Our tendency to gloss over the unspeakable carnage of World War Two and call it ‘The Good War’ is only partly explainable by the fact that we faced an undeniably evil set of enemies and that we defeated them decisively. There were at least three really fortunate outcomes of the war that made us look back at it with less horror than it warranted. The first was that the threat of the war allowed Franklin Roosevelt to win an unprecedented third-term (and then a fourth) in which he was able to solidify the liberal bent of the Supreme Court and develop the welfare state. This created the kind of political consensus needed for Truman to win and carry forth a twenty year uninterrupted period of liberal rule. The second piece of good fortune, as Paul Krugman notes this morning, was that the necessity of borrowing the modern equivalent of $30 trillion to fight the war overcame the political resistance to deficit spending that had stalled the economic recovery in 1938. The Great Depression was cured not by brilliant political leadership, but by accident. The third piece of good fortune was that the leading general of the war who won the presidency in 1952 was not Douglas MacArthur, but Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower tamed the reactionary forces on the right and allowed the basic structure of the New Deal to stand, thereby creating a postwar consensus that benefited us greatly and allowed the middle class to grow and prosper. As a result of these three pieces of good fortune, we got a flourishing economy, a robust middle class, a decent social safety net, and a Supreme Court that would lead us forward on civil rights for blacks, women, and religious minorities.
But we have to imagine an alternative history where liberalism was not allowed to govern uninterrupted and largely unchallenged, where the stimulus never came to end the Great Depression, and where we didn’t have a string of fairly strong non-reactionary political leadership. That prospect is what we’re facing now.
In my optimistic moments, I detach myself from the moment and consider this a mere trough like we faced in 1938 or the Republicans faced in 1982. It’s a significant correction in an otherwise uninterrupted path to a new political climate. I get this feeling when I look at data on the cyclical nature of electoral outcomes or at demographic projections or at the Electoral College map.
In my pessimistic moments, I look at examples where the reactionary right has actually capitalized on bad economic times to win power and then undermined the electoral process to assure their continuation in power. You want a possible example of what I am talking about? Consider that Houston, Texas mayor Bill White is running for governor against Republican Rick Perry. Now consider this:
(HOUSTON) Texas law and Harris County elected officials are calling it a “public calamity” that has thrust elections into a sudden mode of uncertainty.
A morning 3-alarm fire destroyed an old, beat up warehouse off Canino and Downey in northeast Harris County. While it may have looked like any other non-descript warehouse in the neighborhood, some 10,000 pieces of election equipment and “nearly all of the county’s voting machines, which were to be used for the upcoming elections” were burned up in the fire…
Harris County’s top election officer, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, did her best to sound optimistic at an afternoon briefing, even though she was left completely without answers and even a general plan at the time.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to have a timely election here and that we’re going to take care of the voters,” said Kaufman, who admitted that there will likely be a shortage of voting machines throughout the Houston area for the November 2nd election.
Lucky bit of good fortune for the incumbent governor or deliberate attempt to suppress the Houston vote? Arson investigators are still looking into it. Are those investigators independent, or are they foxes watching the henhouse?
Reactionaries don’t have to call off elections. They can capture the vote-counting process instead. They can resort to intimidation. They can ban certain political parties, or all but their own. In the American system, we have some pretty strong safeguards against some of the more extreme threats from the right, but we’re still susceptible to capture and suppression.
For all their talk about constitutional principles, the far right is actually pretty dissatisfied with the Constitution, which is why they keep offering to tear up amendments and offer new ones. The far right that is emerging now is pretty much like the far right we would have seen if MacArthur or Robert Taft had become president instead of Eisenhower. They never agreed to the postwar consensus or with how we overcame the Great Depression or in the liberal bent of the Warren Court that led the way for civil rights for blacks, gays, and religious minorities (and, now, the LGBT community). They want to roll it back. And they’re very, very ascendant at the moment.
So, as I vacillate between optimism and pessimism, I will continue to remind you of the stakes. Our history is a guide that can often provide comfort. But we have been lucky. If we’re not careful, our luck will run out.