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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

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Sunday, December 26, 2010


Relaxing in the mist of the holiday, I picked up the latest issue of one of my favorite journals, Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, which was formed about twenty years ago to fight emerging trends in the Humanities. I joined in the early 1990s and have looked forward to the arrival of the quarterly ever since. I am not altogether happy with the direction the organization has taken. It originally included scholars of all political persuasions, including one of our most distinguished Marxist historians, Eugene Genovese, but its tone and, I would imagine, its membership have become more and more conservative over the years, and the current issue, on popular culture, includes a number of articles by associates of right wing think tanks. Yet there are still leftish members like myself, and the journal remains valuable. This quarter's lead article by Lawrence M. Mead, "The Other Danger. . .. Scholasticism in Academic Research," develops a thought I have often had myself, that today's humanities departments increasingly resemble medieval universities and monasteries, endlessly rehashing theoretical controversies of no interest to anyone outside the academy, and specializing far too narrowly to develop any insights of general use. That I must admit had some personal resonance as the year drew to a close. My idea of a historian involves the broadest possible knowledge of at least several centuries of the past, which in turn allows one to put any given era in a broader context and draw some meaningful conclusions about its particular characteristics that intelligent lay people will find intersting. No one knows better than myself that that is not a marketable skill in today's American universities.

But I was even more struck by "A Counter-curriculum for the pop culture classroom" by Thomas Bertonneau, a professor of English currently visiting at the State University of New York at Oswego. The article is not an easy read, and Bertonneau is considerably more conservative than I am in certain respects, but it nonetheless touched on the critical question to which I alluded in my last post, namely, the whole question of self-restraint or regulation of various spheres of human life. (Until the end of the calendar year--in other words, for another five days--the whole journal, apparently, is available on line here.

As Bertonneau explains it, he frequently teaches the popular culture of the past as an antidote to the popular culture of the present. He is quite acute and rather scathing about the latter, which, he emphasizes, is above all a for-profit venture. Today's popular music and film appeal to the rawest senses. They are not participatory--it is almost impossible to sing much of today's popular music on one's own. They are "segmented" demographically, that is, designed to appeal to relatively narrow slices of the population, thus making it impossible for them to create real national discourse. And they are not designed to last. To make these points, Bertonneau explains, he balances them with discussions of two critical episodes from Genesis: Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Cain's murder of Abel. And it occurred to me that those two foundational tales have a great deal with the paradox with which I have been struggling, even though I interpret the first of them very differently from him.

Bertonneau ascribes Eve's (and then Adam's) decision to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree to "resentment," a term which he does not develop sufficiently in the article, but which seems to imply resentment of authority in general. As veteran readers know, my own reading of the tale combines the psychoanalyst Alice Miller with Strauss and Howe. Bertonneau does not mention exactly what the tree is, namely, the tree of good and evil, the judgment of which god, like so many parents, wants to reserve for himself. The lord of the Old Testament is, generationally speaking, a Hero, who has created this beautiful new world (in the same way that the GI generation created the Disneyland world that Frank Rich extolled this morning) and given it to his children on the sole condition that they adopt his view of good and evil. But this is exactly what Adam and Eve refuse to do--they have reached the age when they expect their own values to count, an inevitable stage, especially for Prophet generations born after a crisis. Alice Miller has added that the Lord virtually guaranteed that they would eat the fruit of the tree by forbidding it, since children are always most curious about the things that their parents fear the most. Bertonneau seems to prefer the sexual misreading of the episode that has been so popular over the ages, because he notes that having disobeyed one rule, they have to adopt another, the rule against nakedness. I see this as more of a coincidence: Adam and Eve have become aware of the sexual power of their bodies at the same moment that they have also decided to start making their own judgments. And I have always felt the myth would be truer to life ifthey themselves had decided to leave the Garden, their "parent's" miraculous achievement which to them has become commonplace if only because it is all that they have ever known.

