In less than a year, between November 2000 and September 2001, the United States was blind-sided by two almost unprecedented events. On the eve of the anniversary of the second of those events, I am convinced that they marked one of the great turning points in American history, one whose effects will surely be felt for the rest of my life and well beyond. Unfortunately, together they put the United States irretrievably, it would seem, on the wrong track for decades to come. That does not mean the end of America or of hope for the future, but it makes this anniversary a very sad one for national, as well as personal, reasons.
The first event, of course, was the accession of George W. Bush to the White House, in one of the two U.S. elections that was almost surely decided in defiance of the expressed wishes of the American electorate. On November 7, Al Gore won the national popular vote by over half a million votes, but the voting in Florida was microscopically close. The results had been altered in two critical ways, one purposeful, one inadvertent. The Republican candidate's brother, the Governor of Florida, had evidently encouraged a purge of the voter registration rolls, removing hundreds of people whose names approximated those of convicted felons from other states. Since most of them were black, this meant that several hundred people found themselves unable to vote. Then came the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach county, one of the great accidents of history, which led a number of Al Gore voters to cast their votes for Pat Buchanan. All that made the results close enough, on election night, for John Ellis, a cousin of George W. Bush then working at Fox News, to convince his network to call the election for Bush long before the counting in Florida was sufficiently complete. The other networks followed suit, and a Bush victory became the default result that Al Gore was trying to overturn.
In an America that still cared about civic virtue the whole process would have been held in abeyance pending a recount. I have seen this happen, in New Hampshire in the early 1970s, when a recount in a comparably close Senate election reversed what seemed to be a Republican victory. As it was Al Gore was on the defensive from the beginning and did not even push for the state-wide recount which the situation obviously demanded. Instead, he focused on four counties likely to favor himself, weakening his case. The Florida courts properly sided with him. But the Supreme Court made an unprecedented, partisan intervention in the case, stopped the recount, and handed Bush the election. Although it is not generally known, when elements of the media eventually carried out the full recount that should have been ordered, it turned out that regardless of the standards used, Gore won the state, and therefore, the election.
Had Gore won the election there would have been no first round of Bush tax cuts. I believe 9/11 would most likely have happened anyway--it was the kind of one-off, surprise event which, although detected by intelligence, rarely leads to timely counteraction in advance. But I suspect that Gore would have reacted to it in a completely different way. Rather than invading one country after another, he almost surely would have used the attack as an excuse to move away from dependence on foreign oil. Given what President Bush was able to do in the wake of the attack, he might well have succeeded. But in any event he never would have proposed the successive rounds of tax cuts that have now crippled the federal government's response to the economic crisis. (After making this post I read an outstanding article by George Packer in this week's New Yorker, entitled "Coming Apart: After 9/11 transfixed America, the country's problems were left to rot." It makes essentially the same points with the help of very detailed micro-examples. Unfortunately, for the time being, at least, it is available to subscribers only.)
Instead, George W. Bush has, on the one hand, drastically cut back the capacities of government by creating a permanent large deficit; made it impossible, as I have said many times, for his successor to respond adequately to the economic crisis; and involved us in an endless war with Middle Eastern extremists. The shifts in federal resources have had unforeseen consequences. The FBI, it turns out, moved 500 agents from white collar crime to terrorism, a large part of the reason why the greatest financial crisis since 1929 has produced virtually no prosecutions. Our involvement in Central Asia seems nearly as solidly established as part of our foreign policy now as NATO was in the 1950s (even though it is on a much smaller scale.) Although Bin Laden is finally dead and Al Queda is weakened, our tactics continually generate more terrorists. The Arab spring is almost certain to lead to more Islamist governments in the Middle East. The Middle East peace process came to a crashing halt after 9/11 and has not been effectively revived. Israel and the US are more isolated than ever. Nuclear-armed Pakistan has a tottering government and a large militant Islamic presence. Indeed it is now clear beyond any doubt that elements within the Pakistani government have been protecting Al Queda all along.
This is, in my opinion, the third great crisis of American national life, after the Civil War and the Great Depression and Second World War. It is ending like the Civil War, but lacking one positive accomplishment on the scale of the abolition of slavery. As in the 1870s, we are deeply in debt, with an unstable economy dominated by corporate giants--railroads then (I will have more to say about that soon), and big banks now. Now as then, our political system belongs to corporate money. An unhappy electorate, now as then, swings wildly from one party to the next without making anything new happen. We are again preoccupied above all else with our national debt, even though this time it is severely exaggerated, as I pointed out a month ago. A whole political party is now dedicated to the end of government as we have known it, and the question is how far they will be able to go.
The events of November 2000 and September 2001 must not be given too much weight. The trend towards corporate freedom, economic inequality, and deregulation was already well advanced before that. And the left, as well as the right, has contributed to it. But those events deepened and accelerated those trends. Still, as I survey the events of my adult lifetime, now in its 46th year, the most striking feature of it is the almost complete failure to grow a new generation of effective progressive leaders. The heirs of the New Deal took their parents' achievements for granted, turned their back on them, and then undid them. The children of the losers in the last national crisis, an the great-grandchildren of the losers in the one before that, had more to prove. They have won a series of victories; the best we can do is halt things where they are. Younger generations, including some yet born, will have to chance to revive the dreams of the Enlightenment--if they choose to do so.