Think of this as Volume 16, Number 22 of A-Clue.com, the online newsletter I've written since 1997. Enjoy.
That's about where we are on America's macro political calendar. We have a new set of assumptions, about power, about right and wrong, in a death struggle with the assumptions that came before it. This is the election on which the crisis turns.
But we don't talk about it. We can't. We talk past each other instead.
There's nothing unusual about this. Right now we are two separate countries – one “red” and one “blue” – and we live with different belief systems. Only one can survive.
It was like this once before, in my lifetime.
The Left of the early 1970s used humor in its grief and anger over the President, who made Vietnam “a Cold War activity,” who created the “southern strategy,” and whose rhetoric fed the deepening anger suburbanites felt toward those ungrateful kids, the blacks, and all the reporters, teachers, and “permissive” parents who'd enabled the 1960s.
Of course, Nixon didn't see his 1972 triumph as inevitable at all. He saw himself as surrounded by enemies, the Kennedys who had denied him in 1960, the liberal elites who saw a “self-made man” as somehow inferior. That's where “the horrors” of Watergate came from, this insecurity, this deep fear that “they” might take back power, and that what Nixon stood for might be all swept away.
As it almost was. That's what we forget, in the receding historical tide. There was once something called the "New Deal coalition" that was supposed to call to us toward unity, and social cohesion. But that all died after 1972 (Jimmy Carter notwithstanding) as previous sets of assumptions had died before them:
In 1936 it was an open question whether democracy could survive. There were real fascists on our streets, real Nazi sympathizers, some of them very high up in our business and media culture. There were also real Communists, big “C” communists. What united them was the idea that democracy was degenerate, that the Depression had proven it, that our system was fatally flawed, disorganized, even anarchic.
In 1900 the progressive William McKinley, fearing that the Democrats and Populists were uniting under Bryan to beat him, a solid South and West along with urban political machines outvoting the new business elites, sought a more popular, symbolic Vice President. A war hero, a young Lochinvar, a proven vote getter in the biggest of all big states. Fellow named Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1864, of course, there was great doubt whether this union, or any union so consecrated, could long endure. We would have an election, but its outcome would be decided on the battlefield. In hopes of surviving indecisive military results the President turned away his loyal running mate, renamed the Republican Party the Union, and chose a southerner to run with him.
We forget how close the balance seemed at the time. And everyone, looking at this November's election, calls the outcome close. The veterans of the GOP's foreign wars hate Obama. The suburbs despise Obama. He can't win whites, forget working class whites. The rich will spend anything to get him out, and the party's machines will wipe out as many blacks and browns and young and transient as they can, to guarantee the outcome.
My own wife is angry that I can't find much good to say about Republicans these days, so extreme and even out-to-lunch have become their rhetoric and beliefs. To me they seem at war with the country, a country whose future I personally see as bright. We have problems, but we also have solutions, and we have an army of young, educated, motivated people (two of them in my own home) ready to take on the problems of energy, the environment, and the creation of a global society.
All this fills many Republicans with fear, contempt and loathing. They personalize it, directing the zeal and hatred upon the President as we once hated Nixon, as fascists and communists hated Roosevelt, as populists and the urban classes hated McKinley, as the south hated Lincoln. There is nothing new in “birtherism” – even Lincoln was portrayed as an ape. The extremism of rejecting global warming's premise, of assuming Armageddon to be just around the corner, of seeing the American project as doomed, that's not new either.
But think about it. You've lived your whole life under certain assumptions. There is a balance to political life, and you've always been on the right side. Then, suddenly, not only do the old solutions no longer work, they throw us into a greater catastrophe, and you're now faced with a life-or-death political struggle against people and ideas and forces you never could conceive of before. And you're the underdog.
An America that's not majority white? A crisis that the whole world must unite to confront? The idea that the lifestyle you've led all your life is a threat to the planet? Preposterous. Ridiculous.
Make it go away. We will make it go away. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt, my friend.
Or we'll confront it, head-on, as we confronted the generation gap, as we confronted Hitler and the Soviet threat, as we confronted corporatism and class warfare, as we confronted the slavery on which our Constitutional system had been based.
That's pretty much the choice, as I see it. Although I can understand, in some way, if you can't see it that way, if what I've written here – obliquely comparing Barack Obama to the Roosevelts and Lincoln – reads like madness, insanity. (Note I also compared him with Nixon if it makes you feel better. And William McKinley.)
But such is the nature of every crisis we've faced as a nation. The fierce urgency of now, lined up against a lifetime of assumptions about the way the world works and how it's supposed to be. Revolution matched by counter-revolution. It seems we are on the precipice. We will be all one thing or all the other.
In past crises America has always chosen to go forward, even if forward led to some pretty big sins. We united despite slavery, and we accepted the progressive premise. We made ourselves a world power despite our fears and divisions. We beat Hitler, we healed the generation gap and won the Cold War.
Now we face the War Against Oil. We face the challenge of global warming, and the most spectacular species die-off since the dinosaurs. We face China, and India, and Iran, and the Mexican drug cartels.
I believe we'll go forward, again, because we always have before. But, I also know, that's not the way things look to be heading when you turn on the TV, and it's not something we can talk about if you're red and I'm blue.