A new stage--and a new civil war
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.