Saturday, March 03, 2012

Reasonable Americans?

The chattering classes, represented on the op-ed pages of our major newspapers and the standard guest lists of mainstream talk shows, remain divided in theory at least into liberals and conservatives. E. J. Dionne and David Brooks, who appear together every Friday on All Things Considered, are typical examples. They are well-educated. The cataclysm of the late 1960s divided the highly educated, turning a fringe figure like William Buckley into a respected conservative, and gradually turning the left away from economic issues and even from foreign policy in favor of social issues such as affirmative action, women's rights and gay rights. But rational discourse still prevailed among a certain set of thinkers. They are suddenly awakening to find it more threatened than ever before. On the right, the monster they have tolerated and often encouraged seems ready to devour them at last.

Brooks himself, who has been extraordinarily tolerant of the right wing while insisting that President Obama's faith in centralized power has alienated the country, awakened last week to the impending demise of Republicans he agrees with. Even Orrin Hatch has had to move his voting record rightward to protect against the sort of challenge that toppled his colleague Robert Bennett. Brooks wants the Republican leadership--whoever they are--to show more courage--but the whole rise of the post-New Deal Republican party has been fueled by appeals to racism, crass nationalism, social conservatism, and religious fundamentalism. Such ideas have never been absent from American life, but they only get a real hearing when our political leadership--which never varies too much from our economic leadership--stoops to promote them. That's what Republicans have been doing since Nixon and Reagan, and now solid House and Senate majorities stand ready to overturn the customs of the last 40 years and encourage employers not to cover birth control in their health insurance policies. Nor is this political cynicism: no sane person can believe that this stance is going to hep the Republican Party in November. It is ideology that has fed on itself, in the echo chamber of Clear Channel, Fox News, and the Drudge Report, and it now exercises discipline as fearsome as Jacobins or Stalinists--even without the threat of a guillotine or a bullet in the back of the head. (As this post went to press, I heard that Rush Limbaugh has issued an apology for his outrageous comments last week. That is a sign that he had found the limits of contemporary discourse, but I doubt that it's going to affect him very much for very long.)

George Will has been increasingly hysterical about Obama of late, but he has just predicted that either Santorum or Romney will lose. He hopes however that the Republicans can gain control of both houses of Congress, and that that will prevent Obama from accomplishing anything for the next four years. More gridlock, he has concluded, is the answer. No wonder he, unlike Brooks, did not lament the retirement of Olympia Snowe, who like Rhode Island's Lincoln Chaffee really wanted to work across the aisle, but gave up.

The Democrats, however, are nearly as helpless, because they have either focused on social issues--the only ones about which they appear to care passionately--or trusted to rationalist assumptions to take care of our economic problems. Beginning with Clinton, they too have given into the invisible hand, symbolized by NAFTA, the ebbing of union power, and the steady erosion of the middle class. Even President Obama has adopted Republican policies on several key issues. His Race to the Top is similar in its philosophy to No Child Left Behind, relying on test scores and charter schools, as Diane Ravitch points out in an excellent two-part article in the New York Review of Books. As Ravitch points out, the "school reform movement" is driven in large measure by the idea that we can fix education without fixing poverty--a highly dubious assumption that also seems to assume that we have a shortage of highly skilled labor, something I do not see. In the same journal, the environmentalist Bill McKibben, writing on "fracking," mentions that President Obama has endorsed the practice, whose environmental hazards are carefully shielded from investigation by various political authorities. There is essentially no political response to our dreadful long-term political prospects. Why?

I think the answer is generational--and tragic. Every generation tends to take its parents' achievements for granted while looking for something new to contribute. Our parents' and grandparents' great achievement was the New Deal legacy: a well-regulated economy with high upper-bracket marginal tax rates and a deep commitment to high unemployment, good jobs, and readily available public services, including cheap, high-quality public education. Having grown up in this modern garden of Eden, elite Boomers wanted something different. On the right they wanted the unfettered freedom to make money; on the left, they wanted gender equality, more opportunity for minorities, and gay rights. The academic left in particular lost interest in how the modern world got to be what it was, focusing relentlessly on its imperfections. Both sides have gotten what they wanted. The loser is the broad mass of the American people, whose lives and prospects are suffering regardless of their race, creed, color or sexual orientation.

