Sunday, June 30, 2019

The stakes for 2020

We are nearing the climax of the fourth great crisis in American national life.  Unlike the first three--1774-94, 1860-68, and 1929-45--it has not involved a great national enterprise that mobilized economic resources on behalf of a moral cause.  It is a crisis of fragmentation and contested authority, marked (like the Civil War crisis) by a steady growth of corporate power and a decline of civic virtue.  It is also a crisis of values, and next year's election will inevitably validate one set of values over another.  I do not think that anyone at this time can tell what is going to happen, but the first two Democratic debates have made me more pessimistic about what to expect next year, and for the next decade or so.

Those debates, and particularly the second one, confirmed for me that the kind of left wing activism that I first saw in action more than 50 years ago in college has now become mainstream.  As I remarked during a discussion with four young activists at my 50th reunion--a discussion that I shall link in a day or two here--it is characterized above all by a moral approach to the world.  What is evil should not be, what is right should automatically prevail.  That means, for instance, that "undocumented"--that is, illegal--immigrants should receive guaranteed health care, because all people should receive it.  Since immigrants are poor, largely nonwhite, and largely from the third world, we should decriminalize their status at once.  That, in fact, seems to be more important to most of today's Democratic candidates than giving the 11 or 20 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States a path to citizenship that would allow them to vote--an idea we did not hear about during the debate.  I well remember how in the 1960s my contemporaries treated legal issues as the older generation's way of keeping an unjust order in place, ignoring what humankind had learned over many centuries--that legal procedures are the price of civilization, and thus, clearly necessary to any meaningful long-term reform.  

The latest flurry of attacks against Joe Biden also echo the late 1960s contempt for establishment politicians and compromises.  Biden never praised segregationists like James Eastland, he simply spoke with nostalgia about a time when men and women of entirely different views could treat each other courteously and work together on some issues.  But the very idea of treating such people (now Republicans) with anything but contempt, much less acknowledging that we might have to find common ground with them on some issues, never occurs to many liberals today.  Hillary Clinton illustrated that with her comment about Trump's "basket of deplorables" in the 2016 campaign.  The same kind of feelings lead to calls from some Democrats to ignore the evil white working class, riddled with "white supremacist' beliefs, and reward women and/or nonwhites by pitching the Democratic appeal specifically to them and putting one or more of them on the ticket.  Should such a strategy succeed, the new millennium will be at hand; should it fail, it will merely confirm the essential patriarchal, racist wickedness of the United States of America.  Liberals cling easily to these views since so many of them work in education or journalism, where almost no one challenges them.  They are waiting for the rest of the country to catch up to them, and some are gambling that the advent of younger generations and changing demographics will lead to that result.  That is possible.

On the other hand, the Republican Party--led by a TV-bred demagogue, but essentially the party of big business in general and the energy industry in particular--has entrenched its power in the Senate, in various state legislatures, and above all in the court system.  The 5-4 decision allowing and indeed encouraging gerrymandering confirms that Republican judges will use their power to help their party, and leave voters at the mercy of state governments.  The Trump administration is dismantling parts of the federal government and trying to kill others (including much of the State Department) by refusing to fill key positions.  It's the home of ideologues on many issues, including education policy, immigration policy, and policy towards the Middle East.  Such people have no trouble working with an incompetent President because he gives them what they want.  Should a Democrat like Elizabeth Warren get into power, the court system may well stand in the way of meaningful economic reform, as it did from the 1870s until the late 1930s.  Today's Republican Party--like the Republican Party from 1876 to 1896--lacks a real national majority, and has one the popular vote only once in the last seven national elections.  But it might gain votes next year because of the very low unemployment rate, or because Democrats are misreading the views of some of the new electoral constituencies, or because the spectacle of the Democratic contest for the nomination turns voters off, as happened to Republicans in 1964 and Democrats in 1972.  The Republicans, in any case, have unity and discipline, which the Democrats distrust almost on principle. Politics is war by other means, and in war, unity and discipline count for more than having a just cause.


