We have in our country two political elites at the moment locked in bitter struggle. One, the Republicans, come from the heartland. Most of them have very little government experience and never er wanted any. They are in many cases deeply religious, they are overwhelming white, male, and older, and they want to destroy government in the United States as we have known it for roughly the last century. They did themselves a terrible political disservice by shutting down the government, but they will never give up their goals.
Their opponents are the Democratic elite,which I would suggest is characterized above all by having passed through the elite educational system. President Obama and the Clintons perfectly exemplify it. The Democratic elite believes in theory in the achievements of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, but I frankly doubt whether most of them could give a one-hour lecture on what those eras actually accomplished. Moreover, they have collaborated in the undoing of many of the New Deal's most important reforms, led by the Glass-Steagall Act, and thus helped insure that we now have a fundamentally anarchic economy that does not, as the saying goes, put people first. They are very different in many ways from the New Deal elite that I have been studying. Most of the Democratic elite today have law degrees. Several of the leading New Dealers--WPA chief Harry Hopkins, Secretary of the Interior and PWA chief Harold Ickes, and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins--had early careers as social workers. The new elite seems to have a knack for becoming wealthy, which has a way of convincing one that all is right by the world. Politically they are relying on demographics--on the support of women, minorities, and poorer Americans who in today's economy literally could not survive without Medicaid, food stamps, and the earned income tax credits, because so many jobs don't make enough to live on. The Democratic elite is our hope for not collapsing into a truly dreadful state. Yet they seem to lack a key ingredient: competence.
Over the last four or five years I've been studying American preparation for the Second World War, and my book on that subject, now entitled No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation Into War will be published by Basic Books this spring. In the spring of 1940 the US Navy was one of the world's largest, but not nearly large enough to deal with the threat of a German victory in Europe. Our Army and Air Force were nearly non-existent. Within 18 months, as the book shows, senior US officials had put together plans to nearly double the size of the Navy, build the world's largest Air Force, and raise of Army of more than 8 million men. Within another 36 months, in June 1944, those forces were ready to undertake the decisive offensives of the war. That was an era where our elites could see and think clearly and make things happen. Roosevelt's greatest achievement was to restore trust and confidence in authority and to make nearly all Americans want to join great national enterprises. Our current elite has not, to put it mildly, been able to match those achievements.
I cannot help noting that the Affordable Care Act passed three and a half years ago, and the Administration has had all that time to plan its implementation. Yet to continue my analogy, this week's roll-out looks more like the disastrous campaigns in the Pacific in the first half of 1942 than it does like the Normandy invasion or the invasion of the Philippines in late 1944. If its problems can be fixed it might more closely resemble the campaigns in Guadalcanal and North Africa in late 1942--campaigns that ultimately succeeded despite heavy losses and some catastrophic military decisions. In any case, I cannot escape the conclusion that the qualities I observed among Roosevelt's top leadership--not to mention FDR himself--simply are not on display in Washington, D.C. today.
In many respects I am not sure that they are on display anywhere in our society. I am beginning to realize that our society is good at just a few things nowadays, and the main one is the manipulation of and analysis of numbers. No society has ever equaled ours in its ability to identify and exploit financial opportunities that will make the rich richer. We also have a talent for inducing people, especially young people, to spend their time in front of a small, multicolored brightly lit screen. But we have much less talent for planning enterprises on behalf of our entire society.
And what does this mean for the future? Well, today's New York Times reports that the enormous bounce the Democratic Party got from the government shutdown is now being lost thanks to the problems in the health care roll-out. In a contest between one party that wants to destroy government and another that wants to preserve it, the latter party must in the long run depend on making government work. Generation X voted for Obama last time out, but they are generally distrustful of institutions and I do not think they can be relied upon by the Democrats. It's true that neither side has an ideal candidate to field at this point, and that is going to complicate matters for them both, but a Democratic victory, in my opinion, is anything but assured, and the Democrats' chances of winning the House, always a long shot, are dropping every minute again now.
It has taken a long, long time to get us into this mess, and it will take a long time to get out of it. That may in fact turn out to be the work of generations that even now have not yet been born. Another story from the Times caught my eye this week, talking about declining enrollments in the Humanities at elite institutions. It stressed the desire of students and their parents to be assured that their enormously expensive education would pay off as the cause, and it didn't mention the other cause which I think is equally significant: that humanities courses, by in large, have become both boring and useless. (There will always be a few exceptions.) Initially the humanities, and especially history, was designed to make us think about the ups and downs of our national life and our civilization. When history abandoned that mission it gave up its role in making our country function satisfactorily.