It seems more and more likely that this year's election will do some good, quite possibly by dealing Republican social extremism a final, fatal blow. The contraception controversy is exactly the kind of issue the President needed to energize the women and young people who made up so much of his base last time. Even if Mitt Romney is nominated--and I think his chances now are only about 50-50--he will have to put another extreme conservative on the ticket and adopt many conservative positions. The Republicans will probably lose some ground in Congress, too, but there's no way Obama can start his second term in a position comparable to his first. Even if he did, he seems bereft of any ideas that would get the country on a new path.

The chattering classes have lost their relevance largely because they insist that, despite ups and downs, all is basically well in America. That, too, is the legacy of their parents and grandparents, who left us such a remarkable, even if imperfect, legacy. But all is not well, not least because of the almost complete lack of commitment throughout our society to anything greater than the individual himself, or perhaps his nuclear family. With the advent of Gen X to power that is not likely to get much better. The nation that eventually conquered the Depression, won the Second World War, and spread its umbrella over the free world trusted authority. Now we do not--and authorities accept this and rarely even try to earn our trust. There is nothing new about any of this. History includes many such periods, the late nineteenth century among them. They lead in turn to great opportunities to those yet unborn, who can rediscover values worth uniting around and re-create a sense of common enterprise. That evidently was not our destiny.


Bob in NC said...

At last, you have explained the current impasse in stark accuarcy!

But I fear you have also implicitly revealed an almost subliminal cause of the impasse: Both left and right have, in different ways, exalted similare cults of the individual to the detriment of the whole body politic.
The right's cult of the Individual's unfettered right to exploit, cheat and fraud; and the left's narcissistic focus on the "self", the "little Me" and it's over-blown "feelings" as paramount to all else, are, unfortunately, the same thing in different flavors.
Now, huge, barely-understood new forces of "social media", psycho-targeted advertising and 24/7 monitoring of our lives is reality, we are on the cusp of an Orwellian nightmare. This is an escalation of elite control and subversion of our private selves and may become even scarier than the elite's control and subversion of our political process.
More practically, the left's studious "principaled" refusal to exert leadership of the nascent 3rd party, a potentially "people's party" represented by the "99%" of Occupy Wall Street, is final proof of the absence of prospect with which you conclude your excellent, if very sad, blog.

galacticsurfer said...

good article above.

Gerald Meaders said...


Many provoking issues,
broached at once......

I have to suggest that there is very much new, about everything everyone now faces,

both developed and developing worlds,

each civilization,

Western Civilizational civil war politics,for the last 200 years, the end of the ancien regime, fall of The Proud Tower, etc, middle or lower class, bourgeoisie or proletariat,Communism or fascism,

(it turns out that the lower class is closer to fascism than Communism when it hits the fan)

somewhat aside, in future.

Further, the larger issues, facing each, are not usefully called merely generational, in my judgment;

re Asia, and all its multifarious issues, why bother really, with merely a generational prism?.

North by North West 74 said...


As an x'er, I appreciate your insights into a world where "government" was a respected and somewhat trusted institution that could generally be entrusted to better society as a whole.

This is a foreign concept to dare I say anyone born after 1972.

Further, as you mention the Boomer generation has exhausted most of their life cycle taking for granted, criticizing and eroding this modern garden of Eden for further self actualization to the point of now robbing from future generations to subsidize it all.

Tragically, this generation has essentially eroded both the institutional and financial underpinnings of a functioning liberal democracy all for self serving interest whether on the left or right side of the spectrum.

I think the Tea Party movement is the first of many different institutional responses from the generation(s) after the Boomers to bring stability and moderation to society. As it is x'er influenced, the pragmatic, cut and dry, black and white responses...whether one agrees with them or not is refreshingly authentic and different than what had been encountered from 86 to 08. I would say essentially bookended by Iran-Contra and the Financial Crises.

I think as more counter weight enters the system in the form of X'er (cut the crap, save the hyperbole and get to the point attitude) as well as Millenium (all of one, one for all, save the world attitude (?)) to counter balance and eventually over take and repair the effects of the last 65 years of Boomer impact.

Indeed the regency will be televised, just the catalyst and primary driver for the change is not yet known.

That I think that depends on if the true crises ends up being financial based, foreign policy based or environmentally based or any combination thereof. Fortunately I believe there are spefic traits inherent in each generation that can rise and will rise to the occasion to resolve the crisis and restore institutional order and societal cohesion

It's just not come into focus yet.

Anonymous said...

North by North West 74 said...

"I think the Tea Party movement is the first of many different institutional responses from the generation(s) after the Boomers to bring stability and moderation to society. As it is x'er influenced, the pragmatic, cut and dry, black and white responses...whether one agrees with them or not is refreshingly authentic and different than what had been encountered from 86 to 08."