In any event, however, the myth of the Garden has been used over several millennia to try to restrict sexual behavior, and that enterprise was probably most successful in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which, coincidentally or not, also represented the greatest age of rationalism that the world has ever known. Because sex is so powerful it is also frightening, and taboos have surrounded it at least since the time of the Old Testament, including taboos against incest, adultery, sex before marriage, and homosexuality. Male fear of feminine sexual power, I would certainly agree, has led to much more extensive taboos as well, including those confining women to the home and, even in the 21st century, compelling them to cover their bodies and their faces. About half a century ago those taboos began to come apart in western society, with tremendous consequences. Premarital sex has become normal, divorce now ends roughly half of all marriages, women function equally in the workplace, pornography is readily available, and just week homosexuals were formally accepted into the American military, virtually completing their march towards recognition as full citizens. The taboo against adultery has not fallen, however, and indeed in some respects it has become stronger, at least in the United States, where it is no longer tolerated among political leaders, a development I have always found to be lamentable. But even though the Republican Party's coalition has included opponents of all these trends, there is no real evidence that any of them are going to be reversed, and despite the weakening of family life they have helped to produce by de-coupling sex from marriage, I must still regard them, on the whole, as a good thing.

Coincidentally enough, last week I discussed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which remains for me the best single movie about the Awakening of the 1960s and 1970s, with my elective class at the War College. Why, I asked, was McMurphy in prison and then in the mental hospital? "Fighting and fucking," one student replied, echoing exactly what McMurphy himself told the head of the hospital. Those were two of the instincts, we all agreed, that had to be restrained at least to some extent in order for civilization to function. Another student brought up the instinct of greed, against which the taboos, it seems to me, have historically been weaker. And violence and greed, it seems to me, are the key issues in Bertonneau's second example from Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy--jealousy that God, who is still playing the paternal role even to the second generation, preferred Abel's offerings to his own. Abel was greedy--greedy for recognition--and God told him to accept his disappointment and not to give in to the temptation of sin. But give in Cain did, and murdered Abel.

For the last 35 years no passion has so inflamed American politics as the jealousy of the wealthy towards the demands of the government, which has now given lower tax rates the status of holy writ. And today's Wall Street robber barons have not had to resort to violence, at least within the United States, to satisfy their greed--not, at least, the kind of violence that would land them in jail. Yet they have shown nearly as little concern for their fellow citizens as Abel, calculatedly destroying the economy which our parents had built up and laying waste to whole regions of the United States with successive recessions, each one leaving fewer jobs behind, after "recovery," than the last. It was the genius of the Missionary generation, led by FDR, to realize that modern society demanded restraints upon greed to establish a minimum of economic justice. My generation has abandoned those restraints at least as dramatically as it has those upon sexual behavior. The four Boomer justices who (along with Silent Anthony Kennedy) struck down a century's worth of campaign finance law have accelerated that process even further. Historically taxes have grown higher and the government larger during the great crises of American life--but George W. Bush managed to reverse even that trend while unleashing two new wars, and left the federal government unable to respond effectively to the latest economic crisis.

There is another tragic element of this double transformation of American life. I cannot shake the believe that it was because our parents and grandparents had done such a fine job of dealing with political and economic questions that our generation felt free to devote itself to the pursuit of sexual freedom, gender equity, and the rest. While I would not go so far as to describe those parts of life as luxuries, their enjoyment does depend upon the maintenance of a just legal order, the provision of essential circumstances, and a minimum of economic opportunity. Those were exactly the things that our parents had provided and therefore exactly the things that Boomers took for granted and assumed would always take care of themselves. The joy in the rediscovery of the emotions in the late 1960s and 1970s was all the greater because grown-ups still ruled politics and the economy (and ruled them courageously and effectively enough actually to remove a President from office for violating the law.) Our children and grandchildren, alas, may learn the hard way about the nature of societies that lack those essential protections.

True progress would consist of combining greater emotional and sexual freedom with civic spirit and a measure of economic justice. This is not impossible--a good deal of Europe enjoys that combination right now. Such a combination could also restore the faith in western civilization that has been crumbling in much of the world. It is a worthy project indeed--but one which, I am sorry to say, is unlikely to be carried out here in the United States by the generations alive today. The unborn will have great work to do.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Two possibilities for 2011

