Think of this as Volume 14, Number 27 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
One of the recurring patterns of our political history is that the weapons of the previous antithesis must be relied upon to push forward a new thesis, even though the thesis and antithesis have no relation to one another.
- Lincoln was a Whig. He was a great admirer of Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser. Yet his thesis, of union, seemed to be the opposite of what Clay stood for.
- Teddy Roosevelt was a Mugwump. The Mugwumps were "big chiefs," influential and powerful men, who coalesced around Grover Cleveland to fight the corruption of the 1880s. His chief opponents were always other Republicans.
- Franklin Roosevelt identified with Wilsonism. Wilson combined Bryan's populism with an aggressive foreign policy, all supposedly in the name of principle.
- Nixon was Eisenhower's vice president. Eisenhower was the antithesis to the New Deal, accepting its premises but promising a kinder, gentler, more business-friendly version.
Bill Clinton's Third Way was the Democrats' antithesis to Nixonism, to its thesis of conflict. Clinton leaned against conservatism, compromised with it, giving it some of its greatest victories while getting no credit from the right at all, then or now.
Why is this the way? It's because Washington can only hold two vocabularies within it at any one time. It's either this or it's that. It's either conservatives or Clintonism. Just as, a generation ago, it was either liberals or Nixonism.
Barack Obama feeds his base rhetoric while backing-and-filling against what seems, from Washington, to be a rising conservative tide. The fact that the tide is not rising, that it's falling, is not the point.
And it is falling. Because as a thesis ages, as myths, values, and assumptions step further and further from their own time of creation, they become increasingly irrelevant, even crazy:
- How does Hooverism solve the problems of the Great Recession when it failed 80 years ago?
- How does being nice to Wall Street or BP keep the same disasters from happening again?
- How does emulating Osama bin Laden's social views provide the contrast needed to defeat religious extremism?
At its heart, every great crisis in American history has been a test of our will. We have been faced with the voices of people who said that the union could not be preserved, that capitalism and society were on a collision course, that the center could not hold, that society would be torn apart by drugs and rock music.
In the case of our current troubles, we need to understand that we are one people, one nation, that we're all in this together. Government isn't them, it's us. Not everyone is corrupt, and an informed citizenry can ferret out those who are. We still have the best educated workforce in the world, the most efficient bureaucracies, the most money and natural resources. We just need to get them working in the same direction.
The Nixon Thesis of Conflict is also an attitude. But as we're seeing right now it can also lead to madness. It separates America into two camps, the good, god-fearing decent people and the Dirty Fucking Hippies. But the Democratic Party never was a bunch of hippies, and it isn't now. It's just another bunch of Americans with different backgrounds from yours who have different views.
What the President is calling us to, left and right, is engagement. The right has decided, from the bottom up, that engagement is treason, that this President is their enemy, and so is everyone who stands with him. They are still following the Nixon Thesis.
They need to pay a political price for that, and I believe Washington will be shocked that they do pay a price. Political madness has never paid with a majority of Americans. Righteous anger over our problems, yes. But not madness that sets brother-against-brother, farm-against-city, rich against poor, or father-against-son.
Despite the hatred expressed on the Right, toward the President, toward Democrats, or even on this blog, understand that it's a natural extension of political beliefs they have followed, successfully, for a generation. You plot a course early in your lifetime, and seldom change until it has led you over a cliff.
Our country has now fallen over that cliff. We need a new course. A different course. One that begins with the need for consensus. It's what Bill Clinton turned into compromise, as Henry Clay did, and it's a consensus that can only be won when some ideas are pushed out of our political tent entirely, rendered anathema by events.
That's what is happening right now. The oil spill shows we can't expect anyone to police themselves -- we need cops in the suites as we do on the streets. It's not Obama's Katrina. It's oil's.
In time, with wisdom and sacrifice, Americans will learn this lesson. Or they will lose their union.