SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
One irreducible fact to come out of the towering slagheap of falsehoods that was the Republican convention is that Mitt Romney can win, and is likely to do so, if Barack Obama and the Democrats do not continue to attack him directly and repeatedly, with everything at their disposal, from the very moment their convention gavels into session today in Charlotte. Even worse, a Romney win could easily usher in a right-wing era more extreme and extended than the one generated by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
It has become holy writ among some of my friends and fellow liberals that Obama’s re-election and an extended period of Democratic dominance have become all but inevitable thanks to “the demographics” of our nation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The broad Democratic coalition of young, black, Hispanic, female, and gay votes that came to the forefront with the social revolutions of the 1960s should have guaranteed a working liberal majority and the decline of American conservatism for the foreseeable future.
It didn’t happen, of course, because the addition of these new groups of voters alienated some more traditional Democrats—particularly working-class white men—from the party, and because the coalition shriveled soon after it sprouted, mostly due to lack of leadership or direction.
And so it has gone, through to the present day, with one liberal, grassroots movement after another springing up in reaction to some disastrous example of Republican overreach, only to be undermined by yet another national Democratic leader who refuses to lead or to risk anything by championing the policies he was elected on. Leaders who end up hanged—as Barack Obama may well be—for their conservative sheepishness.
In Tampa, Romney and Paul Ryan displayed a real learning curve, an ability to successfully deliver a speech and a message that, backed with untold millions and a well-disciplined base, could well win over a nation at the end of its economic tether—or at least enough of that nation, combined with the G.O.P.’s usual election skullduggery, to take the electoral college.
What’s more, Romney and Ryan could make their ideas work in the short term, just as Reagan did, while causing untold long-term damage. Romney’s “plan” to create “twelve million new jobs,” as presented in his acceptance speech, is risible. Winnowed now to five points from his original 59, the scheme includes aggressively exploiting any and all domestic fossil fuels in the name of achieving “energy independence”; passing a national system of school vouchers; signing “new trade agreements” with unspecified foreign countries; confronting China over existing trade agreements and other unspecified complaints; balancing the federal budget; and cutting taxes and repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Much of this is irrelevant to stimulating the economy, and much could never be done. President Romney will never be able to balance the federal budget, given his promises of a massive new tax cut and a military budget inflated to 4 percent of GDP. Shipping our few remaining industrial jobs offshore under “new trade agreements” will only exacerbate our problems where the economy is already weakest. Still further segregating our school system by wealth, color, and parental involvement—which is all school vouchers will accomplish—won’t help either education or employment. And undoing even the Obama Administration’s modest attempts to rein in health care costs won’t lead to benefits for anyone save administrators and investors at insurance companies, HMOs, and certain hospitals.
But promoting the oil, natural gas, and coal industries—Republican speakers repeatedly decried the “war on coal”—could well prove an effective short-term stimulus. Stoking up the war machine again will get at least some factories humming, and perhaps take thousands of desperate young men out of the private-sector job market. Even shipping out industrial jobs and throwing money at private-school start-ups could well lead to stock-market bonanzas that feed the luxury fringes of the economy.
Combine all this with a housing market that seems to be slowly rebounding, the recovering auto industry, and other torpid but real economic gains, and you have the same conditions Reagan enjoyed after the economy conveniently reached its nadir in the second year of his administration. But so what? What outsiders may consider to be hypocrisy, or reckless shortsightedness on the part of the modern right wing is really the heart of a tremendously appealing philosophy that is fed by a long tradition of cockeyed American optimism.
Many blue staters, for instance, fail to understand how “red” America can so unswervingly claim a monopoly on morality when red states so consistently and overwhelmingly lead the nation in divorce, crime, and pornography. The most fervent Republican support today is drawn more than ever from those regions of the country that are poor, rural, undereducated, drug-addicted, and more likely to be dependent upon the largesse of the federal government—that is, upon public monies transferred from all the well-educated, new-economy job creators in the blue states. Yet there’s little point in condemning this for the hypocrisy that it is.
Republicans, in their most benign manifestation, believe that one should plunge in—to life and everything else. Maybe the waters are rising, and maybe wildfires are tearing every summer through Arizona and Colorado and Texas. Surely, before it’s too late, our scientists will come up with some great technological fix. They always have before. (Haven’t they?) Maybe Iran isn’t bent on developing a nuclear weapon. Best we knock the stuffing out of them, just in case they are. What could it hurt? Maybe we can do better investing on our own rather than relying on Social Security and Medicare. Who’s to say we’re going to live that long anyway? Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to marry that hot young thing you met two weeks ago at the Piggly Wiggly. What, are you supposed to live in sin to test her out for five years like some agnostic Massachusetts liberal? Best to wed in passion, with the blessing of God, and divorce and repent at leisure.
Some might see this as an essentially immature, even frivolous way of interacting with the world, and they would have a point. But then, there’s always been a gullible, foolish side to we Americans. For every stern Puritan or Quaker looking to fulfill his side of his pact with God through hard work and moral rectitude, there’s always been some other American trying to strike it rich by putting slaves to work, panning for gold, or strip-mining a state. We tear and rage at the world, build up cities as great as Detroit or New Orleans, then rip them down again. We can go to the moon, or reverse the course of a river, or make a prairie into the Dust Bowl, there’s just no telling.
If you believe there should be a limit to all of this creative destruction—not to mention the destructive destruction—and that it takes too great a toll in human lives and natural resources and yes, Mitt, the balance of the planet itself . . . well then, you’re not alone. You’re probably still, in fact, in the true silent majority of the American people—the real American exceptionalists, who understand that anything exceptional must be earned and not simply asserted. Who wonder at the glory of the land around us, and the opportunity we have been given.
Yet even the greatest hopes need somewhere to alight. Jeff Madrick, in Age of Greed, writes of how President Jimmy Carter—who will appear by video in Charlotte—decided to hire Paul Volcker as head of the Federal Reserve in 1979 even though Volcker told Carter he would pursue policies designed to reduce inflation by contracting the economy and jacking up unemployment in the last year of his term. The president told Volcker to go right ahead—and had the American people known of their conversation, they would have voted Carter out of office by an even wider margin than they actually did. No Democrat has made the original appointment of a Fed chair since.
Bill Clinton came to office promising tax cuts for working Americans and universal, affordable health care . . . and left signing both the safety net and our financial safeguards out of existence. Barack Obama has already attempted to sign away our right of habeas corpus, signed into law a health care “reform” designed by a right-wing think tank, and promised to make us all work more years, for lower benefits, in the future.
There is a terrible weariness brought on by such repeated betrayals, a gnawing conviction that one will never see any of those wonderful liberal solutions Democratic politicians pretend to support during election campaigns. In this thirty-year game of bait-and-switch, it doesn’t much matter that more and more Americans support single-payer health care, or gay marriage, or a progressive tax code. It doesn’t even matter that more of us than ever are people of color, or women, or immigrants. In the end, Americans of all kinds find themselves beaten down to little more than their basic desire to hope and believe. And hope and faith, in however juvenile or false or absurd a form, is what Republicans always have to offer. What, in 2012, does Barack Obama have?
More from Kevin Baker:
Appreciation — June 26, 2014, 8:00 am
From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
New York Revisited — June 19, 2014, 8:00 am
And how it foretold the 2008 financial crisis
Percentage of Americans who can correctly name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court:
Peak happiness was observed at a per capita GDP of $36,000.
Doctors Without Borders withdrew from the Afghan city of Kunduz after a U.S.-led airstrike destroyed one of the organization’s hospitals, killing 22 people.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”