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Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Friday, February 27, 2009

Republican disintegration

For the last thirty years or so the Republican Party has been engaged in a relentless and effective propaganda campaign designed to secure general assent to certain principles. Government is bad; taxes are bad; elites are contemptible; revealed religion is the only legitimate source of truth and morality; and force is the solution to every foreign policy problem--that list comes pretty close to summing it up. They have been far more militant and far more effective that liberal Democrats, it seems to me, because the latter, coming off of nearly a half-century of power, took their fundamental ideas (especially in the economic sphere) for granted and thought that the country--at least the educated part of it--did the same. (They also forgot that the appeal of their beliefs in the country at large--especially their belief in economic justice--required concrete steps to make it a reality.) Educated Republicans either became Democrats (a very significant phenomenon in the wealthier parts of the country) or pandered with increasing shamelessness to their less educated voters. Nor should we forget that intraparty thought control has been even more rigorous. Grover Norquist, the NRA, and the anti-abortion movement have made it harder and harder for centrists and liberals to remain Republicans, ultimately creating the extraordinary situation we now face, in which just three Republican Senators and not one Republican Representative are willing to vote with President Obama as he tries to cope with the greatest crisis since the Depression or the Second World War.
Alas, this long-term campaign has had another effect: every Republican under 45--that is, every one too young to have vivid memories of any Republican before Ronald Reagan--really believes all that crap, as one Southern Senator famously said of another during a filibuster against civil rights in the 1950s. The conservative CFAC powow in Washington this week argued that the Party's problem was not too much "conservatism," but too little. The party had not run a real anti-government candidate, at least for President--that's why the people did not vote for them. Young Bobby Jindal actually believed he use Katrina as an example of the problem of too much government. Just five weeks into the Obama Administration--which is showing a rapid-response capability at least equal to that of FDR in 1933--the Republicans, echoing their ancestors of the 1930s and 1940s, are in effect arguing against any hint of "me-too" Republicanism. Support for the President, Rush Limbaugh explains daily, betrays the party's principles, which of course, in his opinion, are the only real American principles.
All this is going to have consequences. Everyone knew the stimulus package had to pass, but the same cannot be said for many of the long-term reforms the President has now announced, including health care. Republicans in the 1930s never tried to filibuster against New Deal legislation; now Republican filibusters against any significant legislation are taken for granted. Health care will be a very tough sell. The President has decided not to ask for the immediate repeal of the Bush Administration's high-bracket tax cuts, but to let them lapse in two years--a frustrating choice, but a wise one politically. Shockingly, with large parts of Mexico degenerating into anarchy with the help of assault weapons purchased over the border, Nancy Pelosi doesn't want to risk a vote on re-instituting the ban on those weapons that President Bush allowed to lapse. I believe the Republican stance will very likely lead to an almost unimaginable landslide in November 2010, but there is meanwhile a great deal of work to be done.
The conservative Republican lobby on foreign policy is not likely to remain quiet either, but oddly, it seems to me that neoconservatives are going to turn out to be rather toothless politically compared to the NRA and the anti-tax lobby. Sizing up what the opposition is doing, I checked the Weekly Standard website today and discovered a long piece on the Israeli-Palestinian question by my distinguished Harvard classmate, Elliot Abrams. Like another pardoned Iran-Contra veterans, he was immediately hired by the Bush Administration in a non-confirmable job, and spent the last eight years at the NSC. His piece was revealing: it was an attack on peace talks designed to bring about a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. President Bush, he argues, was right to argue in 2002 that such a solution depended upon change among the Palestinians--change which has not met his standards. The piece makes clear that Abrams must have opposed the whole Annapolis initiative, which was presumably a sop to Condi Rice and the State Department but which was bound to fail anyway, as indeed it did. In fact, Abrams suggests that the Palestinians have proven themselves incapable of responsible statehood and suggests junking the two-state solution altogether and restoring Gaza and the Arab West Bank to Egyptian and Jordanian control, respectively. I suspect, however, that these will remain fringe positions. On Iraq the President has compromised. The withdrawal timetable drew the ire of Kenneth Pollack in the New York Times, the Democratic foreign policy analyst who did so much to help bring about the Iraq war in the first place with his bloodcurdling 2002 book, The Threatening Storm, making it clear that Saddam was on the verge of a nuclear capability; but I cannot believe there is any large constituency that will be upset by it or even particularly disturbed if things go badly. (The danger of an Arab-Kurdish conflict seems to be increasing.) Afghanistan and Pakistan are a different matter, but they are not likely to arouse much public ire either no matter what happens.
It is not at all clear what the Administration intends for the Middle East, but an interesting straw is bending in the wind. Secretary of State Clinton has drawn blasts from several conservative American Jewish leaders for having protested Israeli delays of humanitarian aid for Gaza. It is hard to believe that that alone would have prompted cries of betrayal so quickly. Hamas and Fatah are working on creating a unity government, one which would give the Administration the opportunity to face reality with respect to Hamas, rather than to write it off (as Abrams and one of her critics do) as a cat's paw for Iran, now cast (by Benjamin Netanyahu, too) as the Nazi Germany of the twentieth century, determined to unleash a world war. President Obama seems determined to face every long-standing issue squarely, and that could apply to the Middle East, as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

