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Friday, March 26, 2010

A new stage--and a new civil war

[I must apologize, to begin with, for accidentally deleting two comments that were posted during the last few days. I am checking in every 48 hours or so to moderate, and this time I deleted them all when I thought I was deleting only one, which appeared to be random spam. Feel free to repost.]

With the speed of a great battle, to continue the metaphor that I relied upon last week, the passage of the Health Care bill has transformed the political landscape. After stumbling about like the Union Army for about a year, the Democratic majority actually passed the first major piece of progressive legislation in almost 40 years. (The last such legislation, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, passed, ironically, under Richard Nixon.) The Republicans, having staked everything on the defeat of the bill, are temporarily in disarray. On Friday President Obama announced agreement on a new arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, showing progress on one of his signature foreign policy issues. Freed of the endless burden of the health care bill, the Administration is moving forward on mortgage relief. Many Democrats now face difficult campaigns, but so do many Republicans--even in primaries.

The long-term threat to the Administration remains the economy, and the commitment of its economic team to a monetarist model. Wall Street is booming once again thanks to a combination of bailouts and near-zero interest rates at the Fed. Once again our financial markets resemble a Monopoly game in which all the players periodically show higher balance sheets because of regular infusions of free cash. I am beginning to believe that this will lead, within several years, to a crash. The Federal Reserve, created in 1913-14 to put an end to the irresponsible excesses of thousands of private banks--the banks that had made panics a regular feature of American life from the 1870s through the 1910s--now seems to be playing the same role that they did. Exactly when the next crash happens, and how the party in power (probably the Obama Administration) reacts to it, will have enormous economic and political consequences

Meanwhile, we are two nations to an extent not seen since the era of the Civil War. How bad things are getting in the red states was just brought home to me by the following anecdote, which took place in a rural area of the old Confederacy. I cannot tell you exactly how it came to my attention and I am changing some details because the family involved has decided, for obvious reasons, that they do not want national or even local publicity; but I have been in personal touch with the mother involved and I have no doubt that the story is true. Here is the gist.

On Monday, a fifth grade boy went to his science class in public school. Okay, folks, I really need to vent. Today an incident happened to my 5th grader at school. The teacher asked the class to raise their hand if their parents supported the new health care bill. This particular boy was the only one to raise his hand. It turns out that his father is a Republican and his mother a Democrat--not an uncommon situation in that part of the world. The teacher then began ranting about the health care bill while other students taunted the boy, pointing at him and shouting "Democrat!", and, in one case, throwing an eraser at him. The teacher told the students that they would not be able to get in to see the doctor because "poor" people would take their children to the doctor every time they coughed. Only slackers
who didn't want to work would, she said, benefit would from the health care bill. To her credit, the mother explained to her son that the actual beneficiaries would be employees at Walmart, the IHOP, and McDonald's, and other low-paid workers. When the mother heard about this she immediately wrote a letter to the teacher, principal, and assistant principal, and complained to the local superintendent.

The next day the boy showed physical symptoms of stress, and his mother sought legal advice. The first attorney she reached said the complaints he customarily received from parents concerned the "leftist agenda" in the schools. A second was more sympathetic but said that there was no basis for a lawsuit. Later than day the principal called, apologized, and said the teacher had been advised not to discuss politics in the classroom, but not reprimanded in any way. The mother has not attempted to contact any local representatives, all of whom are Republicans. The state ACLU, which does not take phone calls, indicates on its web site that it only handles discrimination based on protected categories, of which being a Democrat is not one.

