After Four Decades, Finally: The Beginning of the End

12/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The nation's capital came alive after 11 p.m. on election night, as thousands poured into the streets to celebrate a victory that everyone was calling historic. Car horns blaring, whooping and shouting, high fives all around, multi-racial crowds celebrating joyously. Historic it is, most obviously in the election of an African-American president, in a country where millions of black people could not even vote when the new president-elect was born. The rapper Jay-Z elegantly expressed the Obama campaign's connection to the long struggle for equality, along with the enthusiasm that it generated: "Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Obama could run. Obama's running so that we all can fly."

But there is another sense in which this election will likely turn out to be historic. For nearly four decades this country has been moving to the right. Unfortunately we must include the Clinton years in this right-wing trajectory: with such major regressive structural changes as welfare reform, the World Trade Organization, and NAFTA, the Clinton administration continued the country's rightward drift on economic if not social issues. In other words, it continued using the government to make rules that would redistribute income, wealth, and power towards the upper classes. (These are generally described somewhat inaccurately as "free-market" or "free-trade" policies.)

The right's ascendance began with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, who rode into office on a backlash against the social movements of the 1960s, especially the civil rights and anti-war movements. Nixon's infamous "Southern Strategy" deployed a coded racist appeal that would help make the South Republican and ensure that no Democratic presidential candidate would get a majority of white voters (they didn't from 1968-2004).

Reagan continued this strategy but also initiated a counter-revolution on the economic front, decimating organized labor and cutting taxes for rich. It was an economic failure by any objective measure but it succeeded in drastically changing the ideological climate on economic issues. By the end of the Reagan (and George H.W. Bush) administrations in 1993, the typical Democratic member of Congress was far to the right of Richard Nixon on most economic policy.

The impact of this economic counter-revolution on the living standards of the majority of Americans can hardly be over-emphasized. Prior to the Reagan years, the United States was on its way to becoming more like Europe, with a welfare state and social safety net that would allow the vast majority of its citizens to enjoy the benefits of a developed, high-income economy. When Medicare and Medicaid were enacted in 1965, it was widely believed that insuring the elderly and the poor, respectively, were just the first steps toward universal health insurance.

The assault that began with Ronald Reagan's firing of 12,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981 set the nation on a very different path. By the time George W. Bush took over, he was even able to go after Social Security, the bedrock New Deal anti-poverty program whose beneficiaries include about one-sixth of the population. Bush lost that battle to a grass-roots groundswell of opposition. But the fact that he could even launch such a privatization effort, where Ronald Reagan would not even dare to tread, showed how far America had fallen from the economics, social norms, and basic ethical principles that prior generations had taken for granted.

The end result of America's long right-wing experiment was perhaps the most massive redistribution of income and wealth in our history. Over the last 35 years, there has been virtually no increase in real wages for the majority of the labor force. At the same time the top 1 percent of households (with earnings of more than $1.2 million) saw their real incomes more than triple. A new "gilded age" of gross class inequalities became the norm; workers without a college degree (still more than 70 percent of the labor force) could no longer have the same expectations of landing a job that would allow them to afford a home and a family.

Now that long journey into darkness has finally come to an end. My own view is that the 2006 Congressional elections may have been the turning point. It was then that Democrats regained the Congress on the basis of a more populist appeal by some of their candidates, and a mass revulsion with the war in Iraq. Even if McCain had won the presidency, he would have faced great obstacles in pursuing a right-wing agenda, but he could have taken a lot of people to their graves trying. His best bet for saving the Republican party from a long walk through the political wilderness would have been the one threatened by Vice President Dick Cheney and other fellow neoconservatives: more war, most likely beginning with a military strike against Iran. This is how they retained the Congress in 2002, when the economy was also bleeding jobs after the bursting of the stock market bubble and the consequent recession of 2001. From August 2002 until the November election, the build-up for the Iraq war pushed all of the voters' most important concerns out of the news. It worked.

This time they couldn't pull it off, and Obama's election has saved us from a repeat of these kinds of crimes. One of the most interesting things about this election is that it also showed how the Democrats could have avoided most of this long nightmare of right-wing rule by simply appealing to the class interests of the key swing demographic, which is white working class voters. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, their way back to Kansas was right in front of them all this time. Non-college-educated whites with household income between $30,000-$50,000 voted for George W. Bush by a margin of 24 percentage points; for those with income between $50,000-$75,000 it was 41 percentage points (70-29). Obama did not make the kind of appeal that would really clinch this demographic, which includes many "Reagan Democrats;" but Wall Street did it for him. The financial crisis that exploded in mid-September sealed the outcome of this election. The Republicans' fake populist appeal to these swing voters, painting the Democrats as an "elite" who did not respect their culture or religion, rang hollow in the face of millions of mortgage foreclosures, job losses, collapsing retirement savings, and a shrinking economy. The politics of deploying "weapons of mass distraction," including the so-called "war on terror," had finally run its course.

But foreign policy will remain the Democrats' Achilles' heel for some time to come. This is also a mostly self-inflicted handicap. The most important Democratic leaders promote the same assumptions about foreign policy as the Republicans: that terrorism is practically the most important threat facing our country; that extremism and anti-U.S. sentiment in the world has nothing to do with our foreign policy; that America is really defending itself, or promoting "democracy" when it invades other countries or de-stabilizes foreign governments. If this is really the state of the world, then there is some logic to voting Republican. Why not vote for the guy who is willing protect us by any means necessary from these unavoidable, mortal dangers?

And someone who won't be constrained by a political base that includes peace activists and others who might shrink from the violence necessary to defend ourselves? Of course there are millions of Democratic party activists and primary voters who see right through the charade, and vote Democratic with the hope that the jingoistic campaign rhetoric is just for show. But unfortunately there are a lot of voters who believe the hype from both parties, which is often reinforced in the media. Thus, on the eve of this election, John McCain still had a 14 percentage point edge over Barack Obama on "national security," while trailing on almost every other issue. (Interestingly, the people of Washington DC and New York City, the prior victims and most at-risk of any future terrorist attack, are practically deaf to the right's fear-mongering --McCain lost DC by 93-7 %; while the most receptive audiences live in places like Wyoming and Oklahoma where they are more likely to be hit by a meteor from outer space than to get hurt by a foreign terrorist. This is another indicator of how far removed the politics of "national security" are from any real threats.)

This time none of that stuff mattered, because the economy was going down the drain. However, until the Democrats present a more reality-based program on foreign policy, they will still be vulnerable to external events and the hyping of foreign threats, even if they are ridiculously exaggerated, of our own making, or altogether imaginary.

For now, though, the domestic economy will occupy center stage as the new government faces the worst recession in decades, and one that is just beginning -- the housing bubble that caused this recession is only about 60 percent deflated. The people have voted for change, including expanded health care coverage and -- as they did in 2006 -- an end to the Iraq war. How much change we will actually see will depend more than anything on how much pressure there is from below.

But there is plenty to celebrate in addition to the election of our first African-American president. Forty years is a long time for a country to be on the wrong track, and even worse for one that has so much influence on the rest of the world. We now have an opportunity to resume the economic and social progress that was considered almost inevitable a few decades ago, and to address some of the most urgent environmental problems -- most importantly climate change -- which have only recently become widely recognized. Who knows, we might even stop invading other countries and move towards becoming a law-abiding member of the international community. Progress is now at least possible, although it will still be an uphill fight. As Obama himself said in his acceptance speech, "This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change."

This was published by on November 5, 2008.