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The Ballot Heard ‘Round The World

By David Michael Green

November 17, 2008 "Information Clearinghouse" -- -Bush will be gone.

We could stop right there and last Tuesday’s election would be monumental for that reason alone. We would all have very good cause to celebrate for that reason alone.

Of course, there is a lot more, and it’s worth taking stock for a moment of what the moment portends.

Barack Obama won the election by an electoral vote landslide of two-to-one proportions. But, as is usually the case, the winner-take-all nature of that system produces a distortion of what was a much narrower popular vote margin, in this case a healthy but not prodigious six percent. Most reasonably prudent White House occupants (i.e., not George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote in 2000) would interpret that as a signal to hew toward the middle, not a mandate to move boldly in one or another particular directions. My guess is that such a course represents Obama’s general ideological disposition anyhow, further suggesting we’re in for a centrist presidency.

Unless, of course events intercede. And they seem to be. FDR didn’t start out to become FDR, and Obama might wind up charting the same course, and for the same reasons, should this recession-now-becoming-a-depression grow significantly worse.

I don’t know. I don’t think we’re yet in a position – especially with only one or two staff picks under his belt – to know where this guy’s going. But I do think we can still take stock of this election in very significant respects. I don’t know where we’re going, but I think we can at least identify pretty clearly where we won’t be headed anymore. In the regard, I see twelve crucial outcomes emerging from November 4th.

First – and thus proving that there is a god, after all – America’s thirty year experiment in regressive conservatism is over. Those guys – Bush, Cheney, DeLay, Scalia, Gingrich, Rumsfeld, and the rest – they’re toast. Their movement – complete with the war freaks, finance geeks and religious antiques – that shit is over too. They don’t know it yet, which is a good thing. Some of them think that their problem is that they weren’t regressive enough these last years. That’s an even better thing. Many of them believe that America is a fundamentally conservative country. That’s the best yet. Never has a political movement been so exquisitely poised to finish the job of driving itself into extinction. Never has a movement so radically failed at governing by so radically succeeding at campaigning. The regressive movement is over not because its policy prescriptions weren’t tried, but because they were. If you dig torture, war, environmental destruction, fiscal irresponsibility, corruption, incompetence, sexual policing, Constitution thrashing, bungling and arrogance, there is an ideology for you. It’s just that you’re gonna have to live in Appalachia from now on to feel at home with those politics. Otherwise, that ship has sailed, and it will be a generation or more before it returns.

Second, the primary goal of the movement was not achieved, and let us once again praise the lord for that. Ever since Reagan, regressives rightly understood that the ultimate trump cards in American politics wear black robes, meet in secret, possess life terms, and act in ways fundamentally antithetical to democracy. They’re called the federal judiciary. Are those on the right big believers in judicial restraint, like they always say? Yeah, fat chance. Quite the contrary (and imagine that – regressives saying one thing and then doing the opposite!). What these cats figured out from the liberal Warren Court days is where the buck really stops in American politics. So the top goal was never a toad like Bush. The top goal was a toad like Bush who could appoint federal justices like Scalia. The Harriet Miers debacle proves that point. Bush’s support from his own base sank faster than a Russian submarine when he wanted to put someone on the Supreme Court who was merely radically right, rather than ultra-radically right. He learned after that. To date, he has now appointed fully half the federal judiciary, all of them young and scary. But the movement never got their prize, and their numbers on the bench begin to be diluted starting now. Today, the Supreme Court sits precariously balanced, with a bloc of three votes in the center plus one liberal, another bloc of four way to the right, and Anthony Kennedy right in the middle, all ten fingers in the wind, which he well knows is now blowing to the west. That’s not too bad, and it will only get better. Like item number one, this is over. And very, very lucky for us, too. If eighty-eight year old Justice John Paul Stevens had croaked a year ago, that would have meant that for many issues it wouldn’t have mattered who got elected president last week. The right would have cemented an activist, aggressive, mean-ass and solid block of five scary monsters controlling every domain of American politics they would choose to enter. Imagine Scalialand America, and you see what I’m talking about.

