Friday, July 11, 2014

Out of control

The United States of America, it occurs to me, is in a very strange state because of some strange political occurrences over the last fifteen years.  On the one hand, the Democratic Party has essentially been the plurality party, nationally, for more than 20 years, since Bill Clinton ran for office the first time.  They achieved that stature, to be sure, partly by giving up the policies that had made them successful from FDR through LBJ, and becoming the accomplice of the new rise of corporate power, especially on Wall Street.   But they had secured it, and in 2000, Al Gore--never a strong or compelling candidate--won a significant plurality of the popular vote and, it turns out, barely carried the state of Florida according to the most accurate post-election count.  But Governor Jeb Bush's pre-election purge of the voting rolls, the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach, Gore's failure to demand a full recount in Florida, and the Supreme Court's partisan decision awarded the election to George W. Bush.  As I have said many times here, Bush did not feel in the least inhibited, and he ruthlessly imposed his own agenda at home and, after 9/11, abroad.  The result was a crippled federal government saddled with the largest permanent deficit yet, and a disastrous Middle East crisis that seems likely to go on for decades. A further result was the election and re-election of Barack Obama, by larger popular vote margins that either Clinton or Bush II had ever received.

What has mitigated the effects of these Democratic triumphs is, of course, the polarization of our politics, and the Republican determination to make Obama fail and destroy government as we have known it in the United States.  In addition, Obama signally failed to mold a new majority around new economic policies in his first two years in office, as Franklin Roosevelt did.  Had he been able to think in terms of a whole term, or perhaps even two, from the very beginning of his Presidency, Obama might have focused on alleviating the nation's economic distress more during his first two years and deferred health care reform--but he didn't.  The recession continued through his first year, hard-core Republicans reacted with fury to his election, and the Democrats lost the House of Representatives and the state governments of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin Those states promptly gerrymandered their Congressional districts so as to assure Republican majorities in their delegations, even when well over half their voters voted for Democrats.  Since 2011 Obama has not been able to pass any significant legislation.  Failing to regain the White House in 2012 only made the Republicans more desperate, and they have become more obstructionist than ever.  Today's New York Times reports that Senate Republicans will not allow any bill that might be popular with the constituents of vulnerable Democratic Senators to come to a vote.  The immigration issue is hopelessly politicized. Eric Cantor's defeat has made it even more unlikely that the Republicans would compromise on anything.  The Administration stumbles along, trying and often failing to make the government work with inadequate resources, and depending on demographics and social issues to insure the future electoral health of the Democratic Party.  The Affordable Care Act seems to be working quite well, but Democrats are too frightened even to mention it on the campaign trail, much less run ads featuring Americans to whom it has given health insurance for the first time.

Seldom in the Atlantic World has a nation been so unable to handle serious problems during a crisis, or Fourth Turning.  Some of the ones that were comparably inefficient, such as Tsarist Russia in the First World War, collapsed under the strain of international conflict. The paralysis of the Weimar Republic in Germany lasted only about two and a half years, from 1930 until January 1933, when it gave way to Hitler.  Herbert Hoover floundered through three years of depression before giving way to FDR.  All these cases had something important in common with us today.  The government was unable to enlist the bulk of the population in a common cause, and to mobilize significant resources for the common good.  That, it seems to me, is what has made it impossible for Obama to build a durable majority in the Congress or lay the foundation for a substantial new period of Democratic rule.  And it seems clear that the Democrats have no other candidate in 2016 who will even propose to do such a thing.

The Democratic electoral strategy essentially accepts our economic state and our distribution of wealth as the best we can do.  (I know Elizabeth Warren is an exception, but she seems likely to remain so.)  It counts on the support of single women and minorities to keep it in power.  Such a strategy, it seems to me, is not likely to succeed indefinitely in the midst of long-term economic crisis.  Meanwhile, the Republicans mobilize their troops more and more aggressively.  The hate mongering on the immigration issue by people like Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin is a national disgrace.  But there is no observable countervailing trend in the Republican Party, either.

For the last four years the Republicans have in effect managed to impose their belief that we do not need more government.  President Obama, indeed, cooperated in that more than he should have when he agreed to the sequester, even though it has now been partially rolled back.  The problem is not simply that the Republicans are encouraged by their own successes; it is that we do need more government, and more resources mobilized on behalf of public goods. 