It was last July 4 that I speculated for the first time that George W. Bush had been the crisis President of our era, that his Administration had shaped our domestic and foreign policies for some time to come, and that the United States was well launched into a new Gilded Age that would last for at least twenty years. That prediction, it seems to me, looks awfully good in light of the tax cut deal. Barack Obama has given up any ideas he ever entertained of leading a liberal resurgence and reviving the spirit of the New Deal. Mainstream commentators are now lauding him as a compromiser because he has pre-emptively given in to the new Republican Congressional minority. More alarmingly, he has agreed to an outrageous, completely unnecessary 2% cut in the social security payroll tax, whose genesis remains a complete mystery to me, but which will serve as an effective foot in the door for Republican efforts to gut the program. In foreign policy he remains committed to the war in Afghanistan. He may, before this weekend is out, have salvaged two victories: the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (see yesterday's post), and the ratification of the START Treaty with Russia. But in general, he seems to have stepped into the role of his fellow Nomad Dwight Eisenhower--the President from the weaker party of his era who enjoyed control of the Congress for only two years, and who rapidly abandoned any idea of reversing the changes inaugurated by the stronger party during the previous decade or more. Obama did, of course, pass one major reform, but I think the odds are about even now that the Supreme Court will rule it unconstitutional by a 5-4 vote within two years. He obviously hopes to ride this new horse into a second term in the White House, and he may well succeed.

There are, however, two threats to this picture of emerging consensus. Obama has nothing to fear from progressives like myself, who, especially where foreign policy is concerned, matter only in primaries. We have been decimated in Congress and are not restoring our ranks, and we have no large body of organized allies among the people. He does, however, have to deal with the militant, Tea Party Republican right, who are determined to seize the political initiative. More importantly, we still do not know if the country can survive in the state to which it has evolved, especially economically, over the last few decades--the state which he and his advisers have now accepted as the new normal.

The most interesting reading I did last week was this article in The New Yorker about Congressman John Boehner and the new Republican minority. The first half of the article, about Boehner himself, is the less interesting part, because he is not a very interesting man--he is almost a caricature in miniature of his fellow Ohioan (and fellow Prophet, generationally), George Babbitt, created more than 80 years ago by Sinclair Lewis. The more interesting parts come at the end, which turns to three of Boehner's leading lieutenants, all Gen Xers: Patrick McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor. (It's an interesting symptom of the changes in American political life that the House Republican leadership consists of three Catholics and a Jew; WASPS, except in the South, are more likely to be Democrats.) These men are true revolutionaries dedicated to gutting federal and state government. Ryan wants to turn Medicare into a voucher system allowing seniors to buy private insurance--a catastrophic idea that would kick in just as his own Generation X began to retire. They do not trust Boehner and intend to hold his feet to the conservative fire in months to come. It was for their benefit, I am sure, that Boehner explicitly rejected the word "compromise" in his interview with Leslie Stahl. Developments yesterday suggest that a government shutdown is only months away.

I mentioned a week or two ago that there seemed to be a split emerging between establishment Republicans in the Senate and the new House. When every Senate Republican sent a letter announcing that they would oppose any new legislation in the Senate until the Bush tax cuts were extended in toto, they added that they also would demand a new budget that would carry the federal government well into next year. That interesting proposal appeared to be a hedge against an early, Tea-Party led confrontation with the White House, reminiscent of the 1995 government shutdown from which Bill Clinton emerged the victor. The Senate Republicans, however, apparently lost their nerve. Yesterday they triumphantly blocked a budget bill that would have funded much of the government through the current fiscal year. The old Congress should of course have taken care of the budget months ago, but Republican obstructionism made that impossible. Now the Senate Republicans say the new House has to be heard from--and it will be. We will have to wait and see how far they want to go, and what kind of "compromise" Barack Obama will have to give in to to pass a budget. Given his performance this month, when he still had considerable bargaining power, I am not optimistic about where he might make a stand

Deficit cutting, an end to stimulus programs, and an end to serious regulatory projects will leave the economy more or less where it is. When unemployment benefits run out, as they almost surely will, misery will become more widespread. Meanwhile, Republicans at the state and local level, especially in red states, will be poushing a variety of anti-government and theocratic projects. Rick Scott in Florida is preparing a statewide school voucher plan, and the Governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have already killed big high-speed rail projects in the midst of the worst unemployment since the Depression. That is the potentially fatal flaw in Republican plans: they will do nothing for the country, and very little for the deficit. The question is whether they can continue successfully to blame Obama and the Democrats for anything that goes wrong--and whether, as seems most unlikely, the Demcoratic Party can now reverse course and start building a genuine left-wing following.