Yet another day later the principal called again. The teacher, he reported, continued to deny what had happened, but had also begun crying in the principal's office for having caused so much trouble, and because, she said, she was very fond of the student in question. The teacher turned out to be 24, in her first year of teaching. In another conversation, the mother convinced the teacher that the social studies class might discuss the incident while studying the civil rights movement, as they are scheduled to do. The family realizes that this story could draw a lot of local, regional or national publicity, but they do not want it, and I don't blame them.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the boy was treated about the way that a Unionist would have been treated in many public schools in the South in 1861--if there had been public schools in that part of the South. This brought home again to me the tragedy of the last half century of Southern history. When the black population was firmly held down by segregation--from around 1890 to 1965--the white people actually fought over economic issues, and southern politics produced men like Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, Huey Long (a true populist, if also a demagogue), Hugo Black, John Sparkman and Lister Hill of Alabama (two liberal New Dealers), and Estes Kefauver and Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee. But from what I can see, the reopening of race as the key issue in southern politics in the 1960s wrecked southern liberalism beyond repair. Public services became inextricably associated, apparently, with helping black people. FDR became a saint by saving the poor people of the South from starvation; Barack Obama is being savaged all over the region for trying to give them health care. I continue to believe that too many of the people, black and white, who might have arrested this trend, have left the region.

It is quite possible that the election of Barack Obama has not actually changed the political views of the inhabitants of this particularly locality, but simply made them more virulent. The election in the fall will be decided in swing communities of which this is obviously not one. The Tea Party movement and the Republicans who are allying with it are counting, in my opinion, on this kind of resentment. It will be catastrophic if they succeed, but inspiring if they fail.


Purple in a VERY red state said...

For anyone who dislikes this trend, as I do, please reach out to candidates from the other side. You may not agree with them on every issue (I certainly don't), but this growing tendency to repress the views of or incite violence against people with opposing views that the red state Republicans are giving tacit approval to is just UGLY and WRONG.

James Camner said...

I read your posts with interest and your comparison to these times with the Civil War era is interesting if not entirely correct.

The truth is, we have been two nations ever since the founding. One nation favored federalism and government solutions, the other did not. The small government faction led by Jefferson, the early Democratic Party, was not entirely based on philisophical purity. It was in their self interest to ensure that no federal institution could interfere with "states rights" which then meant slavery. Even building roads was seen as a dangerous precedent that might interfere with slavery. The Republicans, successors to the Whigs, ended slavery, but they did not bring the two nations and philosophies together. I know I'm not telling a history professor of your stature anything you already don't know.

In the 20th Century, in the South and in the Republican heartland there was always a strong resistance to the New Deal. (My Southern relatives still equate the name of Franklin Roosevelt with the devil.) This resistance to big government is the legacy of the fight between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. There is of course a strong brew of racism added to it, not to mention religious fundamentalism and its denial of science and Darwin. It's still hard to watch "Inherit the Wind" and realize such ignorance remains, even again rearing its head in Texas. Now the militia movement and the fundamentalists appear to be joining together in this new Tea Party movement.

But nothing happening today even remotely compares to the terrible era of Jim Crow, lynchings, or even the ugly and violent civil rights battles of the 1960s. The fact is that we have always been two nations and from time to time, somthing happens to bring the schism to a boil. The election of Barack Obama was just such an event. While it's obvious you admire Obama, you perhaps underestimate his strength and vision: he is a magnificent President, a brilliant man, a student of history, and he knows the problems and challenges he faces. He is Lincolnesque in stature and ability. And he is a remarkable achiever.

Kat said...

I'm sorry to hear about this incident with your son. I'm totally against the Health Care Bill myself, but I would never want to see anyone made into a spectacle like that--not even an adult. I'm hopeful that the young teacher simply needs to mature and is capable of doing so. I hope the boy recovers okay and becomes a stronger person for this.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember the source but I agree with the sentiment:"For a generation now the people from the South have been persuaded to vote against their own best interest as long as benefits are kept from the Blacks."
Lewis Bright

Anonymous said...

I am curious why you see the monartist model as a long term threat. YOU wrote "The long-term threat to the Administration remains the economy, and the commitment of its economic team to a monetarist model."

Does that imply you see fiscal policy and rampant government spending as the best alternative?

Bruce Post said...

You closed off your essay with this sentence: "It will be catastrophic if they succeed, but inspiring if they fail." I wish you could have written with confidence: "It would be catastrophic were they to succeed, but will be inspiring when they fail."

