With two days to go before the election, the evidence is mounting that the United States faces the third great turning point in its history as a nation. As William Strauss and Neil Howe have pointed out in their vitally important works Generations and The Fourth Turning, great crises in American political life occur roughly every eighty years—first in the era of the Revolutionary War and the Constitution, then during the Civil War, and then in the Depression and in the Second World War, which created the now-vanishing world in which every American under 62 has spent his entire life. (For more on their theories and their books, see www.fourthturning.com, where I have been a frequent contributor.) The election pits two entirely different philosophies against one another. On the one hand, the Democrat John Kerry wants, essentially, to continue building upon the achievements of Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, with a nod to Bill Clinton’s remarkable budget-balancing achievements. On the other, George W. Bush wants almost entirely to undo the work of the twentieth century, vastly reducing public services, effectively ending environmental regulation, reducing or eliminating progressive taxation, privatizing social security, and essentially substituting faith for reason as our guide. Abroad, meanwhile, he has already junked 60 years of multilateralism and commitment to international law in favor of a belief in the efficacy of unbridled American force. These changes are so dramatic that many in the major media refuse to believe they are taking place. Richard Cohen of the Washington Post has expressed astonishment at his many friends who see catastrophe lurking if Bush should be reelected, and when Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind told Chris Matthews that many Bush supporters see the President as a messenger from God, Matthews exclaimed, “Oh, come on!” –prompting Suskind to exhort Matthews to get out of Washington and see what was happening in the rest of the country.
The wholesale repudiation of the beliefs of our educated elite at the highest levels of our government—amply documented in Suskind’s recent New York Times Magazine article—does come as a shock, but Strauss and Howe’s historical scheme helps understand how it has happened. Nor is it without precedent in western history, as something quite similar happened in Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century. Every great crisis has winners and losers—and losers, as every sports fan knows, have longer memories and bigger incentives than winners. Bush, Karl Rove and the rest of the Republican establishment have managed to forge a coalition of the losers in both of our last two national crises—the business interests who resented the New Deal, and the white Southerners who have never been fully reconciled to the effects of the Northern victory in the civil war. Meanwhile the bi-coastal elite has made the natural but critical mistake of taking its parents’ victories for granted and assuming that nothing, really could change very much. The new conservative coalition, which initially emerged between the 1960s and the 1980s, now may be poised to set the direction of American life for most of our children’s lifetimes.
The New Deal, combined with the Second World War, created the most progressive tax structure in American history, and in the 1950s and early 1960s—a period of sustained economic growth—the top marginal income tax rate had reached 90%. Meanwhile, labor unions dominated the industrial work force and insured, until 1973, that workers’ income would continue to increase relative to the rest of the population. Corporate America had to live with these changes, and some more enlightened business leaders accepted them as the price of civic order, but by the 1970s the top rates had fallen and a tax revolt was beginning. Foreign competition was also making heavy inroads in critical areas like automobile production, and this in the long run was going to weaken the standing of American workers. But the real corporate offensive against both taxes and workers’ rights began, of course, in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, and the erosion of the union movement has been dramatic since then. The US Government had been pushing free trade since the late 1930s, when the United States was industrially supreme, and in the 1990s further extensions of free trade, most notably through NAFTA and agreements with the Chinese, essentially destroyed much of our high-wage industrial economy—and the most important part of the New Deal voting coalition along with it. With three days to go to the 2004 Presidential election, Michigan has become a toss-up—something that would not have happened, in my opinion, if Democratic legislators and administrations had done more to prevent the collapse of American industry that Michael Moore documented in Roger and Me. Accustomed to ruling and comfortable in Washington, the Democratic leadership apparently forgot where its votes came from.
Republicans, meanwhile, could not openly repudiate the principles of the New Deal—that the government owed the people the assurance of jobs that paid living wages. Supply-side economics came to the rescue, arguing not that great fortunes merely represented the survival of the fittest (the view of post-Civil War Republicans), but that they would benefit the rest of the country. (The Republicans’ need to pretend that their policies have the opposite effect that they actually have is one of the chief causes of the degradation of American political life. It has culminated in George Bush’s campaign stump speech, which argues that all the beneficiaries of his tax cuts are job-creating small business owners.) Officially we are seeking the same goals by more efficient means. Actually both the relative and the absolute bargaining power of working-class Americans are continually eroding, and the gap between executive pay and worker pay has increased by one or two orders of magnitude. Meanwhile the economic rights of retirees are being stripped away as well, as guaranteed pensions are eliminated from most private employment. Ironically, the diminishing resources of the elderly are bound to create a crisis in the economy of the Republican Sunbelt eventually, but that may take another decade or two.
Corporate America is now stronger in Washington than it has been since the 1890s, and stands for the most part firmly behind the Administration. The broadcast media are either firmly in the Republican camp or too intimidated to take it on directly. The print media, where rationality is still prized, remains more faithful to earlier traditions, and Kerry commands far more newspaper endorsements, but even there, several publishers (such as those of the Denver Post and the Chicago Tribune) have overruled their editorial boards and insisted on backing Bush. The corporate elite has been doing what it naturally does, trying to amass more wealth—and the restraints against it have gradually come down. It has now become the biggest single pillar of the Republican Party.
While corporate America funds Bush (and is rewarded in return), the foot soldiers who provide the votes come, in their largest numbers, from the white South and (in smaller numbers) from the Plains states. To understand how this has happened we must go back even further, to the aftermath of the civil war.
