In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama called the forthcoming presidential election a “defining moment” in this country’s history. It is conceivable that he is right. There are precedents in American history for an election inaugurating a period of reform and political realignment.
Such a development, however, is extremely rare and surrounded by contingencies normally beyond the control of the advocates of reform. So let me speculate about whether the 2008 election might set in motion a political reconfiguration — and even a political renaissance — in the United States, restoring a modicum of democracy to the country’s political system, while ending our march toward imperialism, perpetual warfare, and bankruptcy that began with the Cold War.
The political blunders, serious mistakes, and governmental failures of the last eight years so discredited the administration of George W. Bush — his average approval rating has fallen to 27% and some polls now show him dipping into the low twenties — that his name was barely mentioned in the major speeches at the Republican convention. Even John McCain has chosen to run under the banner of “maverick” as a candidate of “change,” despite the fact that his own party’s misgoverning has elicited those demands for change.
Bringing the opposition party to power, however, is not in itself likely to restore the American republic to good working order. It is almost inconceivable that any president could stand up to the overwhelming pressures of the military-industrial complex, as well as the extra-constitutional powers of the 16 intelligence agencies that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the entrenched interests they represent. The subversive influence of the imperial presidency (and vice presidency), the vast expansion of official secrecy and of the police and spying powers of the state, the institution of a second Defense Department in the form of the Department of Homeland Security, and the irrational commitments of American imperialism (761 active military bases in 151 foreign countries as of 2008) will not easily be rolled back by the normal workings of the political system.
For even a possibility of that occurring, the vote in November would have to result in a “realigning election,” of which there have been only two during the past century — the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and of Richard Nixon in 1968. Until 1932, the Republicans had controlled the presidency for 56 of the previous 72 years, beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. After 1932, the Democrats occupied the White House for 28 of the next 36 years.
The 1968 election saw the withdrawal of the candidacy of President Lyndon Johnson under the pressure of the Vietnam War, the defeat of his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, not to mention the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. That election, based on Nixon’s so-called southern strategy, led to a new political alignment nationally, favoring the Republicans. The essence of that realignment lay in the running of Republican racists for office in the old Confederate states where the Democrats had long been the party of choice. Before 1968, the Democrats had also been the majority party nationally, winning seven of the previous nine presidential elections. The Republicans won seven of the next ten between 1968 and 2004.
Of these two realigning elections, the Roosevelt election is certainly the more important for our moment, ushering in as it did one of the few truly democratic periods in American political history. In his new book, Democracy Incorporated, Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin suggests the following: “Democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs.”
However, the founders of this country and virtually all subsequent political leaders have been hostile to democracy in this sense…
READ THE REST OF THIS POST AT TOMDISPATCH.COM
Chalmers Johnson is the author of three linked books on the crises of American imperialism and militarism. They are Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (2006). All are available in paperback from Metropolitan Books.
Copyright 2008 Chalmers Johnson