Saturday, April 10, 2010

The end of an era that will not soon return

The retirement of John Paul Stevens marks the passing of the last truly influential member of the GI generation from our national life. There are still four GIs in the Senate (Robert Byrd, Frank Lautenberg, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka), but none is playing a very prominent role in events. His retirement also reminds us of the passing of two important and related elements in American life: the centrist, responsible Republican Party, which has been dying since the day on which he was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gerald Ford, and the much-lamented, much-misunderstood consensus era of American politics of which it was a part.

Gerald Ford had an extremely undistinguished political career before Richard Nixon tapped him to succeed Spiro Agnew in 1973. An average conservative Midwestern Republican, he had, exceptionally, been elected to the House in the Democratic year of 1948, not in the great Republican sweep of two years earlier that had kicked off Nixon's career. Significantly, he became the first GI leader of the House Republicans in 1965, ousting Lost Charlie Halleck after the great Democratic sweep of 1964. He had attacked Lyndon Johnson for not having prosecuted the Vietnam war more vigorously (especially from the air) and in 1969 he had tried to impeach Justice William O. Douglas. Nixon, already threatened with impeachment, clearly chose him because he did not believe that the Congress would dare to put him into office. He was wrong.

Ford spoiled his Presidency and probably threw away his chance for election within a month of taking office when he pardoned Nixon. He may indeed have promised to do so--or at least indicated that he would give the matter thorough consideration--to Alexander Haig, Nixon's Chief of Staff, whom he then appointed to the Supreme Command of NATO, a post for which Haig was militarily unqualified. He would have done much better to allow the legal process to run its course before, perhaps, commuting any prison sentence meted out to the former President, or even covertly encouraging a plea bargain along those lines. But Ford performed an act of great statesmanship in the spring of 1975, when he refused either to intervene once again to try to save South Vietnam (as Henry Kissinger apparently contemplated doing), or to blame the Democrats for that country's defeat (as Kissinger promptly did.) It was "a war that is finished as far as America is concerned," he said, and no one complained very loudly. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue detente, and a SALT II agreement, until the pressure Ronald Reagan's campaign for his job in the spring of 1976 forced him to announce that our foreign policy was no longer detente, but rather "peace through strength." Reagan's near-victory in the campaign for the nomination was a portent of things to come.

Domestically, however, Ford was a moderate Republican in office, and he made several outstanding appointments. One was his Attorney General, Chicago attorney Edward Levi, who in turn, I believe, was responsible for the nomination of Justice Stevens. Roe v. Wade was only two years old when Ford chose him, and had not become a Republican litmus test. In Sunday's New York Times, Linda Greenhouse reports that Stevens was not asked a single question about Roe v. Wade in his confirmation hearings. (Ronald Reagan, interestingly enough, even ignored that litmus test in 1981 when he appointed Sandra Day O'Connor, much to his base's disgust.)

Stevens was nowhere near as liberal when he joined the court as he later became--but here, too, he exemplified the best of his generation. As he remarked, he learned on the job. Initially a supporter of the death penalty (which was illegal when he joined the court), he changed his mind once again and began to oppose it because he saw how capriciously it was applied. During his last 20 years of service he has helped keep alive, insofar as he could, the ideas of the Warren Court, including its protection of civil liberties and the rights of criminal defendants, and its protection of personal privacy in sexual matters, as well as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Today's pundits who continually lament the passing of an age of consensus ignore a critical point. That consensus was based upon agreed values, values initially enunciated by Franklin Roosevelt and affirmed by the sacrifice of more than 300,000 American lives in the Second World War. They included a commitment to basic economic justice for all Americans; a well-regulated capitalism; a highly progressive tax system; an end to legal and economic prejudice based on religion, national origin, or race; cheap education; an American commitment to defend freedom around the world, while carefully avoiding a new world war; and the most effective possible meritocracy. While during the 1950s and 1960s the federal government ran a deficit far more often than not, the size of those deficits was very modest by contemporary standards, and taxes on high income brackets remained very high. Intellectually they also included a commitment to rationalism and science. Socially, they were, by present-day standards, quite conservative. (It was ironically a scientific triumph, the birth control pill, that began breaking down sexual conservatism.) Republicans railed against the growth of government, but did little or nothing to stop it under Eisenhower, Nixon--or Gerald Ford.

The consensus was not universal, but the election of 1964 showed that it included 3/5 of Americans. Barry Goldwater in that year opposed a great deal of it, attacking Social Security, the TVA, the Civil Rights Act, and our fear of nuclear weapons--and received less than 40% of the vote. Yet in The Making of the President 1964, Theodore White, in the most prophetic passage he ever wrote, compared Goldwater in 1964 to William Jennings Bryan in 1896, and speculated that his campaign, however unsuccessful, might have struck chords that would evoke a response in the long run. He was right.

I am not sure that any but the very youngest Americans alive today will live to see another consensus era like that one. The crisis of 1929-45 was uniquely cataclysmic, both at home and abroad, and thus had unique results. The Civil War never created a comparable consensus, and I am inclined to believe that the crisis through which we are now passing will not either. In the last month the Obama Administration has regained critical momentum by passing the health care bill, and this week's conference on nuclear weapons may portend a real breakthrough. The President, picking up on something I pointed out here years ago, has linked the continuing disarmament of the nuclear powers with restraints upon proliferation, just as the 1969 Nonproliferation Treaty calls upon us to do. The conference also seems likely to link the question of the Iranian nuclear program to Israel's nuclear weapons--the reason that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has decided not to show up. But at the same time, today's newspapers report that the Administration has given up on appointing Dawn Johnsen, a forthright critic of the Bush Administration's legal subterfuges, to head the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel--a terrible step backward. The President's Supreme Court choice is also likely to face a violent confirmation fight, and quite possibly a filibuster. Bart Stupak, who accepted a reasonable compromise to pass the Health Care bill, has decided not to seek re-election. The problem we face for the next 20 years is not to create a new post-New Deal consensus: it is rather to hold the country together at all.

