Sunday, April 19, 2009

How “Historic” is the 2008 Election?

The American Historical Association (AHA) held a special panel at its annual conference this year considering the above question to which it invited six very prominent historians to offer insights and opinions. Surprisingly, I was not among those invited, but having read half of the responses made available in the most recent edition of the AHA’s magazine, Perspectives, I think another opinion is in order, one based on slightly different premises than those offered by the invited panelists.

First of all, the question is fundamentally flawed. Any event for which we have some sort of human produced evidence is, ipso facto, historic. What the question means to ask is: “How historically important is the 2008 election?” This may seem a small point, but you will notice that all three of the available essays deals with any and every piece of historically (ir)relevant detail before moving to the issue all three of them care most about, i.e. will Barack Obama’s election produce the fundamental statist changes each of them think is desirable and needed in these times? All seem optimistic that it might, but most of them are cautious not to “jump the gun” given their historically minded familiarity with past disappointments.

But assuming for the moment that history is not simply the march away from limited government to a statist utopia of supplying “equality” to all from all, then one must put prior experience and our best guesses for the future into an honest narrative of events. All three of the available AHA essays are very clearly partisan, which should not necessarily be a problem, but all of them say things which indicate a supremely uncritical attitude towards the meta-narrative constructed by the Democratic Party to explain current events and the previous administration. Jacqueline Jones says at one point: McCain’s campaign “evoked both the Cold War of the 1980s and the culture wars of the 1990s—an attempt to divide the country into warring camps: us v. them, straight v. gay, native-born v. immigrant, rural v. urban folks, conservatives v. liberals, “Real Americas” v. all the rest.” David Levering- Lewis, a man who seriously attempted to contact W.E.B. Du Bois’s ghost for his monumental two-volume Pulitzer Prize winning biography, contends about the election’s finals months: “Absent the breathtakingly sudden collapse of unregulated capitalism and the GOP candidate’s eerie economic unsophistication manifested in the final campaign weeks, neither Obama’s position on the Iraq war nor his insurance prescriptions for health care might have given him a clear electoral-college victory.” While Julian E. Zelizer blandly recapitulates: “The dramatic collapse of the financial and housing markets, as well as the crises in key industries like automobile manufacturing, has raised serious questions among many Americans about the effectiveness of several core conservative policies: tax cuts, deregulation, and unrestrained free trade.” The AHA billed this “discussion” of the 2008 election as some sort of “forum,” chaired by a very able but also very leftist historian, Eric Foner. Each and every essay they have so far released (and there is no particular reason to expect the other three historians to say anything substantially different) is not just an encomium to Obama, but to statism more broadly. This is fine if that is what the AHA is interested in doing, but “echo chamber” might be a more appropriate name for such a session. “Forum” suggests some sort of open discussion of at least mildly opposing views before an open and uncommitted crowd of spectators.

For any historian to pretend that the last eight years, which witnessed some of the most sweeping extensions of domestic federal power and spending ever witnessed in the history of the republic, was some sort of capitalist tyranny of no regulation and unrestrained trade is to create the most empty of strawmen. From the Ted Kennedy endorsed and approved No Child Left Behind Act (2001), to the reactionary and foolish Sarbanes-Oxley Act (2002), to the Medicare Prescription Drug Act (2003), to minimum wage increases in 2007 and 2008, as well as ever more bloated farm subsidy bills, the Patriot Act (2001), etc, etc, etc, the last eight years was merely an extension of big government. It is to either be woefully ignorant of basic economics and the simple facts of reality, or to maliciously mislead others to contend otherwise. I repeat: the Bush years cannot be characterized as anything other than a wholesale, eight year expansion of the federal government’s domestic powers and activities. To the extent that President Bush did anything particularly capitalistic, it was almost entirely confined to the realm of tax rate manipulation (temporary rate cuts) and the negotiation and passage of tariff reduction packages with Central America and Columbia. Deregulation was certainly not the order of the day in the years between 20 January 2001 and 20 January 2009. If government enactments are not enough to prove this point, please feel free to ask anyone who owns or operates a business anywhere in the United States (something historians never do, or even care to do). As someone intimately familiar with business owners, I already know the answer to this question all too well. Historians can certainly be partisans, but if they wish to be taken seriously outside of cloistered conferences once a year where no one except (maybe) other historians listens to what they have to say, they need to show that they are able to evaluate the facts of reality in an independent manner and not simply regurgitate partisan talking points and the rankest of misleading propaganda. Of course, this would not be an issue if Republican propaganda were being foisted at an AHA conference because the historians there would dismiss it as that and move on with brutal efficiency (as they should).

What is likely to change from the past administration to this one are marginal issues. The Republicans did not enact cap-and-trade regulation because they weren’t sold on the factual issues related to the cult of man-made “global warming,” not because they thought such a system was an unconstitutional extension of government power or a fundamentally immoral action (they did, after all, create the EPA). The Democrats will undo those restrictions on government power that were put in place by President Bush, not because he suddenly got cold feet about big government, but instead because he asserted some ridiculous mystical doctrine which prevented him from acting in good conscience. The Republicans did not create a government health care system only because of a vague and ill-defined notion that the quasi-private system currently in place “works better.” Only a few of them actually consciously and seriously contends that a public system would be immoral and unconstitutional. Like the Democrats, Republicans do not dispute the right of the government to act in these matters. They merely quibble over the marginal issues of how and where to act. These various marginal issues will mean a great deal to some people, but in terms of principle, they are not nearly as antipodal as these historians and other partisans like to pretend.

As for foreign policy, Bush spoke (sometimes and inconsistently) with a big stick, but nearly always threw carrots at everyone, even our enemies. Only Afghanistan and Iraq were made to pay for the attacks of September 11, 2001, even though the ideological, financial, and support structures, networks, and governments behind those attacks lay in other/additional countries (Iran being pre-eminent). President Obama seems likely to continue the inept and weak-kneed actions of the United States as regards our various enemies, but seems intent on dropping the pretext to the correct rhetoric President Bush was occasionally committed to trying to formulate and use. This “change” is merely one of superficial appearance and nothing more. If that’s all it takes to ameliorate a world flummoxed, baffled, enraged, and annoyed by our behavior in the last eight years, then the world is populated by people even more disconnected from reality than even I imagined (this applies just as much to the populace of the United States unfortunately).

So the question: How historically important is the 2008 election? Obviously, like the three historians whose opinions the AHA has released, we cannot know the answer with any degree of precision in 2009. Given that the history of our republic has been marked by two related but contradictory developments, the extension and protection of individual rights for all Americans and, simultaneously, the evolution and growth of government power and the state at the expense of the individual rights of some Americans for the “security” of others, Obama’s election is likely to be important in the following sense. When the mixed economy faltered, the party alleging fidelity to economic freedom intervened massively and disastrously and was replaced by the party alleging no such fidelity when the American people were required to choose. That the nominee of the party that won happened to be black is of historically minor importance (the key to that development historically occurred over 40 years ago). The historically significant point will be whether or not he succeeds in pushing through the legislation on healthcare, carbon emissions, taxes, etc. that he has indicated are his primary objectives domestically. But as far as the history of the republic goes and has gone for the last 80 years, President Obama’s objectives are not different in essential principles than those of any of his predecessors. He wishes to extend governmental controls and the concomitant initiation of force into the economic and private lives of American citizens. No president in living memory would disagree with that.