It was a little over a year ago, on January 15, 2010, that I first introduced the analogy between the last two years of the Obama Administration and the Weimar Republic here. While I must again routinely disclaim any opinion to the effect that the United States is headed for Nazism, I regret to say that the analogy is looking better and better all the time. The United States remains in crisis, but the anger generated by the crisis is now focused on the destruction of state, local and federal governments. In the first instance this is almost certain to lead, within a couple of weeks, to a shutdown of the federal government. During the next two years it will cripple the economy and perhaps plunge us into yet another recession. No one can possibly predict what the outcome of all this will be in the presidential election to come, but anything is possible.
When Barack Obama took office in 2009, comparisons between him and Franklin Roosevelt were all the rage, and Time put a picture of Obama as FDR on the cover, riding a 1930s limousine and sporting (appropriately enough) a cigarette holder. Our financial system was once again teetering on the edge of collapse, and millions of Americans were being thrown out of work. Obama took important actions during his first year, including the stimulus, which did save several million jobs, but he was trapped both by circumstances beyond his control and by his own personality. To begin with, since George Bush had already created a permanent $400 billion deficit in peacetime, Obama did not think he could afford a stimulus big enough actually to reverse the unemployment decline and put people back to work. Secondly, having risen through the ranks of the establishment and studied at our most prominent institutions, he had developed a most unfortunate respect for the consensus opinion of experts like Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers. Roosevelt's economic advisers gave him the same kind of advice they gave Obama, but he disregarded it because he knew Americans simply had to get back to work in the maximum numbers possible. As a result, he won a remarkable victory in the 1934 elections. Obama suffered a calamitous defeat.
And now, it seems increasingly likely that Obama will be the Hoover, not the FDR, of this crisis. Hoover, like Obama, initially responded to the first year of the Depression with some modest stimulus, a stimulus that even less effective than Obama's. He too was rewarded with a smashing defeat in the 1930 Congressional elections, although the Republicans initially retained a bare majority in the Congress. Then, in his second two years, he did what Obama is doing: he turned to budget-cutting. This made things worse again. By late 1932 about 25% of the country was unemployed and FDR and the Democrats swept into power with huge majorities. Roosevelt used those majorities to reshape the United States.
There is, however, a new and frightening element in our situation today. No consensus about what to do existed when FDR came into office. That is why he had the freedom, particularly in his first year, to try almost anything. The Democrats elected in 1930--once again, the election most parallel to the one we have just been through--had no particular program. The Republicans who have just come to Washington do. They intend to destroy as much as possible of the whole apparatus of domestic government that has built up not just since Roosevelt--Theodore Roosevelt, not Franklin. They and their constituency have imbibed the false lessons of thirty years of free-market propaganda and talk radio. They apparently honestly believe, wrongly, that cutting and eliminating agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Environmental Protection Agency will unleash a wave of entrepreneurship. They also, of course, want to destroy the health care law, and are passing clearly unconstitutional provisions of appropriations bills to do so. Many of them belong to Generation X and thus have never seen the federal government do anything particularly impressive for the American people. They have no respect for the governing traditions that have evolved over the last eighty years. They are not yet the whole Republican Party, but they are its driving force, and the remaining establishment Republicans are deathly afraid of them.
And, of course, their work will not be confined to Washington. The budget-cutting mantra is all the rage in all the states where Republicans won governorships and legislatures last fall, led, of course, by Wisconsin. The Republicans in those states state their agenda bluntly: state employees should no longer enjoy benefits which private employees (whose unions have already been crippled or destroyed) no longer have. I actually have some sympathy for this idea. Certain benefits--especially pensions for police and firefighters which many people start collecting in their forties--are too generous, and do have to be cut back. (Most civilian federal employees, as I know very well, lost those kinds of pensions in the 1980s.) But I lost any sympathy for Wisconsin's Governor Walker when I learned that his new proposals to take away most of the bargaining rights of state workers do not extend to police and firefighters. He is punishing the stereotyped bureaucrat whom Republicans have been blaming for our ills since before I was born. He also has the legislature behind him. This is a truly democratic revolution, alas.
The mainstream media have been in denial about the meaning of all this for months and still are. Every story I have seen about the spending cuts the Tea Partiers forced through the House over the weekend notes reassuringly that the Senate and the White House will never agree to them. That misses the point. Appropriations for, say, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or aid to Planned Parenthood require an affirmative vote of both Houses. The mainstream view of all this assumes that Boehner, Ross and company will compromise. I do not believe that they will. I cannot imagine where all this will come out, but I think there will almost surely be a government shutdown, and that many of their cuts will in the end go through. President Obama's dream of establishing a new 1950s-style consensus is dead on arrival. The Republicans reject the status quo.
There are short-term and long-term political aspects to this crisis. The Obama Administration is dominated by former Clintonistas who fondly remember the impact of the 1995 shutdown and apparently expect a repeat--but we live in an entirely different world now. In addition, this time the Republicans have kept their hands off Medicare, which left them open to damaging attacks 16 years ago. The President may not be strengthened by the crisis at all. The long run implications are much more frightening. Laying off tens or hundreds of thousands of government employees will deal another body blow to the economy and may well trigger a second recession. This was exactly the scenario that played out in both Germany and the United States in 1929-33. Who it might bring into power in 2012, I have no idea.
If Barack Obama is going to make a comeback and save us from a real catastrophe, he must take the rhetorical offensive at once. He must try to explain to his contemporaries that yes, we need a government and that we need to keep people employed. And somehow, he must try to find a critical mass of Republicans who will cooperate to prevent things from getting worse. We face not only increasing economic hardship, but also a complete loss of confidence in our institutions, something no advanced society can afford. The Boom generation started this, as I discussed at length from 2004 to 2008. Now Generation X is following the same false idols. The Republican revolution is real, and it needs to be stopped. But how?