Third, the Republican Party is in the garbage can. It may well be over as we’ve known it, and, in fact, it may well even be over, period, someday soon. It is difficult to imagine any way in which the few random centrists still surviving in the party can possibly stand up to the hard right that hijacked the GOP thirty years ago, is not going to let it go, and in fact is now trying to move the party more to the right, not toward the center. The one thing that saves the Republicans from a civil war over their future in the wake of a drubbing like this election is that the first requisite to have a war is that you have to have two sides to fight each other. The GOP doesn’t. There is the Reagan-Bush right, and then there are a handful of stray moderates like Jim Jeffords (left), Lincoln Chaffee (gone), Chris Shays (gone), as well as Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (will go if the party doesn’t move left – and it won’t). The party base will continue to drive the GOP further to the right, alienating voters and the few moderates still remaining, unable to let themselves become anything different. It is now highly conceivable that this party, close to having a lock on American government just four years ago, will either go into extinction, be replaced gradually by another party, and/or become a regional rump party, representing only the Deep South and friggin’ Utah. Good riddance. May y’all turn out to be right that there is a Hell, after all, and may there be a special section there reserved only for Republicans.

Fourth, with luck, the McCarthy/Atwater/Rove/Schmidt style of pig politics is over. That may be too much to hope for, but 2008 was really encouraging in this respect. What explicit poll data and anecdotal evidence both suggest is that the worst practitioners of this swiftboating scum politics not only couldn’t make it work for them this year, but actually lost support by trying. It was quite amusing, really, to see them standing there at the old reliable faucet, turning the crank, leaning into it with all their might ‘til the handle broke off in their hands. But no more would the magic water pour. Indeed, only scorching flame came shooting out the tube. When McCain/Palin called Obama a socialist and a pedophile and a pal of terrorists, that only caused people to vote for Obama. When Elizabeth Dole ran one of the sickest ads ever in American politics, accusing her opponent (and former Sunday school teacher) of taking money from ‘godless’ Americans in exchange for some mysterious and frightening promise, people recoiled in horror. But at the ad, not at its target. Finally, after decades of being fooled, American voters have shown some evidence of sobering up and actually thinking clearly when it comes to the matter of self-governance. The significance of this is huge. The GOP has used anti-communism, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and bogus foreign bogeymen to scare American voters in election after election. Why? Because they had to. They knew their politics would never sell on the merits. Think of what it means, from this point forward, if the (non-) merits are all that are left, now that the facade of fear has been shattered.

My fifth observation is that ideological polarization in America is going to diminish going forward. It never really made sense in the recent past, especially given the peace and prosperity the country was then enjoying. Rather, it was the product of the far right hijacking the GOP, and of the need to mobilize that party’s base. While neither of those factors will now be changing, the more the right and Republicans conduct their campaigns in this fashion, the more marginalized they will be. The mainstream of America, on the other hand, will reject that claptrap as distracting noise from the lunatic fringe, entertaining even, but for the ugly reminders of where we were all too recently. I expect a less polarized, less acrimonious politics going forward. This will be true for three reasons, especially: because Obama truly does have the skills of a conciliator, uniting people around him; because his politics will likely be fairly centrist and will – especially after Bush – seem eminently reasonable and highly welcome to most people; and, because polarization is a luxury this country can no longer afford, with so many crises now breaking over the deck of the ship of state.

Sixth, this election marks the end of a whole raft of regressive policies that were merely pernicious on a good day, but fully predatory most otherwise. These range from Iraq, to taxes, to education, to healthcare, to environment, to reproductive rights, to torture and far, far beyond. Everything Bush touched has been wrecked and ruined in service to his main kleptocratic mission to loot the state, supported by religious-rooted sexual hysteria to keep the shock troops placated, coupled with foreign adventures to satisfy the neocon cabal and provide further opportunities for pillaging abroad. Neither Obama nor a Democratic Congress are likely to be as progressive as progressives want them to be, nor as the country needs them to be (though economic conditions may ultimately force them in the proper direction). That’s a shame, to be sure. But imagine how much it means to simply press the undo key on the last eight years of an epic and epochal crime spree masquerading as the government of the United States. It’s a statement of how deeply we are in it, I readily confess, but nevertheless, I’ll admit that I can get pretty excited about the prospect of simply dismantling the Bush tragedy, without even discussing any proactive change.

