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It's Got to Be Gore: Part II– What Does it Make Sense to Hope For?

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In response to Part I, one commenter on my website wrote, after declaring that I'd gone bonkers:
Do you suppose that any one man can change the historical trend that has existed for more than half a century, and put the historical toothpaste back in the historical tube? There can be better or worse presidents in 2008 but the simple truth of the matter is that the election isn't going to change anything much."
Which raises the question: what indeed does the record of history allow us to hope for in terms of what the best possible new leadership might achieve? This commenter acknowledges that there might be better or worse presidents, but says that the difference between the best and the worst presidents we might get will not matter much. But I would say that any reasonably sensible observer of the American scene in 2006 would say that getting the presidency of George W. Bush was MUCH WORSE than alternative possibilities (whether we confine ourselves to Gore in 2000, or simply compare the conduct of this presidency with that of other presidencies of the past). And is there any reason to believe that what was true on the downside would not also be true on the upside? Moreover, though the full achievement of all those goals I listed in the first installment may be unreasonable to hope, surely it matters plenty how much progress we make toward their achievement. These goals are not matters of all-or-nothing. I'll tell you the historical example that I have in mind in my envisioning of what I hope our next leadership might accomplish. I'm thinking of what FDR accomplished upon becoming president in the election of 1932. Then, as now, the country was in terrible shape. In that case, it was a break down of the economic system. Now it is a breakdown of those aspects of the culture that converge on our governmental system (moral, legal, political, media). FDR, it is often said, saved capitalism. But he did more than that. He made use of that breakdown to create a new kind of society by expanding in creative ways the role of government in the life of the nation and of its citizens. Not everything worked, of course, but with the Civilian Conservation Corps and Social Security and countless other programs, he gave impetus to a more humane, more liberal kind of American capitalist democracy. The wave he imparted into our political system continued to carry America forward in many important (and valuable) ways for almost half a century. In my view, FDR was a great president. In the century since Mount Rushmore was carved into that rock (a travesty, I know), there's only one president who has served who belongs up there. And that's Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Had the president elected in 1932 been a mediocre president, or perhaps even a poor one, what would have happened? My guess is that America would have taken a very different path and become a different, and lesser, nation. Even if we exclude the scenario (not impossible) that the Depression could have led to the breakdown of democracy and the rise of either a fascist or communist dictatorship --not impossible, I would guess-- a less visionary, less constructive, less effective, less inspiring leader would have bequeathed to America a lesser future than we got because this particular man became president at that time of crisis. Perhaps to an observer during the Depression year 1931, anyone who'd proposed that a leader might take the country to the place where it was by the end of FDR's tenure would have seemed bonkers, calling for "putting the historical toothpaste back into the historical tube." That whole image of putting the toothpaste back into the tube --that it's bonkers to imagine reversing the trends of one's times-- is a counsel of despair. It suggests that the course of history is ruled by inevitability. The course of history reveals, on the contrary, that history can take different courses depending on matters that are not inevitable-- such as whether Booth could succeed in killing Lincoln, and whether the ballot in Long Beach County was confusing to voters in 2000. But even if we were simply uncertain whether history's course was inevitable --and how could anyone be CERTAIN that nothing we can do might turn around the destructive tendencies of recent times?-- it would seem that rationality and prudence would require us to choose as Pascal did in his famous wager: he operated on the assumption that there IS a God, reasoning that if he did so and he was wrong, the cost of his error was nothing great, but if he lived as if there were no God (who judges mortals) and he was wrong about THAT, then he'd pay a huge price for eternity. Likewise, we who do not fully understand the workings of history are called upon to choose not the self-fulfilling path of despair but rather that of hope. And this path includes looking to the possibility that great leadership can make a difference. That seems to me to have been the case with FDR's presidency. And I believe it can be the case with the president elected in 2008. And for similar reasons. When I say that FDR was a great president, I do so fully aware that his greatness is likely inseparable from the magnitude of the crises he was compelled to deal with. Our great presidents do not appear generally in normal, status quo kinds of times. (Lincoln is considered the greatest of presidents by the scholars of the field, and of course it is no coincidence that he was president at a time when the cataclysm of the Civil War beset the country.) Part of the nature of the times of great crisis --as implied in that well-known fact that the Chinese character for "crisis" also means "opportunity"-- is that times of crisis also allow for redefinition, for creating something BETTER than what existed before the breakdown. FDR's accomplishment was not just returning America to the path of prosperity (if, indeed, that was his accomplishment at all). It was utilizing the fluidity of a time of redefinition to accomplish many of the things that had been envisioned by progressives for a couple of generations, but had been blocked by the established powers from realization. He made America more than it had ever been. And as it was then, so is it now. The rise of these evil fascist powers has not only threatened the existence of all that has been good in America, it has also opened the possibilities for leadership --for GREAT leadership-- to use the fluidity of this moment to redefine America. Our political system, for a generation increasingly mired in the cesspool of corruption and plutocracy, might get redefined. Our role in the world, regarding which America squandered the opportunity presented it by the end of the Cold War (see the "Afterward" to the second edition of THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES), is ripe for redefining to meet the needs of humanity to create a new kind of global system, more ruled by law, more compatible with the biosphere, more humane in its values. Our public, degraded into passivity and ignorance and gullibility and coarseness, might be awakened to a renewed awareness of the meaning of citizenship. We still might fail, and fall prey to these fascist powers. Or we might prevail over those forces, only to muddle through in a slovenly way. Or we might rise to the occasion --seize the opportunity contained in the crisis-- and drive back the evil powers with a new assertion of the powers of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Those are what I think are the differences that it makes whether we get the best of possible leaders, or the worst, or someone in between. In the coming installments, I will share what I envision are the reasons for hoping that greatness is not unreasonable to hope for in this next phase of our history, and that Al Gore might provide that greatness in the presidency. Yes, Al Gore-- the same fellow who ran that lackluster campaign in 2000. No, I do not believe that had Gore been elected in 2000 he was going to be a great president. But I see reasons for believing that if he is elected in 2008, he truly might.

 

Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. He is the author of various books including The Parable of the Tribes: The (more...)
 

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