"A special Providence," Bismarck once remarked, "looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America." Until now we have had enough friends on Olympus to avoid the worst, but our luck may have run out. I hate to say this, but a new bipartisan consensus that turns its back on government intervention to create jobs and continues to feed our leading corporate beasts may actually be the best alternative we can hope for for the time being. I really have no idea where further economic decline and budgetary chaos might lead us. Our political class, however, seems as feckless, money-beholden and irresponsible as it did in the decades after the Civil War. Liberals will rejoice if Don't Ask, Don't Tell is repealed today, and that would remove an important obstacle to full participation in American life. Alas, the opening of opportunity to women, minorities and gays has been accompanied by an increase in economic inequality, a steady collapse of government services, and the rise of new and very powerful institutions who do little or nothing for the public at large. Eventually I shall be exploring the question of whether those changes, in some bizarre way, actually go together.

P.S. The repeal is how history and it is a great day in America, and especially within the American military. An institution that relies on integrity cannot but be hurt by hypocrisy. I'm looking forward to going to work tomorrow.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A guest contribution

Last March I did a post attacking the opinion of Air Force General McPeak, retired, who had argued against repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell and claimed that he did not know of anyone who had argued that allowing gays to serve would make units more combat effective. "General," I said, "let me be the first." I may have been the first, but I wasn't the last. The following op-ed by a Marine Captain appeared today, addressed to the commandant of the Marine Corps.

Sexuality Won't Matter In Battle

By Nathan Cox

I am an active-duty U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. I have deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and have commanded infantry Marines in combat.

On Tuesday, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said he believes repealing "don't ask, don't tell" and allowing gay and lesbian Marines to serve openly could "cost Marines' lives" because of the "mistakes and inattention or distractions" that might ensue. I am not homosexual. And in this instance, I must respectfully disagree with my commandant.

The commandant cites the importance of cohesion within small combat units and warns against its disruption by allowing homosexuals to stop concealing their identities. In my experience, the things that separate Marines in civilian life fade into obscurity on the battlefield. There, only one thing matters: Can you do your job? People care much more about whom you voted for or what city you're from while on the huge airbase with five Burger Kings, or back in the States, than they do when they're walking down a dusty road full of improvised explosive devices in Haditha or Sangin.

In the end, Marines in combat will treat sexual orientation the same way they treat race, religion and one's stance on the likelihood of the Patriots winning another Super Bowl. I do not believe the intense desire we all feel as Marines to accomplish the mission and protect each other will be affected in the slightest by knowing the sexual orientation of the man or woman next to us.

In the recent Defense Department survey, 58 percent of combat arms Marines said they felt allowing homosexuals to serve openly would negatively affect their unit, but 84 percent of combat arms Marines who had served with a homosexual said that there would be no effect or that the effect would be positive. It seems obvious that if allowing homosexuals to serve openly degraded performance, rather than improved it, a majority of Marines who had served with homosexuals would oppose repeal. Yet this is not the case, and homosexuals serve openly in the militaries of Britain, Canada, Australia, Israel and others with no ill effect. This suggests that much of the opposition toward repeal within the Marine Corps is based on the politics of individual Marines and not any measurable military effect.

Repeal would undoubtedly produce some disruption, but if other nations' experiences are any guide, it will be so minimal as to be essentially nonexistent. Consider what is likely to happen if and when "don't ask" is repealed: Lance Cpl. Smith will be having a typical Marine conversation with Lance Cpl. Jones, and the topic will turn to women. Smith will remark on how much he enjoys their company. Jones will reply: "Actually, man, I like dudes."

Smith: "Really?"

Jones: "Yeah, man, really."

Smith: "Wow. I didn't know that."

Both will then go back to cleaning their rifles.

Is it really likely that lance corporals who know each other better than brothers, and may have saved each other's lives in split-second reactions during deployments, are suddenly going to refuse to serve in the same unit or quit the Corps because they have to share a shower?