Seventh, this election marks the end of America’s moral isolation in the world. Most Americans, historically illiterate as we are, don’t realize it, but there has been a bipartisan consensus in American foreign policy throughout the post-war period, built around notions of international consultation, cooperation, consensus-building, leadership, institution-building and multilateral action. This attitude more or less characterized every American presidency during this period, Republican or Democratic, including that of a certain George H. W. Bush. Only the current Bush administration (and, to a lesser extent, its progenitor, the Reagan administration) has departed from these constraints, substituting arrogance, unilateralism and militarism at every opportunity, and topping those off with destruction of the global institutional architecture ranging from ABM to Kyoto to the ICC to the Security Council and the UN itself. So bad were the results of this madness that even the Bush administration has come to see, very partially, the folly of their ways, and thus changed course a bit in its second term. Obama will not only return America to its natural place in world politics, he will go much further in the direction of international cooperation, and our allies are salivating at the prospect, as if brought to a feast after eight years of starvation. What’s more, just by being who he is, and by following George Bush, Obama will be, and has already begun to be, a walking ambassador of good will throughout the world. Remember how JFK was received in Latin America and beyond? Quadruple that.

Eighth, race relations in America are going to change dramatically. This was already happening in quiet but significant ways through what social scientists genteelly refer to as ‘generational replacement’. In other words, old racists dying off and young tolerant people coming of age. The current generation of young folk has already begun a silent revolution in this respect, departing from their elders by casually accepting and indeed appreciating differences in race, sex, sexual orientation, religion and so on. In the past, these primordial categories have marked hugely significant cleavage lines in American politics. The various civil rights revolutions of the 1950s, 60s and 70s attacked these prejudices head on, and made huge progress in obliterating them, while also leaving tremendous amounts of work still yet to be done. The current young generation is now finishing the job, doing the work quietly in their own hearts and minds, rather than loudly on the streets. Then, of course, there is now also the Obama factor. If this guy has a successful presidency – and I believe strongly that he will, because he is hyper-competent and has incredibly good political instincts to go along with his intelligence and charisma – how ridiculous will racist sentiments then seem? Notions of the superiority of the white race will become as tenable as stories of flying pigs. Again, this will be a quiet change, transpiring internally in personal consciousness above all. But it will be profound. Meanwhile, imagine what the effect of Obama will be on the way African Americans see themselves. After centuries of unavoidably internalizing at least some of the white man’s story describing their self-worth, they will be living and feeling a new narrative of self-respect and pride every minute of every day. There’s a name for this newfound sense of self-worth and self-actualization (and as I write these words I have all at once finally realized why white racists fear Obama, even though his campaign was more silent on race issues than those of many white candidates). It’s called “Yes, we can”. Or, perhaps more accurately, “Yes, we can, honky.”

Societies – especially American society – are diverse and therefore capable of political mobilization along diverse lines. We can have blacks versus whites, gays versus straights, Catholics versus Protestants, urban versus rural, North versus South – all of which have happened in American history at one point or another. We can also have young versus old. That happened not so long ago too, and my ninth observation about the recent election is that it might happen again. Arguably, it should happen. In any case, the tinderbox conditions are there. The young voted far more to the left in this election than did their elders. More importantly, though, there is much fodder laying about by which that schism could be amplified into a structure of political mobilization. Young Americans don’t much seem to realize it yet, but their elders have left them one helluva shitty deal indeed. Not only will this be the first generation not to do better economically than their parents, it is a generation being saddled with enormous debt, foreign policy crises leading to hatred of their country, looming environmental devastation, crumbling infrastructure, economic meltdown and more. There’s no putting it nicely: What happened is that an already greedy society that refused to live within its means became so hyper-greedy that it began stealing from its future, and from its own children. I guess that’s why they call it the Me Generation. Whatever. At some point, though, some young person might start talking the talk of generational political warfare, and mobilize very legitimate grievances along those lines. Luckily for the rest of us, our children so far haven’t caught on yet. God help us and our precious entitlement programs if they do.

