Two news items this week suggest, first, why the United States is still in such a terrible mess five years into the Obama Administration, and secondly, how things may get much, much worse.
The first was an item in the Boston Globe. My local paper got a hold of an advance copy of Elizabeth Warren's new memoir and manifesto, due to appear next week. Entitled A Fighting Chance, it appears to be a carefully put-together mix of politics and autobiography, complete with the kind of personal details (such as her daily conversations with a pregnant daughter) that many publishers like nowadays. But it also contains some real substance, and Matt Visser of the Globe knew what to lead with. In 2010, Warren met with President Obama in the Oval Office, and he informed her that he could not make her the head of the the Consumer
Financial Protection Bureau, which she had just designed, because of objections from Senate
Republicans and bankers. “You make them very nervous,” he told her. In a second meeting, he browbeat her into doing additional work on the design of the agency anyway.
Now there are two questions that immediately occur to me, questions that I would like to pose to President Obama. First of all, can you name one instance in which George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and the rest of the Bush II White House decided not to do anything because it would make Democrats in Congress and labor unions nervous? I can't. Both of the last two Democratic Presidents have generally decided that they can be as Democratic as the Republicans will allow them to be, and no more. (The ACA was one exception.) But the second question is more fundamental. How on earth can we fix our financial woes without making Wall Street nervous? Does the President really not understand that the crash came, and the next one will come, precisely because our financial institutions have much too much power and much too much money? The only way to restore us to health and stability is to take away a good deal of both. Prosecutions of leading figures, which the Obama Administration also eschewed, would have helped as well. Sadly, Obama got where he is by never offending powerful members of the Establishment, and he has stuck to that SOP as President. Because of this, much of the anger generated by the financial crisis was directed at him, not at more appropriate targets, and the Democrats are in danger of losing control of the government.
The second episode is truly astonishing, and potentially even more serious. In Nevada, a rancher, Cliven Bundy, who has been illegally grazing cattle on federal land and refusing to pay fines for about twenty years, forced the Bureau of Land Management to stop rounding up his cattle with the help of armed militiamen from all over the West. Fox News covered the story in detail, cheering Bundy on for defying the federal government.
As I have remarked before, Max Weber, about one hundred years ago, defined the modern state as an entity possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The NRA and its acolytes, as well as even more extreme groups, do not want a modern state in America. They evidently want anarchy similar to what prevailed (as I described in Politics and War) in early modern Europe, when great men walked around with armed retainers and frequently took the law into their own hands. Similar developments--militias raised by Nazis and Communists--did a great deal to destroy the Weimar Republic in Germany more than eighty years ago. No state, whether in Ukraine or the United States of America, can afford to cave in to armed resistance. That is what the federal government has just done.
The late Bill Strauss used to speculate that the United States might break up during the current crisis. I do not think that is likely, but it does seem that anarchy might become the norm in large parts of what we now refer to as the Red states. The power of those states is vastly exaggerated by the number of Senators they control, even though their population, as a percentage of the nation's, has never been smaller. Perhaps this is why the Washington Post, no less, in this lengthy account of the long-term origins of the Nevada stand-off, seems to be trying to be as even handed as possible. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. . .. "