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Friday, September 30, 2016

The Times We Live In

Sometime in the 1960 or perhaps the 1970s, I remember, my father and I were discussing politics.  "One thing we expected," he said, "was that television would create a great demagogue.  But it hasn't happened. Apparently they lose the appeal when you can see them up close."  He had lived through Hitler and McCarthy, of course, so he had seen demagogues in action.   But his observation was, sadly, naive, because he thought that technology, rather than the age we lived in, was the critical factor.  Having experienced demagoguery as a young man, he feared it for the rest of his life.  In fact, the leadership of his parents' generation and the sacrifices that his own had made had given the country a certain political stability that made it very difficult, if not impossible, for demagogues to emerge.  Now, 40 or 50 years later, that stability has disappeared--and television has produced the worst demagogue in the history of American politics.

In the postwar world, the government of the United States enjoyed extraordinary prestige at home and abroad thanks to extraordinary achievements. Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s had defined a new role for government, including both the regulation of the economy and the provision of adequate means of sustenance for the whole population.  Even before entering the Second World War, in his January 1941 State of the Union address, he had proclaimed those goals for the whole world in the four freedoms.  The American victory in the Second World War, followed by our role in the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, had made the US the leader of the free world, and opposition to our world role had been forced onto the narrowest margins of our politics.  President Eisenhower in the 1950s had not attempted to undo any major New Deal reforms, and he had undertaken another gigantic federal project, the Interstate Highway System.  The government was also slowly addressing the issue of equal rights for black Americans.  In addition, the trust which the government had earned was shared by nearly all our major institutions, including business and labor unions, the press, and academia.  The three television networks, both understood their novel and enormous power and were careful not to use it for any controversial purpose, either artistic or political.  As a result, they drew a great deal of criticism from intellectual Americans who regarded their fare as pablum.

As David Brooks--who sounds more and more like he has read Strauss and Howe, although he never mentions them--remarked today, the nation, led by my own generation, has been on a crusade for unlimited individual freedom for the last half century, with the left focusing on personal behavior and the right focusing on economic freedom.  In the last 40 years technology, including both cable television and the internet, has favored that crusade, giving us all the opportunity to watch and listen only to those we agree with, and to express ourselves with complete freedom before the whole world.  The danger that television might appeal to the lowest common denominator among us, and that images rather than words, might become the currency of opinion, has now become real, and perhaps mortal.  In 1940-1, when the United States had to deal with the Second World War, Americans could hear radio addresses by cabinet members, legislators and prominent citizens on their radios every week.  Now tweets are driving a presidential campaign, while viral videos are threatening to set off terrible racial conflict.  The expectation that politicians, the press, and the public itself will observe certain standards of decorum has evaporated.  For the first time in our history--literally--a pathological narcissist stands within reach of the White House, based, apparently, on appeals to his countrymen's raw emotions and resentments.

Last Monday's debate--in which I believe Hillary Clinton put on the best public performance of her career--has apparently done Trump a good deal of harm.  Although fivethirtyeight.com still forecasts a close election, Clinton's chances of victory have improved rapidly over the last five days, and are once again over 60%.  But a Clinton victory will not solve all our problems.  The solution of any of our very real problems, domestic and foreign, requires a certain patience, concentration and realism which we now seem to lack.  She, like Barack Obama, will be a divisive figure, and the Republicans will be strong enough to stand in the way of most of what she wants to do.  I believe the trends of the last half century must be reversed if our government can once again function effectively, but I do not now see how this will be done.


Bozon said...

Great topics. Media and demagogues. Individualisms of left and right.

One of the difficulties for Americans seems to me to be that our founding populist principles, anti monarchic, anti aristocratic, anti established religion, even to some extent anti established government (even a Senate was a concession), are those essentially tending toward demagoguery by default.

Checks and balances were another concession to the need for some structure, other than direct democracy of all the people together.

The system, then, has spent most of its history coming up with ways, in addition to checks and balances and term limits etc., to undermine this structural tendency in our system toward demagoguery, both in Congress and in selecting a President.