Meanwhile, history will record that the politics of our time – especially the last two decades – has been a shamefully immature politics. We are not going to look serious to future generations, and we are not going to look good. If one thinks about everything from the Clinton impeachment to the Terri Schiavo case, the war on drugs to the debate over school prayer, sex education to gay marriage, we’re going to look very foolish indeed, especially considering the gravity of the plethora of very real crises we haven’t been dealing with. There is one especially good reason that we’ll look so foolish. Because we are. The good news – and the tenth item on my list – is that I suspect those days are now over. No more Webelo politics in America. The election of 2008 strikes me as about nothing so much as a sobering of the American polity, and a rejection of the trivialized politics of yore. This seems to me especially true when it comes to Barack Obama, though I think we would have gotten here anyway, chiefly because the real world is getting serious now. When I think of Obama, many terms come to mind – most, though not all, of them flattering. At the top of the list, however, is this: The man is serious.

The eleventh item on my list concerns political participation. This has been, even in its most basic form, dismal for decades and, by some comparative benchmarks, remains so. It’s astonishingly bad when one considers how little this democracy asks from its nominal owners. Like, “Hey, could you show up to a voting booth once every four years and cast a ballot?” In 1996, the percent of Americans who could answer that question affirmatively actually dipped below half. Since then it has been rising, and this year especially, with turnout better than any time since 1908. While that still only represents two-thirds of eligible voters, and is therefore dismal compared to other countries and compared to what it should be, the trend is nevertheless encouraging, as is the motivation behind it. People are voting because they’re angry about what has been broken, and because they want to fix it. That’s good news. And, if the Democrats are halfway smart, they’ll engineer even better news on this front. This country desperately needs national legislation to address a broken electoral system, starting with automatic registration of voters by the government, and including paper ballot systems that cannot be scammed, massive jail-time penalties for disenfranchisement of voters, and modifications to make it easier for people to get to polling stations and quicker for them to vote when they do show up. These changes will help institutionalize the welcome trend of increased voter participation. Oh, and one other thing. High levels of turnout are the kiss of death to regressive politics.

The twelfth and last item on my list concerns the nature and quality of our public discourse in these last decades. So much of it has been built around importunings from the darker angels of our souls. It’s been pathetic, frankly, to see the most decadently wealthy and obscenely powerful country in the world reduced over and again to indulging in a politics characterized chiefly by fear and hopelessness. Really shameful stuff. Fortunately, those days may now be over. The emotional outpouring from this election felt like a dam bursting open. And that wasn’t so much because of this or that passionate policy preference on No Child Left Behind, or even the Iraq war. Mostly it was people, collectively and individually, breathing again, believing again and hoping again. You don’t have to have been a clean and smiling extra in an Obama campaign commercial see that. This was a step out of darkness and into light.

In the days ahead, there will be myriad disappointments for progressives, and missed opportunities aplenty. My guess is that the new president will be about as centrist as events and his base allow him to be. I hope I’m wrong about that, and it’s truly too soon to tell (I suppose it would only be fair to let him be inaugurated and actually govern for a month or two before passing judgement, eh?), but if I had to guess now, that’s my sense of it.

Even if that’s how things turn out, however, we should recognize (without being satisfied by) what a major change this represents, and the degree to which we all dodged a huge bullet, even while getting peppered repeatedly by many other lesser but still highly destructive ones. Imagine a second 9/11, for example, and think how little it would have required to transition the US from Cheney to Putin under those circumstances. Eight years of the little dictator was horrific enough – could you imagine our very own President-For-Life, Jefe Arbusto?

But the twelve items listed above are not merely negative victories. Even if only some of these predictions pan out, the America of 2012 or 2016 will be nearly unrecognizable from the swamp in which we’ve been mired since 2000, and all those changes will be for the better.

And they will have hugely salutary effects well beyond our borders as well.

This truly was the ballot heard ‘round the world.

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 ( dmg@regressiveantidote.net ) , 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 .

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