I continue to believe, as I did in 2010 (see last week's post), that the chance to reverse our economic course was lost in the first two years of the Obama administration and will not return any time soon.  I think our real task now is to re-establish some tradition of honest, responsible government that can address problems like immigration within a serious legal framework instead of an emotional one, devote serious resources to critical problems like infrastructure and climate change, and pursue sensible foreign policies.  Yet we live in an age where politicians no longer make their name by performing effective public service.  We will probably have to start rebuilding that tradition at the state and local level, as the New York Democratic party seems to have done, in a few important key respects, last year.  And to create any broader national consensus, we might have to trade truly effective border control and restrictions on immigration for a path to citizenship for those who already live here.  After the Civil War, our politics remained crippled by partisanship for several decades.  That will be our fate too, I fear, unless we an find a unifying figure and a new political vocabulary.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Another blast from the past - July 2010

I returned from 10 days in France yesterday.  Here is a second blast from the past--the moment, in July 2010, that I realized that Barack Obama was not going to reverse the direction the nation was taking.

Monday, July 05, 2010


The Regeneracy may not be televised

William Strauss and Neil Howe, the authors of Generations and The Fourth Turning, grew up, as I did, in the shadow of the Depression, the New Deal, and the Second World War. As they explained to a group of their acolytes in the late 1990s, they began early in that decade to write a book about American generations, focusing on what each of them had contributed to our national life. Both had been involved in government for about a decade, and both had lived through the cultural cataclysm of the 1960s and early 1970s. But their critical discovery, Bill explained, occurred when they were studying the first half of the nineteenth century, when control of national politics passed successively from the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Monroe) to the Compromisers (Jackson, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay), and hence to the Transcendentals (Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Sumner, John Brown, and the rest of the Southern fireasters) who brought about the Civil War. Suddenly they recognized the remarkable similarities between three pairs of generations: the Republicans and the GIs (the Presidents from Kennedy through Bush I), whose lives had been shaped by the previous crises; the Compromisers and the Silent Generation, who remembered those crises from their childhoods and sought to moderate emerging conflicts; and the Transcendentals and their own generation, the Boomers, all focused upon throwing out the old and bringing on the new. A new theory of history was born--and they began predicting a new crisis era, set to begin around 2010.

Crises of this type represent the death of the old order and the birth of a new one. The two most inspiring in American history were the late-eighteenth century crisis that gave us the Revolution and the Constitution, and the Depression and the New Deal, which culminated in the Second World War and the creation of the welfare state. The Civil War, as they recognized, had much less of a legacy, failing even to solve the racial problem that had brought it about. It is now clear that their prediction of a crisis was right on the money in both the economic and political spheres--but it seems increasingly likely, I am sorry to say, that we are not going to experience a rebirth or regeneracy comparable to that of the 1780s-90s or the 1930s-40s. The hopes that so many of us shared for a New Deal are retreating further every day, and while I am not yet entirely giving up, my head tells me that we are indeed headed for a new age of corporate supremacy parallel to the 1890s.

Today's New York Times gives a typical example of the reasons for my despair. Earmarks, we all know, are detested by all and sundry (except those who receive them), and the Congress has passed new regulations against them, specifically forbidding their award to private businesses. No sooner was this rule passed, however, than Congressmen and private companies found away around it. They are busily founding non-profits who will control the money and pass it on to the very same private firms that will do the work involved. Nothing, in short, is going to change. In the same way, the new financial reform bill, now nearing passage, will not substantially reduce trade in derivatives or force the big banks to stop trading on their own account. Even its consumer protection provisions contain loopholes. Reducing the influence of money on our politics seems as futile a task as civil service reform or railroad regulation in the 1870s--and that leads me to my next, even more controversial point.

Back in the 1990s Strauss and Howe made another prediction: a member of our own Boom generation would lead us in a new world, like the Transcendental Lincoln and the Missionary Franklin Roosevelt. When 9/11 occurred--only 72 years after the beginning the last crisis in 1929--we all held our breaths to see if it might indeed be the beginning of the crisis, or, as they called it, "Fourth Turning." When George W. Bush failed to unite the United States most of us concluded that it was not. But now, I am not so sure--because it seems that George Bush did far more to pout the United States on a different path, both at home and abroad, than Barack Obama will be able to do. Let us look, as Al Smith used to say, at the record.

