Sunday, January 18, 2009

Them parties will have to wait / There's so much to do

Now that the days left in the Bush administration have diminished into hours (just 42 hours left!!!), and everyone is gearing up for the inauguration (at the school where I teach, we'll be watching it on the TVs in each classroom), the song stuck in my head is "President" by Dan Bern:

Raised up my hand and said "I solemnly swear" one January day
And just like that I was the president of the USA

The shift in this country's consciousness over the last 8 years can be encapsulated by comparing two similar Dan Bern songs.

"King of the World" appeared on Dan Bern's first and self-titled album, released in 1997, at the height of the Clinton years, on the leading edge of the dot-com boom. It begins:

Well, they elected me
King of the World
I said, "Here's what I'm gonna do
Send everybody over to China
Except for me and you
Strip ourselves naked
Go to Beverly Center
Watch movies and eat Cinnabons"
I think I'm gonna like
Being king of the world
For a change
What's this song about? Nothing of deep significance. It's a whimsical fantasy, not that there's anything wrong with that. Compare that with "President", 7 years later. In 2004, Dan Bern wrote a set of songs with a political bent and toured around the country (particularly to swing states) playing concerts and getting out the vote. These songs were collected on the album My Country II.

"President" bears a superficial similarity to "King of the World": the narrator has been elected to a powerful position, and describes what he will do with that power. But in "President", though the descriptions of the first days in office are still whimsical, they represent real policy positions:

Second day I told Detroit
Start makin' cars that don't use gas
And I give everybody a big rebate
And they started sellin' fast

We'll stop burning up the air we breathe
And making the planet boil
And we won't have to kiss the ass
Of whoever's got the oil


My 8th day I made health care
Cover everyone
If you get sick, see a doctor
That's how my government's run

And by the way, abortion
Is included in this plan
No one tells a girl how to treat her body
Least of all some man

My 9th day I said sorry
This government is no fool
Ain't gonna pay you extra to send your kid
To some weird-ass wacko school

We'll do our best to make our schools
Best anyplace on earth
If they ain't good enough, think about it
Before you go give birth

To be fair, this song also includes "Monday was National Nude Day / Everyone disrobed / Tuesday was National Stoned Day / Everyone got stoned." But still, this represents a massive shift.

The chapter on politics in Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks (published in 2000, before the election) became instantly dated, but reflects the mentality of its time. It describes a country that is no longer "political", where there are no significant differences between the two parties. Of course, a year later, everyone learned otherwise. But the late '90s didn't feel so politically charged (other than trivial nonsense such as the Clinton impeachment), and the meme of no significant differences between the parties ("Tweedledee and Tweedledum") gained widespread currency and led to Ralph Nader's zenith of support. (I might have made that mistake myself, had I not been imprinted by a childhood memory of 1988, when Bush I carried Illinois by 2 percentage points. As a result, I still thought of Illinois as a swing state, and played it safe and voted for Gore, who went on to win Illinois by 12 percentage points, and so it was that I kept a clean conscience for the next 4 years.) "King of the World" represents this "apolitical" time.

As soon as Bush II took office, it became clear that there were huge differences between the parties. The Democrats in Congress may not have had a spine, but Bush and the Republicans proceeded to piss on the Constitution, get us into a quagmire in Iraq, (and other things that the congressional Democrats rubberstamped but probably wouldn't have done on their own) and you know the rest of the story.

And so, in 2003, we felt angry and powerless -- it looked like no one was mounting any challenge to the Bush agenda. But by 2004, there was a significant "anyone but Bush" movement (catalyzed by Howard Dean's campaign, even if Dean himself was out of the picture). No one was all that enthusiastic about John Kerry himself; the important thing was that he wasn't Bush. (The website, which is now 404, summed up the zeitgeist.) During Bush's first term, many people who hadn't previously had much political involvement were inspired to become activists. This is the context for My Country II. Its final track is the simple and memorable "Bush Must Be Defeated". In the live version (which I got to see in New York in the weeks before the 2004 election), Bern had everyone singing the chorus, then said "Changing 'must' to 'will'" ("Bush will be defeated") and finally "Changing 'will' to 'has'" ("Bush has been defeated").

We remember how crushing it was several weeks later when it turned that Bush had not, in fact, been defeated. But it wasn't long before his administration and his popularity began to implode. If the U.S. had a parliamentary system of government, with votes of no confidence, Bush wouldn't have made it past 2005. But we were stuck with him for another 4 years.

Driving home from doing GOTV in New Hampshire the weekend before the 2008 election, I popped My Country II into the CD player. "President" seemed as relevant as ever, with its message of hope for what it would be like if we had a president who put progressive American values into practice. But the rest of the album, expressing the anger that we all felt in 2004 and that has stayed around for the next 4 years, felt out of step from the national mood in 2008. The "Bush Must Be Defeated" message (whether his name is Bush, McCain, or anything else) was part of the 2008 campaign, but so was the positive vision put forward by Barack Obama (and by Hillary Clinton), and this positive vision combined with the anger of the last 8 years to put the Democrats over the top in this election.

And now, as we prepare to inaugurate Barack Hussein Obama as our 44th president, we can finally say "Bush has been defeated" for real this time. To be sure, Obama's first ten days in office aren't going to be nearly as effective as Bern's fictional first ten days, and he'll probably have to spend most of his term(s) undoing the damage that Bush has wrought (and that's in a more optimistic scenario; in a worse case, Obama lets the damage stick around). But on Tuesday, we can celebrate the beginning of a government run by people who believe in science and empirical evidence, and the fact that after Tuesday, Bush can't do any more damage than he has already done. And the country will try not to make this mistake again.

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