Is This Election the Major Historical Turning Point It Seems to Be? Yes

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The McCains: Profiles in Privilege. The GOP is breaking all-time records for dishonesty and pandering, and the Democrats are not exactly innocent bystanders. Still, lesser evilism triumphs. 

By Chalmers Johnson, Tomdispatch.com. Posted October 8, 2008.   

  

A small election victory won’t drastically turn around any of the
darker challenges our country faces — only a massive victory can do
that.

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. They
favored checks and balances, republicanism, and rule by elites rather
than rule by the common man or woman. Wolin writes, “The American
political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias
against democracy. It was constructed by those who were either
skeptical about democracy or hostile to it. Democratic advance proved
to be slow, uphill, forever incomplete.

“The republic existed for three-quarters of a century before
formal slavery was ended; another hundred years before black Americans
were assured of their voting rights. Only in the twentieth century
were women guaranteed the vote and trade unions the right to bargain
collectively. In none of these instances has victory been complete:
women still lack full equality, racism persists, and the destruction
of the remnants of trade unions remains a goal of corporate
strategies. Far from being innate, democracy in America has gone
against the grain, against the very forms by which the political and
economic power of the country has been and continues to be ordered.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal introduced a brief period of approximate
democracy. This ended with the U.S. entry into World War II, when the
New Deal was replaced by a wartime economy based on munitions
manufacture and the support of weapons producers. This development had
a powerful effect on the American political psyche, since only war
production ultimately overcame the conditions of the Great Depression
and restored full employment. Ever since that time, the United States
has experimented with maintaining a military economy and a civilian
economy simultaneously. Over time, this has had the effect of
misallocating vital resources away from investment and consumption,
while sapping the country’s international competitiveness.

Socioeconomic conditions in 2008 bear a certain resemblance to those
of 1932, making a realigning election conceivable. Unemployment in
1932 was a record 33%. In the fall of 2008, the rate is a much lower
6.1%, but other severe economic pressures abound. These include
massive mortgage foreclosures, bank and investment house failures,
rapid inflation in the prices of food and fuel, the failure of the
health care system to deliver service to all citizens, a growing
global-warming environmental catastrophe due to the over-consumption
of fossil fuels, continuing costly military interventions in Iraq and
Afghanistan, with more on the horizon due to foreign policy failures
(in Georgia, Ukraine, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and
elsewhere), and record-setting budgetary and trade deficits.

The question is: Can the electorate be mobilized, as in 1932, and will
this indeed lead to a realigning election? The answer to neither
question is an unambiguous yes.

The Race Factor

Even to contemplate that happening, of course, the Democratic Party
first has to win the election — and in smashing style — and it faces
two formidable obstacles to doing so: race and regionalism.

Although large numbers of white Democrats and independents have told
pollsters that the race of a candidate is not a factor in how they
will decide their vote, there is ample evidence that they are not
telling the truth — either to pollsters or, in many cases perhaps no
less importantly, to themselves. Andrew Hacker, a political scientist
at Queen’s College, New York, has written strikingly on this subject,
starting with the phenomenon known as the “Bradley Effect.”

The term refers to Tom Bradley, a former black mayor of Los Angeles,
who lost his 1982 bid to become governor of California, even though
every poll in the state showed him leading his white opponent by
substantial margins. Similar results appeared in 1989, when David
Dinkins ran for mayor of New York City and Douglas Wilder sought
election as governor of Virginia. Dinkins was ahead by 18 percentage
points, but won by only two, and Wilder was leading by nine points,
but squeaked through by only half a percent. Numerous other examples
lead Hacker to offer this advice to Obama campaign offices: always
subtract 7% from favorable poll results. That’s the potential Bradley
effect.

Meanwhile, the Karl Rove-trained Republican Party has been hard at
work disenfranchising black voters. Although we are finally beyond
property qualifications, written tests, and the poll tax, there are
many new gimmicks. These include laws requiring voters to present
official identity cards that include a photo, which, for all practical
purposes, means either a driver’s license or a passport. Many states
drop men and women from the voting rolls who have been convicted of a
felony but have fully completed their sentences, or require elaborate
procedures for those who have been in prison — where, Hacker points
out, black men and women outnumber whites by nearly six to one — to
be reinstated. There are many other ways of disqualifying black
voters, not the least of which is imprisonment itself. After all, the
United States imprisons a greater proportion of its population than
any other country on Earth, a burden that falls disproportionately on
African Americans. Such obstacles can be overcome but they require
heroic organizational efforts.

