Sunday, September 14, 2008

Back in the USA

Inevitably, this blog will now regain the focus with which it began exactly four years ago: the election. Having returned yesterday, I am more and more firmly convinced that it will be the critical election of the first half of the century--and that indeed, the shape of American politics and much of American life for a long time will be determined by the outcome. What is at stake, indeed, is nothing less than the role of rational thought in American life--a theme which I have had many occasions to discuss during the last four years.
I have just watched Sarah Palin's interview with Charlie Gibson. Although the frequent changes of scenery and background shots disrupted the flow far too much, the message was clear. Governor Palin is innocent of any real knowledge about the workings of the American government or the economy, and has a very intermittent relationship with the truth. She uses language flexibly: "earmarks" are of course bad and will disappear under McCain/Palin, but "asking for infrastructure" is perfectly all right. She is, however, extremely determined and very good at that leading Republican virtue, "staying on message." I do not think that in the long run she will add many votes, but she is in her own way a formidable addition to the race.
What her choice did, clearly, was to divert attention from the very real issues that, in a rational world, would dominate the race. Eight years of Republican stewardship have produced disaster on every front. Lehman Brothers is now on the brink of collapse, and the government, this time, seems determined not to step, signalling another more serious round of economic turmoil. A new cold or even hot war threatens in the Caucasus or the far reaches of Eastern Europe. In Iraq, although no one is talking about it, the talks on a new status of forces agreement seem to have collapsed, indicating that the Iraqi government and ours cannot agree on how long we should stay. Energy prices are about to jump up again. In 1932 the economic situation was much worse (although I am beginning to think that we might come much closer to catching up than I ever dreamed before), and the foreign situation, at least in the short and medium term, less serious. In those days the candidates--both of them--gave long and detailed speeches going in considerable detail into key issues. Those days, however, are gone.
Politics has become entirely a matter of propaganda and strategy. Sound bites, not policies, win elections, and maintain poll numbers in office. "Defining" oneself and one's opponent, not doing anything in particular, is key to success, as a local Republican has recently explained to me. The Republicans are leading the way down this path because their policies have never been ones they could openly avow, and because they have now failed. The Palin nomination was designed (rather brilliantly) to generate enormous ink and airtime about Sarah Palin--ink and time that might otherwise be devoted to health care, mortgages, or a new policy in the Middle East. It was also designed to re-energize the Republican faith-based right, which cares far more about a candidate's position on abortion than about the economic effects of anything a candidate might do in office. It was designed, in short, to reduce the opportunity for voters to make decisions with the help of their brains, and so far it has worked very well.
All of this is the climax of a process that has been going on for decades, and which can be viewed in almost every area of American life. Television news, which lasted 15 minutes until 1963 and 30 minutes after that, was delivered by sober, middle-aged men who had to give us a lot of information in a very short space and who gave the world's events the gravitas they deserved. Now it is a 24/7 extravaganza of emotional opinion, rarely if ever marred by sustained analysis, and delivered by ever-smiling blow-dried airheads (of both sexes) who have been hired for their looks and delivery. Newspapers are in a severe, and perhaps terminal, decline. The web could replace them, but I am not aware of a single national web site that does systematic reporting--much less muckraking--rather than simply recycling emotional opinions. Publishing (whose history is the subject of an interesting new book by Al Silverman, whom I knew fifty years ago as an editor of Sport magazine) has essentially given up its educational function and focuses solely on reaching the largest possible market. Academia no longer provides systematic training in research and analysis, certainly not in the humanities.
And yet, remarkably, we have a real struggle between the old and the new, with the old represented, oddly, by the younger candidate, Barack Obama. From the beginning he has attempted to focus on real problems and to move beyond the sound-bite culture of mindless attacks--but is it working? For the moment he has lost the lead not only in national polls, but in electoral votes. Because the most recent polls give McCain a lead of 2 percentage points in each of five key states--Ohio, Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, and Virginia--he would, based on the most recent state polls, defeat Obama today by 270 electoral votes to 268. (Obama's leads are greater in every state but one, Minnesota--a hopeful sign--but that is the story, according to .) Living as I do in a state that is not in doubt, I am not, as usual, seeing any campaign ads, but ads by their very nature favor the sound-bite, emotional approach. Obama in my view would be well-advised to give at least three more nationally televised speeches of at least a half an hour in length, events that would play to his proven strengths. The debates will be critical and should also show him off to good advantage--but to say that right now, things are too close for comfort, is putting it mildly.
The extraordinary impact of McCain's choice of Sarah Palin, in my opinion, can also be explained by these dynamics. Republicans were depressed because their eight years of rule had obviously been disastrous at home and abroad, and the media seemed to care about that more than anything else. In one stroke McCain let the "base" know that that didn't matter at all--that he could still put the most culturally conservative candidate in history on the ticket. Don't worry, he seemed to say, you don't have to start getting interested in what your government does--I know you are wonderful. We are going to find out how many Americans will take a more reasoned view.
Every eighty years, nations tend to polarize around certain issues. How this affects them in the long run depends in large measure upon whether those issues can be attacked rationally, and successfully, or whether they are largely destructive ideological conflicts whose resolution leaves little or nothing behind. Two of the great crises in American life had extraordinary outcomes--that of the Revolution and the Constitution, which created the first modern democracy, and that of 1929-45, which created the modern welfare state and middle class and saved western civilization in Europe. The civil war on the other hand solved very few problems and did little to create a more just society. The danger now is that another Republican victory will close out the era in which we expected the government to provide economic justice and economic security for a long time, while also condemning us to endless conflict in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, and perhaps in Latin America.
Foreign policy, indeed, is playing almost no role at all in the election at the moment--even though the Bush Administration's series of disasters continues. Having completely alienated Russia, which called our bluff in Georgia and threatens to do the same in Eastern Europe, and having encouraged extremism in the Middle East on many fronts, it now finds itself close to open military conflict with our supposed ally Pakistan. Meanwhile in Latin America we face the worst crisis since the 1980s, as two major energy producers--Venezuela and Bolivia--have seen fit to expel their American ambassadors. All this will be the subject of future posts, but it illustrates just how hard the task of the next President will be. Yet even to suggest that we need a radical change of course will probably seem too risky to Barack Obama--and John McCain wants if anything to go more quickly down the same disastrous route.
The readership of this blog fell during August but has recovered impressively in the last few weeks, amounting to close to a thousand hits a week. Almost all of them come from bookmarks and web searches--it has been some time since any well-known site referred to historyunfolding. I very much appreciate my regular readers. They may be interested to know that I plan to publish a collection of posts spanning the last four years after the election--hopefully in time for Christmas. I hope that it will have a happy ending.


