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Saturday, November 03, 2018

The nature of our current crisis

War, wrote the great Clausewitz, "is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means."  Twice before in our history, in the great crises of 1774-94 and 1860-68 or so, political conflict has led to actual war, the first time to create an independent nation and the second time, to preserve it.  In this crisis we have been engaged since 2000, in my opinion, in a struggle over the future of the United States, waged peacefully but along party lines.  The Republican Party initiated the conflict to undo the work of the New Deal and the Great Society, destroy the rights of labor, complete the deregulation of the economy, and reduce the diversion of private wealth to public purposes.  They are waging the war by peaceful means, but those means are every bit as dangerous to our national health, at times, as real war.  The struggle has been complex, and often, we can only with some difficulty distinguish between ends and means.  The two sides are fighting, as they did from 1861 through 1865, on many fronts.  155 years ago the fronts were mostly geographic; now they represent different aspects of American politics, and even of American life.  Republicans have taken the offensive on some fronts, Democrats on others.  I do not believe that either side can win a total victory, and increasingly I believe that our real task now is to find a way to make some kind of peace.

The Republican offensive against the regulatory state of the New Deal and the Great Society is reaching a climax under Donald Trump.  Once again a round of tax cuts has left the federal government with a large, permanent deficit, as under Presidents Reagan and Bush II.  The deregulation of Wall Street, which at least slowed under Barack Obama, is plunging ahead.  Federal bureaucracies, managed by hostile ideologues or inexperienced incompetents, are having much more trouble doing their jobs.  Environmental protection has been rolled back on many fronts.    Unprecedented drilling on public lands goes forward.  The bulk of the American people oppose most of these measures, but the Republicans have managed to reduce the peoples' influence in politics.  They managed to steal the vote in Florida and thus the presidential election in 2000, and with the help of the Supreme Court (see below) they have gerrymandered districts in key states to an unprecedented degree, allowing them to retain a majority in the House of Representatives with less than 50% of the vote.  They have also taken advantage of the gerrymandering of the Senate--brought about by population movements, not legal legerdemain--which has given power to small states, most of them Republican, totally out of proportion to their size.  The 5-4 Republican Supreme Court majority has also allowed them to take full advantage of their superior financial resources in elections. They have also demonized the Democratic Party and its works, convincing their own voters that the welfare state simply subsidizes tens of millions of undeserving slackers, many of them immigrants, whom they insist on treating as outsiders. All told, they have eliminated the power of the Democratic Party and of liberal ideas in large parts of the country, and they currently control all three branches of the federal government.  Many of their leading ideologues and politicians want a total victory that will end New Deal and Great Society liberalism as we have known them--including Social Security and Medicare.

In the last crisis, the Democrats relied mainly on Congressional majorities to change the relationship between government and business, but Franklin Roosevelt also bequeathed to the nation a liberal Supreme Court.  President Eisenhower also made two key liberal appointments, Justices Warren and Brennan, and the Court decreed school integration, expanded civil liberties, legalized abortion, and in recent years, narrowly endorsed gay rights.   Several decades ago the Republicans embarked upon a campaign to train, identify, and promote conservative justices--a campaign now reaching its peak under Donald Trump.  The campaign will limit what government at all levels can do for decades to come.

Donald Trump, of course, initially disturbed the Republican establishment when he ran for President, but has reconciled them to his leadership since his victory.  The odyssey of Lindsay Graham, who abandoned criticism of the President in favor of support, is quite typical of leading Republicans, who see how much of their agenda the President is implementing.  Trump has certainly escalated the demonizing of the Democrats, issuing many repeated, violent personal attacks, especially against female and nonwhite Democrats.  And now, in a desperate attempt to retain control of the House of Representatives, he has created an immigration crisis largely out of whole cloth, proclaiming an imminent, dangerous invasion of the country and intermittently threatening to meet it with deadly force.  His administration is also using the ICE bureaucracy to try to terrorize our millions of illegal immigrants into leaving the country.  Making immigrants the primary target of the hatred that he has mobilized--an inevitable concomitant, as Clausewitz noted many times, of war--has huge advantages, since most Americans do not identify with these immigrants and they cannot vote.

On the other side, the Democrats have tried to protect our parents' legacy, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA--although they have collaborated in dismantling the sweeping regulation of the financial industry that has changed the world.  They tried to extend that legacy with Obamacare, which so far has survived, in much weakened form, the return of the Republicans to power.  They have taken the offensive on another range of issues: women's rights, including abortion, LGBTQ rights, the protection (in states ruled by Democrats) of illegal immigrants, and an increase in the numbers of women and minorities holding public office.  This last effort seems to combine political tactics (a means of energizing their base) and an ideological commitment to reducing white male power as an end in itself.  For better or worse, the campaigns of women and minorities have shifted from struggles for equal rights to struggles for political power.   These tactics did help the Democrats win the presidency in 2008 and retain it in 2012, but it may have cost them the presidency in 2016.  We shall find out this Tuesday in Florida,. Georgia, and many Congressional districts, how successful it has been this year.