Alas, there is no guarantee that the forces you describe will fail. I was in politics too long to overlook the fact that complacency of the many can lead to the dominance of a dedicated cadre of zealots. Goering wrote: "It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and its is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a communist dictatorship." I first encountered this observation watching a short film at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Of the many chilling exhibits, this disturbing quote in that little film has haunted me more than anything else I saw there.

About a year and one-half ago, I first read Sinclair Lewis' book "It Can't Happen Here," which he wrote up here in Vermont. One commentary describes the book this way: "It Can't Happen Here is a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression when America was largely oblivious to Hitler's aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press."

Obviously, since Lewis wrote, our nation has been able to resist such a fate ... to date. Of course, I am not comforted in thinking we are perhaps perilously close to becoming a corpocracy or, as one Citigroup analyst wrote, a plutonomy.

Back to Lewis' book, the fascist President is Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip. Someone watching the most recent former Governor of Alaska, could perhaps imagine Sarah Palin as a female "Buzz". Sad, but not impossible.

Jordan Greenhall said...

"Soviet Union" - I assume you mean "Russia"?

Monetarist? The set of approaches from the administration certainly includes a strong monetarist streak (why else would fed funds rate be 0?) But it also equally includes plenty of Keynesianism (stimulus bill, etc.)? What seems to be lacking, in my humble opinion, is an appropriate respect for Schumpeter.

Anonymous said...

I congratulate this convention for having had the courage fearlessly to write into its declaration of principles what an overwhelming majority here assembled really thinks. .  .  . This convention wants repeal. Your candidate wants repeal. And I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal. - FDR in 1932 convention speech

The same words will be used this november to express the will of american voters.

FDR was referring to Prohibition,
but the Republican nominee in 2012
will be able to say the same thing
about ObamaCare.

Anonymous said...

I`ve been the last 20 years in Germany and the value system in Bavaria, a mountainous, religious conservative region of Germany is more akin to the south. Southern French are similarly conservative and more often racist. Urban cosatal/industrialized flatlands are often quite openminded / cosmopolitan. The problem with racial and ethnic divisions in a country or just a general lack of homogeneity in the population in terms of religion and social values is to make it very difficult to come to any common national policies. Lowest common denominator is lower the bigger the country and the larger the genetic/cultural diversity.

In the South the proportion of the black population is so much larger than in the west or many parts of the North that any attempt at integration is bound to have a massive backlash effect. This is seen in the current atmosphere since the civil right movement where most of the jail population is black (50%?) and any drug consumption is punished by jail.

Pure racism as the basis of anti Democratic sentiment in the South is maybe overrated. Self reliance in an area of low industrialization and reliance on extended family in historically more rural areas makes a lack of reliance on anyway corrupt useless government more sensible. Where central govt. is less reliable and schooling of less important theoretical teachings (scientific theories of evolution Global Warming, etc.) take second place to the holistic religious values/cosmological concepts embodied in traditional religion. On a personal level I have found it a long and trying experience to get from being simply a religious child to atheism/agnosticism due to the scintific teacchings of the public schools to rediscover through self study of various religious/spiritual traditions to a deeper understanding of cosmology and morality which does not treat us like children (religon) or give us no ethical basis(modern science).

Essentially without a deeper understanding of the world around us that accepts some sort of relgion and science in an integrated manner while integrating races and cultures will just serve to allow massive divisions in the society. Integration has to happen between mind and soul or war will keep repeating. The south/north division has never really healed.

Neil Heyman said...

Dear Professor Kaiser, I have not been as disturbed during the time since health care legislation passed as I just was in reading about your son's treatment in school.

My own chldren are long past this age and never had such an experience, but I think I would have responded in the following way

First, the teacher should be terminated at the close of the school year. This is not negotiable. Moreover, the teacher's full name should be used whenever possible (sunlight = detergent)

You should most certainly ask for a personal conference with the school superintendant and indicate that you will request 5-10 minutes to make comments at the next PTA and school board meetings.