From the Periphery to the Center?

Almost since I began making these posts in 2004, I have been intermittently arguing that diplomatic success, in a sense, has warped the perspective of our foreign policy leadership. For more than four hundred years, from the time of the development of quasi-modern states in Europe in the early 17th century until 1945, violent conflicts within western civilization dominated international politics. When states managed to keep the scale of these conflicts within reasonable bounds (roughly from 1661 to 1789 and from 1815 to 1914), civilization advanced; when they did not (1618-48, 1792-1815, and above all 1914-45) it declined. (This was essentially the subject of my 1990 book, Politics and War.) As early as the seventeenth century those conflicts had spread onto other continents, but those theaters were always secondary, not primary. Meanwhile, the non-Christian nations of Asia rapidly fell so far behind Western Europe as to be incapable of a serious military challenge--a trend that was finally reversed by Japan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, eventually with dramatic results.
The Second World War still looms as the most decisive event in hundreds of years because it seems to have put an end to internecine warfare within western civilization. Since nearly everyone who remembers the last great war of this type is now dead, we have all come to take this advantage for granted. We should not. Europe now has a measure of economic and political unity, including an almost completely common currency. The major European nations have been allies of the United States for 60 years. So has Japan. All of this happened, ironically, partly because of the threat posed after 1945 by the Soviet Union, the other victor in the Second World War; but the basic structure has survived the break-up of the Soviet Union, and indeed has been expanded eastward. True, some old issues are not completely dead, and could revive, particularly under the pressure of intense economic distress. I was recently informed that some Germans, the descendants of those millions [sic] expelled from territories lost to Poland in 1945, have formed an organization designed to regain their property. On the other side of the globe, the postwar generations in both Japan and China seem to be more militantly nationalistic than those who actually remembered 1945. But by and large, the modern industrialized, commercial states have stopped planning for war with one another. That is an extraordinary development.
The foreign policy leadership of great powers, however--and the United States is literally the only country in the world today whose leadership has the habits of mind of a traditional world power--tends to be full of professional dragon slayers, always in search of a new task. During the last ten years, conflicts occasioned by the encounter between western civilization (including its Israeli outpost) and the Islamic world have become the major focus of our attention, leading to two interminable, indecisive wars designed to remake parts of the Islamic world in our own image. To Muslims this looks like renewed western imperialism, and it has been extraordinarily counterproductive. The American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has made Iran and Pakistan more dangerous enemies. In Pakistan, about which we have been kidding ourselves for over a decade now, anti-western forces are getting stronger and stronger. Fred Kaplan in Slate had a good piece last week on the difficulty of securing Pakistani cooperation to end the Afghan War, but even he slid over the critical fact: that the most powerful elements of the Pakistani military and security forces want the Taliban to win in Afghanistan. All we have been able to do by opposing it is to strengthen the Taliban within Pakistan as well.
Having tried to re-introduce the kind of western political control that went out of style after 1945, we now need to pull back. President Obama is beginning his term by sending more than 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan. I am determined for the moment to remain optimistic, and to hope that this initiative will turn out to be a parallel to the Challe Offensive which France launched in Algeria in 1959, the year after General de Gaulle took office as President in France. That offensive actually was more successful than anything we can do in Afghanistan (which has at least five times the population of Algeria at that time) could possibly be--it eliminated any serious military threat from Muslim rebels, albeit without securing the loyalty of the native population. But all de Gaulle really wanted to do, it turned out, was to build a position strong enough from which to negotiate a withdrawal after negotiations with the enemy. As Kaplan notes, General Petraeus himself has stated that some Taliban elements will have to be part of a new deal. I remain hopeful that we can be pretty much out of both Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of 2011.