Colin MacInnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin M said...

Where 'Primary Colors' was illustrative of Hilary's campaign, I fear the movie most revealing of McCain's campaign is 'The Manchurian Candidate.' While he has an admirable history of service and staking our principled, rational stands at odds with political expediency, he does not seem in control of his campaign. I can only hope that if elected, he shows his Rovian strategists the door (and survives his full term).

Anonymous said...

You are so right, David! The outlook is depressing - and just when we had witnessed an extraordinary campaign by an African-American who was energized to confront the issues of today and tomorrow with honesty as well as hope. Now it is back to theater - with the formerly losing side throwing much gaudier-colored pies across the stage, and reducing the contest to a mockery-fest. Ugh! Perhaps it has always been so, in terms of electoral politics - but then, the outcome was not in those days of such import to people abroad, who will be affected by U.S. decisions...

Anonymous said...

'It was designed, in short, to reduce the opportunity for voters to make decisions with the help of their brains, and so far it has worked very well. All of this is the climax of a process that has been going on for decades, and which can be viewed in almost every area of American life.'

Saying that sort of thing used to get me into trouble with my American friends in pre-911 days, when even died in the wool leftists used to chide my 'anti-Americanism'. I don't derive any pleasure from noting how widespread this sentiment has become since (I'm referring more to USprogblogs generally rather than you in particular David - I imagine you have felt this way for some time)

It's good that more Americans appear to be coming around to how broken their politics are (Dennis Perrin says he replies to people who tell him this that "US politics isn't broken; it's fixed!') but sometimes I wonder if it's all too late.

Hope you keep the blogging up David, I for one enjoy the insights your historical overview can give. I plan to get Road to Dallas in my next Amazon order - as a de Lillo and Ellroy fan (and lately Philip Kerr's The Shot) I am looking forward to it.

Glenn Condell

Anonymous said...

One of many remarkable things about the current Republican party/right wing movement is how it has been able over more than a quarter of a century to win most elections while simultaneously inflaming a sense of grievance and resentment in its following. I can think of only one other political faction that has managed to pull this off: what Lincoln called the "slave power" just prior to the Civil War. And I can't help but thinking: remember what happened when that crowd finally lost an election?

Wally said...

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