Friday, September 08, 2017

Struggling through the Crisis

We are now passing through the fourth great crisis of our national life, parallel to the American Revolution and the Constitutional period (1774-94), the Civil War (1860-8) and the Depression and SEcond World War (1929-45.)  This was what William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted 25 years ago, and they were right.  Like the other crises, this one is cutting us loose from our political moorings and making it very hard--like a battle--to keep a clear head.  Let me try to make our predicament, as I see it, just a little clearer.

Each of these crises, it seems to me, has had two different dimensions. To begin with, they all involve a very real struggle over the shape of America's future, and an attempt to replace a dying old order with a new one.  In the 1770s and 1780s this drama played out twice, first as the colonies overthrew British rule, and then as they replaced the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution.  In the 1860s we struggled over whether we would remain one nation, and whether it could continue to allow slavery.  The New Deal established new and critical roles for the federal government and changed the relations between labor and capital.  Now, we are fighting, and have been for some time, to see what, if anything, we shall preserve from the largely vanished New Deal leadership.

Yet each crisis had another even more important dimension as well: the question of whether a national government could either be created, or whether the existing one could continue to function at all.   Only barely did the Continental Congress and the state governments manage to keep the revolutionary armies in the field after 1775, and the constitutional convention convened in 1787 because the nation was sinking into anarchy.  Federal authority seemed to be disappearing when Lincoln took office, and he used emergency powers to preserve it.  A complete economic and political collapse seemed possible when FDR took office in 1933, and three years later the functioning of the federal government seemed to be threatened by a recalcitrant Supreme Court.  Because our forefathers overcome all those challenges, the United States still exists today.

Events this week suggest to me that we have been so preoccupied with the first aspect of our own crisis--the struggle over the future of America--that we have lost sight of the second--the possibility that our government might fail to function at all.  And for that reason, a relatively promising development--President Trump's deal with Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over the debt ceiling--has been attacked by partisan Democrats and Republicans alike.

Now there is no question that this crisis has a third, nearly unprecedented dimension: the personality of Donald Trump, who is manifestly unfit for office.  The only parallel from history is Andrew Johnson, the President from 1865 until 1869, who immediately fell into a conflict with the Republican leadership in Congress, did what he could to stop Reconstruction from changing the South, and was nearly removed from office.  But Trump did not begin the battle for the future of America that is now waging, nor is he only one on his side waging it now.  The Republican Party, after accepting the New deal from the late 1940s through the early 1970s, declared war on it once again in the 1980s, and that war has only escalated ever since.  Corporate America and corporate money now dominate our politics and critically influence both of our political parties. Economic inequality has increased steadily for 40 years, the antitrust laws have become almost a dead letter, and most of our state governments are in the hands of politicians dedicated to the free market.  While New Deal ideas like single payer health care and free education are gaining ground in the left wing of the Democratic Party, their chances of coming true seem quite slim.  In my opinion we will be fortunate if we get out of the crisis with our economic arrangements more or less as they are right now, and real reform will have to wait perhaps another generation.

Meanwhile, however, the government has to keep functioning--and there are very real threats to it as I write.  One is a possible constitutional convention called at the behest of state legislatures, many of whom have already asked for it.  The Republicans control 32 state legislatures, and only 34 could call such a convention into existence. But the more immediate threat by far would be the Congress's failure to authorize an increase in the debt ceiling, as many of the extreme right wing Republicans in the House have long wanted to do.  That would affect not only our government, but the whole world economy.  And that was the possibility that President Trump and minority leaders Schumer and Pelosi joined together this week to stop, successfully tying an increase in the debt ceiling to the passage of relief for hurricane Harvey.  Many Republicans are furious, and Speaker Ryan felt outmaneuvered.  But some Democratic commentators, such as Michael Tomasky, are already worried that this might be the prelude to another deal with Trump, one that gave him some billions of dollars for his wall while reinstating some kind of DACA program to stop the deportation of "dreamers."

