By Joseph Ross
Brian Gilmore is an attorney, poet, journalist, and all-around clear thinker. In the excerpts below, from an essay of his, he tackles hope, Reagan, the social contract, and the election of 2010. This is a longer than normal posting but it’s well worth reading. Below, I have posted excerpts, so assume any awkwardness is mine, not Brian’s. Brian’s heart is in Washington, D.C. although he is currently teaching at the Michigan State University law School in East Lansing, Michigan.
Postscript, November 3, 2010: No Eulogy for Hope
“Keep Hope Alive…”
– The Rev. Jesse Jackson
I remember the night when Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. I was in the alley behind my house with friends and we were chugging vodka mixed with powdered orange juice. I was a teenager, a recent college dropout, and someone who was sure the world had come to an end when Reagan rose to power under the political banner that expressed a hatred for government.
It was a sad night and my friends, all young black men living in the beautiful city of Washington D.C., were sure that things we about to get very bad for all of us. We had a boom box blasting through the neighborhood, and all we could talk about was how Mr. Reagan was going to reinstitute the draft and make us all join the army. We were products of a civic culture that knew government did good things, had saved some of us from the streets, and so many of our friends, so Reagan’s rise tore apart our vision of the world.
Of course, this was my sentiment on the night of November 2, 2010. I am sure amongst progressives and liberals and Democrats and anyone else afraid or opposed to conservative politics felt the same as well. The Democrats got crushed that night and Barack Obama, their leader, and the first black President of the United States, got repudiated by some of the population for the direction of the country. He famously called it a “shellacking.” It was again those anti-government folks who were coming to town, and it was again a moment of deep reflection and disappointment for many of us who believe in other ideals.
Some said that November 2, 2010 is the day that the Republicans returned to power for generations. Others allege that it is the day that President Barack Obama’s political honeymoon ended. My African-Americans friends, some of them, blamed it on racism that was latent but real. Others deemed it some kind of people’s revolution, the people took their country back they shout.
I beg to differ with all of those assessments.
November 2, 2010 was simply just another small skirmish in the long struggle for a “social contract” in the United States. It was, in other words, a lost battle for those of us who believe in the ideals of Jean Jacques Rousseau in his all-important book, The Social Contract. It is usually shaped as government v. no government, and of late, it has been nasty, and cutthroat, politically.
We all know the social contract. Some of us read of it in high school and in college; others remember politicians invoking it quietly in their speeches even though we had no idea what they were talking about. But the contract is a simple and basic idea.
It says we are here for each other, we will help one another, and we will do it with the government we formed that is our government. People will be able to find a decent job, retire and live with dignity after work, and if they run into hard times, we will help them through that hard time. They will get some medical care if they need it, and if they can’t afford it, we will help them get that medical treatment anyway.
It is a deal between the people, a promise, and it has been something the United States of America has wanted badly and resisted violently for all of its days now. It simply cannot decide, and thus, aluta continua, the struggle continues. This is what November 2, 2010; it wasn’t some magical moment when the people spoke righteously. Most people eligible to vote didn’t even vote in the election and that fact is completely lost in the spin cycle.
I also don’t accept the other descriptions of November 2, 2010 because I know better. The facts don’t support the idea that this is some revolution. Revolutions are about a complete overthrow; this election was not unlike many in the history of the United States. In fact, if it were accepted that because Republicans gained some degree of political power again, this were some kind of people’s revolution, this would mean that the Republicans spoke for the people. I don’t believe that for a minute and most of the Republicans who are now headed to office don’t believe that either.
The Republicans, by their own admission, and statements, are the party of corporate power and commerce not the people. They use the phrase return the power to the people but what they really mean is, the market. This is the party that believes that corporations can provide everything if the state will just sign onto that ideal. Education, health care, clean water, clean air; leave it to corporations to provide. This is their mantra even though it has never happened in history and is not likely to happen. The last Republican President, George W. Bush wasn’t shy about telling everyone that he was a business friendly chief executive. Most of his political brethren are as well which is why November 2, 2010 was not about the people.
I also don’t really believe it means the Republicans have returned to power because power in the United States is relative. Republicans have some power but for the most part, power in Washington D.C. has been split when it comes to party affiliation. It rarely drifts too far before the population pounds one of the parties for seeking to dominate too much.
Was liberalism or big government dumped on November 2, 2010? Who knows? If it was dumped, which part of that big government (if it is big) was dumped? The Defense Department was surely not dumped. Military spending is the one line item in the United States that is untouchable and no one who alleged that they voted to stop the out of control spending by the government voted to reduce the making of bombs and high tech weapons. That is why I contend that this kind of big government-small government analysis is simplistic because it focuses on one part of government and not other parts that do not ever get reduced.