Abroad, George W. Bush abandoned most of the principles that had governed our parents' foreign policies. He denounced a critical arms control treaty, the one that had banned ABMs, and began deploying missiles that still have not been proven to work. The Obama Administration has modified his plans, but it has not abandoned them. He invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds that we could not allow Al Queda to have safe havens, and we remain in Iraq while escalating our presence in Afghanistan, even though it is not clear that any of this has made us more secure. These wars have enormously raised the prestige of the military in American life for the first time since the early 1960s. In the Middle East Bush told Israel it could keep any territory it settled in a peace agreement, and the Obama Administration backed down from its first attempt to challenge that position. President Obama initially tried to recast our relations with the Muslim world but he has stuck, essentially, to the same policies, and individual Muslims (usually ones who had lived in the US and even become US citizens) have carried out a few terrorist attacks. Should one of those succeed on a fairly large scale we have no idea what the consequences might be.

At home, the reckless pursuit of deregulation by every Administration from Reagan through George W. Bush gave us the financial crisis of 2008--but before Bush left office, Henry Paulsen, it is now clear, had managed to make sure that all the banks' losses on derivatives would largely be made good through the huge bailout of AIG. Most importantly, the Bush tax cuts destroyed the surplus that Bush inherited and recreated the permanent deficit so dear to the heart of Ronald Reagan. That, combined with conservative fiscal orthodoxy which Obama seems reluctant to challenge, has crippled the government's response to the highest sustained unemployment since the 1930s. The Obama stimulus stopped the job loss but was not big enough to reverse it, and now it is coming to an end. The Republicans are fighting even modest moves like another extension of unemployment benefits--so far, at least, successfully. They seem certain to gain seats in both the House and Senate this fall, which will make any radical economic moves impossible.

Perhaps we were wrong; perhaps the crisis did begin with 9/11. Certainly George W. Bush took advantage of the shift in the national mood to move forward on a great many fronts, and his work has proven lasting. What is happening now is by no means all his fault. The Democratic Party effectively abandoned New Deal principles years ago--Bill Clinton, in fact, bragged about doing so. Now a Democratic Administration has very little to offer to the millions of new unemployed. They may not become enthusiastic Republicans, but they will not be enthusiastic Democrats, either--even though the younger voters among them are closer to the Democrats on social issues.

The politics of the Gilded Age were dominated by money. They were much more hotly contested than most people realize. U. S. Grant won two terms by huge majorities, but the next five elections--from 1876 through 1892--were all extremely close, all close enough to be decided by shifting a single state. The Democrats should have regained the White House in 1876 and did so in 1884 and 1892. Our politics may be similarly contested for the rest of my lifetime, since no government will be strong enough, it seems, to embark upon the kind of great crusade at home or abroad that will create a new consensus.

All this has enormous consequences for the Millennial generation (born 1982-2002?), whom Strauss and Howe expected to be the new GIs. Such, it seems, is not after all their destiny, since no Boomer leadership is going to enroll them either in massive public works programs or in a crusade abroad. Like the GIs in the 1930s, they will be preoccupied for a long time with finding work and setting up families. Their idealism and willingness to tackle problems may still do a lot of good, but mostly, it seems, at a local level and on a relatively small scale. In the same way that the GIs did so much to undo prejudice between religions and even between the races, the Millennials will finally break down prejudice based on sexual orientation, and they will probably begin a move away from strong religious belief. But for a variety of reasons, which I hope to explore in months and years to come, it seems that no one alive today is likely to see any kind of replay of New Deal America.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Blasts from the Past (I)

I have decided to spend a couple of weeks reposting some material from the distant past.  This piece, entitled, George W. Bush: Man of the Sixties, first appeared on October 21, 2004, in the midst of a presidential election campaign.  It certainly identified many of the issues that I have been focusing on ever since.

President Bush likes to contrast himself and his policies with the 1960s. “We’re changing the culture of America,” he says, “from one that says, ‘If it feels good, do it,’ and, ‘If you’ve got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a culture in which each of us understands we’re responsible for the decisions we make,” (When Dick Cheney used the language of the 1960s in the face of an opposition U.S. Senator and defended himself because he “felt better,” the irony got less attention than it deserved.) Culturally, of course, the President rejects the sexual liberation of his youth, and portrays himself as a reformed sinner. Politically, as a conservative, pro-war Republican whose father had campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was certainly out of step on the Yale campus of 1964-68. All this is, however, entirely misleading—and the country, particularly its younger voters, should try to understand exactly who and what they are voting for before the election. George Bush and his Administration actually represent the worst of the late 1960s—a terrifying certainty determined to repudiate the past, disrupt the present, and risk the future for an ideological ideal. His certainty is not merely, as Ron Susskind argued last in last Sunday's New York Times, a question of his faith—it is all too characteristic of his entire generation. 