The danger, of course, is that we could be induced to remain by a significant new terrorist attack on American soil. That possibility returned to the foreground of my mind after reading a review of Steven Coll's new book about Osama bin Laden, One Big Unhappy Family, the by Roy Halladay, a British scholar, in The New York Review of Books.. It tended to confirm something I had been told by Arab students where I work--that Bin Laden has never really been very interested in the United States at all (and that he is much less interested in Israel, even, than we are inclined to believe.) Bin Laden wanted to establish Islamic rule over various Arab states, including Algeria, Yemen, and above all his own Saudi Arabia, but during the 1990s he had little show but a series of bloody failures for his efforts. Attacking the United States at home and inducing us to engage in the region was an attempt to change the terms of the debate within the Arab world, and thanks to our cooperation, it succeeded brilliantly. He now faces the task of turning Barack Obama into another George W. Bush.
Those few foreign policy thinkers like Andrew Bacevich and myself who believe that a calm withdrawal is in order would have little chance of actually winning a debate within the foreign policy elite. We are too accustomed to our predominant role for that. But our ally, obviously, is the suddenly critical state of the western economy, which will require all our attention and resources at home. Eighty years ago economic collapse led to the advent of expansionist regimes in Germany and Japan. There is no sign of anything like those regimes anywhere in our post-1945 alliance. Russia is another matter, but the periphery of Russia is another area where we would be well advised to scale back our objectives. During the 1930s the democracies struggled with economic decline while Germany and Japan planned for expansion. Now we seem much likelier to struggle with these problems together, using the same institutions that were built up after the Second World War.
That struggle, however, increasingly looks like a very long one. We are almost surely in for years of further economic decline no matter what the Administration can do. Our financial system is still in a state of collapse. Although no one seems to want to nationalize the banks, this seems slowly to be emerging as the only alternative. Let me pronounce myself in favor. To take over a controlling position (at bargain prices) in our major banks and slowly sell off their nearly worthless assets for whatever we can get would allow a new, sounder banking system to emerge from scratch. The older generation has had its turn; let us allow the younger ones to rebuild based upon new principles. Boomer financial geniuses, alas, have turned out to have feet of clay--and very brittle clay at that. Ten weeks ago, I told the story of the campaign the late Bill Strauss and I started in 2003 to hold down the compensation of the managers of the Harvard Endowment, who were receiving bonuses of up to $20 million annually. Our original protests, in which a number of classmates joined, focused on the moral issue of individuals enriching themselves with non-profit funds to such an amazing extent, while tuition continued to increase. Now however the crisis has turned out to be one of competence, as well as of ethics. The Harvard Endowment lost about one quarter of its value last year. (That did not prevent six managers from collecting a total of $28 million in bonuses last June.) A new story in Forbes now reveals the depths of the financial catastrophe into which modern financial practices have led it. Having lent out more than 100% of its assets, Harvard now finds itself with a large portion of them tied up in illiquid holdings (and apparently has continuing obligations of its own to private equity firms, as well.) Larry Summers himself decided to lock a huge loan, designed to finance university expansion in Allston, at what looked five or six years ago like a favorable interest rate--a decision which has led to additional huge losses. It is impossible to see how all this will sort itself out. More important, however, is the high esteem in which the managers who created this situation were held before the crash. That reflects the false principles upon which our whole financial sector has been operating.
Let us once again, however, look on the bright side. My favorite section of Politics and War dealt with the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon, when a combination of rapid political change, breakthroughs in military organization, and the opening of high positions to the middle class created more than twenty years of almost continuous European war. Concluding that section, I argued that military and political distinction were virtually the only targets for ambitious young men, and that the advent of the industrial revolution had fortunately given them something else to think about--something that would not only allow their fellow citizens to live in peace, but might actually benefit them. The financial wizards of our time--first and most brilliantly characterized by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities--have done damage that will take a generation to repair, but they could have done much worse. We can still make the twenty-first century a relatively unmilitarized one.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Some Basic Economic Data

