The previous crises are, in order:
- 1800, the first truly competitive election, in which the idea of sedition as a crime was rejected and Thomas Jefferson created the early form of the Democratic Party based on the ideal of rural life.
- 1828, when Andrew Jackson created the modern Democratic Party based on a balance of regional interests and the Myth of the West.
- 1860, when Abraham Lincoln was elected and the nation exploded into Civil War.
- The 1890s, the birth of Populism and Progressivism, resulting in the rise to power of Theodore Roosevelt.
- 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt was chosen to fight the Depression and the idea of affirmative government was born.
- 1968, when Richard Nixon brought the Thesis of Conflict, anti-communist, and anti-elite, into power.
Once again we have an Administration trying to criminalize sedition, and failing. Once again we have populist and progressive policies contending for power. Once again the role of affirmative government is up for debate, and the Thesis of Conflict is being deployed.
The crisis this comes closest to is the 1890s crisis. It was centered on the election of 1896, in which the populist William Jennings Bryan lost to regular Republican William McKinley. That crisis was defined, however, by the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, who fought in the imperialist Spanish-American War, was elected Governor New York later in 1898, was nominated as Vice President “to get rid of him,” and succeeded to the Presidency when McKinley was assassinated in 1901.
This was the only crisis where the incumbent party came out stronger than when it went in. It came out stronger because Roosevelt governed as a progressive, constantly at war with the regular Republicans who had given him power, succeeded in fact by a regular of his choosing, William Howard Taft, against whom he ran as a Bull Moose in 1912. (He finished second. Taft ran third.) TR defined the era. And it was his memory that Richard Nixon deliberately evoked when he resigned, on August 9, 1974. “Always in the arena, tempestuous, strong, sometimes wrong, sometimes right, but he was a man."
It is this role John McCain wishes to take, in historical terms. In his mind, McCain is TR. In the media's mind, he is also TR. But the McKinley of that time – if Bush is McKinley – is not dead. And McCain is not his Vice President.
The fact is that history never repeats, precisely. The patterns repeat, because the pattern of youth, vigor, aging and death is universal. So long as America remains a democracy, and retains the ability to define its own history, this pattern will remain.
So what happens now? Don't ask, anymore. The history of our time is yet to be written. Write carefully, write well. It's in your hands.
So, by the way, is the 2006 election. No matter what the polls tell you, no matter what I tell you, the height and importance of a Democratic victory remains yours to define. Given the suspicion of Republican theft, no height is too high, no victory too massive. Don't feel sorry for the other side, and don't consider joining them to make things interesting. Vote your conscience. Let that be your guide.