As George W. Bush’s college years drew to a close, the most visible political faction on most campus was the Students for a Democratic Society, which took over the main Administration building, provoked a police bust, and temporarily halted instruction at my own school, Harvard, in the spring of 1969. They were distinguished more than anything else by a complete rejection of everything our parents stood for. In their eyes, the Cold War’s “defense of freedom” was greedy imperialism; civil rights laws simply masked enduring American economic racism; marriage and family were outdated bourgeois conventions; and democracy was a sham. They and they alone knew good from evil, and they had less than nothing to learn from the past. Even within their own ranks, they had contempt for democratic processes. In April of that memorable year, a vote of the SDS turned down a proposal to occupy University Hall by a vote of about two to one—but the next day, the losing minority faction undertook the occupation anyway, dragging their colleagues (and eventually most of the student body) in their wake. 

A similar omniscient spirit has dominated the Bush Administration from the day it took office. One by one, the achievements of our parents’ generation—who occupied the White House from John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush—have been gleefully tossed aside: the ABM Treaty, the rigid separation of Church and State, overtime protection for workers, environmental protection, and especially the spirit of compromise and civic responsibility that allowed Republicans and Democrats to work together for the good of the country from the 1950s through the 1980s. In foreign policy they have even repudiated, in effect, the NATO Alliance and the United Nations. Events in the fall of 2002 were particularly revealing. Prodded by Colin Powell, who remembers the 1950s, the Administration sought a second Security Council resolution to authorize war against Iraq, but when they found they had only two other votes on their side, they simply disregarded the opinion of the world in the same way that the SDS disregarded the majority vote the night before the occupation of University Hall. Meanwhile, our Boomer-crafted new National Security Strategy gives the United States both the right and the duty to decide what nations shall possess what weapons, and summarily to remove hostile regimes. My Harvard classmate Elliot Abrams opposed SDS’s attempt to rule Harvard University according to their lights, but he is now enthusiastically doing his part to assure that he and his Administration colleagues rule the whole world in the same way. 

Other memories from the Vietnam era come to me these days. One Saturday afternoon in 1970, I sat in a packed Harvard Square theater watching Sam Peckinpaugh’s The Wild Bunch. Midway through the movie, William Holden (himself a member of what we now call “The Greatest Generation”) tried to explain to his fellow gang members why Robert Ryan was now working for the other side. “He gave his word,” Holden said, speaking for an older America. “It’s not whether you keep your word!” one of his companions shouted. “It’s who you give it to!” The audience went crazy with delight. Isn’t that the same spirit in which the Bush White House has patronized the scurrilous, baseless campaign of the Swift Boat veterans? John Kerry is on the wrong side; therefore, he can’t be a war hero. And such is the partisanship of our times that even Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush Sr. have joined this campaign—although John McCain, significantly, refuses to do so. 

Reality, of course, is a casualty of classic Baby Boomer thought. SDS members truly believed in 1969 that workers and students were going to overturn the established order—because it was right. In the same way, George W. Bush, in defiance of mountains of evidence that Iraq is disintegrating and that our intervention has reduced our standing in the Arab world to new lows, repeats that Iraq is on its way to a democratic transformation that will spread through the region. Freedom, he explains, is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman on this planet—an homily which leaves a calmer observer wondering why the Almighty has been so stingy about bestowing it in so much of the world for so many centuries, or whether the President believes that he is fighting Satan’s evil presence on earth. 

Caught between ideology and reality, the Administration constantly resorts to Orwellian language. A loss of jobs becomes economic progress, less health care means more, opening national forests to logging becomes “The Healthy Forests Initiative,” and so on. In the same way, the SDS explained to us that dictatorship of the proletariat was the only true democracy. And the Administration cares nothing about federalism, because federalism could stand in its way. In 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon debated federal aid to education, Nixon argued that federal money would eventually mean federal control. Now a new Republican generation is using federal money to discredit and weaken public education through the No Child Left Behind Act. 