Repeal will of course have many effects. Gay and lesbian Marines who are now barred from discussing their identities honestly with their superiors, peers and subordinates would be able to do their jobs free from the nagging knowledge that they are being less than honest with their brothers and sisters in arms. It is difficult to see how this could do anything but improve their job performance. Gay and lesbian Marines have long fought and died for a country that refuses to acknowledge their existence. Some are certainly among the Marines who have passed through Bethesda Naval Hospital and rest in Arlington.

I believe the reluctance many Marines feel about repeal is based on the false stereotype, borne out of ignorance, that homosexuals don't do things like pull other Marines from burning vehicles. The truth is, they do it all the time. We simply don't know it because they can't tell us.

It is time for "don't ask, don't tell" to join our other mistakes in the dog-eared chapters of history textbooks. We all bleed red, we all love our country, we are all Marines. In the end, that's all that matters.

I don't know if the author is a Gen Xer or a Millennial, but to me he is an American hero.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Who is Barack Obama?

I met Jonathan Alter in 1977, I believe, when he was a sophomore and I was a junior faculty member at Harvard. In 1978-9, his senior year, I advised his senior thesis, which rather eerily paralleled a critical part of the book I was going to write twenty years later on the origins of the Vietnam War. It was one of the most successful theses of that year. At that time he was hesitating between politics and journalism, and he chose the latter and has been at Newsweek for most of the time since. He has now written three books, the second, The Defining Moment, about the beginning of FDR's Presidency, and the third, The Promise, on the first year of Barack Obama's, which has only just appeared. It is surely the most thorough book we have on Obama and his works, although the tone of restrained optimism on which Jon managed to end it now seems sadly out of date.

Jon hails from Chicago, his subject's adopted home, and the book is dominated by midwestern restraint. His FDR book, as I understand it, was cut back significantly by his editor and was in some respects, I thought, a bit thin; this one is about as detailed as a piece of contemporary history can be. Like Bob Woodward, he has relied largely on interviews, but without letting the interview become the story in the way that Woodward so often does. The book alternates chapters on the major policy issues of Obama's first year, including the stimulus, the auto industry rescue, relations with the financial community, foreign policy issues, and health care, with chapters on Obama the man, his life in the White House, and a few other key figures like the Clintons and Rahm Emmanuel. Democratic Congressional leaders get less attention, and Republicans get almost none. Essentially the book treats the growth of the Republican opposition the way the White House did--as unfortunate background that occasionally intrudes. Neither Obama nor Emmanuel nor Alter seems to have understood, when Alter finished the manuscript in the early spring of this year, how devastating the November elections would be.

Anyone who wants to understand Barack Obama in action should read the book. However his Presidency turns out, Obama, like Bill Clinton and, I suppose, Ronald Reagan, is an extraordinary American success story, rising from genuinely modest origins and a broken home to become the first black President. He reached the top almost exactly as quickly as Clinton but he had a much shorter political career (much to the Clintons' disgust.) The book deepens, rather than altering, our understanding of him. He is both extremely intelligent and very careful, and his equanimity is genuinely legendary. (In one of his more daring moments, Alter suggests that every successful black man still has to take care not to seem too angry, although there are certainly exceptions to this rule in academia, at least.) On the other hand, Obama has a disturbing weakness for overbearing men around him--Larry Summers and Rahm Eammanuel both come to mind--which suggests he may be relying on others to act out the tacit parts of his own psyche. He has a real sense of justice and wants to do good. Yet I came away feeling more than ever that this remarkable man has a truly tragic flaw: he trusts the system. And because our system desperately needs fixing, that alone, I am afraid, makes him the wrong man in the White House at this moment in American history--even though he certainly still looks to me as good as any of the other major candidates in the year 2008.