As the stimulus package becomes law and the Treasury struggles, so far without success, to design a bail-out package that would unfreeze credit, many of us are wondering just how badly off we are and how much worse things could get. Are we nearing an ultimate nightmare, in which our national debt became so high that we could not finance it (except perhaps through inflation), leading to a substantial drop in either the real or effective value of the federal government securities into which so many of us have fled? On another site I just came across a fascinating table that provides some answers to those questions using one of the few valid measurements of human behavior, a comparative one. The table, below, shows the growth of the federal debt since 1940, both absolutely in constant dollars and as a percentage of annual GNP. It tells a very interesting story. (Simply click on the table for a larger view.]

There are some ironies in this chart which naturally struck me, since I am making through an interesting book, Tear Down This Myth, about the fanciful Reagan legacy that the Republican Party has created in the last twenty years. Several years into his Presidency, when Ronald Reagan's tax cuts and spending increases had clearly created an endless string of enormous deficits, Reagan came up with a new talking point: as long as the economy grew more rapidly than the deficit, it would eventually be paid off. The table shows that that was exactly what had been happening up until the moment that Reagan took office. The Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations all ran deficits at least as often as not, but the total national debt measured as a percentage of GNP trended steadily downward all though the High and into the first decade of the Awakening. Reagan reversed that trend. George H. W. Bush's tax increase, which made him an apostate among Republicans, halted it. Bill Clinton's tax increase reversed it. George W. Bush revived it--although to be fair, until the last year he never approached the profligacy of his inspiration the sainted Ronnie.
This graph is perhaps the most dramatic representation that I have yet seen of the shift from a High--an era of steady economic growth and fiscal responsibility, which continues even into the early stages of an Awakening--to an Unraveling, which throws civic responsibility to the winds. A graph from the previous saeculum (1857-1929, say) might actually show something fairly similar, even though the federal government was so much smaller in those days. Seldom do numbers prove Strauss and Howe so clearly.
More important, perhaps, is the question of how bad things have become. And the answer, somewhat to my own relief, is--as yet, not THAT bad. True, it is alarming to find that the debt's ratio of 65% of GDP is one that the country did not reach in the previous crisis until the early stages of the Second World War--but by the time that war was over the debt was 20% higher than GDP. We have a long way to go before we get there. How long? Let's do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. The GDP for 2008 is estimated at more that $14 trillion. The national debt is now $9 trillion, leaving us with $5 trillion more to play with before we reach 100% of the current figure for GDP (which I do not expect to increase for several years.) We could, then, afford to add another trillion a year for several years at least without finding ourselves in worse fiscal shape than we were in 1945--provided we then got things back on track.
I suspect that we might, but two things will be necessary to do so. First of all, we will have to re-establish economic growth on a stable basis, and no one yet knows how that will be done. But secondly, I am becoming increasingly convinced that by that time we will have returned to marginal tax rates in the 70-90% range, such as we had during the last High. That will be the inevitable result of repeatedly failed attempts to impose some limits on the compensation of the Wall Street financiers who have destroyed the economy. Further revelations of steroid use among athletes will also make that change politically popular. We have a long way to go to return to sanity, but once again, history shows us how that might be done.
See another new post on the Israeli elections, below.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Israeli elections

Good reporters, like good historians or good lawyers, must be able rather quickly to make sense of a complex situation. I am no authority on Israeli politics, but the results of the Israeli elections call for some analysis, and what follows comes from a brief process of self-education to try to understand what is going on in a country that, however small, seems to share so many of the dilemmas of the United States.
Alone among democracies, Israel elects is 120 Knesset deputies according to proportional representation. The threshold that entitles a party to seats is quite low, and thus the system has always encouraged fragmentation and the formation of new parties--and, I would guess, has therefore become self-sustaining. Here are the results.

Kadima (Likud splinter formed by Ariel Sharon, now under Tzipi Livni - 28 seats.

Likud (led by Benjamin Netanyahu): 27.

Yisrael Beiteinu (strongly anti-Arab headed by Avigdor Lieberman): 15.

Labor Party (founding party of Israel): 13.