Dictatorship does not seem to be a danger which we face.  We will not have a military coup, like Chile in 1973, and we have no totalitarian party contending for power like Germany in 1933 or Russia in 1917.  Our danger, as I have said many times, is anarchy.  Today I read that the same militiamen who rallied to the cause of Cleavon Bundy in Nevada are deploying on the Texas-Mexico border to stop immigration.  Who knows what kind of incident might result?  Contempt for institutions is highly contagious, and from the VA to the CDC to the CIA, ours are not doing enough to inspire respect.


Bozon said...

Great summary of various things.

"What has mitigated the effects of these Democratic triumphs is, of course, the polarization of our politics, and the Republican determination to make Obama fail and destroy government as we have known it in the United States."

As you know, of course, having put me, and doubtless many others, onto Nevins' accounts of the run up to the Civil War, this system had originally been designed to do only relatively limited things. Long story here, omitted.

It has tended, for long intervals sometimes, toward 'drift' (one of my favorite terms from Nevins), even inertness, both legislatively and executively, even when one would would have thought that one party and or one chosen leader might accomplish some great if still limited things, even temporarily.

In the last analysis, it has been a structural problem, I am afraid; not one merely of faulty or flagging leadership, although the system has not even really promoted good leadership itself, unfortunately.

I am sure many others have said the same or similar things.

All the best

Assurance-First-Assurance said...

Good Morning:

Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

Today I have to make one of my rare disagreement with you.

I don't look for a fascist state for the simple reason that it requires government control over the business community and we have the opposite of that.

However, I can't see the Wall Street elites as finding anarchy to be particularly profitable, at least in the long run.

Whatever happens, our political elite, which finds this situation so profitable, might indeed find themselves no longer needed.


That Liberal Guy said...

Just a short note, my understanding from reading a few books about election 2000 was that Florida law does not have a provision for someone to request a state wide recount.

Unknown said...

Recall Senator Ted Kennedy shuffling down the the aisle of the Senate, arising as it seemed and as it transpired from his death bed, to cast his vote for the ACA. It was reported that Kennedy had championed universal health care since the 1970's, so his last vote was the realization of the long-held position of one of the last New Deal Democrats.

Recall too that during the primary season leading up to the election of 2008, Barrack Obama secured Kennedy's endorsement which assisted him in overcoming the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. One might assume there was some quid pro quo for that endorsement, possibly an agreement concerning universal health care.

If so, it may explain why President Obama used his political capital, and a Democratic Congress, to push through the ACA even though he realized his primary focus should have been on the US economy. In other words, Obama was true to his promise to Kennedy.

That Obama realized at the time that this would be at the expense of the economy, owing to the depth of the recession and the intransigence of the Republican party in Congress to deal with it, is improbable. But he should have known that political capital is sloughed away by the friction of inter-party politics, so he may have overestimated what was available, as well as the intensity of political opposition to his policies - any of his policies.

One must agree, though, that the Democratic Party as we would like to think of it has been a disappointment. From Senate approval of Clarence Thomas as Supreme Court Justice to repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act our elected Democratic Congressmen have proved to be a cowardly, rascally lot. A cynic might believe that on basis there is no difference in the parties, a skeptic merely holds that idea in balance.

Unknown said...

My own point of view is largely in agreement with almost all of your posts and this is no different. I have been politically aware since 1959 or so. I wasn't a fan of LBJ but I do remember his predictions of our journey out of the polarization embedded in the fear of change and acceptance. We still have more road to travel but I truly believe that progress is not only possible but thankfully it is our destiny.

tructor man said...

Have you seen the 1998 documentary "The Men Who Killed Kennedy" (Netflix Vol 1.), produced by A&E Network?

It claims to reveal much new (in 1988) evidence of a conspiracy of three professional shooters from Marseille France. Lucien Sarti and others. New photo enhancements of the 'Grassy Knoll' shooter. Credible testimony by General Prouty and a DEA offical. Convoluted network intersecting Mafia and CIA informers, cover-ups, etc. Can't recall if you mentioned this in your book "The Road to Dallas"...