“Those of us who look at politics from moment to moment tend to look at gaffes, campaign strategies, the foibles of this or that politician. But it’s always important to step back from the particulars to see the broad sweep of political and social change. It’s almost always dominated by long term trends – demographic, ideological, economic. But particular events can pivot history off in dramatic new directions.”
We should keep his words handy during the diminishing number of weeks between now and November. We might combine Josh’s thought with something I’ve come up with myself. Call it the “textbook” standard.
Here’s how it works: Try to look at the election we’re about to have from the perspective of a high school history student years from now. What will it say in the textbook? What will it say caused the voters to choose the new president? What condition, what political trend, what event will the textbook say was decisive?
When you look back at the “change” elections in American politics - when one party got dumped for the other - the answer to that question is strikingly clear. Every election is an effort by the voter to solve a problem that looms the largest at the time. Think of the Great Depression (1932), the Korean War (1952), and the Iranian hostage crisis (1980). In each case there were problems, admittedly of varying degree of consequence, which voters sought, rightly or wrongly, to address in the voting booth.
The problems this time are manifest, real and large: a long, unpopular war; an insipient recession, a poorly-respected incumbent, a long backlog of inaction: health care, social security, energy dependence, climate change.
Posed on the other side is the historic novelty of the first African-American presidential nominee, someone with a fascinating, even compelling biography offset by an extremely brief tenure in major public office. Alternatively, the option will be Hillary Clinton, another breakthrough candidate of historic proportions.
Let’s look at this 2008 election, as I suggested, through the perspective of some future high school history lesson.
Did the voters of 2008 elect a candidate they would have been unlikely to choose in normal times? Will Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton have taken his or her place with Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as a “change” president when “change” was judged essential?
Or will textbooks note that voters chose to stick with the Republican Party even through the worst of situations out of deep uneasiness with the alternative?
What’s bound to happen, and despite all the weekly distractions, is an emotional debate on the number one question of our times: What is America’s shrewdest role in the world of formidable economic rivalry and islamist hostility? Putting a sharper point on it: If George W. Bush is the problem, what is the solution?
Is it to take a sharp turn from Bush’s doctrine?
If our current predicament in Iraq resulted from a lack of historic perspective, a failure to embrace the experiences of the British in Iraq, the French in Algeria, is it that we want a president who grasps that brutal legacy and will put it to instructive use?
Is it to try and more usefully grasp the realities that led 19 people to commit suicide on September 11, 2001 – hatred so great that the hijackers were said to squeal with ecstacy as they hit the World Trade towers? Is it to examine the roots of the anger the average Iranian feels toward our country after those decades of the Shah, the bitterness of the young Egyptian and Saudi toward their own governments as well as ours? Is it to gauge our own policies to ensure they don’t ignite more lethal hostility?
Or is it to stick with the basic Bush policy but strengthen it with a new ideological toughness? Is it to take the lessons of World War II and the Cold War that warned of “appeasement” and apply them to the terrorist threat? Is it to follow John McCain?
On this essential question, two of the candidates – Obama and McCain – could not be more different, the divergence in their calls for action more stark.
When students reach the page on which the 2008 election is explained, I predict – and hope – they will dwell on this very question more than all the rest. Josh Marshall is right.
The question we have to decide long before this election gets covered in the history textbooks is whether or not we want the here and now election of 2008 to deal with the central question of our time.
I’d love to hear what you think.