Before looking at the most important historical parallel to the events of the day, some comments on the stimulus package are in order. While a package of at least the $8-900 billion now being proposed is undoubtedly necessary, we can all agree that we should think carefully about where it is going to go. In my opinion the President, rather than touting it as a “recovery” measure, should say bluntly that we need this bill to prevent things from getting much, much worse. And in particular the Democrats should stick to their plans for massive aid to state state and local governments, most of whom cannot borrow to meet budget deficits. With the private sector collapsing, we need to keep the public sector employed. We do not need cuts in education, police forces, or firefighters at this time. I have more mixed feelings about putting more money into health care, because any meaningful reform, which remains a high priority, will involve spending a lot less on health care, not more. To re-orient the health care sector towards providing the cheapest care, rather than the most profitable, will be a gigantic and completely unprecedented task. The President should use this moment in our history as Lincoln and Roosevelt did—to drive home the message that in a modern society, which the United States would presumably like to remain, government is a necessity rather than a luxury we can do without.
Unfortunately, the President must deal with this situation face to face with the most partisan era, literally, in the history of American politics. During the 1990s Newt Gingrich taught the House Republicans that success depended on absolute party discipline and total obstructionism towards anything a Democratic Administration wanted to do. The loss of 49 House seats—nearly ¼ of their total—in the last two Congressional elections has not changed their minds; indeed the almost complete elimination of Republicans from the Northeast has made the leadership’s life easier. Not one Republican, of course, voted for the stimulus package.
The situation in the Senate is not quite so monolithic, but it is equally unprecedented. The filibuster originated in the Senate as a white southern weapon against civil rights legislation. At no time from 1981 to 1986 or from 1994 through 2006, when the Republicans had a Senate majority, did the Democratic minority try routinely to use the filibuster to require 60 votes to pass any major piece of legislation, although they occasionally did so with respect to judicial appointments. But as soon as the Democrats regained a narrow majority in 2007 this became the Republican SOP. Meanwhile, the total of Republican domestic moderates has apparently shrunk to 3: Susan Collins and Olympia Snow of Maine, both Boomers, and the venerable Silent Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Those three now are just as critical to the passage of any legislation in the 100-person Senate as Justice Anthony Kennedy is to the Supreme Court.
Nothing—literally nothing—like this situation has ever arisen in American politics before. The run-up to the Civil War was marked, not by a complete polarization between the two major parties, but by a split within the Democratic Party between northern moderates and southern slaveholding fire-eaters. Had the war been delayed another ten years, perhaps, Republicans would have entirely taken over the North, but it was not, and Democrats sat in Congress, mostly supporting the war, throughout the conflict, and even gained heavily in the Congressional elections of 1862. Lincoln even chose a Tennessee War Democrat, Andrew Johnson, for his Vice President in 1864, with disastrous long-term consequences.
The situation in 1933 was even more different. The long-term background to Depression politics was the struggle between Progressives on the one hand and free-marketeers like the ones we know so well on th other, and that struggle had been non-partisan from the beginning. Both parties included Progressives and Conservatives, and the New Deal was a bipartisan enterprise from the beginning. Roosevelt to be sure was more fortunate than Obama: the Democrats gained 97 House seats in 1932, and he began with an effective majority of 318-117, and 60-36 in the House. Yet no major New Deal legislation passed without significant Republican support A few minutes of research into the more important votes of the 1933 Congress tell the tale. Bills to legalize beer while the Prohibition amendment was repealed passed the House 316-97 with 73 Republicans in favor, and 43-30 in the Senate with 10. (That would be equivalent to securing between ¼ and ½ of Republican votes for the liberal position on a social issue today.) The Agricultural Adjustment Act, revolutionizing the farm economy, passed with the support of 48 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the Senate, and 32 Republicans and 272 Democrats in the House. The great Tennessee Valley Authority bill—long advocated by Republican George Norris—appealed mostly to agrarian southern Democrats, but it still got 17 Republican votes in the House and several in the Senate. 30 House Republicans voted with 267 Democrats and others to devalue the dollar; 10 Republican Senators joined 46 Democrats to pass the radical National industrial Recovery Act. The Glass-Steagall Banking Act—repealed, under Bill Clinton, with disastrous results—passed the House b a vote of 262-19.
The striking contrast today reflects the appalling extent to which a coalition of tax-cutters, saber-rattlers and race-baiters has taken over the Republican Party. That point emerged clearly last week, when two Republican Congressman had the temerity to echo the President’s criticism of the party’s propaganda minister, Rush Limbaugh, only to telephone him to beg for forgiveness on the air within twenty-four hours. It also, of course, reflects the economic differences between 2009 and 1933: politically we are at a point similar to 1933, but economically we are closer to the situation of 1930 or so. On the one hand, things may have to get worse before Republicans come to their senses; on the other, the bulk of the Republican Party, now largely confined to the poorest and worst-educated parts of the country, is far more in need of enlightenment than it was then.
What Republican rule has meant becomes apparent from an amazing New Yorker piece this week by George Packer, who is making a career chronicling the devastation wrought by conservative folly, first in Iraq, last fall in rural Ohio, and now, in Florida. The piece unfortunately cannot be read on line except by subscribers, but a similar one appears in today’s New York Times. Population growth, home-building, and tourism have fueled the Florida economy for 40-50 years. The cheap money of the last ten years added another dimension—thousands of Floridians became real-estate speculators, living off of flipped properties and home equity loans. They have now been wiped out, and even the migration into the state has stopped. Meanwhile, that Sunbelt paradise, the political playground of another Bush, as a constitution forbidding an income tax. This is the paradise into which Gingrich and his ilk hoped to lead us. It depended on wooing Americans from more productive states, or on forcing them to move by de-industrializing. How all this happened could someday make a fascinating story for a new generation of historians; meanwhile, we must try to climb out. It will take a long time.