We are nearing the climax of the fourth great crisis in American national life. Unlike the first three--1774-94, 1860-68, and 1929-45--it has not involved a great national enterprise that mobilized economic resources on behalf of a moral cause. It is a crisis of fragmentation and contested authority, marked (like the Civil War crisis) by a steady growth of corporate power and a decline of civic virtue. It is also a crisis of values, and next year's election will inevitably validate one set of values over another. I do not think that anyone at this time can tell what is going to happen, but the first two Democratic debates have made me more pessimistic about what to expect next year, and for the next decade or so.
Those debates, and particularly the second one, confirmed for me that the kind of left wing activism that I first saw in action more than 50 years ago in college has now become mainstream. As I remarked during a discussion with four young activists at my 50th reunion--a discussion that I shall link in a day or two here--it is characterized above all by a moral approach to the world. What is evil should not be, what is right should automatically prevail. That means, for instance, that "undocumented"--that is, illegal--immigrants should receive guaranteed health care, because all people should receive it. Since immigrants are poor, largely nonwhite, and largely from the third world, we should decriminalize their status at once. That, in fact, seems to be more important to most of today's Democratic candidates than giving the 11 or 20 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States a path to citizenship that would allow them to vote--an idea we did not hear about during the debate. I well remember how in the 1960s my contemporaries treated legal issues as the older generation's way of keeping an unjust order in place, ignoring what humankind had learned over many centuries--that legal procedures are the price of civilization, and thus, clearly necessary to any meaningful long-term reform.
The latest flurry of attacks against Joe Biden also echo the late 1960s contempt for establishment politicians and compromises. Biden never praised segregationists like James Eastland, he simply spoke with nostalgia about a time when men and women of entirely different views could treat each other courteously and work together on some issues. But the very idea of treating such people (now Republicans) with anything but contempt, much less acknowledging that we might have to find common ground with them on some issues, never occurs to many liberals today. Hillary Clinton illustrated that with her comment about Trump's "basket of deplorables" in the 2016 campaign. The same kind of feelings lead to calls from some Democrats to ignore the evil white working class, riddled with "white supremacist' beliefs, and reward women and/or nonwhites by pitching the Democratic appeal specifically to them and putting one or more of them on the ticket. Should such a strategy succeed, the new millennium will be at hand; should it fail, it will merely confirm the essential patriarchal, racist wickedness of the United States of America. Liberals cling easily to these views since so many of them work in education or journalism, where almost no one challenges them. They are waiting for the rest of the country to catch up to them, and some are gambling that the advent of younger generations and changing demographics will lead to that result. That is possible.
On the other hand, the Republican Party--led by a TV-bred demagogue, but essentially the party of big business in general and the energy industry in particular--has entrenched its power in the Senate, in various state legislatures, and above all in the court system. The 5-4 decision allowing and indeed encouraging gerrymandering confirms that Republican judges will use their power to help their party, and leave voters at the mercy of state governments. The Trump administration is dismantling parts of the federal government and trying to kill others (including much of the State Department) by refusing to fill key positions. It's the home of ideologues on many issues, including education policy, immigration policy, and policy towards the Middle East. Such people have no trouble working with an incompetent President because he gives them what they want. Should a Democrat like Elizabeth Warren get into power, the court system may well stand in the way of meaningful economic reform, as it did from the 1870s until the late 1930s. Today's Republican Party--like the Republican Party from 1876 to 1896--lacks a real national majority, and has one the popular vote only once in the last seven national elections. But it might gain votes next year because of the very low unemployment rate, or because Democrats are misreading the views of some of the new electoral constituencies, or because the spectacle of the Democratic contest for the nomination turns voters off, as happened to Republicans in 1964 and Democrats in 1972. The Republicans, in any case, have unity and discipline, which the Democrats distrust almost on principle. Politics is war by other means, and in war, unity and discipline count for more than having a just cause.
I continue to believe, as I did in 2010 (see last week's post), that the chance to reverse our economic course was lost in the first two years of the Obama administration and will not return any time soon. I think our real task now is to re-establish some tradition of honest, responsible government that can address problems like immigration within a serious legal framework instead of an emotional one, devote serious resources to critical problems like infrastructure and climate change, and pursue sensible foreign policies. Yet we live in an age where politicians no longer make their name by performing effective public service. We will probably have to start rebuilding that tradition at the state and local level, as the New York Democratic party seems to have done, in a few important key respects, last year. And to create any broader national consensus, we might have to trade truly effective border control and restrictions on immigration for a path to citizenship for those who already live here. After the Civil War, our politics remained crippled by partisanship for several decades. That will be our fate too, I fear, unless we an find a unifying figure and a new political vocabulary.