Will the presidential election of 2008 mark a turning point in American political history? Will it terminate with extreme prejudice the conservative ascendancy that has dominated the country for the last generation? No matter the haplessness of the Democratic opposition, the answer is yes.
With Richard Nixon’s victory in the 1968 presidential election, a new political order first triumphed over New Deal liberalism. It was an historic victory that one-time Republican strategist and now political critic Kevin Phillips memorably anointed the “emerging Republican majority.” Now, that Republican “majority” finds itself in a systemic crisis from which there is no escape.
Only at moments of profound shock to the old order of things — the Great Depression of the 1930s or the coming together of imperial war, racial confrontation, and de-industrialization in the late 1960s and 1970s — does this kind of upheaval become possible in a political universe renowned for its stability, banality, and extraordinary capacity to duck things that matter. The trauma must be real and it must be perceived by people as traumatic. Both conditions now apply.
War, economic collapse, and the political implosion of the Republican Party will make 2008 a year to remember.
The Politics of Fear in Reverse
Iraq is an albatross that, all by itself, could sink the ship of state. At this point, there’s no need to rehearse the polling numbers that register the no-looking-back abandonment of this colossal misadventure by most Americans. No cosmetic fix, like the “surge,” can, in the end, make a difference — because large majorities decided long ago that the invasion was a fiasco, and because the geopolitical and geo-economic objectives of the Bush administration leave no room for a genuine Iraqi nationalism which would be the only way out of this mess.
The fatal impact of the President’s adventure in Iraq, however, runs far deeper than that. It has undermined the politics of fear which, above all else, had sustained the Bush administration. According to the latest polls, the Democrats who rate national security a key concern has shrunk to a percentage bordering on the statistically irrelevant. Independents display a similar “been there, done that” attitude. Republicans do express significantly greater levels of alarm, but far lower than a year or two ago.
In fact, the politics of fear may now be operating in reverse. The chronic belligerence of the Bush administration, especially in the last year with respect to Iran, and the cartoonish saber-rattling of Republican presidential candidates (whether genuine or because they believe themselves captives of the Bush legacy) is scary. Its only promise seems to be endless war for purposes few understand or are ready to salute. To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for many people now, the only thing to fear is the politics of fear itself.
And then there is the war on the Constitution. Randolph Bourne, a public intellectual writing around the time of World War I, is remembered today for one trenchant observation: that war is the health of the state. Mobilizing for war invites the cancerous growth of the bureaucratic state apparatus and its power over everyday life. Like some over-ripe fruit this kind of war-borne “healthiness” is today visibly morphing into its opposite — what we might call the “sickness of the state.”
The constitutional transgressions of the executive branch and its abrogation of the powers reserved to the other two branches of government are, by now, reasonably well known. Most of this aggressive over-reaching has been encouraged by the imperial hubris exemplified by the invasion of Iraq. It would be short-sighted to think that this only disturbs the equanimity of a small circle of civil libertarians. There is a long-lived and robust tradition in American political life always resentful of this kind of statism. In part, this helps account for wholesale defections from the Republican Party by those who believe it has been kidnapped by political elites masquerading as down-home, “live free or die” conservatives.
Now, add potential economic collapse to this witches brew. Even the soberest economy watchers, pundits with PhDs — whose dismal record in predicting anything tempts me not to mention this — are prophesying dark times ahead. Depression — or a slump so deep it’s not worth quibbling about the difference — is evidently on the way; indeed is already underway. The economics of militarism have been a mainstay of business stability for more than half century; but now, as in the Vietnam era, deficits incurred to finance invasion only exacerbate a much more embracing dilemma.
Start with the confidence game being run out of Wall Street; after all, the subprime mortgage debacle now occupies newspaper front pages day after outrageous day. Certainly, these tales of greed and financial malfeasance are numbingly familiar. Yet, precisely that sense of deja vu all over again, of Enron revisited, of an endless cascade of scandalous, irrational behavior affecting the central financial institutions of our world suggests just how dire things have become.
Enronization as Normal Life
Once upon a time, all through the nineteenth century, financial panics — often precipitating more widespread economic slumps — were a commonly accepted, if dreaded, part of “normal” economic life. Then the Crash of 1929, followed by the New Deal Keynesian regulatory state called into being to prevent its recurrence, made these cyclical extremes rare.
Beginning with the stock market crash of 1987, however, they have become ever more common again, most notoriously — until now, that is — with the dot.com implosion of 2000 and the Enronization that followed. Enron seems like only yesterday because, in fact, it was only yesterday, which strongly suggests that the financial sector is now increasingly out of control. At least three factors lurk behind this new reality…
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Steve Fraser is a writer and editor, as well as the co-founder of the American Empire Project. He is the author of Every Man a Speculator: A History of Wall Street in American Life. His latest book, Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, will be published by Yale University Press in March 2008.
Copyright 2007 Steve Fraser