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Progressivism, Polarization, and the 2012 Election

Every four years, American presidential candidates seek to stir voters by claiming that “more is at stake in this election than ever before!”  Every four years, they contend the voters face “stark” choices between “dramatically” different visions of America’s fundamental principles and aspirations.  In 2012 these histrionic tropes, while still exaggerated, are closer to being true than in most election years.  Although Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are both affluent, Harvard-trained partisans of America’s basic economic and political institutions and interests, they do have different significances in their world-views that have been heightened by the broader forces now driving American politics. But precisely because contentions that American voters face a momentous choice are more true than usual, those claims must be qualified by the reality that whoever gets elected is probably not only going to be unable to govern as he hopes to do.  The next president may find, as Obama in his first term already found, that when it comes to some of the nation’s most crucial problems, he cannot get the United States government to govern at all.

At the heart of all this is the widely documented polarization among American elites, and to a lesser degree the American public, that has been on the rise for the last four decades.  This polarization is asymmetrical.  It has been driven by the rise of an uncompromising culturally and economically fundamentalist New American Right.  That New Right has hardly been accompanied by the emergence of an equally unflinching New American Left.  Instead, on all but a few cultural issues, notably LGBT rights, the American “Left” has faded or moved more to the right in recent decades—without, however, diminishing in the slightest the New Right’s portrayal of Democrats and liberals as radically socialistic, morally licentious, and deeply anti-American.   But even though the polarization has not taken place equally on both ends of the American political spectrum, it is severe enough to cast into doubt whether the different sectors of the U.S. government can reach sufficient agreement even to pay the public’s bills–much less to address the daunting challenges of job creation, energy generation, environmental protection, health care, pension, and social assistance reform, racial justice, infrastructure reconstruction, and educational improvement that the U.S. must resolve in the next few years, if it is not to face decades of decline.

One way to illuminate the polarized choices Americans face in 2012 is to compare them with the choices of Americans in 1912, when Republican incumbent William Howard Taft ran against Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Party candidate and former Republican president Theodore Roosevelt, and Socialist Party nominee Eugene Debs.  The nation was clearly sharply divided: the victorious Wilson won only 41.8% of the popular vote, Roosevelt got 27.4%, Taft received 23.2%, and Debs 6%.

Yet in important respects, all four candidates were on one side of a divide that has since resurged and deepened in American political culture.  All had been shaped by late 19th century scientific and historical views that portrayed humanity as an evolving natural species.  None shared the forms of fundamentalist Christianity that denounced Darwinism as sinful error.  None believed that the United States could or should any longer take its guides primarily from the doctrines of unchanging human nature and fixed natural rights that prevailed in the era of the American Revolution.

Wilson had been trained in Germanic theories of historical evolution by Herbert Baxter Adams’ history and politics program at Johns Hopkins.  Roosevelt had learned similar theories from John Burgess at Columbia.  Taft was an undergraduate disciple of the leading American social Darwinist, William Graham Sumner, at Yale.  Debs was converted to socialism in part by reading Karl Kautsky’s version of Marxist historical materialism.  The subsequent writings and policy positions of all four men vividly displayed these influences.

They differed sharply on some vital economic and political matters.  In principle, Wilson favored the more Brandeisian, decentralizing, small business wing of Progressivism, while Roosevelt was far more enthusiastic about national power and “good” big corporations, though in office their policies diverged less widely.  Like Sumner, Taft believed in a largely unregulated market as an arena for determining economic fitness and so he opposed many economic reforms that the others favored, while Debs was obviously at the opposite end of the spectrum, urging strong government measures to enable workers and farmers to triumph over capitalists.  Yet Debs has rightly been interpreted more as a product of the most populist versions of American republicanism than a true Communist; Roosevelt and Taft were close enough that TR originally chose Taft as his successor; and Roosevelt and Wilson represented different parts of a Progressive movement that shared many doubts about traditional American political structures and economic policies and favored many of the same solutions.  Note also that Taft, the most opposed of the four to national economic regulatory and redistributive initiatives, received less than a quarter of the vote.  Instead of polarization, there was broad support among the nation’s overwhelmingly white male electorate for significantly new public economic regulations and institutions.   Sadly, all four candidates also accepted that their evolutionary perspectives justified beliefs in deeply entrenched inequalities in racial capacities—and among these leaders and their voters, there was broad support for the still-emerging institutions of Jim Crow segregation and black disfranchisement.

The 1912 election launched more than six decades in American politics in which major party candidates generally embraced the world-views of modern evolutionary science and the modern social sciences.  They simply debated how much and which sorts of state and national market regulations and redistributive measures were effective in promoting economic growth and shared prosperity for all—with virtually everyone accepting that the policy and institutional answers in the 20th century must be different in important respects from those that prevailed at the nation’s founding.  And fortunately, by 1960 the nominees of both the major parties also accepted that not only were doctrines of enduring racial inequality scientifically wrong, they and their institutionalization were political liabilities that Americans must repudiate.  During most of these years, Americans with anti-evolutionary, fundamentalist beliefs largely retreated from a national political life dominated by views alien to their own.  They constructed their own parallel, and thriving, churches, schools, community centers, publications and eventually broadcast networks.