Both social and economic issues have left the two parties utterly at odds and without any trust in one another, every bit as much as the northern and southern states in the wake of the Civil War.  It is the years 1865-1876, I think, that come closest to what we are now going through, since the sectional conflict once again became political rather than military.   In those years the Republican Party controlled the national government--although it surrendered control of the House of Representatives in 1874--and it presided over the enormous growth of the power of corporations and financial institutions that created the Gilded Age.  Republican presidents appointed Supreme Court justices--most of them who had represented railroads--who defeated any attempts to regulate the economy. By the time the Democrats regained the White House in 1884 they had accepted this new order, and economic radicals had to form various third parties, including the Populists, whose achievements were quite limited.  Meanwhile, after a bloody local struggle, white southerners re-established white supremacy.  Two distinct political oligarchies ruled the South and the North from the 1870s through the early 1890s, and just a few swing states, led by New York and Indiana, decided most of the presidential elections.  In 1896 the populists essentially won control of the Democratic Party, but William Jennings Bryan suffered the party's worst defeat since 1872, ushering in another 16 years of Republican rule.

The Republicans have also achieved much (by their own lights) because they have fought their war in a relatively disciplined fashion.  While many still dislike Trump, nearly all of them are deferring to him because of his power among their constituents and because he has given them much of what they want.  This applies to many Republican women who continue to believe--as fewer Democratic women do--that other issues matter more than the president's casual misogyny and personal history.  Only in 2009-10 did the Democrats in Congress show similar unity.  A large number of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will emerge after Tuesday's election, representing different demographics and different constituencies.  Age and ideology divide the Democratic party, and too many of its leaders are now well over 70.  If, as seems almost certain, the Democrats regain the House, legislative deadlock will follow for the next two years and President Trump will double down on divisiveness and hatred.  A Democratic candidate will have to offer something different to win over a new majority--and to lay the foundation for bringing our political war to some kind of conclusion.


Bozon said...

Thanks for this current crisis commentary.

Likening it to Reconstruction seems to make some sense, given the control the Republicans exercise at all levels right now, as you have pointed out here and elsewhere.

I would just note that the Reconstruction era, 1865-1876, was not itself at all a period of transition from military to political conflict, but rather totally in the nature of a military occupation of a conquered section, ruled by martial law, and through puppet negro political figures.

If I am wrong about this, it is certainly the picture painted by a rather prominent historian of that period and of Lincoln, J G Randall.

All the best

Ed Boyle said...

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

Comunism had a basic creed. To each according to his needs, from each according to his capabilities. Communism collapsed as everyone gamed the system to give less than they got out. The more of individual life is put into the public sphere the less the individual will feel responsibility and control. Morality, ethics decay at all levels. When 90% of us were farmers, primary producers, such individual responsibility was self evident. Nowadays even small manufactures, corner stores are gone due to wal mart, chinese mass production. Internet has made us into isolated screen observers, not as formerly, church goers, active debaters of local political import. We have become passive. A few gatekeepers control allowed inputs, be it plastic toys or political memeson twitter. Since noone has any control over primary production(subsistence farming) or secondary production(daily articles of use like clothing) and contacts have broken down with neighbours, as if we were all in solitary confinement in jail, our sense of control of life has disappeared almost entirely. You are talking here of a superstructure in codewords meant to provoke partisan battle cries, like during the civil war. Back then industrialization made slavery superfluous in one sense by mechanization, but through cotton gin mechanization and clothing manufacture revived just that slavery in the south to feed northernfactories like the mass near slavery in bangladesh, china, indonesia for nike, apple. The north invented its own enemy in effect. We are doing the same today, complaining of worker's rights abuse while buying cheap goods imports.

Like under communism, the less personal and concrete the object of our life is, the more apathetic, neurotic, distrustful, nihilistic we become. At a certain point such a sciety tends to self destruct. I recall reading kurt vonnegut's 'Player Piano'. The general concept of alienation was portrayed by many, james joyce, or in T.S. Eliot's phrase 'like a patient anesthetized upon a table'.

The search for meaning of Viktor Frankl returns in our day with a vengeance, bringing with it all our subconscious monsters we tried to tame by taking away responsibility and involvement in daily life from the individual.