The Bush Administration and its supporters are usually less obvious than their left wing contemporaries were about their repudiation of our parents’ works, but the other day, Grover Norquist—the anti-tax activist who has bragged about his close relations with the White House for four years—let the cat out of the bag in an interview with a Spanish newspaper. The Weekly Standard has printed quotes from the tape of the interview. Here is now Norquist assessed the coming election. 

"And we've had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952--Great Depression, New Deal, World War II--Social Security, the draft--all that stuff. That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die. So 8 million people from that age cohort have passed away since the last election; that means, net, maybe 1 million Democrats have disappeared… 

"This is an age cohort that voted for a draft before the war started, and allowed the draft to continue for 25 years after the war was over. Their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations. . . . Very un-American. Very unusual for America. The reaction to Great Depression, World War II, and so on: Centralization--not as much centralization as the rest of the world got, but much more than is usual in America. We've spent a lot of time dismantling some of that and moving away from that level of regimentation: getting rid of the draft . . . "

Norquist, a younger Baby Boomer, has actually hit the nail on the head. The twenty million men we drafted to win the Second World War (a conflict he apparently regrets) deserved, and got, their countrymen’s reward, in the form of the GI bill, 4% mortgages, generous Social Security benefits, and real pensions. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower confirmed the government’s responsibility for their well-being and that of their families. Such policies have now become “un-American” as the Bush Administration leads us towards their New Jerusalem—really a new Gilded Age. Norquist is actually exalting the collapse of civic virtue and mutual responsibility that he has helped to promote during his political career. Younger Americans should understand one thing: our current leadership is impervious to facts. Ultimately, like so many of my contemporaries, they care less about any specific changes they make at home or abroad than about simply proving to their own satisfaction that they are right and everyone else is wrong. They have already left the nation and the world a dangerous legacy.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Witnessing history

Two weeks ago I attended the 50th reunion of the infamous Harvard Class of '69, of which a was a member.   This was as always an emotional experience, since many of my friends then remain my best friends today, and two of them stayed with me for the week.  But it had historical interest as well.  One classmate had collected a book of reminiscences and thoughts about the  Vietnam War, to which I contributed the original draft of the last few pages of American Tragedy.  A great deal of the discussion at other symposia dealt with the activism of that era, which many classmates seemed as proud of as ever.  The most striking session, however, was one featuring five contemporary campus activists, a mixture of undergraduates and grad students.  The session was recorded, and hope to be able to share it with readers soon.  It showed, more than anything else, just how influential the Boomer style of protest that debuted during our college years had become.

The students focused on several particular issues. One young woman was especially interested in "unraveling [I think that was the word she used] the rape culture on campus," and another, a grad student, complained that Harvard, in negotiations with grad students over their working conditions, did not want to include a commitment to punish those accused of sexual assault because they were afraid of lawsuits from perpetrators.  Several students also focused on university divestment from the fossil fuel industry (which would require complete change in the way the university manages its endowment, a subject about which I and other classmates have been agitating for 15 years now) and from the "prison-industrial complex," and one pleaded with us not to give Harvard any money until it took those steps.  At least one of them also attacked capitalism, which she linked to patriarchy, racism, and xenephobia.  One activist emphasized the need to "imagine" new human arrangements that would be free of these defects.  Several of them used a good deal of ideological jargon, as the SDS was wont to do 50 years ago. I do not mean to dismiss their concerns by any means--I share some of them--but am simply trying to report as neutrally as possible.

I had been designated by the organizers to say a few words, and I hadn't prepared anything, preferring to wait and hear what there was to comment on.  I began by saying that I could see a very direct line from the activism of my own class to what I had heard that day.  First of all, both had a strong moral tone, arguing, about one issue or another, "This is wrong: therefore it must not be."  One of the panelists nodded at that.  Secondly, it seemed to me that today's activists, like my contemporaries, saw themselves standing outside, and in opposition to, a corrupt system.  Lastly, a great deal of the activism, in both cases, was directed against Harvard itself.  In those days that led to a successful attack upon the presence of ROTC on campus because ROTC was implicated in the Vietnam war.  Lastly, I said that I thought that activists might have more success by appealing to their fellow Americans as citizens, rather than as members of particular demographic groups.  I did not use the phrase "identity politics," but one of the panelists did, defending such an approach, when she took an opportunity to reply to me.  

