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Summer Afternoon

Sunday Night Journal — September 21, 2008

My Election Prediction

No, I’m not going to predict who will win this November’s presidential election, because my guess on that subject would be no better than anyone else’s and worse than many. My prediction is that no matter who is inaugurated on January 20, 2009, the country will not be all that much different in January, 2013 as a direct result of that person’s policies.

This may seem a strange prediction to be making at the very moment when the expanding financial crisis seems in fact to have the potential for changing things a great deal, and for the worse. But that’s why I include that final clause: as a direct result of that person’s policies. If things are in fact very different four years from now, the difference will probably have been made by events that are mostly outside the control of the president.

Domestically, it seems to me that, broadly speaking, the situation that existed in roughly the mid-1970s has not changed very much and is not likely to change very much unless some external event causes it to. It was in the ‘70s that the great shifts of the ‘60s resulted in a social, cultural, and political landscape very different from that of the period between roughly 1945 and 1965. And it seems to me that the basic picture that fell into place then has not fundamentally changed.

To fully support my view would require much more time and space than I want to devote to it, but here are a few instances. It was in the 1970s that:

  • The sexual revolution was won by the revolutionaries; long-standing moral traditions about sex, marriage, and family lost their standing as widely accepted principles. Of course most people didn’t go as far as the extreme revolutionaries, but enough of their ideas took hold to change the basic consensus. The connection between sex and marriage was denied and both were trivialized. Pornography became mainstream.. Etc.

  • The movement of women into the workplace became the norm, conceptually if not statistically. The middle-class neighborhood that in the past had been filled, during the day, with women and children was, by the 1980s, pretty much deserted between 8 and 5: almost everybody went out to work, school, or day-care.

  • Health care costs shot through the roof and insurance became an increasingly expensive and uncertain proposition.

  • Alarm set in about the ability of the government to maintain Social Security and other long-term “entitlements.” The loud expression of this alarm and an absolute refusal to do anything concrete about the situation became a feature of every election.

  • What we now call the culture war, which began as a battle between hippies and Christians—yes, that’s an oversimplification, and I meant for it to be funny, but I think it’s broadly justifiable—became a permanent feature of national life, with a polarizing effect on politics as moral and cultural disputes became political ones, each side wishing to gain control of the state or at least prevent the other from doing so.

  • Energy costs went from being a minor concern to a primary one, with dependence on oil helping to tie us to the explosive politics of the Middle East, and everyone decrying the dependence but no one taking any serious steps to mitigate it—not the people, who simply wanted big cars and houses at the lowest possible cost, and not the politicians, who wanted votes and didn’t think that delivering bad news was the way to get them (look what happened to Jimmy Carter).

  • After the great leap away from legal segregation, the promise of racial harmony dissipated into an unhappy and uneasy estrangement which still exists.

  • A sort of Chicken Little mentality set in, with the fervent partisans on both ends of the political divide seeing the other as being on the verge of destroying the country. Throughout the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II administrations there have been people screaming that very little of the republic would survive the current presidency. But at the end of each, the domestic situation has emerged looking a great deal as it had before.  

I think things are both not as bad as and rather worse than the more agitated among us do. I don’t think, for instance, that the Iraq war has undone us as a nation, allowed the Bush administration to “shred the Constitution,” etc. Nor do I think Islamic terrorism is a threat to our existence. I don’t mean to minimize the effect of these things on the people who are close to them, or to deny that presidents have made any difference at all, for good and ill. I’m only saying that for most people most of the time the daily routine of life in the America of today is not dramatically different from daily life in the America of September 10, 2001.

Nor do I mean to minimize the long-term effects of events like 9/11, or of the slow cultural changes of the past thirty-plus years as they have affected, for instance, marriage—because I do believe that things have changed, and are changing, and overall for the worse. But that’s another story. Suffice to say that I think the changes are slow and relatively subtle, that they drive politics more than they are driven by politics, and that—to return to my prediction—they won’t be affected dramatically by whoever wins the next presidential election.

There are two obvious possible calamities that could have truly serious effects on everyone or almost everyone in the country: a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons and a complete financial collapse. (Of course there are others—an asteroid striking the earth, for instance—but those two come first to mind for me.) If either of those happens it will probably be the case that the president and his administration bear some, or perhaps much, responsibility for not having done things that might have prevented it. What I’m saying is that I don’t think any direct positive action by a president is likely to produce effects on that scale. And that a significant part of the emotion we invest in the election is a struggle over symbols and rhetoric.

These thoughts were prompted in part by a review in a recent Atlantic by Ross Douthat of Nixonland, a history of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (read the review here). I agree with Douthat that those who believe we are now in a major crisis don’t fully appreciate the seriousness of the crisis of the late ‘60s. Let’s not forget that--to pick two examples—cities were burning in the riots of the late ‘60s and the university system was all but paralyzed in the spring of 1970. By the mid-‘70s those shocks had passed and the country had stabilized in a new configuration. And we’re still living in it.



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