[People are still arriving here because they have received an email on the current state of America. If you are curious about my own views of the origins and consequences of the current crisis in American life, I recommend this link. However, the email attributed to myself comparing President Obama to Adolf Hitler, is a forgery which I did not write. All visitors may also be interested to read the following post. Meanwhile, here is the best explanation I've found of why that email is so incredibly popular.] For an afterword on the hoax, see the bottom of this post.
War, wrote Mao Zedong,is politics with bloodshed, and politics is war without bloodshed. He was right: the advances of our civilization have depended upon finding non-violent substitutes for violent conflict. I first began to understand this in the 1980s, when I was working intermittently on two different books, one on the case of Sacco and Vanzetti (a project I inherited from a dead friend), and the second on European conflict over several centuries, beginning in 1559. As I studied in detail how the lawyers on both sides of that famous murder case tried everything they could get away with to win (the prosecution, in particular, withheld a lot of exculpatory evidence that today they would have to reveal), I realized that contestants in the legal process would be content with no less, since they have, in effect, submitted to it rather than fight the dispute out by force of arms. Meanwhile, as I showed in Politics and War, Europe from 1559 through 1659 was inherently, continually unstable because the rich, rather than the poor, routinely took the law into their own hands and refused to submit to higher authority--a situation that began to change in the latter half the 17th century. The United States was the first modern nation based entirely upon written laws, and Lincoln in the Civil War argued that the real stake in the war was not slavery, but whether a free government could preserve itself against a violent internal threat. The answer was yes.
Today's struggles, like those of early modern Europe, deal with money, prestige, and even religious hatred. Moneyed interests, represented by our leading industries--finance and health care--are perhaps as powerful in Washington today as they were in the late nineteenth century. Today's battles, like those of the civil war, also involve sectional rivalry. Much of the South lives in a different mental universe that the Northeast and the Far West, as illustrated dramatically in a book I have begun reading, Confederates in the Attic, as well as by the behavior of Southern legislators in Congress or the Justice of the Peace who refused to grant a marriage license to a biracial couple. (He has since resigned.) This is the country that Barack Obama wants to take in a new direction. It is not clear how much of a success will be possible.
Thus, as a vote nears in the House of Representatives, today's papers report that Speaker Pelosi has given in to conservative Democrats who insist that neither the public option (which will not be an entitlement program but will be funded by premiums) or any private plan sold through a government-sponsored exchange will cover abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. (It will be interesting to see if that exemption survives.) That is a concession to very strong religious beliefs, which are prevailing against the law as declared (perhaps unwisely, as a I have noted) by the Supreme Court in 1973 and frequently reaffirmed since. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, the Speaker has been attending fundraisers around the country in the company of some of the health care industry's leading lobbyists. For reasons which I do not understand, she has forbidden even a symbolic vote on the House floor on a single-payer plan. The whole process of designing the legislation, indeed, has largely been a matter of figuring out how much reform the insurance industry is willing to tolerate. Since we can save money only at their expense, this does not leave too much room for optimism about how much a new plan will do to ease the crisis in health care costs about which the President has said so much.
Some weeks ago I saw Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism, A Love Story. It contained some wonderful footage and fascinating material, but I thought it was below his best work (including Sicko) because it was rather frenetic and, actually, contradictory. The movie began with a short love note to the 1950s, including a reference to 90% marginal tax rates, whose proceeds, Moore pointed out, went into schools, hospitals, and interstate highways (although they also went into nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.) But at the end he argued that capitalism needed to be given up and replaced with democracy, a view which I cannot share. Capitalism can be productive economically (although even that is once again in question now), and more important, it seems in the long run to reflect human nature far better than socialism. The best solution is to allow democracy to balance the excesses of capitalism, at which the United States was reasonably successful, I would argue, from the 1930s through the 1970s. The President and much of Congress would now like to restore that balance, but it is not at all clear that they can.
Franklin Roosevelt, to be sure, managed 75 years ago to implement changes far more sweeping than anything Obama is talking about, and in so doing saved democracy, not only in the United States, but ultimately in the rest of the industrialized world. But how did he manage it? Timing is everything, and Roosevelt, unlike Obama, did not reach the White House until our great economic crisis was three years old. Because of that, he initially enjoyed majorities of 318-117 in the House and 61-35 in the Senate--and even some Republicans, in those days, supported many of those reforms. Because the initial burst of New Deal legislation did something to relieve extreme distress, he actually increased those majorities in 1934 to 332-103 in the House and 71-26 in the Senate. (These figures include two left-wing Midwestern third parties, the Farmer-Labor party of Minnesota and the Wisconsin Progressives, in FDR's column.) Those majorities allowed him to pass the Wagner Act, assuring union rights, and Social Security. And in 1936, when he carried 46 of 48 states and won 523 out of 531 electoral votes, he increased them yet again, to 347 to 88 in the House and 79-17 in the Senate. Those majorities were torn about, sadly, by his plan to pack the Supreme Court, but they did allow for the passage of the first federal wages and hours legislation before a Republican reaction occurred in the elections of 1938, two years into another new recession. And ironically, those majorities possible because race, for the most part, was not yet an issue in national politics. Because white supremacy still ruled the south, most southern whites unhesitatingly voted for FDR, whose programs literally saved many of their lives (although they also did what they could, in many instances, to prevent New Deal benefits from reaching blacks.) Because white supremacy has now been overturned, while the Democratic Party has been unable to deliver real benefits for southern whites, they now vote monolithically Republican.
This story does not bode well for Barack Obama's attempts to transform America again. Not only did he begin with considerably smaller majorities than Roosevelt, but he entered office when the bottom of the current economic crisis was years away. Now, last week's elections suggest, Democrats will bear much of the voters' anger over the economy next fall, and increases in their majorities do not seem very likely. Much may happen before then. The President may call for, and the Republicans will undoubtedly try to reject, a second stimulus package, on the very Rooseveltian grounds that the first one simply hasn't done enough. But so far his Administration, reflecting his own personality (similar in this respect to Lincoln's), has striven for relatively moderate solutions to our problems. Like Lincoln, he may find himself forced by events to take a new approach.
My mood about the political scene swings a great deal lately, rather like that of fans watching an athletic contest or soldiers in a battle. That, I realize, is altogether natural, since we are in a struggle for the future of the nation, and the outcome is not guaranteed. And to paraphrase Clausewitz, results in politics, as in war, are never final. Should the current crisis end with another Gilded Age, the new Prophet generation--which could start to be born within as little as ten years--will undoubtedly grow up with a keen sense of its injustices and a determination to set things right. I shall not live to see what they can accomplish, but history tells me that we must accept any outcome within our own lifetimes as temporary, certain that the human drama of the struggle over all our futures will continue as long as the human race.