Where is America headed? It's not hard to find pessimists. Author and former Nixon adviser Kevin Phillips believes the nation is dominated by a new "plutocracy" in which wealth reaches "beyond its own realm" to control government at all levels. The writer Robert Kaplan predicts that our society could soon "resemble the oligarchies of ancient Athens and Sparta." Sociologist Bertram Gross has predicted a "friendly fascism." Imagine what another 9/11 would do.
It's also not hard to find optimists. Bush is in trouble, the GOP is struggling to recruit candidates in many races, and liberals are beginning to smell blood. After all, if 70,000 votes had gone the other way in Ohio -- and if voters hadn't been forced to wait in line for endless hourswe might have a Democrat in the White House right now. The Dean campaign, America Coming Together, MoveOn, Wellstone Action, and many other efforts show new energies beneath the surface. The Iraq war is becoming increasingly unpopular. The pendulum will surely swing.
My own view is that both these judgments are almost certainly wrong. Both assume that the crisis we face is a politicalone, pure and simple. But what if it is something different? There are reasons to believe we are entering what can only be called a systemic crisis. And the emerging possibilities are not easily described by the conventional wisdom of either left or right.
The institutional power arrangements that have set the terms of reference for the American political-economic system over roughly the last half century are dissolving before our eyesespecially those that once constrained corporate economic and political power. First, organized labor's capacity to check the giant corporation, both on the shop floor and in national politics, has all but disappeared as union membership has collapsed from 35 percent of the labor force in the mid-1950s to a mere 7.9 percent in the private sector today. Throughout the world, at the heart of virtually every major progressive political movement has been a powerful labor movement. Liberalism in general, and the welfare state in particular, would have been impossible without union money and organizing. The decline of labor is one of the central reasons traditional liberal strategies are in decline.
Second, globalization has further enhanced corporate power, as the threat to move jobs elsewhere erodes unions' bargaining capacity, while at the same time working to reduce taxation and regulation. (The corporate share of the federal tax burden has declined in eerie lockstep with union membership -- from 35 percent in 1945 to 10.1 percent in 2004.) This in turn has intensified the nationwide fiscal crisis, further undercutting efforts to use public resources to solve public problems ranging from poverty and hunger to energy conservation and even simple repair jobs such as fixing decaying roads, bridges, and water systems throughout the nation.
Thirdand most importantthe Republican "Southern Strategy" has now completed the transformation of a once (nominally) Democratic South that at least voted for Democratic presidents into a reactionary bastion of corporate power based on implicit racism and explicitly religious divide-and-conquer fervor. Bill Clinton's brief moment occurred just before the full consolidation of this Southern stranglehold. Very few observers have grasped the full implications of this shift: The United States is the only advanced political economy where the working class is fundamentallynot marginallydivided by race. It is also the only one where a massive geographic quadrant is now essentially beyond the reach of traditional progressive politics. George Bush, though extreme, is no accident; nor can the core political relationships that now define the South be easily unraveled. Hence, yes, a Democrat might be elected president one day. But no, such a shift is not going to nurture an era of renewed liberal or progressive reform. The system of power that once allowed this no longer exists. Period.