The Regional Factor

Regionalism is the other obvious obstacle standing in the way of
attempts to mobilize the electorate on a national basis for a
turning-point election. In their book, Divided America: The Ferocious
Power Struggle in American Politics, the political scientists Earl and
Merle Black argue that the U.S. electorate is hopelessly split. This
division, which has become more entrenched with each passing year, is
fundamentally ideological, but it is also rooted in ethnicity and
manifests itself in an intense and never-ending partisanship. “In
modern American politics,” they write, “a Republican Party dominated
by white Protestants faces a Democratic Party in which minorities plus
non-Christian whites far outnumber white Protestants.”

Another difference on the rise involves gender imbalance. In the
1950s, the Democratic Party, then by far the larger of the two
parties, was evenly balanced between women and men. Fifty years later,
a smaller but still potent Democratic Party contained far more women
than men (60% to 40%). “In contrast, the Republican Party has shifted
from an institution with more women than men in the 1950s (55% to 45%)
to one in which men and women were as evenly balanced in 2004 as
Democrats were in the 1950s.”

Now, add in regionalism, specifically the old American antagonism
between the two sides in the Civil War. That once meant southern
Democrats versus northern Republicans. By the twenty-first century,
however, that binary division had given way to something more complex
— “a new American regionalism, a pattern of conflict in which
Democrats and Republicans each possess two regional strongholds and in
which the Midwest, as the swing region, holds the balance of power in
presidential elections.”

The five regions Earl and Merle Black identify — each becoming more
partisan and less characteristic of the nation as a whole — are the
Northeast, South, Midwest, Mountains/Plains, and Pacific Coast. The
Northeast, although declining slightly in population, has become
unambiguously liberal Democratic. It is composed of New England
(Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and
Vermont), the Middle Atlantic states (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey,
New York, and Pennsylvania), and the District of Columbia. It is the
primary Democratic stronghold.

The South is today a Republican stronghold made up of the eleven
former Confederate states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia,
Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee,
Texas, and Virginia). A second Republican stronghold, displaying an
intense and growing partisanship, is the Mountains/Plains region,
composed of the 13 states of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas,
Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South
Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

A second Democratic stronghold is the Pacific Coast, which includes
the nation’s most populous state, California, joined by Alaska,
Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington. The Midwest, where national elections
are won or lost by the party able to hold onto, and mobilize, its
strongholds, is composed of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky,
Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The
two most important swing states in the nation are Florida (27
electoral votes) and Ohio (20 electoral votes), which the Democrats
narrowly lost, generally under contested circumstances, in both 2000
and 2004.

These five regions are today entrenched in the nation’s psyche.
Normally, they ensure very narrow victories by one party or another in
national elections. There is no way to get around them, barring a
clear and unmistakable performance failure by one of the parties — as
happened to the Republicans during the Great Depression and may be
happening again.

Why This Might Still Be a Turning-Point Election

Beyond these negatives, in 2008 there have been a number of
developments that speak to the possibility of a turning-point
election. First, the weakness (and age) of the Republican candidate
may perhaps indicate that the Party itself is truly at the end of a
forty-year cycle of power. Second, of course, is the meltdown, even
possibly implosion, of the U.S. economy on the Republican watch
(specifically, on that of George W. Bush, the least popular President
in memory, as measured by recent opinion polls). This has put states
in the Midwest and elsewhere that Bush took in 2000 and 2004 into
play.

Third, there has been a noticeable trend in shifting party
affiliations in which the Democrats are gaining membership as the
Republicans are losing it, especially in key battleground states like
Pennsylvania where, in 2008 alone, 474,000 new names have gone on the
Democratic rolls, according to the Washington Post, even as the
Republicans have lost 38,000. Overall, since 2006, the Democrats have
gained at least two million new members, while the Republicans have
lost 344,000. According to the Gallup organization, self-identified
Democrats outnumbered self-identified Republicans by a 37% to 28%
margin this June, a gap which may only be widening.

Fourth, there is the possibility of a flood of new, especially young,
first-time voters, who either screen calls or live on cell phones, not
landlines, and so are being under-measured by pollsters, as black
voters may also be in this election. (However, when it comes to the
young vote, which has been ballyhooed in a number of recent elections
without turning out to be significant on Election Day, we must be
cautious.) And fifth, an influx of new Democratic voters in states
like Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico threatens, in this election at
least, to dent somewhat the normal regional loyalty patterns described
by Earl and Merle Black.

Above all, two main issues will determine whether or not the November
election will be a realigning one. Republican Party failures in
managing the economy, in involving the country in catastrophic wars of
choice, and in ignoring such paramount issues as global warming all
dictate a Democratic victory. Militating against that outcome is
racist hostility, conscious or otherwise, toward the Democratic
Party’s candidate as well as deep-seated regional loyalties. While the
crisis caused by the performance failures of the incumbent party seems
to guarantee a realigning election favoring the Democrats, it is
simply impossible to determine the degree to which race and
regionalism may sway voters. The fate of the nation hangs in the
balance.

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.

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