We have good news this week. Kenneth nd, the Secretary of State of Georgia, and the Republican leaders of the Michigan legislature have shown that we still have among the Republicans of this nation--at least, the ones who do not hold national office--just enough honest men and women for our government to function honestly. They have braved the hatred of much of their own party to certify, or accept, the victory of Joe Biden in their respective states. Trump sent Rudy Giluiani and Sidney Powell out a few days ago to regale us with conspiracy theories worthy of QAnon, and they will become facts among a certain group of Republicans, but it looks as if Biden's victory will be certain when the states submit their electoral votes in two weeks. It will remain to be seen whether some Republicans challenge the results when Congress formally counts the electoral votes on January 6, but any such challenge is certain to fail. Whether Trump attends the inauguration or not, he will have to leave the White House.
So ends the greatest threat to American democracy in particular and world democracy in general since the Civil War. Lincoln rightly defined that conflict as the supreme test of the democratic experiment. If parts of the nation could repudiate central authority at will, government by the people would have failed. It would also have failed if a President who governs according to whim, who has packed the Justice Department to protect his friends and allies, who promoted foreign interference in our elections, and who refuses to make and execute policy through any orderly process, had managed to win a second term. The threat is not over. Trump still dominates the Republican Party and will probably try to use twitter or a tv network to set himself up as a President-in-waiting after January 20, and Congressional Republicans are quite likely to resort to maximum obstructionism once again to try to bring him back, as they did in 1993 and 2009. Those are subjects for future posts.
I fortunately grew up in one of the great eras of American politics, and it shaped me. My nation had helped win the Second World War and had emerged as the leader of the free world. I lived in a society with 90% marginal tax rates, a strong and expanding educational system, steady economic growth, and growing infrastructure. Yes, for nearly a century, a Senatorial minority from the Deep South had blocked any and all legal attempts to secure full citizenship for black Americans, but I saw us overcome that when I was 16 and 17, in the great civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. School, and reading outside it, immersed me in the remarkable story of American history, and in fifth grade, I believe, the Landmark book about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by Dorothy Canfield Fisher brought tears to my eyes. Perhaps, I now think, the idea of individual rights meant so much to me because I was a middle child in a rather chaotic and very migratory household. But in those days, despite continuing imperfections, nearly every American could feel that he or she was part of a great enterprise working for the benefit of all.
As I have written many times, all this began to change at the moment that postwar America had reached a political and economic peak, in 1965, thanks to two developments. First, the older generation made the catastrophic mistake of embarking upon the Vietnam War, tearing the Democratic Party apart and starting the nation on a different path at home. Equally importantly, it emerged even before the escalation of that war, at Berkeley in the fall of 1964, that much of my own generation had an instinctive aversion to much of their parents' world, wanted to eat from its own tree of good and evil, and did not understand how unique their inheritance was. Spurred by the war, many of us had decided by 1968 that our whole society was irredeemably corrupt, based upon false values. Reflexive opposition to authority--political, legal, and intellectual--became, for many, a mark of enlightenment. And the conservatives among us--and there were many--took advantage of the same rebellious spirit to began a long struggle against the achievements of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Both sides also began to value emotion more highly than reason. Our intellectual culture began to decline in part because of television, and it has not survived the second, bigger assault that came from the internet. Beginning the 1980s, and more rapidly by the 2000s, a very different America began to emerge.
Economic inequality is the fundamental fact of that America. While Republicans have always favored it, Democrats had started abandoning the values of the New Deal as early as 1974, and Democratic administrations collaborated in the steps that set capitalism free. Greater inequality naturally followed. Neither party did anything to stop the de-industrialization of America, with terrible consequences. Individual farmers became a tiny minority with little political power. I also remember that in fifth grade my class did a year-long geography program looking at various regions of the United States. The North Central states, we agreed--the old midwest--were the strongest part of the nation, because they combined industry and agriculture. Now those states show the ravages of decades of decline, on both fronts. That in 2016 led to their repudiation of traditional politics and the narrow victory of Donald Trump. This year, Wisconsin and Michigan returned to the Democratic column, but by narrow margins, and without loosening the Republican grip on their legislatures and thus their gerrymandered Congressional delegations.
As you all surely know, the last four years have had significant consequences for the emotional health of many of our fellow citizens. That is, I think, because our nation truly is a family--if sometimes a dysfunctional one--and we all had become children of a highly addicted, unstable, hopelessly narcissistic parent. In a widely viewed clip, the commentator Van Jones teared up the day after the election as he declared that today, it was easier to be a dad. I knew what he meant. Yet just a few minutes later, on the same show, the conservative Republican Rick Santorum declared that many people on his side of the fence were now feeling the same things that Jones had been feeling for the last four years. Jones, to his enormous credit, nodded at him understandingly. I don't sympathize with the fears of the Republicans and I doubt Jones does either, but many truly do hold them and they stand in the way of a a return to a reasonable degree of consensus under Biden. And only 4% of the vote separates the two utterly unreconciled halves of our electorate.
I still think that only one thing can cure our division: a determined and successful assault by the government on a serious problem, one that increases the security and prosperity of the American people. That is what Lincoln led 160 years ago and what FDR led 80 years ago. We now seem in sight of victory over COVID-19, but it has already increased the division among us. (A long story in the November 22 New York Times on the development of new vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna shows, in inspring fashion, that private enterprise did rise to the occasion to meet this great crisis. Having worried that the pharmaceutical companies and the government would be in too great a hurry to develop a sufficiently effective vaccine, I am greatly relieved.) I think Joe Biden, the first President of the Silent generation--which came to adulthood in the wake of the Second World War--understands this at some level but I don't know if he can do it. The biggest obstacle remains the Republican Party, which is entering its fourth decade of determined struggle to undo the achievements of the middle of the century and discredit the idea that the federal government can serve the needs of the American people. I described their approach in detail eight years ago. Those Republican values now dominate our court system, and even if the Democrats win the Georgia Senate elections, they will be strong enough in the Senate to make real progress very difficult. Meanwhile, Biden will face plenty of problems within his own party.
Various pundits are asking whether Biden could become a new FDR--just as they asked the same question exactly twelve years about Obama. Then the answer was no, and I don't think it's likely to be yes this time. Perhaps he will be more like another Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, who took office in 1885 after a similarly divisive and bitter campaign. Cleveland was the first Democrat to take office since the Civil War. He did not reverse any of the major Republican policies or check the trend towars inequality, but he made the Democracy (as it was then called) respectable again, and was successful enough to win the popular vote twice more and the presidency once. That will not be Biden's destiny: I don't see how an 82-year old man can seriously contemplate re-election. But if Biden can restore some civility, some sense of normalcy, and some confidence in our national institutions, he will have done well.