All this got me thinking, not for the first time, about the atmosphere on campus nowadays, and back in the late 1960s as well.  I think some things have gone wrong with higher education since it expanded so rapidly in the wake of the Second World War, and I want to speculate about what it might be, with particular reference to what is happening in elite institutions.  To shed more light on it I want to quote, once again, from one of the Boom generation's founding documents: a speech in the fall of 1964 by Berkeley student activist Mario Savio, who had worked the previous summer as a civil rights activist in Mississippi, in the campaign in which three civil rights workers were killed.

"Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights. This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley. The two battlefields may seem quite different to some observers, but this is not the case. The same rights are at stake in both places -- the right to participate as citizens in democratic society and the right to due process of law. Further, it is a struggle against the same enemy. In Mississippi an autocratic and powerful minority rules, through organized violence, to suppress the vast, virtually powerless majority. In California, the privileged minority manipulates the university bureaucracy to suppress the students' political expression. That "respectable" bureaucracy masks the financial plutocrats; that impersonal bureaucracy is the efficient enemy in a "Brave New World."
"In our free-speech fight at the University of California, we have come up against what may emerge as the greatest problem of our nation -- depersonalized, unresponsive bureaucracy. We have encountered the organized status quo in Mississippi, but it is the same in Berkeley. Here we find it impossible usually to meet with anyone but secretaries. Beyond that, we find functionaries who cannot make policy but can only hide behind the rules. We have discovered total lack of response on the part of the policy makers. To grasp a situation which is truly Kafkaesque, it is necessary to understand the bureaucratic mentality. And we have learned quite a bit about it this fall, more outside the classroom than in. 

"As bureaucrat, an administrator believes that nothing new happens. He occupies an a-historical point of view. In September, to get the attention of this bureaucracy which had issued arbitrary edicts suppressing student political expression and refused to discuss its action, we held a sit-in on the campus. We sat around a police car and kept it immobilized for over thirty-two hours. At last, the administrative bureaucracy agreed to negotiate. But instead, on the following Monday, we discovered that a committee had been appointed, in accordance with usual regulations, to resolve the dispute. Our attempt to convince any of the administrators that an event had occurred, that something new had happened, failed. They saw this simply as something to be handled by normal university procedures. 

"The same is true of all bureaucracies. They begin as tools, means to certain legitimate goals, and they end up feeding their own existence. The conception that bureaucrats have is that history has in fact come to an end. No events can occur now that the Second World War is over which can change American society substantially. We proceed by standard procedures as we are. 

"The most crucial problems facing the United States today are the problem of automation and the problem of racial injustice. Most people who will be put out of jobs by machines will not accept an end to events, this historical plateau, as the point beyond which no change occurs. Negroes will not accept an end to history here. All of us must refuse to accept history's final judgment that in America there is no place in society for people whose skins are dark. On campus students are not about to accept it as fact that the university has ceased evolving and is in its final state of perfection, that students and faculty are respectively raw material and employees, or that the university is to be autocratically run by unresponsive bureaucrats. 

"Here is the real contradiction: the bureaucrats hold history as ended. As a result significant parts of the population both on campus and off are dispossessed and these dispossessed are not about to accept this a-historical point of view. It is out of this that the conflict has occurred with the university bureaucracy and will continue to occur until that bureaucracy becomes responsive or until it is clear the university cannot function."

In a post more than five years ago I tried to explain how the comparison of Berkeley undergraduates, who were receiving an extraordinary education, far better than any available on any campus today, free of charge, could accept their identification with the terrorized, poverty-stricken black population of Mississippi.  I won't repeat that analysis here--anyone one interested can check it out for themselves--but I will say this: Savio was identifying at least one real issue.  Modern society can't exist without powerful bureaucracies that do their best (and never without some failures) to administer impartial rules.  They are, literally, the price of civilization.  Yet at the same time, they inevitably provoke negative reactions from much of the human race, particularly when young.  In college I learned about a parallel youth rebellion against the bureaucracy of the French Third Republic from Stanley Hoffmann, and such a rebellion eventually brought down Communism in the Soviet Union.  The whole Trump movement is also a rebellion against a bureaucracy, the "Deep State," which economic interests have resented for  the better part of a century.  And perhaps campus rebellions periodically play such a role in our lives because young people in our modern age simply become too frustrated at endlessly having to meet the demands of adult bureaucracies.