Few historical forces equal the strength of bad conscience. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the white elite of the Confederacy sought both to re-establish its power and to prove the justice of its principles by keeping freed slaves in a position of permanent civil and economic inferiority. But the southerners continued to see themselves as the exploited losers in the conflict, and between 1933 and 1945 they aligned themselves with northern workers as part of the New Deal coalition. In return, Franklin Roosevelt made no major moves to challenge white supremacy. And the South benefited considerably from the Second World War and the Cold War, since senior southern legislators managed to make sure that a substantial part of the new military-industrial complex was located inside their region.
The northern Democratic embrace of the civil rights movement in 1948, of course, began to crack the solid South, beginning with the candidacy of Strom Thurmond. But the Democratic retreat became a rout, as President Lyndon Johnson privately predicted, after the voting rights act of 1965. Since then only two Democratic southerners, Jimmy Carter (once) and Bill Clinton, have managed to win any southern electoral votes at all—and Al Gore, another southerner, was unable to repeat that performance in 2000. Johnson was right—by signing the Voting Rights Act, he turned the South over to the Republican Party for a generation.
These results suggest an unpleasant truth—that the whites of most of the old Confederacy have never accepted full equality for black citizens. But the civil rights movement has had other sad and ironic results as well. Because many southern whites refuse to send their children to school with blacks, segregation is at near-1950s levels in much of the rural south, such as the Mississippi Delta. Because white voters apparently are disinclined to fund public black schools as well as private white ones, spending on public education remains very low, and the anti-tax movement is extremely popular in the South. And that philosophy has now been introduced into our national life by the Bush Administration. The underfunded No Child Left Behind Act, as currently administered, will result in the discrediting of thousands of public schools and accelerate a movement towards private ones among better-off Americans. Meanwhile, the testing movement, by focusing on math and reading, seems designed to produce a generation of poorer children whose intellectual skills will be just sufficient to hold down jobs at Wal-Mart. The cost of higher education has increased by 2.5 times, controlling for inflation, in the last forty years. All around the country, even once-great state universities like Michigan and North Carolina are being crippled by budget cuts.
There remains, of course, the third pillar of the new Republican coalition, the cultural one. This too is a key to Republican strength in the South, the Midwest and the Plains states, and it has been the hardest for blue-zone Americans to take seriously. Much of it has come in reaction to the sexual liberation of the last few decades, which a vocal and increasingly powerful minority of Americans have never accepted. But more generally, the Republican cultural assault involves a new emphasis on faith and an attack on science and rational analysis in general that seems to have reached the highest levels of the government. George Bush’s disdain for factual analyses is well known, and American scientific authorities have frequently branded his whole Administration as unwilling to acknowledge accepted science in a variety of fields.
The United States was a child of the Enlightenment and has traditionally valued its trust in science and inquiry, but reason, alas, seems destined to remain what David Hume (himself an Enlightenment figure) called it more than two centuries ago: the slave of the passions. Reason, indeed, which was probably never more supreme in American life than around 1950 or so, has been under attack in the academy since the 1960s, with fairly disastrous results in the humanities and social sciences. If postmodernists no longer feel bound by objective truth, why should their counterparts on the right? As I pointed out in my last post, reverence for truth was a casualty of the Left’s war on the establishment in the Vietnam era—which divided the left, perhaps fatally, for the rest of our lifetimes. (To be sure, the establishment discredited its own respect for the truth by beginning and continuing the war in Vietnam, but the younger generation went much further down that path. )The Right has followed along, with devastating impacts on American life.
Who can be surprised, really, that so many Americans are no longer voting with their heads? In 1932 both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt made long speeches of astonishing factual complexity to show that they understood the country’s problems. During the last thirty years we have steadily sunk into a sound bite culture. How many Americans know how much the federal government spends every year, or what the deficit is? How many have a real sense of the recent economic changes in American life? How many could name the leaders of Congress, or actually follow the progress of legislation? In a famous and telling moment late in the 2000 campaign, Cokie Roberts suggested that Al Gore’s reference to the Dingell-Norwood Bill would turn off voters, because it was “Washington speak.” A well-known journalist for a major network, whose father had been a Congressional leader for decades, now regarded a knowledge of what was actually happening in Washington as something for a candidate to hide. With such opinion leadership, we cannot expect much from the American people.
And thus, it is possible, though hardly certain, that a Bush victory on Tuesday might indeed usher in an entirely new era in American life—one marked by an increasingly weak state, a shrinking safety net, a return of elderly poverty on a large scale, and a division of the country into a rich elite and a mass of insecure workers that would bring a smile to the face of Karl Marx. It would not be the first time that a western nation had taken a big step backward. Eighteenth century England had established the rights of man and a form of religious toleration. Its social life was frankly hedonistic and licentious; its politics, though largely limited to the aristocracy, were extraordinarily free; and religious belief had become a mere formality. Many leading Englishmen wanted to move towards democracy in the mid-eighteenth century, and but for George III, they might have. His rule, however, and the general reaction to the American and French revolutions, led England away from democracy and open inquiry and towards tighter aristocratic rule, a far greater role for the Church of England, and a more rigid and unequal class structure than ever in the first half of the nineteenth century, as the effects of the industrial revolution were first being felt. Only the Union victory in the American civil war, which the whole western world saw as a victory for democracy over aristocracy, reversed the trend.
It is possible that we are not destined for a new Victorian age. Even without a Kerry victory on Tuesday, Democrats and rationalists may yet find new energy and manage to reverse the tide. But to do so, they will need causes to rival the economic and religious totems of the Republicans. Merely standing for the status quo of the second half of the twentieth century is not enough. The losers in our last two crises have been in the ascendant for twenty years because they cared enough to do anything to win. That is the eternal advantage of those who have been denied victory for too long, and it is a far more powerful influence in history than we have generally recognized.
Note to readers: This rather lengthy post shall be the last one for at least two weeks. By then things shall look considerably different.