"Conventional" wisdom about American 20th century political dialectic was constructed on the bedrock stereotypes that (1) Republicans were against free-trade and believed in non-interventionist, "small" federal government and all that goes with it, like expansion of personal freedoms. And "liberals" were big-government, free-trade expansionists.
Free-trade emerged from classic liberal theories. The same concepts that formed classic liberalism, founded on rational thought and freedom, were applied to nations and merchants and the holy mantra that market forces would equal out differences over time. The idea was billed as a win-win situation--industrialization would raise the ignorant masses out of poverty and Americans would get access to cheap, disposable junk.
The theory was initially resisted by Republicans, who clung to tariffs, the thinking went, in order to build up native industries. The Republican-fostered Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of June 1930 raised U.S. tariffs to historically high levels. The original intent behind the ultimately derided legislation was to increase the protection afforded domestic manufacturers and farmers against foreign imports.
Fabian Democrats of the stripe of Wilson and Roosevelt on through Kennedy and Clinton were historically in favor of reduced tariffs in order to promote international commerce through reduced trade barriers.
Now we're seeing a reversal.
With the arrival of the late 20th century, the GOP caught the free-trade bug and took to it like a duck to water. NAFTA and so-called "fast-track" legislation were creatures nurtured largely by Republicans for the same reasons as passage of Smoot-Hawley--increased profits--only in the case of the act, the advantage was aimed at American profits. Corporations are transnational now, money is a fluid commodity that can be shot around the world at the touch of a button, and the old ideas of the American factory seem to be tottering on the edge of the grave.
Democrats, on the other hand, have, since 1997 for political reasons, begun distancing themselves from free-trade to the point where we have anti-free trade Democratic populists running for president, rousing the now jobless mob over what has been lost in the pursuit of $10 shoes.
Despite the posturing, the simple fact is that both sides, to a greater or lesser extent, support the status-quo of economic globalism, blips in support engendered by balancing political advantage with the endless addiction to corporate contributions. What made the difference was the blowing of the free-traders' cover beginning in Seattle. God bless the grubby kids.
What we are really seeing, in my view, is a realignment of an America more along the lines of the Continental era, the classic face-off between followers of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton--a new breed of Jeffersonian, small-government libertarians versus moneyed, stong-central-government Hamiltonian expansionists. Only this time it is happening outside party lines. The division is not vertical, it is horizontal. The country is beginning to realign the dialectic into something less like an orange and more like an onion, the layers being those of class, capital and privilege.
Thanks to the Internet, it is stock-in-trade knowledge that most of our political leaders were and are members of the same social class and the same spooky clubs and went to the same schools. It's the old switcheroo--you think you are voting for change? We've got two members of Skull and Bones running against one another, for instance.
That was why Ralph Nader was able to cause so much mischief in 2000. For the hardcore lefties and righties, there was no real difference between Bush and Gore. In 2000, Gore never was able to climb out of Billy's centrist shadow and define himself, and he bled votes. This year it may be the right's turn, but for different reason--Bush has staked out a position that many people find a little too obvious: his shameless pandering to corporations. A key issue for the conservative voter of yore was the balanced budget hook. Now that the tables are turned and Bush has shot our deficits all the way to Mars, we are seeing real anger where he shouldn't be seeing it--precisely from ground zero for the GOP, the part of their traditional voter base that believes in small, thrifty government.
What this will translate to in the election does not show up in the tea leaves. But it's going to be bloody. The dialectic has gotten way too poisonous this year for there to be any reduction to the ugliness and attacks. But maybe, just maybe, we may be seeing the beginning of a new reality (old, actually) that we are being chumped by the two parties, that we have fallen to the same weary old divide-and-conquer tactics that have worked so well in the past. It is going to take a long time to fix the damage. The simple fact is that we are all Americans and that which connects us--a living Constitution and a zeal for liberty--is much stronger that what divides us--the forces of gargantuan, muscular, global capitalism that has bought both sides and is working to destroy what made America (at its best) a beacon, a free-enterprise system built on small businesses, individual initiative and a sense of true compassion for the afflicted and the damaged.
Democrat or Republican? Coke or Pepsi. You want sweet or not so sweet? I want plain, old water.
Both the right and left have to step up to the plate and decide to agree on what sort of place it is they want to live. The much derided "nanny-state" may have had its flaws, but what is being erected in its place, a looming federal security monster that requires by its very cost and scope a shredding of personal freedom and the social safety net in order to write the check, is worse. But more, we're going to have to really think about what the American system is for, who it serves--the people or big money special interests. Bush's proposed Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (and let's recognize it for what it is, an applause line for the extreme religious right--as unrealistic and transparent as the mission to Mars) should scare the hell out of any (dare I say it) patriot. Any reading of the Constitution would show that for all its flaws, the general trend through the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th and 26th amendments has displayed a movement toward expansion of federal protection.
To allow a hydra of corporate interests and religious zealotry to chart the course in civil matters and personal decisions (abortion, lifestyle choice) is to bend the concept of the American republic to the breaking point. A bellicose, intrusive federalized theocracy is a creature that had no place in the founders' intents and should be smothered in its infancy. For any who fancy themselves conservative, to promote such a monster is so wrong-headed as to strip the label of "conservative" from its supporters. A nanny state is one thing, a privatized theocratic police state quite another.
So how do we begin to fix things? A good place (besides my personal favorite, secession, an increasingly popular idea--Vermont and New Hampshire are rumbling www.vermontsovereignty.com/introduction.shtml) is to begin to have a national dialogue on what we are in danger of becoming--and how we choose our political actors. Since we are unable to break the idea that big money equals speech, how about an action to ban foreign political contributions? The idea that corporations are people is so universally accepted (and wrong; see http://indy-week.com/durham/2003-05-14/eichenberger.html) that we will have a tough time getting over the hump.
So a modest proposal: Why not a ban on foreign money? Most of your big money contributors derive part of their revenue streams from foreign sources. Why do they get to play? How about a rule that constitutional free-speech (money) protection should extend only to U.S. persons, corporate or otherwise? Why not a constitutional amendment that would strip free-speech/money from any entity that derives revenue from non-U.S. sources. Considering the interlocking nature of most transnational corporations, that would be a tough one for most big players to slither around and may herald a new open gate of access to the political system slammed shut to most of us longer than any of us have been alive.