The election of 2012 presents yet another battle in the great American culture war. This one takes place on the Presidential campaign grounds. It is in fact a battle of the centuries. A contest between the America of the 19th century and that of the 20th.
The 19th century was one of progress in economic and geographic terms: Manifest Destiny, the conquering of the West and the growth of an industrial nation. In the middle of the century a horrific Civil War ended the question of whether one nation or a few would be built out of the America that became free of its colonial parent in the 18th century. And it ostensibly settled the question of whether all Americans would be free. No longer a house divided against itself now one nation it would become a nation of the very rich and everyone else. The immigrants providing cheap labor while the robber barons controlled industries and through bribery the government.
The 20th century began with Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion of world leadership and his use of the bully pulpit of the Presidency to challenge the power of the control of the industrial magnates. In 1912, only one hundred years ago, the American voters faced three progressive candidates. Roosevelt may have been more progressive on social issues and Taft a bit more cautious on economic while the winner Woodrow Wilson ultimately adopted all the visionary planks of the Progressive platform - women’s suffrage, world organization for peace, restrictions on large corporations and government ownership of the railroads. From 1932 to 1980 there developed in America a consensus, ratified in the election of 1964, that the federal government of this one nation would now pursue policies that would enable the vast majority of people to be in a well off and productive Middle Class. There would still be the rich (only a few very rich) and of course the poor we would always have with us. In 1965 believing that the society had coalesced around the progressive ideal the President declared war on poverty and determined to end the permanence of the lower class. Even as Reagan and Bush 1 followed by Clinton pursued changes they reformed the various New Deal programs they did not gut nor repeal them.
Then came Newt Gingrich followed by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and they began to fight for that old time religion - less government and more of everyone out for them self. Now the Republican party and the ticket of Romney and Ryan personifies that 19th century view, using the rhetoric of the 18th century and the founding fathers they call for the return to a two class America: the rich (and by that I mean the very rich) and the poor - room for only a small middle class which will be mostly upper lower not lower upper. Let those who can afford it receive education at secondary and college levels; let families take care of their own elderly so they have to choose between feeding their children or getting medicine for their parents. On the international scene let America practice a weird combination of neo-isolationism which means we only get involved where Americans can make a dollar and a unilateralism that says we will lead other nations and if they don’t want to follow we go it alone. We will replace the Rockefellers and the JP Morgans with the Koch brothers and the super rich Wall Street financiers.
Obama and Biden and the Democratic Party carry the banner of the 20th century and the Progressive polices that built the great middle class. They herald the belief that government was instituted by the governed to secure the rights that yes came from nature and natures’ God. They support a government that has the dual Lincolnian tasks of helping those who need help and releasing the better angels of men’s nature. They favor a society where higher education and quality health care are available to all; where men and women will be judged not by the color of their skin, nor the contents of their wallet or stock portfolio but by the nature of their character. And, they see an America that will lead the democratic and freedom yearning nations of the world into a century of peace and respect for human rights. Those human rights that include the right of women to make their own reproductive choices and for people of both genders to decide their personal lifestyle and find love and companionship without government imposed restrictions. It is an even older time religion one that calls for tolerance of all beliefs and restrictions on no one's actions unless those actions harm or threaten others.
So the culture war becomes the focus of the battle of the American centuries. Will this country continue on the road of the progressive 20th century or veer in another direction as Bush-Cheney tired to shift us until we fell into the ditch of economic depression. The Obama-Biden administration has lifted this country out of the ditch -- now Romney-Ryan would push most of us off a cliff.
This will likely not be the last battle of the war between the centuries. On the political front it will be replayed in 2016 and perhaps even in 2020. In both previous centuries it took the first quarter of the century to settle the direction of the next half. But this is a significant battle in the culture war. Presidential elections have often symbolized the countries direction, e.g. Jackson, with an interruption with Lincoln, and the return to 19th century normalcy with Cleveland. In the twentieth century the delaying of Wilsonian progressivism by Harding/Coolidge, the great victories of FDR, the acceptance of the New Deal by Eisenhower and the fulfillment of that agenda by LBJ, ratified by the Nixon/Carter years.
At some point in the next decade there will arise in our country someone who can speak to the proponents of one century with credibility and perspicacity and lead them into a consensus with the proponents of the other century. At the end of the 19th century McKinley actually convinced the urban poor and immigrants to accept the values of that century. But I would prefer if we had another leader like the aristocrat who in his wheel chair lifted America off its’ knees and saved capitalism in this country and democracy in the world. Or, perhaps the southerner, who in unmistakable southern accent, forged a consensus to bring our nation into the sunshine of civil rights for black and white. Whenever this nation has needed such a unifying leader one has emerged even if only for a brief time and like a good pilot set the course of the ship of state aright.
It may not happen in this election nor in the next few years. But that it will happen I have no doubt. It is as certain as that the sun rises that this nation will yet have its finest hour. And, that will be when America leads the world into a future of multicultural toleration and global peace.
24 August 2012