It's That Time Of History


It all went according to the script.

The free-market economy implodes, trust in what George W Bush once serenaded as "big bidness" plummets, faith in the role of government to restore economic justice rises. The "permanent majority" that the radical, anti-tax Republican Right had boasted of introducing, clashes in a hubristic display of assumed invincibility.

But the result of last week’s US elections, with their comprehensive victory for Barack Obama and the Democrats in the Congress, was determined long before Obama was even a candidate for the Senate, let alone the presidency.

A convincing win for a progressive Democrat — be it Obama, Hillary Clinton or a similarly persuasive and intelligent candidate – was always likely, because, since the dawn of the industrial era, politics has unfolded in a generally reliable sequence of reform and reaction. The right, or left, overreaches, provoking a backlash, even if is a long time coming.

I have written previously in the about the enduring relevance of the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr and his theory of the "cycles of American politics", which alternate between free-market conservatism and social democracy.

And, excuse the indulgence, but soon after Bush’s re-election in 2004, I predicted that his victory, along with that of John Howard just a few week’s earlier, was the "last gasp of conservatism". Now, with Obama’s triumph, Schlesinger’s theory is more important than ever.

It usually takes a generation for an ideology to germinate, insinuate itself into the body politic, then entrench itself with a major electoral upset. It often requires the aid of a social or economic ruction, such as war or depression. And so it came to pass last week.

The script that Obama followed, even if unconsciously, was written in the late 19th century, when the Progressive movement, which included Democrats and Republicans, such as William Jennings Bryan and "Fighting Bob" La Follette, challenged the power of corporate America and the gross inequality it spawned during the "gilded age of capitalism". Their ideas took root and influenced two moderate presidents, the Republican Teddy Roosevelt and the Democrat Woodrow Wilson, before suffering a setback during the presidencies of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.

But in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was elected at the height of the Great Depression, cementing the Progressive project into place for half a century. His New Deal ensured the obscenely wealthy would finally pay their share of tax, their scions would pay tax on their unearned inheritances, and the government would put the nation back to work by investing in vital public infrastructure.

The Roosevelt era ended when Ronald Reagan led the hard-right of the Republican Party to victory in 1980.

During the 12-year reign of Reagan and his successor, George Bush Sr, progressives were forced to start again. In Bill Clinton they found an electable, if unreliable standard-bearer, but like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he would never truly realise the progressive dream. And, like their predecessors, modern progressives would have to endure a harsh right-wing interregnum — that of George W Bush — before finding their own FDR.

And everything in Obama’s past suggests he is an apostle of FDR not of Bill Clinton. In 2004, for example, as Bush was cruising to re-election, Obama campaigned for an Illinois Senate seat, championing higher taxes on the wealthy and suspicion of free markets.

One of the most amusing spectacles of the past week has been the performance of the elite commentators, as they struggled to rationalise the result. They preferred, as some cultural left-wingers did, to focus on the historic nature of an African-American winning the White House. To be sure, it is an historical landmark as great as the end of apartheid and Obama, through his eloquence and intellect, ranks as a giant of history. He was not my first pick as the Democratic nominee, but I defended him early, and with gusto, from the predations of our pissant former prime minister.

But there is a deeper meaning to Obama’s victory, one that the self-styled shapers of "conventional wisdom" cannot bring themselves to acknowledge. The voters approved of Obama’s ideology.

If Obama was fuzzy in defining his political philosophy, as his critics (somewhat legitimately) charge, let’s accept the Republicans’ definition of his policies: socialism. That’s their word.

In the last month of the campaign, John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, latched desperately onto Obama’s stated commitment to "spread the wealth around" to denounce him as a socialist and class warrior. Obama never recanted his comments and his vice-presidential running mate, Joe Biden, went so far as to describe higher taxes on the wealthy as "patriotic", provoking apoplexy in Palin and the Republican media machine. The more desperate McCain and Palin became, the more shrill they sounded. Socialism! Class warfare! The horror of it!

