About ten years ago, while reading a Stephen Ambrose's biography of Eisenhower, it occurred to me that the electorate is smarter than I am -- in fact, smarter than any of us. A lifelong Democrat, I realized that the country would not be better off if Democrats always won. Eisenhower, notwithstanding the immoral and destructive coups he authorized in Iran and Guatemala and his abdication on civil rights, was a prudent steward, an able cold warrior, and a constant brake on the military-industrial complex he decried at the end of his tenure. Reagan too has my respect, though I loathe much of what he did to the Federal government's capacity to protect and further social welfare. He did not "win the Cold War," but he did engage Gorbachev with just the right progression from toughness to negotiation to trust. He stepped back and let the Soviet Union unravel itself, providing the right incentives for glasnost and the unwinding of empire.
I had some family evidence of the way democracy works. My paternal grandparents, lifelong Democrats, voted for Reagan in 1980. My father couldn't bring himself to do it, but he voted for John Anderson. Carter's was a failed presidency. Americans recognized it, as they've now recognized Bush's failure. A little late for my taste, but there were reasons for that, beginning with Monica Lewinsky, running through a kink in the Constitution (Nov. 2000), a national trauma (9/11) and a bonding over the year following with a wartime president that was almost but not quite undone by his folly in Iraq.
At the same time, I've wondered through the Bush years whether American democracy retains and will continue to retain the capacity for self-correction. Given the horrendous governance of the Bush team, it's been possible to imagine that a combination of curbs on civil liberties, deregulation, lobbyist empowerment, gerrymandering, media degeneration and advanced political marketing could eventually foreclose the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power -- a truly contested election. 2006 provided major reassurance. Democracy in America is not dead yet. But I still think it's on the endangered list.
The greatest danger to American democracy is the Bush Administration's assault on civil liberties. We've barely noticed, but the Bill of Rights has been gutted. The Administration has successfully asserted the right to deem anyone it wishes an "enemy combatant," hold such people indefinitely, and torture them at will. This has been done to American citizens. Just this week, meanwhile, we learned that peaceful protestors against the death penalty were classified as terrorists by the Maryland State Police. Americans have largely accepted and even embraced this disinheritance. Only a bare majority tells pollsters that torture is wrong--a smaller majority than in any developed democracy, smaller even than in China. This past primary season, the Republican candidates for President were vying do outdo each other in their fervent support of torture and suspension of habeas. McCain, the best of that lot on this crucial front, betrayed his own prior opposition to torture, first by agreeing to loopholes in the Military Commissions Act of 2006, then by voting against a provision that would have ended the CIA's exemption from the prohibition against torture in the armed services.
As of now, the executive branch of the federal government can assert absolute control over the corpus of anyone it wants. Habent corpus - they have the body. If we don't change course, the executive may widen the scope of those over whom it asserts such control at any time -- say, after the next major terrorist attack. McCain will not roll back executive power. It's not even certain that Obama will do it. On this front he's right: it's not about him, it's about us. Lovers of liberty will have to be ready on day 1 to hold his feet to the fire.
Despite these dangers, and all the viciousness of various phases of the presidential campaign, this election season has also been a time of tremendous hope. For me, the (first) year of xpostfactoid will forever be the Year of Obama. I have wrestled with "naivetephobia" -- the fear of looking foolish, and later recognizing the folly, of buying into a presidential candidate's calls for renewal embodied in...himself ("it's not about me, it's about you," is at best a paradox). But Obama is right on this point: we have had great leaders before at times of great peril. We have made great changes -- abolishing slavery, building the core citizen protections of the New Deal, enacting civil rights legislation and making it stick.
For those of us who have dared (sorry!) to hope for great things from Obama, the Lincoln parallel is the great repressed reference point. The New Yorker, in an extraordinary endorsement essay, obliquely invoked this charged analogy:
Obama has returned eloquence to its essential place in American politics. The choice between experience and eloquence is a false one––something that Lincoln, out of office after a single term in Congress, proved in his own campaign of political and national renewal. Obama’s “mere” speeches on everything from the economy and foreign affairs to race have been at the center of his campaign and its success; if he wins, his eloquence will be central to his ability to govern.Like Lincoln, Obama rose to national prominence by sheer force of intellect as evidenced in speeches. Exactly contrary to what his critics claim, his speeches are effective not because of soaring empty rhetoric but because his calls for renewal are underpinned by a clearly articulated reading of American history and an equally explicit enumeration of the priorities that his policy proposals are designed to advance.
Those priorities are to restore "fairness" in our tax code, roll back rising income inequality, and revive effective regulation; to invest in projects essential to prosperity in the next century (alternative energy, universal healthcare, education); to reduce the power of lobbyists and change the tenor of political discourse; to recenter our antiterror efforts on Afghanistan/Pakistan; and to re-establish diplomatic engagement and nonmilitary aid as pillars of our foreign policy. He spells them out repeatedly, and he has won over what looks to be a majority of Americans with this multi-pronged pitch. That's not to say that Obama's campaign is free of hokum and pandering. But the outlines of what he aims to accomplish are clear.
If this blog has any value, it's mainly in the year-long attempt to listen to Obama, to highlight the internal logic of his metapolitics, his foreign policy, his economics, and his political strategy. If he wins and is immediately whipsawed by events, if he proves as feckless as Carter or as slippery as Clinton, the blog will serve to remind only myself (who else will read back?) of my own folly. If he does indeed prove to be a transformational president, an instrument of democratic self-correction and American renewal, I'll be proud to have tuned in early.