But as the 1960s and 1970s proceeded, religious fundamentalists came to believe that their institutions, many of which practiced racial and gender discrimination, would be destroyed by hostile policies of an ever-more liberal and interventionist federal government.  They also became increasingly outraged by what they saw as the moral declension of America into sexual licentiousness and murderous abortion policies.  At the same time, the modern heirs of Taft-style economic conservatism came to feel that the expansion of governmental regulatory and redistributive powers from the Progressive through the New Deal and Great Society eras had reached truly dangerous proportions, requiring dramatic reversals.  When in the 1970s Ronald Reagan began adding evangelical religious rhetoric and then fresh “supply side” arguments to his Taft-like economic conservatism, a New American Right that fused religious and pro-market economic fundamentalism into an aggressive, absolutist ideology was born.  It now dominates the candidate selection process in the Republican Party.

Fast forward to 2012.  It is hard to know how much Mitt Romney, who ran and governed as a far more moderate conservative in Massachusetts, really shares all the political positions that this New Right has elaborated since Reagan’s 1980 triumph.  It is hard to know if Romney has any settled political views at all.  But many of his undoubtedly devout Mormon religious beliefs are congenial to New Right cultural and economic positions; and in any case, he won the 2012 Republican nomination only by identifying himself so strongly with those views over the preceding five years that he had few allies left who might push him in any other directions.  It is in many ways ironic that the descendants of the Protestants who helped drove the Mormons to Utah and, in the case of Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather, to Mexico should now form the backbone of his electoral support, reinforced by most of America’s super-wealthy.   But it is true that despite his  Mormonsim, his Massachusetts record, and his elite secular education, Romney’s general world-view, if not his specific theology, is congenial to most of the New Right that grudgingly came to deem him their best hope in 2012.

Barack Obama, in contrast, is a preeminent product and expositor of the left-leaning Progressive era pragmatism most identified with John Dewey, blended in his case with the social reform perspectives of the American black church leaders active in civil rights struggles–and tempered by Obama’s Dewey-like respect for scientific “expertise” and desire to govern via deliberative, consensual, compromise-filled decision-making processes.  What many Left observers miss is that, though Obama is not the foreigner, Muslim, or socialist that the Right portrays him as being, though he in fact is if anything all too solicitous of Wall Street economic concerns, the New American Right is not wrong to see him as an arch-enemy.  Obama does in fact embody and advocate wholeheartedly the home-grown American world-view of egalitarian, evolutionary-minded, pro-regulatory and redistributive pragmatism that the New Right religious and economic fundamentalists fear most, perceiving it as an all-too-potent ideology that has placed the nation on the path to cultural and economic Armageddon.

At this writing, it looks likely that Obama will win a narrow victory in 2012, aided by Romney’s incautious excoriation of the “47%” of Americans that the Republican nominee, like most of the New Right, portrays as addicted to a morally and economically pathological welfare state.  If so, Obama’s success and subsequent policies are likely to reinforce demographic trends–especially the growth in the share of the electorate comprised by non-white, younger American voters who actually vote–that may well render the New Right incapable of winning national elections under almost any circumstances in five to ten years.  In those transformations lie the hopes of all who long for a more genuine and substantial American Left in the years to come.

But even if Obama should win, and almost certainly if Romney instead gains a narrow victory, odds are that the U.S. government will remain deeply divided among polarized elites, with Tea Party-pressured Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and with more than enough of their counterparts in a Democratic-led Senate to threaten routine filibusters.  In the improbable event that Republicans come to control both congressional chambers and the presidency, the Democrats are likely to play the Senate filibuster card in their turn.

Hence there is a very real chance that during the next presidential administration, the U.S. government will remain in gridlock on a wide range of vital and urgent issues—including developing an economy capable of generating enough jobs for the nation to approach full employment; strengthening protections for workers; rebuilding the country’s long-decaying educational, transportation, and communications infrastructures so that its businesses can compete with fast-growing economies in other parts of the world; combating persisting and often deepening racial inequalities; and putting in place innovations that can give both the United States and the world some real hope of generating vastly more energy while reducing environmental degradation to manageable proportions.   These problems are so acute that it is not clear how much of a window of opportunity the United States still has to do the many things and the big things that must be done if the rest of the 21st century is not to witness sharp declines in the quality of life, not just for most Americans, but in all likelihood for much of humanity.

It is possible, though very far from probable, that the Democrats and Obama will win more sweeping victories, first in 2012 and then in 2014, and that Obama, in his final term in public office and profoundly aware of the scale of the nation’s problems, will put his attachment to compromise and consensus-building aside and push through major initiatives to address all these enormous challenges.  If so, the election of 2012 will quickly and rightly be viewed as one of the handful of the most important in the history of the United States, if not indeed all modern history.  But sad to say, it is far more likely that the election of 2012 will be viewed as one in which a divided American electorate faced a choice between world-views more polarized than any they had confronted in a century—and chose only to reproduce those divisions, leaving their nation a house in grave danger of no longer being able to stand.

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