I just returned from two weeks of travel around the U.S. At one stop on my journey someone asked me where this election fits into the scheme of things.
Here is what I said.
With a narrow-angled lens it is the latest round of a political clash triggered by the election of the first African American president and the economic meltdown in 2008.
One of these momentous events might have been enough to set into motion a clash of contending forces. But when both occurred nearly simultaneously the ferocity of this clash became tsunami-like.
It hasn’t ebbed, and, in fact, with the midterm election around the corner, the rage of the right is surging to a new level.
And if you are hoping that the politics of rage, obfuscation and obstruction will ease in the election’s aftermath, think again. These politics are deep in the political DNA of right-wing extremism – it won’t give up something that works, at least so far!
In any event, one side will gain momentum on Nov. 2, while the other side will have to regroup to one degree or another.
But with a wider-angled lens, this election and the rage connected to it (racist and anti-immigrant especially) are traceable to two periods.
One is the so-called “culture wars” of the 1960s – which were in reality a period of unprecedented social upheaval and struggles, not since matched – over poverty, racial equality, student, women’s and farmworker rights, the Vietnam war, and other issues. These powerful and overlapping movements arose to challenge the status quo of that time.
The other is the sharp turn to the right a decade later. If the “culture wars” of the ’60s were the opening round of a new era of struggle, the 1980 ascendance of Ronald Reagan to the White House (and the decision of then Federal Reserve Bank chairman Paul Volker to spike interest rates to nearly 20 percent and thus induce a deep recession) signified a reconfiguration, intensification and extension of this struggle to a broader swathe of the population, especially the working class and labor movement.
With the transfer of the main levers of political power to Reagan and his hit-men, the barbarians of the right initiated an all-out class war from above. It was ideological and cultural as well as political and economic. The gloves came off. There was no place for compromise.
Right-wing extremists and the most reactionary sections of monopoly and financial capital ganged up against the working class, racially oppressed, women, youth, seniors, and other social groups.
And guess what? This turn to supercharged class warfare, steeped in racist appeals to white people, largely succeeded.
The wealth of the top income tiers ballooned, while income for the lower tiers either stagnated or plummeted.
Neoliberalism, deregulation and financialization became the new economic orthodoxy.
The use of force became the option of first choice in matters domestic and foreign, and the organizations of the working class and people beat a retreat.
But a retreat isn’t a rout. Though weakened, the working class and people lived to fight another day, and another day, and another day …
Much time has passed since the “culture wars” of the ’60s and the turn to the right a decade later, but the distant voices of George Wallace, Bull Connor, Richard Nixon, Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan and Reverend Jerry Falwell can still be heard. The past, as someone said, is never past. The intensification of class and democratic struggle that occurred then continues today, combining the old issues, protagonists and rhetoric with the new issues, protagonists and rhetoric.
Most strikingly new is the election of President Obama, and the massive and spontaneous surge of democratic-minded people and movements that backed him. This loose coalition of diverse forces, broader than anything before it, is the main vehicle that will drive the nation to a more just and decent future.
It won’t be easy. The 2008 election tipped the balance of forces in the direction of democracy and progress, and pushed the right onto its heels. But the blow wasn’t a knockout.
The right regrouped, faster than most anticipated, and turned obstruction, division and demagogy into a vicious and powerful weapon.
Next Tuesday, Election Day, the right hopes to continue its journey back to political dominance.
But if it does make gains, let’s remember that gaining a momentary advantage is miles from reclaiming the main levers of political power and even more miles from bringing a final resolution to this longstanding conflict – a conflict that in my view can only be settled when one side vanquishes the other.
The differences are irreconcilable. Each side has a diametrically different vision of what America should look like.
One vision – the vision of labor, minorities, women, youth and other social groups and movements – believes in an America that raises living standards and guarantees jobs at livable wages, expands opportunities and rights to the disenfranchised, alienated and marginalized, embeds human equality and diversity into the social fabric, and seeks peace through mutual understanding and cooperation, establishes robust regulation of the economy and democratic public and cooperative ownership when necessary, aggressively addresses global warming and environmental degradation, respects all forms of life on our planet, and embraces the cultures and peoples of other lands.
The other vision – that of right-wing extremism, the tea party, sections of corporate capital, groupings of medium and small businesses, and their grassroots constituency – is exclusionary, fears outsiders, worships a dog-eat-dog unregulated capitalism, insists on global dominance, subordinates people of color and women, turns same-sex relationships into a sin and psychological disorder, blames the poor for poverty, possesses a strong anti-Semitic strain, poisons the environment, and cynically manipulates our nation’s most noble freedom moments and traditions.
Which vision will come out on top and when that will happen is not clear.
Nevertheless, and regardless of what happens on Election Day, the possibilities for progressive advance are real and palpable. With unity, outreach and persistence, the movement that crystallized two years ago and rallied in Washington in early October can expand on the legacy of earlier periods of struggle and meet the new challenges of the 21st century.
But right now, every democratic-minded American should go to the polls on Nov. 2 and mobilize others to do the same.