a general crisis of economic insecurity confronts the old order. All of its self-serving and adventitious rhetoric about the heroics of risk fall on increasingly deaf ears.
Not incidentally, since we live in the age of the global sweatshop, that older order is now global in scope; and the international financial mechanisms that so far have kept the global system humming for the U.S. are themselves under great and increasing strain. The system is, at present, being kept aloft by the needs of China, Japan and other major economic powers. One day soon they may find the burden of swallowing gargantuan amounts of U.S. debt insupportable.
Are we heading toward a breakdown like the one which, in the early 1970s, forced the Nixon administration to scrap the Bretton Woods financial system, the defining economic institution of the postwar Pax Americana? Together with defeat in Vietnam, the devaluation of the dollar and the end of fixed exchange rates for international currencies exacerbated the general impasse in which the New Deal order then found itself.
When it comes to the social reputation of our corporate elite, is it necessary to say anything more than Enron? The litany of shameless profiteering, felonious behavior, cronyism and corruption at the apex of the private economy has arguably called into question the “right to rule” of those presiding over the country’s key economic institutions. Even at the regime’s hubristic height following Bush’s presidential victory in 2004, he discovered he’d crossed a bridge too far in his attempt to turn over the Social Security system to Wall Street. Trust in the corporate elite has only grown frailer since then. Cynicism mixed with rage is a potentially explosive brew that fuels the economic populism even someone as “establishment” as James Webb articulated in his alternate State of the Union address.
What may make these converging dilemmas over-ripe for change is the response of the old order itself. One sign that some decisive crisis has arrived is the growing incapacity of those in charge to adapt—as if the dire nature of what’s happening dries up the springs of their political imaginations, forcing them to fall back on brittle orthodoxies. Andrew Mellon’s notion of liquidating everything in sight as a way out of the Great Depression was one case of mental paralysis, a retreat to what had once “worked”; after all, the periodic busts endemic to the laissez-faire capitalist life cycle had, in the past, always cured themselves, even if the “cure” included a great deal of what we would today call “collateral damage.” The Bush administration is similarly falling back on its own orthodoxies, each move only betraying just how out of touch its top officials are with the new political and social realities forming around them.
Take its reaction to the stunning electoral defeat it suffered last November. The president’s new “surge” plan, the self-destructive decision to forge ahead in Iraq without a scintilla of reasonable hope of success, even from the standpoint of the most cynical imperialist, is such a reaction: instinctive, unreflective, inflexible and probably deeply believed in. In other words, there is a resort to the ideological fixations that have long-driven this regime—and the larger political order from which it rose—but which only become ever more rigidified as reality bites back.
So, for another example, the administration’s response to the crisis of economic insecurity has amounted to an ideological provocation shoved right in the teeth of its own electoral repudiation. Bush proposed a massive cut in Medicare and Medicaid and, even more in-your-face than that, a tax on the health insurance of those dwindling remnants of the New Deal order who still enjoy some decent level of employer-funded healthcare.
Everything the old regime can imagine to defend itself ends up making things worse. With some poetic license, one is reminded of an inversion of that old Marxist axiom in which the capitalists, not the proletariat, become the gravediggers of capitalism.
The Open Door
Of course, that is a gross exaggeration. The question of the moment is not: Will 2008 be a turning-point election, but rather can it be one? Here, everything depends not on what the old order does on its own behalf, no matter how boneheaded, but on how the gathering forces of opposition respond to the system’s crisis. Is there a willingness to build a clear, programmatic alternative inside the Democratic Party? It is, after all, an institution deeply infected with free market/free trade ideology and most of the imperial presumptions of the conservative counterrevolution.
Is there a readiness to mobilize around nonmarket solutions to the general crisis: To fight openly for the re-regulation of the economy and its planned re-industrialization; for its re-unionization; for redistributive policies to supplant the ide fixe of economic growth; for the dismantling of the petro-industrial complex and its replacement by a new, non-fossil-fuel system of energy production; for a global assault on the global sweatshop?
Will there be a new era of polarization rather than centrism, partisanship rather than bipartisanship, a head-on confrontation with the Democratic Leadership Council, like the guerrilla wars once waged against the John Jacob Raskob and Al Smith elite of the pre-New Deal Democratic Party or the one waged by the Goldwater legions against the silk-stocking Rockefeller Republicans? Once upon a time, someone as mild-mannered as Franklin Delano Roosevelt found it within himself to “welcome the hatred” of those he labeled “economic royalists.” Might there be someone equally unafraid waiting in the wings today?
Is there a new order being born, ready to challenge the old one where it is both weakest and also strongest: namely, in the imperial arena? Not only has global aggression proved deadly to all, depraved in its moral consequences, and life-threatening to basic democratic principles and institutions at home, but it has also been the most fruitful, life-giving incubator of the conservative cultural populism which the old order has relied on for a generation. Anti-World War I intellectual Randolph Bourne’s prophetic aperu—“War is the health of the State”—needs to be made even more embracing: War has become the health of a whole political culture, not to mention the vast, hard-wired military-industrial apparatus with which it lives in symbiotic bliss. Is there a will to take on that system of cherished phobias, delusional consolations, and implacable interests?
Finally, there is the X factor, most unknowable of all, but also most critical in converting a mere election into something more transformative. Might a social movement or movements emerge from outside the boundaries of conventional politics, catalytic enough to fundamentally alter the prevailing metabolism of political life? Might the mass demonstrations of immigrants portend something of that kind? Might the antiwar movement soon enter a period of more sustained and varied opposition in the face of this administration’s barbaric obtuseness? Straws in the wind as we race toward 2008.
Steve Fraser is co-founder of the American Empire Project and editor at large of the journal New Labor Forum. He is the author of “Every Man a Speculator; A History of Wall Street in American Life” and most recently co-editor of “Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy.”
© 2007 Steve Fraser
Originally posted on Tomdispatch.com