The ebbing of the consensus, and the passing of the world that created it, is not altogether a bad thing. Because neither the US nor any other major industrial country can mobilize armies of ten million men anymore, we cannot fight another world war. That represents enormous progress. Personal freedoms, particularly sexual ones, have made great advances. But our capacity to work together to address economic and political problems has been wounded beyond repair, and our intellectual traditions have also decayed. Neither we, nor, I suspect, our children, will be able to match our parents' and grandparents' achievements in those realms, and it will be many years before another Justice Stevens sits on the Supreme Court.

11 comments:

Bruce Post said...

I read your latest post against the concurrent background of the tragic deaths of the Polish President and his party on the approach to Smolensk.

Given your discussion of the passing of shared values in the United States, I was struck by the relevance of this statement by Lech Walesa on the plane crash: "70 years ago, in Katyn, the Soviet Union massacred the Polish elite. Today the now Polish elite perished while going to pay their respects to the Poles killed in 1940."

Walesa, who had been an electrician, still speaks admirably of an elite. Plus, we know in Europe, the term "intelligentsia" was considered admirable and respectable. (This is not to ignore, however, that certain elements of European elites and intellectuals contributed to or ignored indefensible pogroms and, ultimately, the Holocaust.)

Today, in the U.S., rather than a Walesa, a tradesman who nonetheless respected the contribution of an elite, we have trotted out our own tradesman, Joe the Plumber, to bash the bogeymen and bogeywomen represented by the codeword "elitists." In the same vein, I wonder how Sarah Palin, who so derisively dismisses Obama's education and intellect, would handle someone like Vaclav Havel running for President? Actually, I don't really wonder; I sort of know already.

I also don't want to single out Palin, for all her faults. Yet, she symbolizes another problem we face going forward: how nativists such as Palin can be used to serve the interests of certain elements of our socio/economic "elite" to advance myopic causes that destroy the consensus about which you wrote. Think Bill Kristol and others such as him acting as a talent scout/agent for Palin and her ilk. Palin merely becomes a toady for their narrow agenda.

I remember Pat Moynihan writing his book Pandaemonium years ago, warning about the dangers and strife promised by ethnicity going forward. What he would say about America today?

Where he warned about the Balkans, are we not undergoing our own balkanization here in the U.S.? You call it the ebbing of consensus. I label it the "balkanization of the American mind." Regardless, the prospects going forward do not fill me with warm fuzzies.

ginstonic said...

Your final paragraph has me dismayed. Although the inability to achieve a concensus will keep us out of a workd war (but not apparently many lesser ones), it will also prevent us from achieving economic and political reform.
I feel hopeless.

Anonymous said...

In the last month the Obama Administration has regained critical momentum by passing the health care bill,.......

May we discuss the critical momentum of the current regime after the november's elections?

Or if you wish after next month's election in Pennsylvania?

Don't you think that proclaim victory for this particular regime is quite premature Dr. Kaiser?

janinsanfran said...

Is this what living through the decay of empire feels like in the imperial center?

Anonymous said...

Heh, my PARENTS spoke admirably of elites. This is truly a different world we live in today. The hatred for government of any kind, the contempt for education and science, the value of emotion and irrationality over logic and rational thought all run rampant in the streets and kitchens of the red states.

Most of these people are armed and all of them are angry and most worringly of all, a LOT of them are military or ex-miliatary families. They all share one belief: No one can tell them what to do with what is theirs and no one can take away that "right." If it means building a religious compound out in the sticks where 50 year old men can take multiple 14 year old girls as wives, so be it. If it means burning non-evangelical churches to the ground because they differ with their teachings, so be it. If it means teaching children that John Calvin laid the foundation for American liberty, so be it.

These people are trying to roll back civilization. I truly fear for this country if they manage the takeover they so fervently pray for.

Anonymous said...

Dawn Johnsen is an ideologue, and an abashed one and thus extremely poor choice to head the Office of Legal Counsel.

It is quite clear that she ran afoul of the current regime that didn't even give her a recess appointment.

Her bizarre equation of pregnancy and slavery was a position in a legal brief to the Supreme Court for the case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services

More of her bizzare views can be seen at:

http://nrd.nationalreview.com/
article/?q=YzcyODUwNjAwNzg3
YTYyZjBiOWU3ZTQwZmYzOGIwOGQ=

Anonymous said...

GOP senators who will help
shape the review of President
Barack Obama's next nominee to the
Supreme Court said Sunday he must
pick someone with "mainstream"
judicial views to avoid a
potential filibuster.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the
top Republican on the Senate
Judiciary Committee, wouldn't rule
out using that tactic to "protect
the Constitution"
from a high
court nominee who, he said, would
make law rather than interpret it.


http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100411
/ap_on_go_su_co/us_supreme_court_
stevens

Western North Carolina Writer's Underground said...

For the citizens of our republic any consensus that is not based upon the founding documents is no consensus at all.
III

Anonymous said...

Dr. Kaiser:

since you are alleging some kind of
momentum from passage of obamacare,
please tell me what do these
numbers tell you about such alleged
momentum?

Support for Repeal of Health
Care Plan Up To 58%

Monday, April 12, 2010

At:
http://www.rasmussenreports.com/
public_content/politics/current_
events/healthcare/march_2010
/health_care_law

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Anonymous said...

“Excessive taxation … will carry
reason and reflection to every
man’s door, and particularly in
the hour of election.”

--- Thomas Jefferson