In 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona ran for president as a rock-ribbed conservative who yearned to roll back both the Soviet Empire and FDR's New Deal. He carried only six states with 52 electoral votes, and Lyndon Johnson remained the commander-in-chief that an entire generation loved to hate. Yet, even after suffering a stunning defeat, the rabidly anti-New Deal Republicans, ultra-right-wing millionaires, evangelical Christian preachers, John Birchers and other extreme anti-communists who backed Barry Goldwater went on to build the modern conservative movement that propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House.
In 2008, one of Goldwater's proteges is running for president with the same kind of backers and a similar agenda updated to account for the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of Islamist jihadists, and unbelievable persistence of the neocons, who are now trying to sell us a new war on Iran.
Short of a major terrorist attack or worse, John McCain seems likely to go down to a humiliating defeat. But, as in the 1960's, today's anti-New Deal Republicans, ultra-right wing billionaires, right-wing evangelical preachers, and neocon ideologues will not run off with their tails between their legs. They have no shame, not even after the endless embarrassment of the Bush presidency, Wall Street's worst crisis since the Great Depression, and colonial wars we can never win in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan.
The right-wing zealots will, in fact, ratchet up the cliched mantras that led us into most of the current ca-ca. We all know the routine:
These imperatives are the holy writ of the radical Republican revolution once preached by Ronald Reagan and now pursued by John McCain and Sarah Palin. But, sadly, many of the same notions have become the song and dance of prominent Democrats as well - in the Clinton administration, in Congress, and among a large number of advisers now surrounding Barack Obama.
How, then, do the rest of us have any chance to make real the hope that Obama has inspired? I wish I had an easy answer, but reality is far too nuanced.
In terms of policy, the old certainties make no sense. The free market never would have created the Internet. Government did that, ironically enough, through the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency. But government never would have turned the Internet into the liberating force it has become. Independent capitalists and free-lance bloggers did that, though many on the business side are now trying to restrict the promise of "the freedom monster" they helped to create.
Government regulation is a similarly mixed bag. Wise regulations could have prevented the crap-shoot capitalism that is now bringing down the world's financial system. Stupid regulations, by contrast, long preserved monopolistic control of global telecommunications. In much the same way, balanced budgets sometimes make sense, and other times - like now - deeper deficits seem a far better way to go.
From passing future appropriations to creating a new regulatory framework, the devil we face will be in the details, which right-wing zealots and the vested interests they serve have learned to manipulate with earmarks and loopholes. Progressive public interest groups have also learned to play the game, but we badly need tighter regulation of lobbyists and the threat of criminal penalties to enforce absolute transparency.
One quick fix is to require regulatory agencies, cabinet departments, Congress and the White House to put onto the Internet any input from interest groups and industry lobbyists. No more secret confabs, like Vice President Dick Cheney's early meeting with top energy tycoons.
In terms of our own participation, good citizens of a progressive persuasion can no longer leave governing even to the best of those we elect. Like the right-wing zealots we oppose, we must pursue a permanent campaign, but free of knee-jerk ideologies and party-line talking points. When the bad guys do what we think is good, we should praise them. When the good guys do what we think is bad, we should tell them - all loudly and very much in public. This will keep us honest and maintain our political integrity - characteristics that count more than cynics expect, as John McCain and Sarah Palin will soon learn to their chagrin.
Those who practice politics in the footsteps of Lenin, Goebbels or Karl Rove will, no doubt, find all this naive, undisciplined and even wacky. But what can I tell you? The approach I suggest is more in the spirit of what my generation of activists called participatory democracy. Now turbo-charged by the Internet, it is the best way I know to build the kind of free-wheeling progressive movement that will have the punch to keep today's hope alive.
Freedom is contagious. Try it, you'll like it.