Barack Obama was certainly capable and dedicated enough to have risen through our educational system without affirmative action, but I cannot help but wonder if it had an effect on him nonetheless. In generations past, those like W. E. B. Dubois or Thurgood Marshall whose skin color denied them certain educational or professional opportunities inevitably became skeptics dedicated, for better or worse, to fundamental change. In the same way, although a combination of ability, birth and circumstance gave me every possible educational advantage, my professional life has instilled me with eternal skepticism about the "best and the brightest" of many eras, but especially of my own. To put it bluntly, Obama seems to have a good deal more respect for the leading economists, bankers, and even politicians of our time than I do either for those same people or for my fellow historians. In the economic sphere, especially, he surrounded himself with very conventional thinkers, led by Larry Summers, whose previous record of creating havoc at Harvard did not disturb him. "[Treasury Secretary] Geithner," Alter writes, "didn't beliee in punishing Goldman or anyone else. And he didn't back fundamental restructuring of the banking industry because at bottom, he didn't think the system was broken." There are no Harry Hopkinses or Harold Ickeses in the upper ranks of this Administration, men with backgrounds as social workers who felt the system had to be changed. The same is true in foreign policy, where Hillary Clinton has turned out to be an entirely conventional secretary of state. If one thinks that the status quo in domestic and foreign policy just needed a little fine tuning, this would make sense. If on the other hand you believe that the economic and foreign policies of the last 10-20 years have led us to the brink of disaster, then Barack Obama is not your man.

To a considerable extent Alter accepted the Obama Administration's own view of its actual accomplishments. He gives them generous credit for the simulus, for the rescues that avoided the collapse of the banking system and the auto industry (both of which, to be sure, had begun under George W. Bush), and even for health care reform. Indeed, some of the most interesting passages of the book suggest that the health care bill will allow for a real transformation of American medicine, including the end of fee-for-service compensation. If that is true the Administration was very careful indeed not to tell us about it, though, and the changes in our political life that have taken place in the last year do not make it seem more likely. But having studied FDR, Alter is only too keenly aware of Obama's nearly complete failure to emulate FDR's greatest achievement, his ability to make the American people feel, in much worse times than these, that he was on their side and would lead them to safety.

A few weeks ago I heard FDR's grandson Curtis Roosevelt, who has become a good amateur historian himself, discuss the didfferences between Obama and his grandfather. He too had read Alter's book, and he emphasized Obama's isolation within the White House and his trust of the experts. Like Obama, FDR heard from the leading economists of the day that public works programs wouldn't help the economy in the long run, but unlike Obama, he didn't care. "[The Obama White House's] disconnection from the world," Jon writes, "was the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved fro a mere culture to something approaching a cult. Obama was skeptical of cant but still in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a 'right answer' to everything. But a right answer for whom?" By 2010, Alter writes, Obama was moving towards new job creation moves, but it turned out to be much too late.

Our leadership, both Democratic and Republican, has failed us, just as it did in the 1920s and for a long time in the aftermath of the civil war. Having grown up in the secure world created by our grandparents and parents, the Boom generation has blithely torn it apart, drawing perhaps on the evidence of our childhood and youth that nothing we did could do lasting damage to existing structures. Unfortunately, it has. I am delighted that my old student declined to jump on any particular bandwagon. He has given us an unusually detailed and balanced account of a key moment in recent history, far more informative per page than any of Bob Woodward's, and I like to think that the intense year we spent putting his thesis together might have had at least a little to do with it.

Friday, December 03, 2010

A new era begins

The almost complete disconnect between the machinations of Washington, D. C. and what is actually happening in the United States at large has seldom been more apparent. Conservative Republicans, of course, claim that the Tea Party movement and the new Republican majority in the House will close that gap, but this is the reverse of the truth, because the Tea Party has even less of substance to offer than corporate-dominated establishment Republicans and Democrats. Today's Republican Party presents a remarkable paradox. It commands impressive financial resources and has a 24/7 profit-making propaganda machine with no parallel in history on Clear Channel and Fox News. It has determination, affect, emotional commitment, and a strong and identifiable ideology. But it has nothing positive to offer in the sphere of government. It now also has to deal with its revolutionary Tea Party minority, which is dreaming, yet again, of remaking Washington and returning the country to some pastoral paradox that actually never existed. As the lame duck session goes to work, it is becoming clear how they may use their new power.

