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Saturday, August 02, 2008

A few updates

About a year and a half ago, after the issuance of the Iraqi study group report, I pronounced the political epitaph of the Silent Generation. That was, I can now see, a bit premature. That bipartisan group was composed almost entirely of members of the generation just old enough to remember V-J day, and it had produced a typical set of sensible, moderate proposals for a large-scale withdrawal from Iraq. The Bush Administration ignored it. The surge--which was intially very costly in lives and has remained very costly in money and strain on the military--has quieted things down in Iraq for the moment, but the withdrawal they called for seems clearly to be coming, and we don't know what will come next. Meanwhile, the Silents have produced a presidential candidate, John McCain, although I personally do not feel his prospects look that bright. But they have continued to exercise a considerable influence through their last bastion of authority, the Democratic leadership in the Congress. Whether that is a good thing I am not sure.
Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Charles Rangle, Barney Frank, Joe Biden, Jay Rockefeller, and the rest of the 65-and-over Democrats who now run the House and Senate have opted for the most responsible government possible. They have refused to consider the impeachment of the President or Vice President--perhaps a sensible decision given the imminence of the election, but one which nonetheless has the effect of excusing a great deal. They refused to cut off funding for the war in Iraq, postponing the day of reckoning into the next Administration. And, faced with serious domestic problems, they have often settled for the best bill they could get--which means a bill that some Republicans will support, largely out of fear of the consequences this November. Early this year they passed the stimulus package the President asked for, handing billions of dollars to Americans who really did not need them rather than combining job creation with doing something about our eroding infrastructure. Just last week, they passed a voluntary mortgage refinancing bill which, as a well-informed observer assured me on NPR, will have absolutely no effect on what is going on.
No one has been more critical of Boomer political excess than I, and my philosophy of government is probably pretty close to the leadership's in normal times--but I am not sure whether this has been a good thing or not. What is interesting is that the more accommodating spirit of the Democrats has done less than nothing--literally--to raise the esteem in which the public holds the Congress. Their ratings are at an all-time low, far lower than the PResident's. That will be a tremendous challenge for the next President: the public seems no longer to believe that legislation can really benefit it--and not without reason. The Democratic leadership hasn't staked out an alternative set of dometic policies--they have left that to the next President. In the 1930s and again in the 1950s and early 1960s the Congress was full of progressives of both parties with ambitious, specific agendas--to assure the rights of labor, to build infrastructure, to regulate markets, to provide a safety net, and to assure civil rights for black Americans. It is not clear that there is a comparable group today. Meanwhile, the cooperative spirit is not winning too many friends as we enter into a new era of crisis.
All this will put a truly gigantic burden upon Barack Obama if he is elected. He will need Congressional allies with ideals and determination to achieve anything in the areas of health care or the economy or global warming. And as the economic crisis worsens, the country will face a truly unprecedented task: climbing out of a deep recession after the de-industrialization of America, which has proceeded apace in the seven years since the last serious recession. We will indeed find ourselves in a completely new era.
Meanwhile, on another generational front, I finally got around to watching my Netflix copy of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, which had been sitting on my bureau for a couple of months. I was deeply disappointed and frankly, had to wonder how much better a Gore presidency would have turned out than a Bush one. The thrust of his presentation may well be correct, and it would in any case be a great thing to reduce fossil fuel consumption drastically, but his tone, throughout, exemplified the worst of his generation. Again and again he made clear that he was one of the only people who understood that the fate of the earth was at stake thanks to the transgressions of lesser mortals. The movie also looked suspiciously like a campaign document (although the campaign did take place), since a biography of the former Vice President was intercut with his presentation. Gore would not, I think, have gone to war in Iraq, and the country would have been in better fiscal health today, but I doubt he would have been able to accomplish too much. Meanwhile, yet another Boomer, Hillary Clinton, has made a very graceful exit from the center of affairs, and I for one would like to thank her.


James R MacLean said...

Just a thought:

The Democratic Party remains, as it has for to centuries, a bi-sectional party. The geographic composition of the sections has fragmented, so that the former "South" now encircles most large metropolitan areas, in all states, and the "North" is the metropolitan center. This creates a balance between the pro-industry section (the Democratic Party, esp. since 1936) and the extractive section (the Republican Party, esp. since 1964).

Prior to the Civil War, and for almost a century afterwards, the Republicans were the majority party outside of the South, and stood for industry, hence, protectionism and public works. The Democrats in the "North" were the labor opposition, and in the South they were the party of the oligarchy; there was no opposition in the South.

The trend towards political consolidation of the managerial class in control of Usonian industry, and the post-Depression surge in labor-oriented politics, led to a Democratic Party that favored industry (minus the protectionism) and a Republican Party that was now wholly aligned with extraction, finance, and industrial farming.

