14 years of acquaintance with Strauss and Howe's books prepared me for the current crisis in American life, but could not (by the nature of their theories, actually) predict exactly what form it would take. They proposed an organic theory of atrophy, death and rebirth--but the new United States now being born was as unpredictable as the personality of a new child, since it will carry, in one way or another, all our DNA in combinations we cannot predict. Meanwhile, the two previous crises in our national life--the Civil War and the Roosevelt era--provide some basis for comparison. We are off to a most depressing start, and health care reform is beginning to look like the first Battle of Bull Run, but the struggle is going to be a long one.
That we are seeing a battle of reason against emotion is becoming clearer and clearer. The President, as Paul Krugman pointed out this morning came to office believing that he could inspire a change in the tone of our politics so that we could work together to solve our very real problems. He has failed to do so, albeit through no fault of his own, because he faces a Republican opposition that has defined him and all his plans as evil by nature. Anyone who doubts this should simply listen to one hour of Rush Limbaugh. Since in his view Obama is determined to establish a dictatorship, there is no reason to believe anything that the President actually says, much less to acknowledge that he might (for instance, with the cash-for-clunkers program, which has actually given the Ford motor company a huge boost) have done some good. Millions of Americans obviously share that view--and did before Obama ever took office, as illustrated by the fraudulent email, first published the week after the election, that has brought many of you here. Nor is this all. Today's Times also included a fine piece of front-page journalism on the origins of the "death panel" rumor. That rumor had nothing to do with the text of the health care bill--it began months before one was written, fueled by the simple belief that since Obama favored abortion rights he must be in favor of genetic culling and euthanasia as well.
Sarah Palin's endorsement and inflation of that rumor, by the way, can be matched with another piece of information that surfaced this week that confirms what she really is: a professional hate-monger who enjoys being as inflammatory as possible. That information, published in a new book about the 2008 campaign, is a sequence of text messages between her and the McCain campaign staff (who apparently designated her as agitator-in-chief while keeping the candidate on the high road, in the best Eisenhower/Nixon and Nixon/Agnew manner.) The sequence--featured this week by Gary Trudeau on his Doonesbury site--follows.
"[Obama] is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country."
-- text sent to Sarah Palin by McCain staff during '08 election
"Yes yes yes. Pls let me say this!!!"
-- Palin's e-mailed response
"It was awesome."
-- Palin, in another e-mail after delivering the lines
How could such a person resist the idea that the President wanted to put her child to death?
Now the impact of the "death panel" campaign does not bode well. Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee, identified this week in yet another Times story as the place where the real health care negotiations are happening, now want to drop the actual proposal, which simply would have require to pay for an end-of-life consultation if patients desired one. Today Limbaugh immediately jumped triumphantly upon this--how could the death panels have been dropped if they had never existed in the first place? In addition, the media are not helping matters, because the hostile protests at town hall meetings, rather than the content of various proposals, have now become "the story" of the hour. The Times (yet again) contributed to this on Wednesday. On the previous day the President had held a town hall in New Hampshire while Arlen Specter held one in central Pennsylvania. Specter's made page 1 while the President's was buried inside--the only possible reason being that Specter's crowd was much more hostile. This plays into the hands of the Republicans, who enjoy provoking outrageous behavior, which in turn allows them to complain that they are being misrepresented by the media (which Limbaugh now refers to as the "state-run" media.) That the atmosphere of the meetings, rather than the content of the bill, has taken over the news represents a major Republican victory.
It seems quite possible that all this may culminate in actual acts of violence. Another piece of required reading this week is the report of the Southern Poverty Law Center on the resurgent militia movement, now more closely allied than ever to white supremacists in the wake of Obama's elections. Armed men have been showing up at town hall meetings.
Meanwhile the President continues to try to remain largely above the fray. Krugman's column today, linked above, argues clearly that this simply cannot work. This is a classic generational divide. Krugman, like me, is a Boomer who enjoys calling a spade a spade rather than a shovel, and whose instincts are to meet fire with fire. That, as I showed a couple of weeks ago, was what FDR did when his achievements only aroused greater and greater hatred. But Obama is a Gen Xer who does not give in to his emotions, and his style may indeed be more appealing to the younger generations, if he can find a way for them to make their weight felt in the health care and other debates. A little-noticed Gallup poll this week showed his popularity increasing to 60%. In last year's campaign for the Democratic nomination Obama proved to that quintessential Boomer Hillary Clinton that he was the smarter and wiser of the two. He may do the same to Krugman and myself, or, he may not.