Shas (orthodox religious party, moderate on foreign affairs) 11.

United Torah Judaism (ultra-orthodox, favors Greater Israel) 5

National Union (religious Zionist) 4.

United Arab List (two states, East Jerusalem as Arab capital): 4.

Hadash - (left-wing Israeli Arabs): 3

Meretz - (left-wing, social-Democratic, anti-settlement): 3

Balad - (Arab nationalist): 3

Bayit Hayehudi ("The Jewish Home"--religious Zionist) - 3.

All data on the smaller parties comes from very calm articles from Wikipedia. The situation is actually far more complex than even all this would suggest: many of the smaller parties are coalitions of even smaller ones, which constantly change.

The broad message of the results is clear: Israeli politics in the last thirty years have had a swing to the right even more pronounced than American politics from 1968 through 2000. The Jewish Left--Labor plus Meretz--is down to 16 seats out of 120. The fight to lead the government could fairly be described as between the center-right (Kadima) and the Right (Likud.) Although Kadima won one more seat, Likud at first glance seems to have more potential allies on the right. Complicating the picture, however, is the equivocal status of the new third largest party, Yisrael Beitenu, led by Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman's views on the Arab-Israeli conflict are extreme: he wants to turn some Arab towns within Israel proper over to the Palestinian authority in exchange for Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements (in one of which he lives himself), he wants Arabs to take a loyalty oath reognizing Israel as a Jewish state as a price of retaining their citizenship, and he has called for the execution of Arab political leaders who deal with Hamas. But he is not religious, and the leader of the religious party Shas--which is more interested in promoting religious observance within Israel than in the issue of Israeli borders--has tried to rule out any coalition with him. Lieberman has now met with Livni and Netanyahu and has announced that he knows whom he will support for Prime Minister, although he is keeping it a secret. However, even if Lieberman joints with Netanyahu--which seems more likely, since he was thrown out of Ehud Olmert's Kadima government--they will not, it seems, be able to form a majority right-wing coalition without the support of Shas.

Today's Haaretz (a moderate Israeli daily) reports that both the EU and the United States have privately indicated a preference for a Kadima-Likud coalition as the best hope for peace talks. The western governments have an unlikely ally, Shas, which has also indicated a preference for joining such a coalition. If Livni could bring together the Labor Party and Shas she would have 54 out of the necessary 61 seats and might enjoy the support of the Arab parties as well, but this seems impossible, since it was Shas's refusal to cooperate with Livni that forced her to call the elections in the first place. Thus to this amateur observer, it seems the first alternative to be explored will indeed be the Kadima-Likud-Shas coalition--but it could easily come apart over the most fundamental issue, the identity of the new Prime Minister. Livni will demand the post on the grounds that Kadima won (barely) the most seats, but Netanyahu can claim with some justice that he stands closer to the center of such a coalition. The obvious if less likely alternative is a coalition of the Right, including Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Shas, but as we have seen, that will require the burying of some big hatchets.
The low Arab representation is rather striking. Arabs now make up almost 20% of the population of Israel proper (not including the West Bank or Gaza), but their parties elected just 10 members of the Knesset, less tha 8% of the total. Apparently apathy among Arab voters remains high, and some Christian Arabs, in particular, vote for Jewish. Twenty years ago the Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote a book about the history of Zionism, The Siege.. In the initial parts of the boo he clearly identified the Jews with the Irish in their own struggle against British rule, but in the latter parts, he predicted that Israeli Arabs would become an important and disruptive force inside the always-divided Knesset in the same way that Irish MPs had between 1830 and 1922 in the House of Commons. That has not happened.
Netanyahu has argued that no peace deal is possible and that Israel should continue expanding West Bank settlements. He seems sure to be a critical figure in any new government and thus there will be no progress towards the peace envisioned in the Road Map. In any case, the political and institutional mechanisms favoring the expansion of settlements seem to be irresistible--growing settlements have been the hardy perennial of Israeli politics for decades now, regardless of what party was in power. On the other side, with Hamas so powerful among the Palestinians, a real peace seems impossible anyway. Hamas has expressed some interest in a long-term truce that would not extend some de facto, but not de jure, recognition to Israel, but no new Israeli government seems to share it. Violence will continue. In my opinion, Israel's own interests, and the world's, would be served by trying to keep that violence at the lowest possible level and giving up the failed idea that disproportionate reaction to Arab provocation holds out any hope of a solution. But Israel, like the United States, is moving towards a political realignment and a Fourth Turning. Such eras in national life usually favor radical solutions, whether good or bad. Barack Obama is trying to avoid such an outcome in the United States. His Israeli and Palestinian counterparts have not yet emerged.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

