For the past 16 years the United States has been in a bloodless civil war, parallel in many ways to the shorter, far more violent one during the 1860s. Millions of Americans have questioned the legitimacy of each of our last three Presidents. The Republicans have helped create a vast media establishment that daily trumpets the idea that Democrats are not real Americans. They have also adopted the idea that the federal government has become the enemy of the American people. During the last few years they have begun to propagate a new view of American history--new at least in the mainstream--which attempts to repudiate all the major developments in American government since the presidency of William McKinley. The Republicans have purged nearly all the moderates from their ranks, while the voters, last Tuesday, purged a great many moderates from those of the Democrats. Very few wars run smoothly from beginning to end, and in 2006-8, the Republicans lost the initiative and suffered significant setbacks. This in no way altered their campaign plan, however, and they have now regained the initiative and have a significant chance of coming back into power throughout the government in 2012. And all the while, they have become more and more detached from reality--and that, more than anything else, makes it very difficult to predict what is going to happen during the next two years.
Rush Limbaugh--one of the real victors last Tuesday--raised some eyebrows early in 2009 when he announced that he wanted President Obama to fail, but given his priorities, he could hardly have done otherwise. The modern Republican Party of which he is a critical part cares about one thing and one thing only: winning elections. To do so it will shut its eyes to any unpleasant reality and take advantage of any popular resentment. Since Newt Gingrich's famous memo back in the early 1990s, it has shamelessly used its own form of Newspeak to characterize everything the Democrats try to do. Republicans now routinely reform to Obama's watered-down, insurance-industry approved health care plan as "a government takeover of health care." Obama, they say, launched his political career in Bill Ayres's home. From there it is a small step to the tacit approval of the idea that Obama is a Muslim or a non-citizen. And of course, the Republicans never stop railing about the deficits that their own tax cuts have been creating at every opportunity since 1981. The biggest reason why I simply cannot believe in the sincerity of the Tea Party is this: if they truly cared about balanced budgets, Bill Clinton would be their favorite President. He is not.
The Republican strategy has worked brilliantly, on the whole, by redefining our political agenda and skewing our debate. When one spends so much time reporting or debating fantasies, there's no time left to focus on reality. I suspect the number of Americans who could identify Monica Lewinsky is far higher than the number who could accurately remember the state of the federal budget in 2000. The media, including the few outlets that can fairly be described as liberal, spend the most space on extreme Tea Party candidates. Who got more ink this fall, Christine O'Donnell, who never had a chance to be elected, or Russ Feingold, a long-time Senator? Why does Sarah Palin get more attention than all the rest of the Republican hopefuls combined? Because she is obviously unqualified to sit in the White House.
Republican enthusiasm has several sources. I pointed out six years ago that the Republican coalition includes the losers in the two previous crises in our national life: white southerners and corporate interests. (It is interesting that the corporate interests continue to prefer Republicans even though their control over Democratic officeholders is nearly as absolute.) Sadly, whole generations of white southerners have grown up since the civil rights movement who still seem to resent the ignominy it cast on their region--all the more so, of course, because they deserved it. A bad conscience remains one of the most powerful historical forces in human life. Meanwhile, the corporate elite has benefited almost unbelievably from the tax cuts and deregulation that began under Reagan, and seems to want even more. Their huge fortunes, combined with the Citizens United decision, have given them unprecedented power over political campaigns. Their money was used this fall to arouse resentment, above all against Barack Obama, our first black President, and Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American political history. And it worked. The Republicans have also drawn, of course, on the revival of religious faith, although that part of the coalition seems to be declining somewhat in importance at the moment. And the Republicans have made substantial gains among my own Boom generation, which seems to be worried about its entitlements and unable to grasp that the Democrats not only put those entitlements in place but have a far better record of standing up for them.
The Democratic response to the Republican onslaught has been disappointing in the extreme. Democratic politicians have criticized Republicans--especially President Bush and Vice President Cheney--but have made no parallel, systematic attempt to demonize them. More seriously, from their point of view, they have offered no serious alternatives on the policy front, with the sole exception, for which they get no credit, of fiscal responsibility. (The deficit has, of course, increased under Barack Obama, but that is because of the economic crisis he inherited. Those wishing to understand the actual source of the deficit should go back a couple of posts.) As I wrote last week, they are just as much under the control, effectively, of the financial services industry, the communications giants, the food industry, and the health care industry as the Republicans. Because their coalition still contains a few genuine New Dealers like myself and because they theoretically believe in government reform, they spent the last two years passing bills claiming to reform health care and the financial services industry, but they were completely unable (and in the latter case unwilling) to do anything serious. Obama and his closest advisers also accepted free-market orthodoxy with respect to their response to the great recession, eschewing serious efforts to reduce mortgage foreclosures or raise employment, and thus incurred the wrath of the electorate, as they will again in critical states in 2012 if nothing much has improved. The Democrats are the party of the establishment, and establishment solutions are not working. Last Sunday I heard Curtis Roosevelt, FDR's grandson and a good amateur historian, confirm that FDR never trusted establishment wisdom and insisted on results. Obama, alas, is a different matter.