Of course Presidents usually ended up being manipulable compromises rather than demagogues; they very seldom have been leaders, and the leaders we have had have usually also been demagogues.

All the best

sglover said...

Wait a minute....

the nation, led by my own generation, has been on a crusade for unlimited individual freedom for the last half century, with the left focusing on personal behavior and the right focusing on economic freedom.

Since Europeans first stumbled on the New World, when has that ever not been true of America? Outside of a few exceptions (and the First Nations), this continent has been populated by people looking to escape old constraints. I mean, I gather that you're saying that now it's pure hedonism that's all the rage, and it's gone too far. Like you I suspect that social fragmentation may (emphasis on "may") have become truly pathological. But it's just the latest expression of what might almost be considered the American genome. It's nothing really new.

Also.... David Brooks?!?!? C'mon... The guy's been writing the same lightweight pop sociology for decades. If your excerpt is any indication, his latest screed sounds like about the 10,000-th iteration of his favorite, by-the-numbers cluck, the rabble are getting out of line, woe unto all that is good!. Over his career, there's one kind of freedom Brooks has always been very keen to pursue: The freedom to make things up out of whole cloth.

Do you really think you gain anything by reading the op-ed page of any major American newspaper? There are vastly better, more interesting, more astute writers out there. Peter Turchin, Branko Milanovic, Daniel Larison -- a little digging will turn up dozens more of equal caliber. And you won't find them in the NYT or the WaPo or the WSJ.

CrocodileChuck said...

"But a Clinton victory will not solve all our problems"

One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at this statement.

Energyflow said...

Demagogue would mean rather the form of speech directed at a certain class and type of feelings. Moderate intellectual speech is always preferable in certain circles. If we have been dumbed down by professional wrestling and marvel films, if the moderate politicians are tools of oligarchy, if the internal and external proletariat are being gamed nbyy fair play referees doling billions out to banks, weapons and pharma industries, then what else is left but straight talking to the dumbed down. Often the man on the street knows in his gut what is really wrong in the world when a professor or pundit is spinning in the wind. Like yourself now. 30 years of postwar policy were paintakingly torn from the powerful to give soldiers and populace a middle class existence then in spite greedily taken back. Peak poverty is still to come. Peak conflict, internal and exernal as well.Hillary speaks, like Obama and Bush II for the oligarchy in manhattan and beltway. Politicians are bought, trained from birth. Demagogues are nonprofessional and selftrained, debating fine points live perhaps not engrained. If the system is corrupt, overthrow it. Generational cycle must be a subcycle of revolutionary or civil war or civilizational cycles. Because America. Northeastern revolutionaries, northern industrialists were successful, i.e. the white hatted good guys from western fame last couple of times does not mean it is always so unless you belong to state dept. propaganda machinery, i.e. ministry of truth, like CNN and co.

Energyflow said...


professor, due to your avid sports interest I link you this eccellent intelligent balanced blog article making asports metaphor on current campaign.

Assurance-First-Assurance said...

Thank you Professor. As always, your post is immensely thought-provoking. And I like David Brooks. And thanks to the person commenting above, I will look up the others mentioned. I thank you both.

That Liberal Guy said...

Several of my friends, more knowledgeable regarding history than me, draw the parallel between Trump and Mussolini's rise to power not Hitler's.

Is there a book on Mussolini's rise to power you would recommend?

sglover said...

It's been a few years since I read it, but I remember "Mussolini's Italy", by R. Bosworth, as a pretty thorough history of fascism as a social movement -- who gravitated toward it, who benefited, and the kind of institutions and future the fascists claimed they were building. Naturally, the claims exceeded the actual accomplishments by a huge margin.

I've always leaned toward the notion that Trump is more Berlusconi than Mussolini (not that there's sharp boundary between the two). But... I thought I was cynical and pessimistic and at least somewhat worldly, but each week I am more astonished by the people who seem to draw inspiration from Trump, and their antics. Today's fever dream is from Drudge, who claims that the National Weather Service is exaggerating the severity of Hurricane Matthew to further the nefarious leftie climate agenda. My God, who are these people?