D.J. Tice: Another sweeping, stunning upheaval? We're used to it by now

  • Article by: D.J. TICE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2010 - 11:14 AM

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If Tuesday's vote produces the predicted seismic shift in political power, it will merely be a typical election for our atypical times.

What makes our era so turbulent? I have guilty suspicions.

We are mainly in our 50s and 60s now, you see, as prominent as we'll ever be. Veterans in our careers and still vast in our numbers, we wield a ponderous influence today in politics and the media, business and the arts.

It's no wonder America is in turmoil.

We, of course, are baby boomers -- the generation of Americans shaped, maybe warped, by the agitated Vietnam War era, which we helped stir up.

Our gift for agitation, if little else, remains undiminished by the years.

Rushing toward the climax of yet another convulsive election, many Americans wonder why politics has grown so polarized and ill-tempered, self-righteous and apocalyptic.

Sorry. It's just our style.

In our youth, America's college campuses exploded. Quieter excesses of careerism and acquisitiveness followed, and for decades phrasemakers labored to express and exploit the prideful zest we brought to materialistic pursuits (the "Me Decade," "You Can Have it All"). As we reached the top of the economic hierarchy, the U.S. economy quite naturally shuddered and imploded.

And all the while, as we've poured in our scores of millions into the ranks of voters and expanded our clout as pundits (Limbaugh, Olbermann, Krugman, O'Reilly -- boomers all, to name just a few) and as political poobahs (Rove, Axelrod -- ditto), the extravagance and emotionalism of American public life have increased.

Do I exaggerate our importance? Do I oversimplify complex influences on our era? Sure. That's our style, too. But be forewarned:

Twenty years from now, America's nursing homes could be in flames.

Whatever the cause, something has changed in American politics. Bitterness is really nothing new; frequent seismic shifts are.

Until the late 1960s, the American political experience was characterized by long stretches, decades on end, of significant dominance for one political party and philosophy or another. First came the Jeffersonian-Jacksonian agrarians (1800-1860), then the post-Civil War Republican capitalists (1860-1932), then the New Deal Democrat interventionists (1932-1968).

Since then, by contrast, we've seen one upheaval and abrupt course reversal after another -- the Vietnam backlash, Watergate, the Reagan Revolution, the Clintonian New Democrat revival, Bush and his neocons, Obamania.

Will Tuesday add the Tea Party takeover to this list? If so, don't bet everything you have left on how long the new realignment will last.

In short, contemporary America may be angrily divided simply because it's so closely divided. The score is tight, the lead keeps changing, emotions run high. In eras when one party clearly has won the electorate's hearts and minds, the opposition has every incentive to play nice and tone down its complaints to remain relevant and occasionally get listened to. When every election is winnable, the incentive is to go for broke -- and for the jugular.

This is a genuine problem for a people needing to face hard decisions, a people who for too long have spent and cut taxes and made promises as if they really could have it all it. Program cuts and tax hikes that will pinch everybody surely lie ahead. They would be easier to achieve before real crisis looms if one side or the other could win the political ping-pong match that has kept the country dizzy for decades.

Actual political consensus -- or at least electoral dominance for somebody -- may be especially needed to accomplish painful work in our country. America's constitutional decentralization and maze of checks and balances were designed to prevent "tyranny of the majority." They all but prevent government by the majority when that majority is narrow and the necessary choices are unpleasant.

Europe's sudden dive into fiscal austerity in recent months -- whether wise or foolish -- reflects in part governmental systems that give majority parties and even coalition governments in the old world more freedom to enact swift and sweeping change. Slashing public retirement benefits may not be what American liberals have had in mind when they've habitually praised the decisive European model and lamented American gridlock -- but the difference is real enough.

It isn't easy to foresee either of America's political tribes soon winning a durable mandate (although each, to be sure, foresees it constantly) -- at least not the kind of mandate that would survive a dry-eyed policy of shared sacrifice. The recipe for political victory too often involves roasting scapegoats with a dash of pain-free panacea.

Here in Minnesota, if the polls can be trusted, Democrat Mark Dayton stands a fair chance of becoming a bright spot for his party Tuesday. If so, he will have done it with a brilliantly simple, three-word platform -- "tax the rich" -- that answered "no-new-taxes" and caught in progressive sails this year's swirling winds of resentment for the powerful.

Dayton has made this look so easy that as a matter of pure political strategy one wonders why national Democrats don't work the class conflict issue harder. They sound that theme, of course, but somehow Democrats in Washington always seem to pull their punches and change the subject in the end. Maybe they don't really believe in it.

And maybe we can hope that Dayton doesn't really believe in it, either -- doesn't believe, that is, that "tax-the-rich" constitutes a whole plan or expresses the whole spirit that will be needed to face up to Minnesota's and America's challenges.

Whatever happens, don't count on the next few years being smooth sailing.

Dayton (like opponents Tom Emmer and Tom Horner) is a boomer.

D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor. He is at dtice@startribune.com.

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