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The Coming Progressive Era

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Listen now, right here

It’s going to be a beautiful year

(Mark Knopfler, "We Can Get Wild")

Sometimes, being condemned to repeat history is not such a bad thing.

Welcome to 1932, redux. Almost all the elements are there, fortunately. And not a moment too soon.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt and a dire national emergency combined to wrestle the republic away from the death-grip in which the Republican oligarchy of the time was holding it, and in doing so dramatically expanded outward the envelope of progressive government in America, as well as establishing a progressive governing coalition that lasted four decades and more.

Many of the same conditions apply today. Not all, to be sure, but then there are also additional factors pointing in the same direction which were not present in Roosevelt’s day.

That said, in politics – it is often rightly remarked – a day can be like a lifetime, and anything can happen. Especially given the capacity of the current governing crew to do anything in pursuit of power – and I mean anything – any predictions regarding a post-Bush/Cheney era necessarily come attached to some massive caveats. There’s an attack on Iran, to start with, which Bush has apparently promised several people – including Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu – he will launch before leaving office. There are the current activities of the party in California, doing what they do best, winning elections the only way they can. Now they are attempting to rig the state’s Electoral College delegation to steal about 20 votes from the Democrats and throw the same number to the Republicans, for a net switch of plus-or-minus 40, making it highly difficult for Democrats to win the presidency even after the disaster called Bush. And, of course, there’s also the question – very real in my mind – as to whether Darth and the First Marionette will voluntarily leave office at all, or whether they will pull a Putin/Giuliani and engineer their own permanent dynasty.

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Even aside from their insatiable lust for power, they would have every reason to do so. Can you imagine what would have happened to these guys so far if they hadn’t had the ability to control prosecutorial power and to define state secrets these last years? I assure you that they themselves can well imagine, and they’re not anxious to walk away from Washington for that reason alone. Unfortunately, moreover, it’s all too easy to see how it might be done. Trump up another ‘foreign’ crisis. Seize power in the name of democracy. Deploy the party hacks for another Brooks Brothers riot like the one in Florida in 2000, with GOP brownshirts intimidating anyone in their way. Get the same 5-4 Supreme Court majority that put you in office in the first place to keep you there by giving it all some sort of legal blessing. Then stand by and watch as the Democrats do nothing, the press says nothing, the elder, pre-Neanderthal statesmen of the Republican Party stay silent, and a hapless public nurses its beers and ball games, oblivious to the death of the republic.

All of that could happen. Indeed, if you look at the trail of tears running like a river from Florida to Ground Zero, to Max Cleland, the Swiftboaters, Ohio, Guantánamo, Baghdad, Congress and beyond, all that in fact has been happening.

But for the sake of this discussion, let’s leave that aside. Let’s assume that – either because they wouldn’t try something that brazen or because the public would finally have had enough of this nightmare if they did – we actually have a relatively untainted election in 2008 and inaugurate a democratically chosen president in January 2009.

Under such conditions, what is likely to be the electoral result? I think a repeat of 1932 is definitely a strong possibility. That election represented a massive mandate to change the status quo, a supernova of American political history. The Great Depression was at its worst in 1932, with no government relief of which to speak. President Hoover didn’t seem to care, or at best appeared oblivious to people’s suffering. In any case, he was clearly unwilling to break with tradition and contemplate a new role for government, even during a dire national emergency. After decades of Republican rule, Americans were as thirsty for change as a frat party with a broken keg spout.

The situation is similar today, though not as drastic, and without 1932's concentrated woes in the economic sphere alone. Yet this is a country extremely desirous of change, and we still have another 13 months of BushCo unraveling to come before the election. Astonishingly low levels of support for the Catastrophic Kid have been recorded since 2004, now hovering around 30 percent. And we know what happened to the Republican Congress in 2006. Meanwhile, since 2003, more than half the country has been telling pollsters that America is on the wrong track. In the last year or so that percentage has been running at record 70-75 percent levels, representing a huge gathering storm.

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Franklin Roosevelt cobbled together a remarkable New Deal coalition that was devastating in 1932, but Democrats had already began savaging the GOP oligarchy two years earlier, picking up 8 Senate seats and 52 House seats in 1930. Those are serious numbers, but it turned out that that would be just the warm-up act. With FDR leading the ticket and two more years gone by stuck with Hoover sitting in the White House doing little but asking for patience during the severe Depression, the Democrats in 1932 picked up an additional 12 seats in the Senate, and an astonishing 101 more in the House. Then, of course, there was the presidential contest, the results of which would have been humiliating to Hoover under any circumstances, but doubly so as a rejection of his incumbency. FDR swept 42 of 48 states, riding 57 percent of the popular vote to an Electoral College blowout of 472 to Hoover’s pathetic 59. When the dust was all cleared after the 1932 election, Democrats controlled 59 of 96 Senate seats (or 62 percent), 313 of 435 House seats (72 percent), and they joined together under the Democrat in the White House for a massive mandate for change. I guess that explains why they sang "Happy Days Are Here Again".

Quite arguably the exact same process is happening now. Republicans are deeply reviled for having taken the country off its historic path in nearly every way possible to do so. This is, of course, a disaster made by the entire party (not just one president), which effectively controlled all three branches of government from 2001 until 2007, with some minor exceptions in Congress and the courts. That means that GOP presidential candidates are stuck between the roughest of rocks and the hardest of hard places. They must run far away from the Party and the current president to have a prayer of winning in 2008, but they also simultaneously cannot plausibly do so, and even if they did it would only result in them alienating their own base. If the Democrats have even the slightest clue in their heads (which is doubtful other than the Clintons, who know how to win elections), 2008 will be a referendum on George W. Bush and the party of Iraq, Katrina, Osama, Schiavo, Rove, Foley, Social Security destruction, debt, devastation and more. You wouldn’t want to be holding them cards, even if you weren’t already as pathetic a figure as Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson, leading as demoralized a bunch of losers as is today’s GOP.

I suspect the repeat of 1932 is already underway. Like then, today you have a hegemonic Republican Party which has had ample opportunity to show its policy wares, generating a long line of angry customers demanding a refund on the damaged goods they bought. One of the great architects of the earlier GOP domination was Mark Hanna, who pioneered the noxious stew mixing money, corporate power and fear-mongering into the modern presidential campaign and was, therefore, the hero of one Karl Rove. But Rove got more than he bargained for in worshiping Hanna. And also less. He built himself a little empire, using the same tools, sure enough. But it was supposed to last a generation or two, like Hanna’s did. Alas, just the opposite has likely occurred. Rove’s empire generated enough revulsion such that his McKinley, George Bush the Inferior, is now widely considered the worst president ever, even by serious historians, and even by conservative ones. More importantly, it lasted just long enough to produce what appears to be precisely its opposite reaction – a generational realignment in favor of the Democratic Party. Or, more properly, in favor of the Party That Happens To Not Be The Republican Party.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)

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