Obamania may not signal a big shift to the left—but at least it is inspiring Americans againby Robert Reich / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
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Almost 40 years ago, Bill Clinton and I sailed across the Atlantic to take up residence as students at Oxford University. I recall only two things from that voyage. The first was becoming seasick and retiring to my small cabin. This was followed a few hours later by a knock on my door and the appearance of a lanky southerner bearing chicken soup. Bill Clinton didn’t say, “I feel your pain”—that phrase came years later on the campaign trail—but I was nonetheless touched by his empathy and generosity. Despite my queasy stomach, we talked long into the night, mostly about what had happened to America.
Both of us had been politically active, but now looked forward to putting an ocean between us and the disappointments that marked America in 1968. Two months earlier, Chicago had been the scene of a riotous Democratic convention, during which numbers of young people who had been lured into politics by Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar campaign and then Robert Kennedy’s rousing call for social change were beaten by the police. By the time of our voyage, Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, McCarthy’s bid had flopped, the Democrats were in the process of nominating Hubert Humphrey and the Republicans Richard Nixon. The Vietnam war continued unabated. Several American cities were in flames.
My other recollection from that crossing was finding Bobby Baker on board. His decision to travel to England at this time, on this particular ship, seemed a cruel joke—suggesting there was no real escape. (Baker had been a crony of Lyndon Johnson until Robert Kennedy, as attorney general, had exposed his alleged deals with organised crime, forcing him to resign.)
Why do I trouble you with these reminiscences? Because the upheavals of 1968 splintered the Democratic party and marked the beginning of the rise of a new Republican majority—and the subsequent rise of the neocons on foreign policy, supply-side tax cutters on the economy and evangelical Christians on social policy. The Democratic establishment drifted into the comforting somnolence of a seemingly solid majority in congress, losing touch with the white working class that had been at the core of the New Deal coalition. The left all but abandoned politics—some vanishing into the hills to find spiritual enlightenment; the more academic disappearing into hermeneutics and deconstructionism; blacks, gays and women losing themselves in “identity”…