Several stories in the last few days' papers illustrate this point and paint a frightening picture of what is to come in the next few months. Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Jim DeMint have made it clear from early 2009 that their priority was Obama's defeat in 2012. To make it happen they practiced maximum obstructionism for two years, fought effective measures to deal with the recession, and rode economic distress to success in the recent elections. They have emphasized the deficit among all our ills but their first act is going to be to insist upon keeping the Bush tax cuts, which are responsible for a very large portion of it, in place. And because every Democratic political consultant seems to accept the idea that the Republicans have successfully defined the terms of the public debate, Barack Obama is not, apparently, going to try to stop them. The Constitution gives him the trump card: he could veto any extension of the tax cuts, or any extension that does not restore the Clinton-era rates on the highest bracket, thus bringing a great deal more money into the Treasury without hurting anyone who is currently unemployed. But he is not going to do so. Truly responsible action has been ruled out by thirty years of hysterical anti-tax propaganda. Instead, an excellent Washington Post story yesterday suggested that Obama's price will be more tax breaks for the working poor--a noble goal, surely, but one which will help make the deficit even bigger. Are we totally out of responsible politicians?

The same story had an interesting footnote introducing some subtlety into the McConnell-DeMint strategy, and heralding a Republican split. Every Republican Senator signed a letter the other day promising to stop consideration of any legislation (as Senate rules allow them to do) until both the extension of the tax cuts and an increase in the debt limit is passed. What slipped by was that they want to make the debt limit increase big enough to let the government keep operating until next October. McConnell is old enough to remember the government shutdown in the second half of Clinton's first term, which discredited Newt Gingrich and the Republicans badly, and he wants to stop militant Tea Party House Republicans from pulling the same trick. Today reports say the Administration wants to get a huge appropriations bill through as part of the price as well to tie the new Congress's hands until the fiscal 2012 budget has to be prepared. Curioser and curioser.

The Republicans are obviously in an uncompromising mood, and Barack Obama, as Paul Krugman rather angrily pointed out yesterday, seems to be in a yielding one. But the Republicans have nothing to offer--neither relief for the unemployed, which costs money they will not spend, nor real deficit reduction, which means cuts in programs upon which their older voters rely, or higher taxes to which they will never agree. Thus, as I suggested last week, a move towards a new "center"--one which half a century ago would have represented the right--still seems more likely than anything else. The President is also busy touting the war in Afghanistan, a trip which I have to admit reminds me of Johnson and Nixon's excursions to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, in the real America--the one the average population inhabits--things are getting worse once again. Unemployment rose last month by .2 per cent. The New York Times story on this reports that the public sector (which will now be starved more than ever) lost ground while private sector job growth was extremely modest. Corporate profits have been going up, but what the story does not explicitly say is that corporate profits now tend to correlate negatively, not positively, without growth--instead of pushing companies to hire more workers, they reflect shedding workers. The bulk of those hired have been temporaries, who do not receive benefits. This in turn suggests that we have already reached the point President Obama was warning us about when he introduced the health care reform bill: health care in the United States is too expensive for corporations to hire workers. That is why the only real cure was a public option, but it dropped out of the bill because it did not command the support of Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, who for two years were the most powerful men in America. Another story, a brilliant piece of reporting by op-ed columnist Gail Collins, also relates to health care. In its rush to cut the budget, the Arizona legislature stripped certain transplants from Medicaid coverage, and now a laid-off 32-year old truck driver with four children named Francisco Felix has been denied a liver transplant he needs to survive because he does not have a $200,000 deposit. Senator John McCain's office declined to comment on the situation and Governor Jan Brewer, the scourge of illegal immigrants, refuses to take some federal stimulus money and put it into medicaid funding. It will be interesting to see if Collins' story has any results.

I have returned several times during the last year to the analogy between Weimar Germany, which became ungovernable in the midst of a depression, and the contemporary United States. The "conservative" Republican movement and the Tea Party, I have said again and again, are not really like the National Socialists--but in a sense, one could argue, that is actually unfortunate. Adolf Hitler had horrifying plans for the future which cost humanity tens of millions of lives, but in the short he realized that the depression had brought him into power and that he had to get the German people back to work. He did not undo the public works programs that previous governments had already begun--he expanded them massively, building the autobahns, and, of course, ramped up rearmament. The German economy had very serious problems throughout the 1930s, including shortages of food, but it was the only advanced economy in the world without unemployment. The Tea Party's policies are designed, in effect, to make our economic mess worse. Next week, I hope to discuss why the Democrats have failed so utterly not only to offer convincing policy alternatives, but also to connect with the American people.