Sunday, February 04, 2018

(Half of) Seven Days in February

"Old times there are not forgotten"

Uh, wait, what?

The tale doesn’t end in the mid-20th century. The racial progress of the civil rights era led to a series of political assassinations and, shortly thereafter, to the election of Richard Nixon — who quickly caused a democratic and constitutional crisis of his own. In the aftermath of that period, little was done — and much was undone — on civil rights, and American democracy stabilized.

That is, it stabilized until the election of President Barack Obama, which led to a hard turn toward confrontation in the Republican Party, and — perhaps predictably, given this history — to the election of Donald Trump, who pairs racial resentment with a deep skepticism of both democratic process and the legitimacy of his opponents.

That's about as ahistorical an analysis as I can imagine.  It glosses over Reagan, H.W. Bush, Iran-Contra, Clinton and Whitewater, Gingrich and the Contract on America, George W. Bush and torture, as well as the right wing loons in the GOP who never got over the fact Goldwater lost.

American democracy "stabilized"?  When, after Bush v. Gore?  After Clinton's impeachment?  After Bush pardoned in Iran-Contra everybody on his way out the door?  After Ford pardoned Nixon, or Iran took over the U.S. Embassy?  After W. invaded Iraq and discovered Abu Ghraib was not a country club prison?

The Immigration Act of 1917 was a direct result of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and was a direct imposition of restrictions on immigration to America based on race and xenophobia.  You could look it up.  It wasn't until after World War II that Harry Truman integrated the armed forces, and shortly after that began the civil rights movement in the '50's, which led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the '60's.  And it was during the '60's, especially 1968, that people thought the American republic was being threatened.

And there was, of course, the Red Scare under Truman and Eisenhower, which presented a very serious threat to democracy and our democratic institutions.  All the Commies weren't just in Hollywood being blacklisted; many supposedly resided in the State Department, and J. Edgar used the powers of the FBI to root them out (when he wasn't going after MLK or engaging in the acts of COINTELPRO, all of which helped buttress faith in American institutions immensely, aside from the failure of the Vietnam War).  The Red Scare had roots in the Great Depression, when many people looked to Communism as a viable alternative to a collapsed and apparently defeated capitalism.  Were it not for the actions of FDR, we might well be picking through the ruins of democracy already; as, were it not for the efforts of the Allies, Germany might still be doing after Hitler.  No, I'm not violating Godwin's law, I'm following Klein's argument:

The classic example is the rise of Adolf Hitler, which was engineered by a coalition of conservatives who thought they could control the inexperienced chancellor. “We’ve engaged him for ourselves,” bragged Franz von Papen, an architect of the plan. “Within two months, we will have pushed [him] so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.”

In this, Hitler’s allies were reprising a common tragedy. Levitsky and Ziblatt quote Rafael Caldera, the former president of Venezuela who helped Hugo Chávez take over the political system, reflecting on his mistakes. “Nobody thought that Mr. Chávez had even the remotest chance of becoming president,” Caldera said years later.

No, they never do.
Again, context matters, and the context of Hitler's rise is the context of the collapse of the global economy in the '30's, a collapse so great democracy wasn't just threatened in Germany, but in America as well.  And Hitler's rise, of course, was based in large part on racism; the racism America had put into law after 1916, especially with its miscegeny statutes and its laws on forced sterilization, which the Nazis studied and learned from.

You could look it up.

Over and over again, we meet the enemy, and he is us.  Over and over again, we refuse to look in that mirror.  Klein recognizes the pervasiveness of racism in American history, but continually draws the wrong lesson from that truth:

Levitsky and Ziblatt trace a troubling thread of American history: Our democracy was built atop racism and has been repeatedly shaken in eras of racial progress. The founding compromises that birthed the country included entrenching slavery and counting African Americans as three-fifths of a person. The bloodshed required to end slavery almost ended our democracy with it — habeas corpus was suspended, a third of American states sat out the 1864 election, and the South was under military occupation.