Meanwhile, on another front, a group of Democratic state attorneys general are trying to delegitimize the president's authority altogether. Their lawsuit to stop him from ending  the (entirely optional) DACA program that President Obama put in place argues, among other things, that the President should not be allowed to stop the program because he expressed hostility towrads Mexican immigrants during the campaign. While I feel very strongly that Dreamers need to be put on a path to citizenship immediately, I think it is entirely unreasonable to expect the courts to rule that our duly elected President is debarred from exercising lawful authority because he has expressed views that many, or even most Americans, find repugnant.  The political process is supposed to reflect the views of the American people. It has failed to do so on immigration, but that does not mean that we can count on the courts to stop the executive from functioning the way conservatives counted on them to stop the New Deal in its tracks during Roosevelt's first term.

If we want us to remain one nation--which I for one most certainly do--we must accept that many of the views of those who elected Donald Trump and the Republican Congress will now be put into effect.  The only cure for the ills of democracy, as Al Smith said, is more democracy.  In a few instances--such as the Education Department's plans to rewrite university guidelines for handling accusations of sexual assault--the Trump Administration might even do some good.  (I will be discussing this topic soon, based on Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis's book, Unwelcome Advances.) Those will never be anything more than exceptional, but I am not going to criticize the Democratic congressional leadership for taking steps to allow the government to keep functioning--the kind of steps that their Republican counterparts were so opposed to while Barack Obama was President.


3 comments:

energy flow said...

I was thinking your last post could prove a bit prophetic. Harvey, Irma maybe jose and a 2% minus on the economy perhaps with years of rebuilding might get people thinking a warm beachside house or a southern coastal climate ain't a great idea after all.

Cooperation in congress to get things done that are not just paid for by corporate lobbyists wold be great. ACA, Obamacare is written by corporate medical and obviously extremely dysfunctional. This is similar to Lockheed Martin coming in with a fighter jet at ten times cost overruns ten years late and it doesn't work anyway but congress ignores it because of campaign donations. Corruption is prima facie in both and against the will of the electorate. More democracy would mean term limits to congressmen and senators plus lobbying bans. None of that will happen. Best congress money can buy. Zero democracy. I have no say cause I am not rich. Basta.

This is a bit like in middle ages Europe. The king represented the people's rights against repressive lords and barons. Congress represents nobility( rich), president representsvthe people but effectively has no say. Where the king destroyed rghts of nobles a unified state could be maintained in competition with other countries. Poland OTOH never got that far, nobles maintaining power in a divided country , so it was swallowed up. In America the upper ten thousand set themselves againt the people, exploited as serfs. They elect a president in protest who in the end is powerless, be it Obama, Trump, Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, Kennedy. The deep state, corporate America make rules, propagandize their truth, mold reality. Most people are like fish in water not seeing the water. Like in Matrix film. All films, news, basic daily reality is against normal people's interests.How can one vote in 4 years do anything against that. Democracy must be a daily reality. Party participation as lively debate at a local level like in earlier generations would be a start. Perhaps TV broadcasts and such centralized reality along with highway system, etc. Localizing makes for democracy. It doesn't originate in Washington or even state houses or city hall but in neighbourhoods. The bigger the political unit the less power for the individual.

Bozon said...

Professor
Sobering passage.
"In my opinion we will be fortunate if we get out of the crisis with our economic arrangements more or less as they are right now, and real reform will have to wait perhaps another generation."

Looked at strictly through a partisan lens, and your position seems to do that, it is hard to put onesself in the shoes of many Republicans now, who may even see what they are doing as what they would also call real reform, but real Republican reform...

Could either, yours or theirs, actually amount to anything like that elusive thing, real reform? Isn't real reform a chimera after, under our system, a system which stubbornly resists all efforts at rationalization?

Of course real real reform tends to take place, as we all know all too well, in war and revolution, sides of the one coin, and the real real reform that comes out is hardly what any of the contending sides, however many sides there are, would ever have wanted.

The Republicans want a constitutional convention. That sounds like maybe a place where some kind of real reform might get done, although it would not be the kind of reform many Americans would see as such.

All the best

Bozon said...

Professor

Too few comments..Perhaps I can goad them into activity:

Let's say that, given some kind of crisis, we postulate hypothetically that, soon now, the Chinese and the Russians, already in an apparent alliance, decide that this is, after all, the tipping point they have already mentioned...

What now? Will there be any more national cycle history S & H turnings, of the kind so far opined?

Is this a moment more like the Steve Bannon Armageddon crisis than the S & H cyclical crisis?

I rather doubt it is either, really.

I don't really believe, myself, in either, but throw them out more in a sporting spirit, to try to roil the readership here from its dogmatic slumber.

All the best