The best data I have found to illustrate what actually happened last Tuesday is a summary of exit poll data on House races provided by the New York Times. I urge all readers to look at it, and in particular, to check "Size bars according to population of groups" in the box at the left. The graph breaks down Republican and Democratic votes along various demographic lines, including race, gender, and income. To begin with, Republicans made large gains, usually 10-20%, this fall in every single category. They wiped out the gender gap among women, leaving the Democrats just 1% ahead in female votes, while increasing their share of the male vote 36% relative to what it was in the 2008 Congressional elections. (To be clear, a 36% increase in their vote meant about an 18% increase in their share of those voters.) They even increased their black vote by 7% their hispanic vote by 8%, and their Asian by 18%, and won 60% of the whites, where they enjoyed a narrow majority last time. They increased their vote in every income category, although the Democrats held on to narrow leads in voters from households making $50,000 or less. Even more stunning was the actual makeup of the electorate. Two thirds of the voters were at least 45 years of age, and these older voters went heavily Republican. As measured by these polls the electorate was about 80% white--that's right, 80%. The combination of relentless Republican propaganda and Administration failure on the economic front has turned significant numbers of every demographic against the White House. Those who felt their economic situation had improved or stayed the same voted The handwriting is on the wall for 2012. A plurality of those polls counted themselves as tea party supporters.
We have every reason to believe that Republican strategy will remain the same for the next two years. Mitch McConnell has already stated that his first priority is to make Obama a one-term President. Hannity and Limbaugh are trumpeting the need to continue the fight (and Limbaugh, interestingly enough, spent much of the Wednesday broadcasts complaining that establishment Republicans hadn't done enough to help Sharon Angle in Nevada or O'Donnell in Delaware.) I would not be surprised to see a House committee begin an investigation of President Obama's early life and career, complete with subpoenas to the state of Hawaii asking for his birth certificate and to Bill Ayres and Jeremiah Wright to explain their views and their nefarious influence upon him. Such tactics would be no less frivolous than those they applied against the Clintons. And the media, enthralled by such spectacles, never bothers to point out that they make the actual government of the United States impossible.
Meanwhile, the United States has real problems which only the government can solve. We shall have no more stimulus packages for at least the next two years, which will mean that unemployment will remain high (quite possibly contributing to more Republican electoral success next time) and that our infrastructure will continue to deteriorate. Any chance of actually reducing dependence upon fossil fuels, as the entire rest of the industrialized world has been doing for decades, is gone for the foreseeable future--a catastrophe whether one believes in global warming or not. Health care reform will either be cut back or, quite possibly, struck down by the Supreme Court, where Republican ideology is now in the ascendancy. That means health care will drain more and more money from the economy.
The question right now is whether the Tea Party freshmen and their allies like Senator Jim DeMint, the new John C. Calhoun, will actually be able to bring the federal government to a halt. This is not at all impossible. No money can be spent henceforth without the consent of the Republican House, which will have to authorize large increases in the debt limit. Perhaps the House leadership will be able to appease them by finding token programs to cut, but that is unlikely to work very long. We face a crisis, as Germany and the United States did in 1931-2, because we have effectively ruled out the only possible solutions to very real problems. Popular rage will increase without any evident hope of drawing any effective response to those problems.
Perhaps the best hope, at least from the standpoint of the stability of the United States, is for a coalition of some establishment Republicans and Democrats to agree on absolutely essential measures like increasing the debt limit, just as they did, eventually, on the TARP program in 2008. But as I read those words myself, it is clear that such an approach is exactly what McConnell and DeMint, at least--and probably John Boehner as well--want to avoid. They remember that that is what Newt Gingrich did in 1995-6, leading to the re-election of Bill Clinton. They do not want Barack Obama to become known as a successful bipartisan President; they want to keep the image of him as a proto-totalitarian alive. The establishment media will tend to assume that they will work with the President because it seems so eminently sensible--but that is not what drives these Republicans. While they have nothing to offer at a policy level, they are totally serious about validating their propaganda and winning it all. They will also receive all the personal reinforcement they need from their own constituencies and their own media outlets.
Democratic strategists believed after 2008 that demographic trends would keep them in power for a long time. That prediction looks rather shaky today. The youth vote did not turn out in force. Hispanics apparently saved Harry Reid and Michael Bennet in Colorado, but not several Democratic Congressmen in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Meanwhile, the coming redistribution of House seats will put at least ten more in the Sun Belt. The President's chances of once again carrying Indiana, Ohio, or even Pennsylvania appear to have taken a big hit, and his prospects in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina look even worse.
I have followed the trend of the campaign and totally ignored foreign policy, but it is, if not an elephant, at least a camel lurking in the living room corner. The President will undoubtedly be tempted to put more of his energy into it, even though he can no longer travel outside the country without the Drudge Report headlining outrageous estimates of the hourly cost of his trips. Already, however, the Israeli press is predicting that the Republican revival will make the Administration more pro-Israel. And what will happen when a Times Square bomber succeeds, which only seems to be a matter of time? Then the President will face an unpleasant choice between reacting appropriately and being blasted as weak or pro-terrorist, reacting with large-scale strikes against Pakistan and bringing the threat of nuclear terrorism infinitely closer. That, however, will be the subject for another post.
Lastly July I speculated that our great crisis had actually begun in 2000 with the stolen election, and that President Bush, not President Obama, had shaped the new America. At this point I think the Republican Party could easily make that prediction come true by adopting the even more centrist positions, especially on deficit reduction, that the President also seems ready for. With liberalism's favorite projects already dead (financial regulation) or dying (health care reform), we could have a new consensus on small government and high unemployment, and our politics might calm down. Yet the Republicans, like their radical counterparts after 1866, do not seem ready for this. They want to continue trampling Democrats and their ideas into the dust. And since we have had no great war, this time there is no General Grant or General Eisenhower on the horizon to provide at least the appearance of consensus. These will be testing times indeed for American democracy.