Then in the the Civil War’s aftermath, the pursuit of equality fell before the pursuit of stability — in Reconstruction and continuing up through the mid-20th century, the Democratic and Republican parties permitted the South to construct an apartheid state atop a foundation of legal discrimination and racial terrorism, and it was in this environment that American politics saw its so-called golden era, in which the two parties worked together smoothly and routinely. 
Notice how that "legal discrimination and racial terrorism" stabilized American democracy until Nixon.  Yes, the paragraph after that quote is the one I started with.  Equality fell before stability, and the demands for equality again led to instability, which led to Nixon, in Klein's telling.  And yes, civil rights were more undone than done before Obama, but that's the key issue in the "instability" of American democracy, as Klein tacitly acknowledges, this time quoting Levitsky and Ziblatt:

"The nonwhite share of the Democratic vote rose from 7 percent in the 1950s to 44 percent in 2012. Republican voters, by contrast, were still nearly 90 percent white into the 2000s. So as the Democrats have increasingly become a party of ethnic minorities, the Republican Party has remained almost entirely a party of whites."

And it doesn’t stop there:

"As the political scientist Alan Abramowitz points out, in the 1950s, married white Christians were the overwhelming majority — nearly 80 percent — of American voters, divided more or less equally between the two parties. By the 2000s, married white Christians constituted barely 40 percent of the electorate, and they were now concentrated in the Republican Party."
And still the problem of "stability" in American democracy is that white people are upset.  That's the only conclusion you can draw here:  either American democracy was founded on the fatally flawed notion that whites can legally subjugate blacks and "other races" as they see fit (we still ignore what we did and continue to do to Native Americans; does anybody younger than me know anything about AIM, Wounded Knee, or remember Russell Means?, just to name one group); or the white separatists are right, and America can only exist if we don't allow "race mixing."  And either foundation, per Klein's argument, means American democracy is doomed.  Oddly enough, it wasn't doomed after the Trail of Tears, or the abolitionist movement, or the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or the rise of racism and forced sterilization statutes and immigration quotas based on racist ideals, or after the collapse of capitalism in the Great Depression or the violence that met the Civil Rights movement, or the political violence of the '70's that was the aftermath of the political foment of the '60's (ah, yes, I remember it well, but already we recall the '60's as hippies, Vietnam, and '68, the '70's as disco, and then came Morning in America, and nothing else remarkable happened until 9/11), or even Bush v. Gore or Weapons of Mass Destruction or Iran-Contra (or COINTELPRO in the '60's and '70's; or the HUAC, which functioned for two decades rooting out "un-American activities"; or Hoover using the FBI to make politicians dance on his strings).  It's only doomed now, because Ezra Klein is here to observe it, and every day is a new day when you're that big a goose:

What if, instead of a louche, undisciplined, boorish, and insulting demagogue, Trump were a smooth, calculating, strategic, and disciplined demagogue? What if it were not Trump who had won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but John Kelly — a four-star general who shares many of Trump’s cultural grievances and his xenophobic intuitions but could wrap himself in the flag, in the rhetoric of patriotism, in the dangers that lurk beyond our borders?

Someone should send him a DVD of "Seven Days in May."  That seemed a more realistic scenario at the time than "The Manchurian Candidate" ever did.  Speaking of movies, let's slip him a copy of "Citizen Kane," too, to remind him of the days of "yellow journalism," long before Rupert Murdoch was a gleam in his grandfather's eye.  Everything old really is new again, and what happens in the American present really is a product of American History, including American culture, political and otherwise.

Are we at greater risk of losing our democracy than anytime since the Revolutionary War, or the War of 1812, or the Civil War, or the Great Depression, or 1968?  Or are we at risk of finally, after a century of suppression, acknowledging that white males are not the dominant political force in America, nor the most important one?  Yes, that is a dangerous and near-revolutionary idea, and it is a radical one as it strikes at the root of American democracy, which was founded on white male landowners being the only people entitled to self-governance (all others need merely be governed), but is the realization of true self-governance for all the end of democracy, or its fulfillment?  The panel on Meet the Press this morning was marveling that the right wing of American politics was vilifying the FBI, while the left-wing was praising them as the source of all that is good and right in our country, a complete reversal of positions from only a few years ago.  Is that cognitive dissonance really any different from leftist commenters convinced the end is near and all hope is lost?

Or is it lost only because the present doesn't resemble the hallowed past, when all decisions led to good outcomes and nobody disagreed about why we went to war (except watch "The Best Years of Our Lives" again.  Movies can be so instructive.) or why we have a capitalist system ("It's a Wonderful Life."  Anyone remember who the villain is in that?), or just how to get along (except in "Birth of a Nation," apparently blacks were happiest when they served whites).  You know, just because you are alive now, doesn't mean it was any less complicated "back then."

Or that everything is sui generis since you started paying attention.

These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.

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