 I do not know if my own Boom generation was the first to have a majority of its members attend college, but it certainly sent a higher proportion to college than any previous generation had.  The experience of the Second World War and the GI bill had firmly established higher education as the chief path into the middle and upper middle classes, and more and more people were taking advantage of it, instead of going to work full time at 18 and marrying and having children within a few more years.  A great many young people, however--such as myself--go to college at 18 with a great deal of unfinished emotional business.  Once there, a lot of pent up feelings towards their families can find some other outlet. They have a lot of time on their hands.  They have to resolve questions relating to their future place in the world, and their sexuality.  Some, like me, feel right at home in the classroom and the library; others do not.  It becomes very easy for many of them to focus on the shortcomings of the older generation in general and the institution they are attending in particular.  Among my generation, many were moved not only to reject the values of the universities and colleges they found, but to go into academia themselves and change them.  Older grad students and faculty from the Silent generation encouraged this process.

Now my contemporaries' rebellion took off, of course, because of our parents' generation's catastrophic mistake, the Vietnam War.  That certainly proved that our elders were fallible (though hardly more so than those of many other great nations, some of whom made much bigger mistakes), and it also forced all the young men into a confrontation with the government over military service.  But today's students, I think, face a much less certain future and a series of frustrations much worse than what we had to cope with, partly because they have been going on longer.

The competition for places in our top institutions, to begin with, is much worse now than it was then.  The college-age population has swollen much more rapidly than the number of highly regarded schools.  The proportion of women competing for those places is also much higher.  Today's undergrads have gotten where they are by meeting an endless series of tests administered by parents, teachers, coaches, music teachers, and heaven knows who else.  When I saw the first Hunger Games movie, I was struck by its message: that life was a series of dangerous, often fatal tests, imposed upon young people by their elders for the elders' entertainment.  The extraordinary popularity of the books in the series suggests that that message really resonated among the Millennial generation.  They have other problems in college:  many of them are borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for their education.  Many of them emerge unable to find a job that will enable them to live in a major metropolitan area, much less marry and start a family.   And last but not least, my generation, at least, had access to an extraordinary education such as I have described in A Life in History.  We also had to spend a LOT of time doing schoolwork to perform adequately.  Today's students don't get nearly as stimulating an intellectual diet, and their workload is a fraction of what ours was.  

Like Mario Savio and the mostly white, middle-class students who responded to his speech, today 's undergrads identity--one might say compulsively--with what we now call marginalized groups in society.  The representatives of those groups who now attend elite schools in much greater numbers tend to dominate campus controversies, and the opinion pages of student newspapers.  Meanwhile, the problem of defining one's self as a sexual being, and deciding what that definition will still mean for one's life, remains.  A small but growing number of today's students are taking a more radical approach to it by rejecting traditional gender roles and definitions.  The concept of "non-binary" individuals crossed into the mainstream just last weekend, when a long article in the New York Times Magazine discussed it almost entirely uncritically.  

As Liah Greenfeld has pointed out in the book I discussed here some months ago, modern society forces us all to define ourselves in almost every way. This is a terrible burden, felt most intensely in youth.  We have made it much harder.  Neither our political system, nor the humanities departments of our universities and colleges, provide the kind of common anchor to our experience that they tried to give in earlier periods.  It is not surprising that so many bright students become obsessed with the evils of the university itself, while others eagerly work to cash in their ticket to the economic elite.




Monday, June 03, 2019

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Fighting the course of history

Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler, and today's Republicans have very little in common with National Socialists. While Trump and Hitler are both demagogues appealing to a certain kind of nationalism, Trump is operating within a completely different context.  Hitler rose to power because international capitalism had collapsed, while today, it is thriving, at least on its own terms.  The first half of the twentieth century was an age of fierce national loyalty and numerically huge military establishments, while we live in a more globalist age with comparatively tiny militaries.  Trump's hard-line, neo-Fascist supporters are a tiny group compared to the National Socialists, and they do not march in uniforms by the thousands every weekend.  Hitler in 1935--the third full year of his rule--had transformed Germany to an extent undreamed of by Trump and his acolytes in 2019.

Yet the two men and their regimes have something important in common:  they are fighting with history, and to some extent, with the same history.  Both are fighting with globalization and its consequences--and in both cases, they are losing, rather than gaining ground.   The steps they took or are taking to alter the course of history are not working--the problems that they focus on got, and are getting, worse.  For Hitler the key problem was the accumulation of military power.  For Trump the key problems are immigration and trade.

