Starting with the bad news, let's recall that in six short years we in the United States have gone
- from federal fiscal surpluses projected as far as the eye could see, enough to guarantee the dignified retirement of the entire Boomer generation, whose beachhead turns 60 this year, to $2.8 trillion in debt accumulated by the Bush administration, not counting Iraq;
- from a decade of declining unemployment and rising wages to what most economists agree has been a jobless recovery from recession (the R in Republican truly seems to stand for recession, the Reagan recession, the Bush I recession, the Bush II recession, even the Nixon recession) and wage stagnation in which the average family income has failed to keep up with inflation for the past five years in a row;
- from declining poverty and malnutrition to rising poverty and hunger, all while the stratospherically wealthy became richer even still, while paying fewer and fewer taxes;
- from the breaking out of peace in embattled Ulster and the end of genocide in Yugoslavia -- both brought about by Clinton administration-supported diplomatic mediators -- to quagmire in Iraq and a failure to engage with Islamic jihadism; ...
And with the "anti-terror" legislation rammed through by the Republican House of Representatives, the U.S. government edged into an era of despotism in which the ruler can simply classify anyone as an "enemy combatant," without review or appeal, and lock that person away for torture and mistreatment indefinitely!
Goodbye, democracy! Well, it had been that since the coup d'etat of November 2000. But now that jackboots can legally march into our homes.
This is when it is good to recall the roots of the Democratic Party, the only voice available to contest the arbitrary abuse of power upon which the Bush administration is hell bent.
The legacy of Thomas Jefferson is monumental as it is flawed and still imperfect.
Jefferson took the social compact and the idea of balances and checks in the work of English philosopher John Locke and imported what could pass muster into the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution. The legacy is monumental because it enshrined for the first time in history the notion that human beings were entitled to govern themselves.
The flaws were present at creation: Jefferson himself and many of the signers of both foundational documents I have just mentioned owned slaves. Their actions spoke clearly that some human beings were not worthy of self-governance in the most fundamental ways.
Not only that, they were all landowners, men of wealth; the democracy they started was really a club of wealthy men in which neither women nor slaves, nor Indians, nor even the majority of white men, who did not own property, could participate. Accordingly, the society they founded became later, once industrialized, a plutocracy -- Greek for "government by the rich."
Enter Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself the scion of plutocrats, who created the modern political coalition that invented the American middle class, which did not really exist (other than in mythology) before 1932. It was a coalition that united labor, Americans of "immigrant" background (meaning other than colonist stock) and their churches (notably the Catholic Church and its labor priests) to bring about the first modest programs of social insurance. Later, the GI Bill created the first widespread, university-educated American middle class.
Like Jefferson, even FDR's coalition had a flaw: it made deals with the segregationist devil, the southern Democrats who are now Republicans. (Ever wonder why Ronald Reagan chose to begin his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers were slaughtered, nod nod, wink wink?)
Now there's a chance to try again.
Let's not be naive. There is much that is ugly and contemptible in the emotions, prejudices and gut feelings of many Americans. The Democratic Party is not pure, either. (And winning one chamber of Congress is only a beginning.)
But perhaps this time the challenges are so pressing -- from saving social security and medicare from collapse, to addressing the yawning gaps in access to health care, to developing a new source of energy that does not doom humanity to extinction -- that, with leaders who thrive on hope rather than fear, the best can be coaxed out of all of us.
Happy days, happy happy days, might just be here again.