On May 7th, 1945, the Germans formally surrendered to the Allied forces, ending World War II in Europe. On August 6th and 9th, 1945, we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 15th, 1945, Emperor Hirohito took to the airwaves for the first time, to announce to his people that the Japanese had accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, and surrendered. The formal articles were signed on the Battleship USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, with General Douglas MacArthur presiding.
Most of the world exploded in unrestrained celebration and relief. But, in between V-E Day and V-J Day, something rather unusual occurred. Back in Britain, the wartime coalition that had held together for 10 years broke up, with the Labour Party Ministers unwilling to continue without another election. The Cabinet resigned, a caretaker government was formed, and on July 5, 1945, the first election in ten years was held. The results were shocking. The Conservatives lost their majority in Parliament. Winston Churchill, the physical embodiment of the stubborn British Bulldog that had survived merciless tests from ruthless adversaries, was reelected to Parliament by his constituency, but as the leader of the now-minority party, was shown the door of 10 Downing Street.
There are a number of theories for this, including the rather interesting one that it had been so long since there had been an election that many forgot that loss of control of Parliament would mean Churchill would simply be an MP. But the consensus was that it was time for a change—that an era had ended, and a new one had to begin.
Churchill himself was a bridge to an astonishing change in reality. Born to an aristocratic family in 1874 (supposedly, he never bathed or dressed himself without an attendant) he was old enough to have seen action in the Second Boer War (1899-1902), served as First Lord of the Admiralty in WWI (advocating for the disastrous action at Gallipoli), and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1926, where he reportedly suggested the machine-gunning of striking miners, before ascending to Prime Minister in 1940. He was a fierce advocate of colonialism, did not faint at the sight of either blood or just garden variety human suffering, and detested Gandhi. He thought in terms of imperial power, the primacy of the British Navy, and Empire.
But, for the electorate that turned him out in 1945, the differences between the glorious past that Churchill represented and uncertain future they faced couldn’t have been starker. If you think of the voting electorate in deciles, from 21 to Churchill’s age, there wasn’t a single group of adults who hadn’t experienced, first-hand, the loss from war or economic depression. World War II was the final, cataclysmic event, but the cracks in the old order had been growing for decades.
The British were different. Unlike the craven French, they had fought the enemy nobly. This bravery went beyond the men in the field—civilians spent nights in crowded bomb shelters, rationed, volunteered, dug ditches, filled sandbags, and were such a stoic picture of endurance that Edward R. Morrow’s descriptions of their sacrifice during the Blitz helped turn the tide of public opinion in the United States.
That difference had earned them admiration, but, in sports parlance, they left it all on the field, and now they were bled dry, exhausted, their Empire teetering. Churchill’s ringing rhetoric, his adamantine refusal to give in when the enemy was at the gate and the rest of the world stood cowed or paralyzed was suddenly no longer the point. As much as they respected him, the country ached for a different direction.
I wonder if, looking towards the 2016, we aren’t in the same place, feeling the same anxiety and displacement, wondering whether our politicians, and even our system, are up to the job. When Barack Obama leaves the White House in January 2017, we will have been at war for nearly 15 years—and those wars will have accomplished little more than immense wreckage and uncontrolled chaos. Put your politics aside for a minute and ask yourself whether Iran would have been this much of a threat if we hadn’t blown up Iraq. Domestically, we have been in a sustained period of enhanced economic disparity, where the majority is, at best, treading water. The gap between rich and poor, the gap between executive pay and worker pay has grown to a chasm. You can argue that pointing it out is class warfare—and maybe it is—but you cannot deny it exists, nor can you deny that our electeds have turned into rent-seekers who do everything possible to serve the economic elites. As to politics, the environment has been intensely toxic for two decades, ever since Bill Clinton’s bungled first two years unleashed Newt and an endless cycle of petty, nasty tit for tat.
Democracy is a difficult thing, because it demands of us that we be better than our worst instincts. Winners have to strike a balance between advancing policy initiatives and majority tyranny. And losers must strike one between constructive opposition and nihilism. The temptation is always there—to overreach, to enjoy power at the expense of the greater good. The Founders understood this, they warned against it, and they tried to devise a system that would foster competitive cooperation.
The problem is that the system only functions well when people abide by the rules, or break them only in exceptional cases. When they routinely bend them, when they either impose or obstruct without end, when they (or their supporters in the media) apply the rhetoric of nullification and revolution, they erode confidence in our ability to govern ourselves. That has been the takeaway of the Clinton/Bush/Obama/Gingrich/Hastert/Boehner/Pelosi/Reid/McConnell era.
Yet, I am optimistic—I think the quiet middle of the electorate is fed up, and wants better. Millennials, who aren’t encumbered by party identification and seek people who share their values and aspirations, want better. There will be a Churchill election, or perhaps, several Churchill elections, where we start to replace the people and ideas and approaches of the last twenty years with something more responsive to future challenges.
If that happens, we can all have a cigar. Winnie would have approved.
April 23, 2015
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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