The United States of America, it occurs to me, is in a very strange state because of some strange political occurrences over the last fifteen years. On the one hand, the Democratic Party has essentially been the plurality party, nationally, for more than 20 years, since Bill Clinton ran for office the first time. They achieved that stature, to be sure, partly by giving up the policies that had made them successful from FDR through LBJ, and becoming the accomplice of the new rise of corporate power, especially on Wall Street. But they had secured it, and in 2000, Al Gore--never a strong or compelling candidate--won a significant plurality of the popular vote and, it turns out, barely carried the state of Florida according to the most accurate post-election count. But Governor Jeb Bush's pre-election purge of the voting rolls, the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach, Gore's failure to demand a full recount in Florida, and the Supreme Court's partisan decision awarded the election to George W. Bush. As I have said many times here, Bush did not feel in the least inhibited, and he ruthlessly imposed his own agenda at home and, after 9/11, abroad. The result was a crippled federal government saddled with the largest permanent deficit yet, and a disastrous Middle East crisis that seems likely to go on for decades. A further result was the election and re-election of Barack Obama, by larger popular vote margins that either Clinton or Bush II had ever received.
What has mitigated the effects of these Democratic triumphs is, of course, the polarization of our politics, and the Republican determination to make Obama fail and destroy government as we have known it in the United States. In addition, Obama signally failed to mold a new majority around new economic policies in his first two years in office, as Franklin Roosevelt did. Had he been able to think in terms of a whole term, or perhaps even two, from the very beginning of his Presidency, Obama might have focused on alleviating the nation's economic distress more during his first two years and deferred health care reform--but he didn't. The recession continued through his first year, hard-core Republicans reacted with fury to his election, and the Democrats lost the House of Representatives and the state governments of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin Those states promptly gerrymandered their Congressional districts so as to assure Republican majorities in their delegations, even when well over half their voters voted for Democrats. Since 2011 Obama has not been able to pass any significant legislation. Failing to regain the White House in 2012 only made the Republicans more desperate, and they have become more obstructionist than ever. Today's New York Times reports that Senate Republicans will not allow any bill that might be popular with the constituents of vulnerable Democratic Senators to come to a vote. The immigration issue is hopelessly politicized. Eric Cantor's defeat has made it even more unlikely that the Republicans would compromise on anything. The Administration stumbles along, trying and often failing to make the government work with inadequate resources, and depending on demographics and social issues to insure the future electoral health of the Democratic Party. The Affordable Care Act seems to be working quite well, but Democrats are too frightened even to mention it on the campaign trail, much less run ads featuring Americans to whom it has given health insurance for the first time.
Seldom in the Atlantic World has a nation been so unable to handle serious problems during a crisis, or Fourth Turning. Some of the ones that were comparably inefficient, such as Tsarist Russia in the First World War, collapsed under the strain of international conflict. The paralysis of the Weimar Republic in Germany lasted only about two and a half years, from 1930 until January 1933, when it gave way to Hitler. Herbert Hoover floundered through three years of depression before giving way to FDR. All these cases had something important in common with us today. The government was unable to enlist the bulk of the population in a common cause, and to mobilize significant resources for the common good. That, it seems to me, is what has made it impossible for Obama to build a durable majority in the Congress or lay the foundation for a substantial new period of Democratic rule. And it seems clear that the Democrats have no other candidate in 2016 who will even propose to do such a thing.
The Democratic electoral strategy essentially accepts our economic state and our distribution of wealth as the best we can do. (I know Elizabeth Warren is an exception, but she seems likely to remain so.) It counts on the support of single women and minorities to keep it in power. Such a strategy, it seems to me, is not likely to succeed indefinitely in the midst of long-term economic crisis. Meanwhile, the Republicans mobilize their troops more and more aggressively. The hate mongering on the immigration issue by people like Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin is a national disgrace. But there is no observable countervailing trend in the Republican Party, either.
For the last four years the Republicans have in effect managed to impose their belief that we do not need more government. President Obama, indeed, cooperated in that more than he should have when he agreed to the sequester, even though it has now been partially rolled back. The problem is not simply that the Republicans are encouraged by their own successes; it is that we do need more government, and more resources mobilized on behalf of public goods.
Dictatorship does not seem to be a danger which we face. We will not have a military coup, like Chile in 1973, and we have no totalitarian party contending for power like Germany in 1933 or Russia in 1917. Our danger, as I have said many times, is anarchy. Today I read that the same militiamen who rallied to the cause of Cleavon Bundy in Nevada are deploying on the Texas-Mexico border to stop immigration. Who knows what kind of incident might result? Contempt for institutions is highly contagious, and from the VA to the CDC to the CIA, ours are not doing enough to inspire respect.