The role of rationality in human behavior has been a theme of these commentaries from the beginning and seems likely to remain so. I have been fascinated with it, in one way or another, since the beginning of my historical studies. Most wars, I have had occasion to conclude in several books, were fought to achieve goals that would not have justified their costs, even in the cases where they were achievable at all. The idea that the accumulation of data could yield scientifically valid conclusions about human behavior—an idea that became so popular in the late nineteenth century—faded into the background, not least in my own historical profession, in the twentieth. And during the last thirty years our political life has been dominated by a growing air of unreality. The Bush aide who told Ron Susskind in 2003 that the United States was now an empire and created its own reality was merely being honest about the process by which the Republican ascendancy had been established. Very little of what Republicans say about Ronald Reagan, for instance, is true: he did not cut taxes, his Presidency taken as a whole was not an era of unusual economic growth, and he probably made no more than a marginal contribution to ending the cold war. But Republicans have shifted the terms of public debate a long way to the right and their triumph is still visible in today’s newspapers.
“Opponents of President Obama’s proposal for a sweeping new government activism in the economy,” the Times of February 28 noted, “call it a return to a traditional tax-and-spend philosophy, a step back to the era of Lyndon B. Johnson.” Heaven forbid that we should go back to an era in which federal deficits were a negligible proportion of GNP (and disappeared entirely in Johnson’s last budget, at the height of the Vietnam War); when Americans saved 8.6 % of their income and spent 1.78% of it on interest payments, rather than saving less than half a percent of their income and spent 2.25% of it on interest, as they did in 2007; when states spent far more on their university systems than on their prison systems, priorities which have now been reversed even in some of our largest states; when the trade deficit, though already a source of some concern, was probably less than one-tenth of what it is today in real terms; and when we had the world’s leading industrial economy. Perhaps Republicans remember the Johnson Administration as an American nadir because it did represent the low point in their political fortunes; only once, in 1936, has a Republican presidential candidate performed as badly as Barry Goldwater in 1964, and the Democrats had enormous majorities in Congress. There is no reason, however, for average Americans to think of that era in the same way.
So what emotions, exactly, have been more powerful than reason? The Boom generation is above all an emotional generation, determined since the mid-1960s to get in touch with the deepest, most instinctual human feelings with the help of freer music and freer sex. All of that was a perfectly natural reaction to the antiseptic world of the mid-20th century—but why did it coincide with a swing to the Right? What emotions have driven our politics? One, undoubtedly is fear—the fear of certain feelings, especially sexual ones, which pervades large swathes of our society even today. Another, of course, is greed. But perhaps the single most important is the competitive instinct that more than anything else has driven our politics. Republican political consultants in the 1970s and 1980s, led by Richard Viguerie, gleefully built a coalition based upon resentment, from white southerners’ resentment of the civil rights movement to religious conservatives’ resentment of women’s and gay rights—and better-off Americans’ resentment of taxes. Conservative intellectuals, angry at their exclusion from much of the media and university life, showed no compunction about alliances with religious fundamentalists. All this served one purpose: to win. And just as Japan and Germany in 1939-41 never seriously analyzed whether expansionist wars could actually solve their economic problems, the Republican leadership never felt it necessary to think about the consequences of heightening social resentments, creating endless deficits, and undertaking very dubious wars—because these things helped them win elections. John Diullio and Paul O’Neill, the first two Bush Administration officials to leave their posts and spill the beans, were serious conservatives—and they were shocked by the complete lack of interest within the White House in anything but politics. More recently Scott McClellan revealed that after 9/11, all Karl Rove could talk about was how the new situation could be used to win the elections of 2002 and 2004. Winning wasn’t everything, it was the only thing.
My comparison with Germany and Japan may offend some people but it actually reflects the enduring strength of our society. Yes—and I don’t think anyone who watches Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary, Right America, could doubt this—we have enough resentment abroad in the land to have created some kind of totalitarian movement. Human nature being what it is, we should not be surprised. But thanks to the Founding Fathers, our struggle has been carried out at the ballot box (albeit with the help of some major irregularities in 2000), not with terror and intimidation. The Boomers have done enormous damage, but not so much as their fellow Prophet generation the Transcendentals (born from the early 1790s to the early 1820s), who gave us the Civil War. And now we have elected a President who is consciously trying to leave behind the excesses of the last 40 years: to base his policies on rational analysis, to reject crass emotional appeals, and to show Americans that government can play a key role in their lives. It is no wonder that the opposition feels so threatened; their whole world view is indeed at stake.
The President’s handling of the Iraq withdrawal which he announced on February 27 seems characteristic of his overall approach. Lincoln for nearly 18 months enraged northern abolitionists by failing to make slavery the key issue of the civil war but issued the Emancipation Proclamation at a critical moment in late 1862. Obama will take about the same time to withdraw our combat brigades from Iraq, but he has stated, critically, that a complete withdrawal will follow a year later. His speech at Camp LeJeune was somewhat reminiscent of de Gaulle’s approach to Algeria: he announced that, having achieved our major objectives, we could let the Iraqis take charge of their destiny, recognizing that the process would be a difficult one. While recognizing that we will take time to get to the finish line, he left no doubt of the goal. It’s a welcome contrast to the Bush Administration, which for six years continually promised dramatic results in Iraq within six months.
Sadly, we must not expect the era of extreme partisanship to come to an end. The first research paper I wrote in graduate school involved reading through the Congressional Record at the very end of the last Crisis, in 1944-6. Partisan debate then was far more acrimonious than it was in 1971, when I was doing the research. The Congress included everything from bigots and anti-Semites from the South on the one hand to one or two actual Communists from the Northwest on the other, and they spoke to one another in blunt language. It will be another 25 years, probably, before the Congressional civility of the 1954-80 period returns. And by then, all America will be more than ready for it.