Back in 2004, Obama’s Republican opponent for the Senate, Alan Keyes, also accused him of "socialism". So — and this is the crucial point — in two elections, for state-wide then national office, voters have heard Republicans denounce Obama as a radical redistributionist and twice they have affirmed their support for his supposedly "scary" worldview.

Based on the ground rules the Republicans established during the last month of the campaign, it is now legitimate to argue that Obama’s victory represents the greatest popular mandate for socialism since Clement Atlee led British Labour to victory in a landslide in 1945.

The importance of ideology in this election is even more pronounced given the personal characteristics of the candidates. McCain had a compelling story about his suffering in a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. Even if you regard him — as the decorated General, Wesley Clark, does — as more of a doughty survivor than a hero, he was still easier to sell than Obama, who had tenuous connections with violent radicals from the 1960s.

It is highly unlikely that in Indiana and North Carolina, for example, states that Bush carried comfortably in 2004, voters wanted to make a "statement" about a post-racial politics when they supported Obama in this election. Rather, they were expressing a preference for Obama and the progressive populist economic agenda, over McCain’s traditional Republican policies that favour low taxes on the wealthy and almost no public investment.

In reality, Obama is no socialist but he does have a clear mandate for progressive economics. The voters supported his plan to restore fairness to the income tax scales by raising the taxes of those making more than US$250,000 a year. According to a recent analysis of "Obamanomics" by David Leonhardt in the New York Times, Obama will raise taxes on the top 0.1 per cent — the true elites in any society — by $800,000 a year. He has also promised to restore one of the pillars of progressivism, the estate tax, to break down the intergenerational transfer of vast wealth to those who do not earn it. He plans to levy a 45 per cent tax rate on estates of more than $3.5 million.

Obama also plans to resurrect another centrepiece of the New Deal: the right of workers to join unions without the obfuscation, and often intimidation, that currently exists from employers, by introducing the Employee Free Choice Act. It could boost union membership by 6 million.

Lest one doubt Obama’s commitment to workers’ rights, remember he and Biden co-sponsored the act as Senators. (It is worth noting a particularly welcome result: a virulent anti-union ballot initiative, Amendment 47, designed to frustrate the right of workers to organise, was soundly defeated in Colorado, a state historically hostile to unionism.)

And Obama certainly wants to put in place the last piece of Johnson’s Great Society program, universal health care, although it will be an incremental journey.

So what opportunities does the Obama victory afford the progressive movement outside the United States and what does it portend for politics over the next, say, 20 years?

It has liberated social democrats to start talking again about the excesses of "capitalism", rather than dance around the problem using terms like "market failure". Indeed, even before Obama’s victory, a politician as cautious as Kevin Rudd was denouncing "extreme" capitalism and warning that he would use legislation to tame the self-serving rich.

Obama’s victory, with its strong undertones of class warfare — Middle America versus Wall Street — also shows that the language and thinking of the left is entirely in step with popular opinion. The public evidently wants more government intervention and protection from the market, higher taxes on the super rich and more public investment, as the Pew Research Centre in the US and the Australian social researcher David Chalke have found.

If Schlesinger’s theory holds up — and 100 years of history suggests it will — then a moderate centre-left ideology will dominate the next 25 to 30 years.

There will, of course, be Liberal governments in Australia, Conservative governments in Britain and Republican administrations in the US during this period, but they will govern from, at most, the centre, just as the Liberals from Menzies through to Fraser, the Conservatives from Churchill through to Heath, and the Republicans from Eisenhower through to Ford did.

I will end, however, with a warning. The Progressive project faltered in the late 1960s and early 70s when it pushed too far too fast on cultural change. Its apparent assault on traditional values, such as marriage and faith, alienated many natural supporters.

Americans, and particularly reliable Democratic constituencies, such as African- and Hispanic-Americans, are what the progressive writer EJ Dionne calls "tolerant traditionalists". The Australian voter is marginally more liberal but our progressives have no mandate beyond the pursuit of economic and social justice and environmental sustainability.

The Obama victory licences progressives to pursue their historic mission to break down the great concentrations of economic and political power. Tread cautiously and we will have two to three decades to realise our project. Our time is now.

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