You should place a letter--or better an op ed--in the local paper, the nearest metropolitan paper, and, if you wish, the NYT.

Consider contacting your state's licensing or credentialing agency for school teachers to lodge a protest.

You can consider contacting the parents of children in your school who are about to enter fifth grade if this teacher remains on the staff.

Finally, possibly take a lesson from one of my former colleagues in the history department, Bob Filner, now a leading member of Congress, and announce your intention to run for the school board.

I realize some of this will not suit your desire to minimize your family's name and involvement but some people should not be teaching--and such conduct should be widely exposed.

With my heartfelt best wishes,

Neil Heyman

David Kaiser said...

Mr. Heyman, you misread my post. The child in question is not mine. One of mine is, in fact, a school principal!

july2010 said...

I found my way here through Snopes.com and an email that I was checking that was attibuted to David Kaiser. I am tired of ingnorant email that people do not check out....we all need to take the time to see what is going on in our children's schools, local government, state government, and federal government. We are becoming a nation of people who are too lazy to learn, study, and rationaly debate. We are too busy either earning money, spending money, and neglecting our children. My parent worked hard, spent time with children, and did not have to go on cruises or become dependant on alchol or drugs. It is an embarrasement for the world to see what our great nation has become.

Anonymous said...

Howard Dean Admits Health Care Bill is Redistribution

“When [wealth distribution]
gets out of whack as it did in
the ’20s and it has now, you need
to do some redistribution. This
is a form of redistribution.”

Welcome to the transforming America.

We have politicians “tweaking” the
system in an effort to spread the
wealth more equally among hard
working people and people who prefer not to work at all. I doubt
this is what the Founding Fathers
had in mind.

Anyone with a single gram of brain
had known that to be true from the offset. The whole thing was done to redistribute wealth.
That's all.

Check the video at:

partisan said...

Speaking about angry conservatives, Larry Schweikart has published a book called "48 Liberal Lies About American History." One of those "lies" is that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent and mentions the book you co-wrote on the subject. Any response?

Anonymous said...

Doctor tells Obama supporters: Go elsewhere for health care
A Mount Dora doctor posted a sign telling Obama health care supporters to go elsewhere.

Check the foto.

the story is at:


Unknown said...

Mr Kaiser-

Mr Obama is the most divisive president since FDR. And he lords it over conservatives with phrases like "bring it on".
I'm sorry you didn't write the article that is going around--once again--on the internet.
That article is closer to the mark than what I've briefly read on your blog.
And your commentators for the most part are trying to polish the apple with you and your opinion.

George Buddy said...

You have the most interesting comments posted to your articles. Very wild and all over the board. Keep up the good work. I appreciate it.

ginstonic said...

Thank you again for posting pro & con opinions. And thank you posters for keeping your comments civil and informative in their own right.

Bozon said...

"This brought home again to me the tragedy of the last half century of Southern history. When the black population was firmly held down by segregation--from around 1890 to 1965--the white people actually fought over economic issues"

White men had fought over economic issues prior to that, of course,as I am certain you well know, but none of that political fighting prevented the Civil War, or its aftermath referred to.

Some politicians tried to institute an 'American System', back then, to little avail.

After WWII, we were in a unique position to reverse some of those long established weaknesses in the commonwealth, but did not do so.

All the best.

Aunt Katie said...

Just a clause or two:
The 'weaknesses in the commonwealth', I referred to above, were political weaknesses, not just economic.

The problem in the US has never been 'too much government', or 'too little', tax and spend or not; but, rather, myriad tiny ones, versus 50-plus 'bigger' ones, and one 'giant' one on top; too many fragmented, adverse, uncoordinated layers of amateur governments, especially since WWI, when it really began to matter.

Lincoln wanted only to maintain the 'status quo', maintain the 'union', did a great job until he was killed; he even apparently wanted to integrate the North and South, economically; since about 1830, even just the status quo, itself, was no longer enough. Civil War itself not in America's best interests; too many other interests already in play.

All the best,