Was the election about racism or race? Sure, some people voted against the Democrats for one reason: the black Democrat President. But was it an overriding theme or motivating force of the election? Who knows?
My view of this election like most elections in the modern era is that the election was ideological in nature, a debate in the public sphere about ideas and political policy for a micro-moment that will be over before it even starts. Millions of different factions argued and debated and expressed their view for the future but two parties in the United States are the two who always get to make the deal with the public: the Democrats and the Republicans.
On November 2, 2010, they both sought to consolidate the direction of public and social policy for a short period of time and the Republicans were the victors. The economy is functioning poorly, the Democrats made some hard policy choices, the Republicans got pounded two years ago. The pendulum swung back. Right now, the change seems significant but over the long haul, the fight is ongoing and there will be little time for the Republicans to stave off the march of time.
In the U.S., in the modern era, as capitalism grows and mutates, and human needs become more complex, the mid-term election of November 2010 was nothing more than part of that epic struggle in the United States to establish that social contract, a bargain between the government and the people as Rousseau wrote about so well in 1762 before the United States was even born. It is still just a work in progress and on November 2, 2010, it again took another strange turn in America and remained a work in progress.
Indeed, the period directly preceding the election of November 2, 2010 is indicative of the struggle because it demonstrated again how fierce the battle has become in the digital media age where information travels quicker than ever. The period consumes five years of U.S. history, and it involves serious progress for Rousseau’s contract, followed by a period that will likely again prolong the struggle and force it to evolve again and again.
Thus, in November 2008, the epic ideological struggle over the social contract took another interesting turn. The Democratic Party gained further control over Congress, and the nation elected its first African-American President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama’s abiding theme: hope, became the literary and political fuel for change, and a complex intersection of the population embraced it and moved the social contract forward for the first time in a long time in a significant manner.
On March 23, 2010, hope scored a major victory too – health care reform. The United States of America passed a comprehensive health care law that covers most of the uncovered population. While it is not a government run program, some of its features provide the government with the ability to regulate the market yet in partnership with health insurance companies.
Hope also passed a new consumer protection law in the summer, 2010, a law that is a direction reaction to the housing crisis and the conduct of the financial business sector prior to the economic recession of 2008 that ruined millions of lives. The law wasn’t and isn’t perfect but it is a start.
But on November 2, 2010, after just 18 months in office and this kind of governing, Mr. Obama’s hope almost died. The Republican Party took back control of the House of Representatives on the night of November 2, 2010 and also made serious gains in the U.S. Senate. The people, it was said, spoke.
They did speak and many are unaware of the implications of their vote. The social contract is again under siege. Those who want to damage it, or kill it, are re-engaged again. Some who want to destroy it are strategically motivated; others are emotionally lost, like those individuals who screamed during the health care debate that they did not want government run health care even though they already were receiving it through Medicaid or Medicare.
Of course, the two opposing sides of the social contract have been debating this for generations. For most of the nation’s history, the conservative viewpoint has dominated government policy regarding the social contract. This is despite the fact that the nation was founded based upon the idea of a social contract. In the 1930’s with the rise of Franklin Roosevelt, the social contract or compact finally did gain political traction and the building blocks of that concept were finally put in place in a meaningful way.
Truthfully, the historic struggle for a social contract in the United States is a marathon and then an extra inning baseball game and then a heavyweight boxing match with unlimited rounds. It will go on even after the next set of achievements is obtained. The most important thing of all no matter the gains and losses is to never forget that the promise between a people in society is worth struggling for daily.
Hope took a pounding on election day 2010 but it is not dead. Speak no eulogies for hope. If someone told you when George W. Bush was ushered to the presidency in December 2000 by the U.S. Supreme Court that in 2011, a black man would be President, a woman would have served as Speaker of the House, and the nation had the beginnings of a serious attempt at health care reform, would you take it?
I think we all know the answer to that. This is especially true for those of us who remember the callousness of those who ran the government at certain points between 1995-2006. Here was a moment in history when those who dismissed the government as useless and something that should be dismantled were in control of it. Imagine, Microsoft being run by people who think computers to be stupid and wasteful or someone running Krispee Kreme donuts telling all who would listen that donuts are bad for you and no one should eat them.
Thinking back to that dark night in 1980 when I drank away my worries about the future when Ronald Reagan became President, I can honestly say that this moment and the future isn’t perfect, but I will take it. I didn’t get drunk as the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives on November 2, 2010. I smiled a little because I knew the sky was not falling.