It is my reading of modern American political history that the nation goes through alternating cycles of clarity and rancor.
Periods of clarity are usually stimulated by large events, national and international, that force voters to seek from their politicians clear solutions to agreed problems. Wars, depressions, severe recessions and natural disasters present these problems.
Periods of rancor last longer, enable the country to absorb and digest significant changes that occur in periods of clarity and are marked by divisions in the electorate and confusion in public discourse. Like the making of sausage, they are not pretty to watch as they are made.
Rarely do we have severe clarity and rancor episodes in the same decade, much less during one president’s administration. Since January, 2001, however, we have observed an initial period of rancor following an unprecedented close and controversial presidential election, followed by two years of clarity following the attacks of September 11. With the re-election of President Bush, a new period of rancor began more than a year ago and continues today unabated. The midterm elections this past November may have been a climax of this bitter political direction.
Some seasoned political observers, however, think the current rancor will not now abate. Circumstantial evidence and historical precedent tend to support this view, that is, it will get worse before it gets better. If you are a Democrat, of course, this is an opportunity, just as Watergate, thirty years ago, was an opportunity for them. They did win the 1976 election, but the new president, Jimmy Carter, did not fulfill what he promised, nor did the Democrats bring a new set of political ideas into the American government.
Republicans, for the moment, have lost their self-confidence. They said in 1994 that they did have new ideas, that they were going to follow up the “Reagan Revolution” with a new set of economic principles. To be fair, many of the economic ideas spawned by the late Milton Friedman and his colleagues have become the working standard in our domestic policy. The Democrats, now back in power in Congress, might abandon them at their peril. On the other hand, some conservative critics will point out that the war in Iraq has sideswiped many of these principles in the second term of George W. Bush.
Like Harry Houdini and the great 19th-century magician Harry Kellar before him, the Democrats are good at sleight of hand. “How can they do that?” we ask. So far, unfortunately, they can’t. I am speaking of universal health care, social security and pension-fund reform, and a modern and effective system of public education. As for foreign policy, Democrats furrow their political brows and imitate Herman Melville’s Bartleby, who said over and over, “I’d prefer not to.” Like Melville’s readers, we do not ever find out what it is they do prefer in the world.
Many Republicans today have been infected with the anxiety, formerly the property of the Democrats, that persons all over the world won’t like us. That is a sure route to cover up national principles and national interests with obsequious foreign policies which our adversaries easily exploit. We simply are not ever going to win the contest to be Miss World or even Miss Congeniality.
The world is a dangerous place in the 21st century because it is no longer possible to isolate the new terrorisms and the new totalitarianisms. Technology and cash are now not just solutions. They are also devices for stalemating the world. We need a new program of international relationships and international standards. Shallow rhetoric did not cut it in the past, and it certainly won’t solve anything today.
A hopeful prospect has appeared under the rubric of “globalization.” If allowed to proceed without violence and terror, this will upgrade the world community as it has not been before. Most importantly, its tide will lift all sampans, dinghies, scows, wherries, randans, catamarans, dhows and yawls, and we may yet put the perpetual hunger and suffering of so many persons in the world behind us at last.
But has anyone noticed that many of those who oppose globalization and the peaceful competition of free markets are those elites who, hiding behind eleemosynary piety, simply are attempting to protect the status quo of the perpetual suffering of so many in the world for their own benefit?
We are in an era of rancor. All sides lack clarity. Confusion reigns over discourse. That it is the dilemma which nags the country as we now enter the next political season.
Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.