As I found 45 years ago researching my first book, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War, Hitler took a particular lesson from Germany's defeat in the First World War. The future of the world, he believed, belonged to superstates on the scale of the USSR, the British Empire, and the United States.  Germany could only take its place among this company by radically expanding its territory to the east and securing critical resources, particularly in food and energy, that it had hitherto purchased on the world market.  International trade had already fallen by 2/3 when Hitler came into power in 1933, and his regime continued to regulate it tightly, while stimulating the German economy with public works and rearmament.  That in turn stimulated demand for foodstuffs and raw materials which Germany could not produce, leading by 1935 to shortages of both.  In a temporary solution to the food problem, Germany bought very large amounts of grain from poor countries in Eastern Europe who had to accept German Reichsmarks, which had lost their value as an international currency, in payment.  By 1939 Germany was also very short of labor.  Germany was not yet ready for war with Britain, France, or the USSR, but war had become the only way to solve these resource problems and continue building up more armaments.  To win wars, the Germans successfully used the blitzkrieg strategy against Poland and France, breaking through their front lines and bringing about a French political collapse in 1940.  That in turn persuaded him to try the same strategy in 1941 against the USSR, gambling that a series of victories on the frontier would produce its political collapse as well.  When the regime survived intact into the fall, while the German forces fell short of critical supplies, the strategy had failed.  The German divisions that reached the outskirts of Moscow in early December 1941 had almost no functional tanks left.  A Soviet counterattack drove them back, and by 1942 Hitler found himself in an all-out struggle with three economically superior powers. His defeat was only a matter of time.

Donald Trump isn't interested in military expansion, but something similar is happening to him regarding his signature issues of immigration and trade.  He came into power determined to stop the flow of illegal immigrants over our sudden border, but after falling briefly, that flow has now increased and keeps increasing.  I personally believe that this is a real problem for the US, certainly politically and perhaps economically as well, and that a carefully thought out plan to reduce immigration would not be a bad thing--a plan such as Barbara Jordan's commission worked out in the 1990s.  Trump, however, is staking everything on his proposed wall and changes in our asylum procedures, and is getting nowhere.  This week his frustration boiled over, and he overruled nearly all his senior advisers (except Stephen Miller) and announced an almost immediate new tariff on Mexico to force that country to stop the flow of migrants.  This last step strikes me as about as realistic as Hitler's plan to destroy the USSR: I honestly don't know how Mexico could make this happen even its government wanted to.  This has been too much for the Republican establishment in the Senate, but that will probably only encourage Trump. I am very concerned over what Trump and Miller might decide to do after this step clearly fails, as well. 

Something parallel is happening on trade.  While Trump rails about the trade deficit and crows about the supposed effects of his tariffs, the trade deficit continues to get bigger, thanks to our debt-financed economic expansion (that increases imports) and, by some accounts, to his tariffs, which are cutting demand for some of our exports.  This does not seem to have affected Trump as profoundly as the surge in illegal immigration.  Mere numbers, which he has blown off throughout his career, do not affect him as much as more people crossing the border.  He was initially prepared to content himself, it seemed, with very limited changes to NAFTA and relatively small concessions from the Chinese.  These however the Chinese refused to provide, and he is talking about increasing tariffs on them rather than reversing course as well.  And this could again fail to do anything meaningful about the trade deficit, while disrupting more segments of the American economy, and putting him under more pressure to do something before November 2020.

The biggest danger that the Trump administration poses, in my opinion, is not authoritarian rule, but rather its attempt--in which most of the Republican Party joins, on many fronts--to govern a complex society in defiance of simple facts.  This seems especially dangerous since Trump seems unable to re-evaluate his positions or reverse course.  None of this is entirely new.  Reaganomics also defied simple facts, and ballooned the federal deficit until a Democrat, Bill Clinton, got into office and got it under control.  The Bush II administration got us into a series of disastrous wars, and allowed the mortgage boom almost to destroy the world economy, leaving Barack Obama to put it back together.  Trump's administration, however--increasingly shorn of independent thinkers--has far less grasp of reality than either of those.  That, not his unsuccessful attempts to get Robert Mueller fired before he finished his report, is the real danger that he poses  to the United States and its political traditions.