The Next Wave
Posted on June 25, 2008
Gary Hart has an important op-ed in the New York Times today, (America’s Next Chapter). In it, he theorizes, “this campaign presents the potential for a new cycle in American history.” He goes on to quote Arthur Schlesinger, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Adams about the oscillations between reform and reaction, and the cycles of American political history.
“What matters more than the length of cycles, is that the swings, between what Schlesinger called periods of reform and period of consolidation, clearly occur: If we somewhat arbitrarily fix the age of Franklin Roosevelt as 1932 to 1968 and the era of Ronald Reagan as 1968-2008, a new cycle of American political history – a cycle of reform – is due.”
It shouldn’t surprise anybody that we are in an age of reform. New centuries often usher in new eras. The American people are now looking darkly through the looking glass, trying to discern our nation’s destiny in this new century. What will America be like at the beginning of the 22nd Century? Will we still be the lone superpower? Will we all be working for the Chinese? Are America’s best days behind them? Will our budget deficits be so big, clogged up with out-of-control entitlement spending, that we won’t be able to pay for our national defense? What is America’s essential character? Are we a nation dominated by white Christians or are we a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial melting pot? Are we a society governed by laws and a Constitution or are we governed by political factions who believe in the twin philosophies of “the ends justify the means” and “to the victor go the spoils”? Are we a leader among democracies or are we a rock living in splendid isolation? Should we expect competence from our government or more blithering incompetence? Is the American dream to open a small business or to work in a multi-national corporation? Are we essentially collectivist or individualistic?
We are living in an age of anxiety. Despite having more wealth than at any other time in our nation’s history, most people are simply not comfortable with their station in life. It is as if we, as a society, are climbing up a mountain, but aren’t sure we will get to the top, and are deathly afraid that we are going to tumble down off the side into a dark abyss. This is born out in the polls, where fewer than one in 5 Americans believe our nation is going in the right direction.
The party that can successfully grasp the reform mantle will dominate the next era of politics. It is an open question about which one will, and it is not altogether certain that either one can. The Republicans have a significant Christian conservative wing of the party that prefers to spend most its time fighting on social issues, like abortion, homosexuality, and evolution, and has little interest in reform. The Democrats are dominated by labor unions that resist economic reforms, hate the global economy, embrace protectionism and refuse to allow merit-pay for teachers. They hate real reform.
At the turn of the last century, we had a similar fight for the soul of reform between the political parties. Theodore Roosevelt embraced bull-moose reform, became the nation’s first conservationist and busted monopolies as the first trust-buster. His reform philosophy lived on with some Republican progressives, like Bob LaFollette who did battle with Speaker Joe Cannon and conservative industrialists. Woodrow Wilson was his Democratic alter-ego, a progressive in his own right, who updated the financial institutions of government, but who failed in his efforts to bring America into the League of Nations. Wilson also had a large segment of his party (the South), who had absolutely no interest in reform, but even less interest in the Republicans.
John McCain, despite his age, is better suited to claim the reform mantle. Like his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, McCain is an environmentalist, a trust-buster, and a political reformer. He is also an active internationalist who embraces the free market and free trade.
Barack Obama, despite his reform image, has offered little in the form of reform. He turned his back on campaign finance reform, he is a protectionist and a protector of labor unions. He is an isolationist at heart, believing that we have no responsibility in Iraq to finish the job there. He believes in higher taxes and more government, but doesn’t believe in making government more accountable. He is a throw-back to the era of big labor and big government. He has the touch of the populist in him, but he is a politician more in the model of a William Jennings Bryan than Woodrow Wilson.
The essential battleground of this election is over the issue of reform, and it is a fight of style over substance. McCain, a white Republican with white hair, looks the part of a traditional conservative, but at his heart he is a reformer. Obama, a young-looking, hip, African-American Democrat, embodies the very look of reform, but at his heart is a conventional politician.