Today the many disparate crises of the past have combined into one general systemic crisis, placing the basic structure of the Republic at mortal risk. At the forefront of concern must be the question: Will the Constitution of the United States survive? Is the American state now in the midst of a transmutation in which the 217-year-old provisions for a balance of powers and popular freedoms are being overridden and canceled? Or will defenders of the Constitution step forward, as has happened in constitutional crises of the past, to save the system and restore its integrity?
Yogi Berra said it best: "It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. "
Predictions in politics rest upon two assumptions: (a) that present trends will continue into the future, and (b) that there will be no totally unexpected "surprises. "
Both assumptions are rarely true and both are refuted both by common sense and by the lessons of history.
Case in point: last week 's "Texas shootout. " Until last week, the White House routine was in motion and functioning smoothly: Bush was the public face of the Administration, and Cheney the hand in the sock-puppet, self-selected in 2000 to give stability, maturity and "gravitas " to the Bush regime. Last week Cheney was exposed to the public at large as the reckless, self-absorbed, super-annuated adolescent that his perceptive critics knew him to be. Today the right-wing propaganda mills are up to full speed, telling us "move along, folks, nothing to see here. " But try as they might, the public perception of Dick Cheney will not revert to status-quo-ante. The "present trend " of the Bush/Cheney team has been turned in an altered direction.
But Dick Cheney 's bad aim was a minor disruption, of interest to us only because of its immediacy. Other "surprises " are well known to all of us.
* In the fall of 1958, Fidel Castro seemed to be insignificant irritant to the regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. On New Years Day in 1959, Batista fled Cuba, and two days later Castro and his "brigands, " marched into Havana.
* In the summer of 1963, John Kennedy 's election to a second term appeared to be a near-certainty.
* So too, his brother Robert 's nomination at the Chicago Democratic convention in August, 1968.
* On election day in 1964, Lyndon Johnson seemed assured of a second term four years hence. And on election day, 1972, there was no reason whatever to doubt that Richard Nixon would serve out a full term.
* In the early eighties, Reagan 's UN Ambassador, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, warned us all that where communism had established its rule, it had never retreated one square inch. And Mikhail Gorbachev, the Right told us, was just another Communist apparatchik, like all the others "Khruschev with a tailored suit and a thin wife, " as George Will put it.
* In 1990 Nelson Mandela was a prisoner of the South African apartheid regime. In 1994 he was elected President of the Republic of South Africa.
Political upheavals are like earthquakes. Beneath a placid landscape, stresses quietly build up until the fault ruptures, suddenly and without warning, forever transforming the landscape.
So, is an upheaval looming ahead for the United States? Not necessarily. For history also teaches us that democracies can descend slowly, by small increments, into despotism. As William O. Douglas put it: "As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged. "
Which is our future? A bang, or a whimper? Or perhaps a renaissance? We don 't know. But the answer, to no small degree, is in the hands of us, of "we the people."