2009 and 1933

Before looking at the most important historical parallel to the events of the day, some comments on the stimulus package are in order. While a package of at least the $8-900 billion now being proposed is undoubtedly necessary, we can all agree that we should think carefully about where it is going to go. In my opinion the President, rather than touting it as a “recovery” measure, should say bluntly that we need this bill to prevent things from getting much, much worse. And in particular the Democrats should stick to their plans for massive aid to state state and local governments, most of whom cannot borrow to meet budget deficits. With the private sector collapsing, we need to keep the public sector employed. We do not need cuts in education, police forces, or firefighters at this time. I have more mixed feelings about putting more money into health care, because any meaningful reform, which remains a high priority, will involve spending a lot less on health care, not more. To re-orient the health care sector towards providing the cheapest care, rather than the most profitable, will be a gigantic and completely unprecedented task. The President should use this moment in our history as Lincoln and Roosevelt did—to drive home the message that in a modern society, which the United States would presumably like to remain, government is a necessity rather than a luxury we can do without.

Unfortunately, the President must deal with this situation face to face with the most partisan era, literally, in the history of American politics. During the 1990s Newt Gingrich taught the House Republicans that success depended on absolute party discipline and total obstructionism towards anything a Democratic Administration wanted to do. The loss of 49 House seats—nearly ¼ of their total—in the last two Congressional elections has not changed their minds; indeed the almost complete elimination of Republicans from the Northeast has made the leadership’s life easier. Not one Republican, of course, voted for the stimulus package.

The situation in the Senate is not quite so monolithic, but it is equally unprecedented. The filibuster originated in the Senate as a white southern weapon against civil rights legislation. At no time from 1981 to 1986 or from 1994 through 2006, when the Republicans had a Senate majority, did the Democratic minority try routinely to use the filibuster to require 60 votes to pass any major piece of legislation, although they occasionally did so with respect to judicial appointments. But as soon as the Democrats regained a narrow majority in 2007 this became the Republican SOP. Meanwhile, the total of Republican domestic moderates has apparently shrunk to 3: Susan Collins and Olympia Snow of Maine, both Boomers, and the venerable Silent Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Those three now are just as critical to the passage of any legislation in the 100-person Senate as Justice Anthony Kennedy is to the Supreme Court.

Nothing—literally nothing—like this situation has ever arisen in American politics before. The run-up to the Civil War was marked, not by a complete polarization between the two major parties, but by a split within the Democratic Party between northern moderates and southern slaveholding fire-eaters. Had the war been delayed another ten years, perhaps, Republicans would have entirely taken over the North, but it was not, and Democrats sat in Congress, mostly supporting the war, throughout the conflict, and even gained heavily in the Congressional elections of 1862. Lincoln even chose a Tennessee War Democrat, Andrew Johnson, for his Vice President in 1864, with disastrous long-term consequences.

The situation in 1933 was even more different. The long-term background to Depression politics was the struggle between Progressives on the one hand and free-marketeers like the ones we know so well on th other, and that struggle had been non-partisan from the beginning. Both parties included Progressives and Conservatives, and the New Deal was a bipartisan enterprise from the beginning. Roosevelt to be sure was more fortunate than Obama: the Democrats gained 97 House seats in 1932, and he began with an effective majority of 318-117, and 60-36 in the House. Yet no major New Deal legislation passed without significant Republican support A few minutes of research into the more important votes of the 1933 Congress tell the tale. Bills to legalize beer while the Prohibition amendment was repealed passed the House 316-97 with 73 Republicans in favor, and 43-30 in the Senate with 10. (That would be equivalent to securing between ¼ and ½ of Republican votes for the liberal position on a social issue today.) The Agricultural Adjustment Act, revolutionizing the farm economy, passed with the support of 48 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the Senate, and 32 Republicans and 272 Democrats in the House. The great Tennessee Valley Authority bill—long advocated by Republican George Norris—appealed mostly to agrarian southern Democrats, but it still got 17 Republican votes in the House and several in the Senate. 30 House Republicans voted with 267 Democrats and others to devalue the dollar; 10 Republican Senators joined 46 Democrats to pass the radical National industrial Recovery Act. The Glass-Steagall Banking Act—repealed, under Bill Clinton, with disastrous results—passed the House b a vote of 262-19.