Actually, speaking as somebody born well before 1972, "different" and "refreshing" are pretty much the last words I'd use to describe the Tea Party crowd. They're nothing more than another iteration of the '68 Wallace crowd, the "Reagan Democrat" crowd, the '92 Perot crowd. When the Tea Party gang pretty much explicitly let themselves get co-opted by the Republicans, it was the non-story of the decade. From the moment they started putting on the silly tricorner hats it was **always** obvious that they'd toe the GOP line.

While it's too soon to tell what effect the "Occupy" movement will have, its approach to party alignments is a stark contrast to the Tea Party clown show. The Occupy people have been very careful to keep Dem opportunists at arm's length. It's astute: The Occupy people understand that the parties work for the oligarchs -- who are the enemy. The Tea Party began with justfiable resentment against the oligarchs, but they were easily goaded back into stock left-right schism feuds. It's been pathetically simple to dupe them into becoming de facto shock troops for the oligarchs.
-- sglover

Evan Hurrle said...

Exceptional piece David,

I have unwisely missed your blog for awhile and what an incredible piece to come back to.

Thank you for the perspective.

Publion said...

I see an interesting juxtaposition: the Boomers who couldn’t see to give themselves to anything larger than themselves and yet too those Boomers (reinforced by 1930s-type social activists (often Democrats) who gave themselves over wayyy too unthinkingly to Large and Great Causes.

But the generation of politicians in power in the late 1960s and early 1970s who originally embraced the change-agendas of the late 1960s and the 1970s were not Boomers. Not even Teddy K and Joe Biden were Boomers.

Ideally, I think, we could have expected the pols to do with the change-agendas what the old BuShips used to do for proposed add-on arrays to existing hulls: take all the proposals for new arrays and new missions and see if they could each and all fit on the hull without overloading it or dissipating its efficacy to the point where nothing would work and the ship (and crew) couldn’t ‘platform’ the whole shebang.

But that wasn’t done by the Beltway, whose elected denizens simply kept adding things on and on to the national ‘platform’ until now nothing seems to really work efficaciously at all.

Sooner or later somebody is going to have to do it. Nor can this difficult task of assessment be sidestepped because of ‘interests’, whether those interests are based in the fiscal desire to keep their trunk into the federal funding trough or for ideological purposes or whatever.

Nor can ‘good intentions’ justify such gimlet-eyed assessment: there are lots of good ‘arrays’ or missions that simply constitute too much for the platform to handle well.

I recently came across a March 1967article by Theodore Lowi about “interest group liberalism”.

In that month and year he was concerned for the 1950s and very early 1960s Beltway strategy of letting interest-groups (at that time, the farmers, the unions, trade association and manufacturers’ groups) have a strong say in the crafting of legislation and regulations that would affect them.

This was a dubious strategy back then. Of course, by the late 1960s and early 1970s that strategy had been added on to all those interests (industrial, agricultural, financial) the assorted numerous ‘advocacy’ groups pushing an incomprehensible number of agendas and demands.

Without getting into the ‘legitimacy’ or ‘urgency’ or anything else about all those agendas and demands, clearly the strategy of allowing those groups to simply write their own ticket was as unwise as BuShips – in the terms of my analogy – allowing DOD contractors to go to town loading up a ‘platform’ with all of their assorted new arrays and systems without any supervision whatsoever.

The national ‘Platform’ is now in a very difficult and perhaps dangerous condition.

And the Beltway is now populated with Boomers and post-Boomers “who know not Joseph” and don’t recall much of those old days or, I regret to observe, the original onerous but vital oversight responsibilities of Congress. At this point, nobody can ‘just say No’.

Or even care to wonder if they should.

Anonymous said...

The one thing, sir, you seem to forget is that we are a nation comprised of individual states and territories, not just one nation with a top down approach to governance. Frankly, I am surprised a professional historian would blithly ignore that fact.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to solving our health care delivery system, why not adopt the approach the Founders had in mind when they wrote in the Tenth Amendmend? For example, Massachussetts' approach would be quite different from the one Texas or Utah may employ since their citizens' worldview is quite different and they have different needs and desires. One other thing that really is quite curious is the fact liberals claim they want diversity and choice and yet offer neither when it comes to health care.

For you to ignore our Constitution is quite remarkable. Why is it that liberals seem to always want to dictate to the rest of us how we should live our lives? I realize you believe they are much smarter than us mere peons, but so did the British aristocrisy, and look what happened to them.