Framed in this way, we can say that the parties aren't ideological, but sectional. The GOP has become ideological as a result of its conquest by the Conservative Movement. Both paleoconservatives and liberal Republicans have been purged. Meanwhile, because the Democratic-Republican struggle is sectional (as it were, analogous to a cold war between two superpowers), a rightward shift in one section tends to lead to a rightward shift in the other.

James R MacLean said...

So now, the point I wanted to make:

The Democratic Party, as a sectional (not ideological) party, cannot be ideologically cohesive. The Republican Party has become cohesive as a result of an exogenous force, viz., the Conservative Movement. It is likely to face some catastrophic collapse in the future, owing to the fact that alternative paths along which it might evolve in the future have been eliminated. A non-neocon post-CM Republican Party has no potential embryo form; there's no room in the GOP for an alternative strategy of governance should the current one be decisively defeated politically.

In the meantime, however, unanimity in the Republican Party ranks acts as a force multiplier. It's like a small object, all of whose atoms have the same positive charge.

Impeachment of the president would be a crucial blow to the complex structure of party rule that the GOP set up in the 1980's; it would, however, require a vote in the House (by members invulnerable to executive blackmail) and a vote in the Senate, requiring many defections among Republicans. As we all know, Republicans don't defect; they have no incentive to do so. Democrats don't have an analogue to the CM, so they defect all the time.

A failed attempt to impeach would merely reinforce the appearance of Republican invulnerability and render Congress paralyzed. So defeat, in my view, would be a certainty and there would be dire consequences.

Anonymous said...

I have a hard time figuring out why you're so hard on Boomers in general. The progressive wing has never been in charge of society or politics and the two Boomer presidents got elected early only because the Silents had so little to offer. The era of cultural warfare (the Unraveling) was initiated and primarily conducted by the rightwing Silents with the help of younger, Boomer reactionaries (not to mention one rightwing GI generation elder). Given the times, a host of moderate to liberal to radical forces (Silent and Boomer) were drawn into struggle. But how, from all that, you deduce blame for Boomers, in general, is way beyond me.

Moreover, your steady critique ends up ignoring the fundamentally crucial role that Boomers, as elders, must play in the emerging Crisis era. It is up to Boomers to set the political agenda for these tense and dangerous times. The first thing that must be done is an all-out defeat of the social conservative/neocon agenda that managed to seize control (backed by Big Oil's dovetailing interests in a war in Iraq) as the Unraveling began to come to a close after 9/11. It is time for the progressive wing of the Boomers to assert themselves, as was last done during the mostly correct critique we raised in the Sixties. To assert now, however, means taking full leadership of society, something that was not possible when we were young.

Rather than bemoaning culture warfare (as though it were evenhanded when, in fact, it was heavy-handed from the right), you should point out the last great role left for our generation. We need to settle accounts with the ideological rightwing of our generation by uniting the country (and the world) in a concerted effort to address the unresolved issues we first asserted in our youth (peaceful conflict resolution, anti-imperialism, women's liberation, social equality and environmental preservation).

Steve Clark

Anonymous said...


I think you have misunderstood Gore.

He was not an early enthusiast of making that documentary. Nor did he control the content. The biographical stuff was the film maker's idea (the movie was bankrolled by Jeff Skoll, a Canadian who was one of the first employees of EBay and has produced several other films including 'Charlie Wilson's War').

Gore genuinely believes what he is saying. What's more, the scientific evidence that has piled up since that movie came out suggests Gore has, in the film, underestimated the dangers of global warming, rather than overestimating them.

What you see in that film is a man trying to save the planet, and the human race (or at least Western Civilisation). Read James Lovelock (or if you prefer fiction, JG Ballard's 'The Drowned World' and Cormac Macarthy's 'The Road') for an idea of how bad it could get.

Would Gore have been able to do something about global warming as president? Unclear. Congress was not on his side, and there wouldn't have been Al Gore touring the world, giving that talk. Hundreds of hours of thankless travel, speaking to groups of students and young people.

But we know from the history of our own Judeo-Christian religion, that a voice crying in the wilderness can change a world. The Wesley brothers did it, bringing modern protestantism to the English-speaking world.

If we do manage to tackle global warming before it is too late, then a big part of that will have been Al Gore.

Maybe America had to have this waltz with neoconservatism and with Bush and paleo-Republicanism, to wake up and realise what it had gotten itself into. The Clintons weren't wrong when they spoke of a vast right-wing conspiracy, enough people have 'come clean' since then to reveal that, yes, indeed, there was such a conspiracy.

But on the planetary climate, we have wasted 8 vital years. We may not have another 8 at least in the sense that the necessary sacrifices grow exponentially with the delay in action.

The Gore you see in that movie is the real mccoy. Somewhat stiff, yes, but a man who very early on in his career (how many Vice Presidential candidates have written a book about environmental issues?) committed himself to understanding about the environment. It is his ruling passion as a human being. It is for what his God made him.

For a televisual generation, it is their 'Silent Spring'.

Years of observing and dealing with cynical politicians has meant that you miss a sincere one when you see one.