The striking contrast today reflects the appalling extent to which a coalition of tax-cutters, saber-rattlers and race-baiters has taken over the Republican Party. That point emerged clearly last week, when two Republican Congressman had the temerity to echo the President’s criticism of the party’s propaganda minister, Rush Limbaugh, only to telephone him to beg for forgiveness on the air within twenty-four hours. It also, of course, reflects the economic differences between 2009 and 1933: politically we are at a point similar to 1933, but economically we are closer to the situation of 1930 or so. On the one hand, things may have to get worse before Republicans come to their senses; on the other, the bulk of the Republican Party, now largely confined to the poorest and worst-educated parts of the country, is far more in need of enlightenment than it was then.

What Republican rule has meant becomes apparent from an amazing New Yorker piece this week by George Packer, who is making a career chronicling the devastation wrought by conservative folly, first in Iraq, last fall in rural Ohio, and now, in Florida. The piece unfortunately cannot be read on line except by subscribers, but a similar one appears in today’s New York Times. Population growth, home-building, and tourism have fueled the Florida economy for 40-50 years. The cheap money of the last ten years added another dimension—thousands of Floridians became real-estate speculators, living off of flipped properties and home equity loans. They have now been wiped out, and even the migration into the state has stopped. Meanwhile, that Sunbelt paradise, the political playground of another Bush, as a constitution forbidding an income tax. This is the paradise into which Gingrich and his ilk hoped to lead us. It depended on wooing Americans from more productive states, or on forcing them to move by de-industrializing. How all this happened could someday make a fascinating story for a new generation of historians; meanwhile, we must try to climb out. It will take a long time.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Back to the Awakening

