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The ratchet effect

By Michael J. Smith on Friday November 14, 2008 03:22 PM

I happened to run into my old friend Annie today -- Annie, the old Lefty I've written about before, who can't get away from the Democratic Party even though she knows better. I couldn't resist teasing Annie about the number of raddled old Clintonites with whom Mr Hope And Change is surrounding himself. (Annie loathed Bill Clinton -- loathed him so much that she actually voted for Nader in 2000, though she has since repented, in sackcloth and ashes, for her sin.)

"Hey Annie. Looks like what's old is new again. Clinton's third term!"

She looked at me sourly. But she's game. "After eight years of Bush," she observed, "Clinton doesn't seem so bad."

Now there, if you like, is as beautiful an illustration of the ratchet effect as you could hope to find. The two parties' well-practiced collusive pas de deux has got her giving thanks now for things she despised eight years ago -- things that she correctly saw as deeply reactionary and detestable.

So it goes. By conceding the legitimacy of Reagan and Bush I's revanche, Clinton prepared the ground for a further revanche under Bush II, who took the ball and ran with it it so far that he makes Clintonism in retrospect -- well, in blurry, amnesiac retrospect, anyway -- look comparatively benign.

This phenomenon is at the heart of the American two-party system. The only thing that ever interrupts or arrests it -- much less reverses it -- is those blessed outbreaks of near-insurrection: the Populist upsurge, the Thirties, the Sixties.

Man, are we ever overdue for another one.

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