When I wrote my book The Progressive Revolution in early 2008, I figured that if a Democratic President were elected that we would see epic battles over health care reform and potentially other big changes in American life, and we have to some extent. What I didn't realize is just how much the ideological battles of American history would become a dominant narrative on the right. We've seen the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee of 2008 and the Governor of Texas associated with political parties that support secession. We're seeing the Kentucky Republican Senate nominee tied in knots over whether he supports the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and now it looks like he was the keynote speaker at a political party convention with all kinds of truly far-out historical views. We are watching the Texas school board downgrade Jefferson and Tom Paine's historical contributions and upgrade Jefferson Davis' role. We're seeing one of the most influential right wing talk show hosts, Glenn Beck, delve deep into historical debates almost every day - repeatedly attacking people like Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, while closely aligning himself philosophically to historical conservatives like John Calhoun, Ayn Rand, and the Social Darwinists of the 1880s.
I never expected when writing my book that I would see such an open and full throated embrace of the rhetoric, ideology, and even specific issues - secession, states rights, the civil rights bills of the 1960s - of historical conservatism. It's almost like modern day conservatives took some of the heroes in my book - Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Martin Luther King - and argued that they were villains, and took many of my villains - Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Calvin Coolidge, the Jim Crow Southerners - and turned them into heroes. It has been astounding to watch.
But the extremist conservatives who lost yesterday's battles will lose them again today. The American people are in a lot of pain because of the economic crisis we are (still) facing, but they don't want to turn the clock back that far. If the Obama White House would stop bragging about this still awful-for-working-people economy (check out this really important memo from Democracy Corps), and reconnect themselves with their own honorable history of fighting for the middle class against the big banks and health insurance and oil companies, they might just have a better election then anyone thinks they will right now.
The Republicans are hurting themselves by re-arguing secession and the Civil Rights Act, and defending Wall Street like they did in the 1920s and '30s. Rand Paul is giving us a big opening in Kentucky. Driving Crist out of their party has created a wide-open Senate race in Florida. Going along with the death panel goofiness has made Chuck Grassley vulnerable for the first time since being elected to the Senate in 1980. If Republicans keep celebrating the extremists in their history, and Democrats take after the progressive heroes in theirs, the 2010 elections will be a lot more winnable than we thought.
I ended The Progressive Revolution with these words:
"The time has come again to choose a progressive path, to reject caution and embrace our history, and to rise to the example of progressive leaders of the past. Paine and Jefferson, Fredrick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Republicans, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, FDR and John L. Lewis, JFK and RFK, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez, and Betty Friedan and Rachel Carson: their legacy calls us. We need to rise to the challenge and make the coming years a time to remember and record in our history, a period of transforming change that will lift up our nation and inspire future generations.
We can solve the immense problems of our time if we understand our history, throw fear and caution aside, and then choose the path that goes forward."
With the conservatives embracing their history so closely, it is time to embrace our own.