Early last week I spotted Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the NewHollywood, by Mark Harris, which appeared last year. I have never met Harris, but he is, like the late Randy Shilts, a journalist who turns out to be a natural historian, one equally at home with interviews and with documentary research. He does not, sadly, seem to have any awareness of the works of Strauss and Howe, but to those of us who do, that only makes his work more valuable, because he has confirmed the nature of the Awakening they describe—the real nature of the “sixties”, but which actually lasted from about 1965 to 1984 or so—without exactly understanding what he is doing. It’s a wonderful read and a wonderful book, one which I can’t recommend too highly.
The five movies which he discusses were the best picture nominees for the 1968 Oscars: The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, and Dr. Doolittle. The decision to include the last, however forgettable it was, was a brilliant one, because Doolittle of all those movies was the one its studio counted on to be a hit. Movie fans forget that the biggest hits of the mid-1960s were musicals—including The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins—and then as now, studios knew how to take a good thing and run it into the ground. Doolittle became the reductio ad absurdum of the old genre; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was and In the Heat of the Night were relatively traditional “message” pictures which endures largely because of their extraordinary casts; and the other two began the greatest era in the history of American film, making the works of Coppola and Spielberg and Scorsese and Woody Allen and Lucas and many more possible.
Harris’s book goes into enormous detail about the gestation of all these projects, and thus begins around 1962, when a few oddball Americans were falling in love with the French New Wave. Robert Benton and David Newman, the original screenwriters, conceived of Bonnie and Clyde as a kind of 1930s Breathless, and actually courted both Truffaut and Godard as possible directors. And although Harris never analyzes the shift from one world to another, he describes it in a million ways. Thus, because Warren Beatty was dark, handsome, and rather sweet, Hollywood had jumped on him as a major leading man after he made Splendor in the Grass with Natalie Wood, while Dustin Hoffman—almost the same age—was desperately trying and failing to break into Broadway despite the disadvantages of short stature and a rather ordinary face. (Hoffman’s early career actually sounds a lot like that of Michael Dorsey, the character he played about 15 years later in Tootsie.) Censorship was an enormous factor in Hollywood films, and Harris follows its collapse beginning in the mid 1960s, beginning with the appearance of the first naked female breasts in an American movie in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, and escalating to include full frontal nudity two years later in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Hollywood’s image of America was white, conservative, and unthreatening, and violence was officially sanctioned, sanitized, and generally culminating in the triumph of truth, justice, and the American way. Studio heads like Jack Warner obviously remembered the Depression, but they had left its movies behind along with all of its bitter memories. When Warner finally saw the first cut of Bonnie and Clyde he recognized its debt to the gangster pictures of the thirties—and wrote it off for that very reason.
On the day after Labor Day in 1967 I was visiting a college friend in Los Angeles, and we picked up two blind dates with whom we were going to Disneyland, which I had never seen. As we set out for Anaheim, however, we actually heard an announcement on the radio that summer hours were over and the park had closed at 6:00 PM. A movie was the obvious alternative, and it turned out be a new one I had never heard of—Bonnie and Clyde. The theater was full and the whole audience was blown away—myself included. The script, the characters, the gun battles and the movie were out of control; the colors were as vivid as the emotional content. The gang was pathetic, but human. The Depression-dominated world they were living in was a Darwinian jungle (a nice contrast, in that respect, to Dr. Doolittle.) I realized that I had never seen anything like it.
What was more remarkable, as Harris details at length, was the reaction to the movie. Much of the older generation regarded it as a disgrace because they thought it idealized criminals. Like Jack Warner, they had survived the Depression as respectable adults and did not want to revisit those who had not. But the mindless, terrifying violence of the movie inevitably reminded much of the younger generation of the Vietnam War, which was also undermining the truths upon which our parents had brought us up. The movie vividly portrayed aspects of human life which society had been trying to forget, and that was something that many could not forgive. That did not apply only to the older generation. When the movie came to Boston my friend and I went again along with his roommate, the scion of a distinguished New York media family, who ranted on the way home that he had been rooting for Bonnie and Clyde to be killed. And when it finally opened in Harvard Square a few months later and I went for a third time, some lonely soul in the balcony actually began to clap after their climactic death—and the rest of the theater began to rumble like a lynch mob. The era in which spontaneous violence—physical and emotional—could be entirely swept under the rug was over.
The Graduate and its reception make an even more interesting story because even Mike Nichols, its director, did not seem to have realized what he had done. The casting of Hoffman (and of Ben’s parents) had changed the novel upon which the book was based in one fundamental respect: while Ben had originally been a WASP prince, now the family seemed to be assimilated Jews. Benjamin, Nichols recalled later, seemed to be an outsider in a strange world, and Nichols decided that he represented the director’s own struggles as a Jew. That however had nothing to do with the mass appeal of the movie. Benjamin, a Boomer by the time the movie appeared, has spent 22 years perfectly playing the part his parents have written for him. They think nothing either of giving him a coming-home party that does not include a single person of his own age, or of suggesting whom he might take out on a date. (Such parents were not uncommon in those days, either.) But like his whole generation, male and female, Benjamin was suddenly uncomfortably aware that he had had nothing to do with writing that script and had no idea why he was reading his lines. (The quasi-incestuous nature of his affair with Mrs. Robinson is another aspect of this problem—even his sexuality, it seems, belongs to the older generation—but Harris leaves that one alone.) That was how millions of actual Boomers felt at that moment, all the more so since the script also called for many of them to go off to Vietnam. That was why the movie immediately became iconic.
In the last three centuries our civilization has achieved an extraordinarily complex economic and social state, one which has allowed human population to expand by several orders of magnitude. To make the institutions upon which we rely work requires a cooperative spirit, the use of rational inquiry, and the capacity for self-restraint. Those are the virtues that make institutions go; they were also the virtues of the GI generation and will probably become the defining characteristics of today’s Millennials. But those virtues are often at war with the intensity of emotion that makes life worth living, and the tragic spirit that can alone make it bearable. The conflict between those two aspects of our personalities is one of the most fundamental in human nature, and it drives the generational and historical cycle about which I have written so much here. Forty years ago we were at an emotional turning point; today we are at an institutional one. They are equally necessary, but the Awakening, to me, will always be the greatest time to be alive. Harris has left a critical piece of it for the ages.

(See the other post from last Monday evening, below.)