For most of the 20th century, America manufactured things. For the past 30 years, though, it has chiefly manufactured debt. Wall Street, with the aid of both political parties, gravely damaged the economy.
As of spring 2008, we're probably just a third of the way through the unfolding debacle in the housing, credit, and financial markets. In political and regulatory terms, the ultimate problems and remedies have only begun to define themselves.
We're not just looking at an ordinary recession. Since the 1970s, the United States has redefined itself from a manufacturing nation to a financial economy built on debt, leverage, and a considerable ratio of speculation. Both political parties have been complicit in this, and the downturn now beginning will be unusual and potentially tragic.
How to balance northern and southern strategies is as central a challenge for the national Democratic Party in the 2000s as it was for the Republicans in the 1960s and '70s. The irony is that some of the same tactical considerations apply -- at least if one reverses regionalisms.
Three decades ago, the GOP's obvious need to concentrate on realigning the South engendered an obvious corollary debate: Should the Republican Party, in the process, write off the Northeast? My own 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, was cited as saying so, when it certainly did not. It would be equally crazy for today's Democrats to dismiss the South completely rather than simply give it a low priority when the White House is at stake.
Of all the great deceptions that come to surround a gathering stock-market boom -- from blather about the obsolescence of the business cycle to editorial claptrap about the United States turning into a republic of shareholders -- one of the most pernicious has been the failure to recognize the character of the money culture it creates.
Market extremism doesn't wear hoods, white sheets, or armbands. Skinheads in its ranks are few. Suicide bombers in its cause are even fewer.
But the essence of extremism, as opposed to other specific "isms," is to extend -- harshly, rigidly, and dangerously -- a commitment and ideology that in softer and milder forms can be acceptable or useful. Worship of an unfettered, self-justifying marketplace developed in exactly this harsh, rigid form during the 1980s and 1990s. The infamous practices of Enron -- where market mania turned abusive, with the help of the Bush family -- are only the tip of one berg in an ice field that continues to threaten national political and economic navigation.
Until recently there was no particular contemporary relevance to the nicknames of some of our less-favored presidents. Rutherford B. Hayes, victor in the hijacked electoral vote of 1876, was known as "Old 8-7" or "His Fraudulency." John Tyler, promoted from vice president when William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia after only one month in office, was referred to as "His Accidency." After the events of November and December 2000, however, a big question of the new year is whether the Democrats will have the guts to coin and circulate a comparable name for George W. Bush.