Is American History Inverting Itself?

Barack Obama: The Democrats’ Richard Nixon? – Bruce Bartlett

While my family waits for our mailbox to be set up I act as a sort of go-between mailman, biking over to a USPS office a couple times a week to pick up our mail. In the parking lot, a couple of guys had set up a stand adorned by a poster of Barack Obama’s face with a Hitler-stache. I was able to ignore them for a couple of weeks because I knew these were the guys who thought Obama wasn’t “Kenyan Socialist” enough. And after the budget deal, I kind of had to agree with them. So I decided to suffer the fools and ask them whether they had considered what they were doing was counterproductive:

Me: Have you considered that what you’re doing is counterproductive?

Guy at Stand: Why would it be?

Me: Well, I’m not happy with Obama’s performance lately. Rather, I’m really angry. But at this point there are really only two mainstream political parties and if you think he’s not liberal enough then –

Guy at Stand: Yeah, you’re right. There’s the fascists, … and then there’s the patriots.

Me: I don’t quite follow.

Guy at Stand: Well, Obama’s a fascist. And he needs to be impeached. He’s dismantling NASA. And you know what NASA is? Space travel is the fullest embodiment of the US Constitution. And now, you couldn’t say that “I want to be an astronaut.” You don’t have that opportunity to do that anymore.

I cut him off, right around…there. I tried to figure out whether any of the proposed policy issues of the obscure independent he was promoting didn’t revolve around space travel. The other half of the stand (LaRouchePAC) was apparently devoted to educating the world about the British Empire’s conspiracy to take over the US financial markets and how we needed to reintroduce the Glass-Steagal Act, which is actually a great idea.

He also said something highly interesting, which was that “JFK was the last true conservative” because he defended “true wealth” rather than fake Wall Street wealth. This got me thinking. JFK came from a rich family; he knew the business world. He cut taxes. He was a self-defined liberal, though, a word which he defined as follows:

…someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal’.

In any case, he probably would’ve been a Scott Brown-type moderate Republican today. In any case, the American political spectrum was far closer to the center in the 50’s and early 60’s than at any other point in US history, and the Democratic Party was a coalition of white Southerners and minorities anyway, so it wasn’t coherent ideologically. But still, is that just more evidence of the country’s rightward political shift in the last 30 years? Bruce Bartlett seems to think so, and I at least partially agree. To summarize the article, he argues that Dwight Eisenhower was supposed to be a liberator from the New Deal; instead he “betrayed” his Republican base and worked with liberals. In the ’60’s, Johnsonian liberalism overreached with the Vietnam War and a torrent of new domestic spending. Nixon was elected, but rather than appease conservatives, he continued to govern from left-of-center, infuriating Republicans. Democrats hated Nixon and never admitted he was fairly liberal, although they might do so today. JFK lowered taxes. Nixon raised them.

So now, Bartlett argues, history has inverted itself. Just as FDR was a transformative president, Ronald Reagan shifted the political atmosphere far to the right. So just as Eisenhower was supposed to be a liberator, so was Clinton. Clinton, however, termed himself to be a “Eisenhower Republican,” an attribution which liberals considered disturbingly successful. Then as George Bush was elected, conservatism similarly overreached. In other words, Obama, the country’s answer to Bush, has turned out to be a new Nixon. As Bartlett says, although they do not think so now, conservatives will eventually accept Obama as a moderate conservative.

Of course, that raises new questions about the future of American political parties. Nixon was a pivot – his policies were not radical as the public was not willing to give up their new entitlement programs, but his campaigning strategies laid out the framework of the next several decades of national elections. Similarly, Obama has been an extremely successful campaigner. He won states in areas considered solid red – North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado. He won Florida and Ohio. America is currently experiencing a massive demographic shift, which Obama has masterfully capitalized on.

So what exactly does that mean for the future? Social conservatism is likely to decline, and the “religious right” will increase in its ideological fervor but decrease considerably in relevance, as GOP’s “family values” will be associated with majority-Caucasian communities, a thing of the past. Fiscally, liberalism vs conservatism will continue to be a relevant debate. But social conservatism, I predict, will reach a new nadir.

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