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Sunday, June 30, 2019

The stakes for 2020

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

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

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

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

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


Bozon said...

Interesting review.
This was the most interresting for me:"...That means, for instance, that "undocumented"--that is, illegal--immigrants should receive guaranteed health care, because all people should receive it. Since immigrants are poor, largely nonwhite, and largely from the third world, we should decriminalize their status at once. That, in fact, seems to be more important to most of today's Democratic candidates than giving the 11 or 20 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States a path to citizenship that would allow them to vote--an idea we did not hear about during the debate..." DK

I have commented on this crazy ideology on my site.

It resembles nothing so much as that of the radical fringe abolitionists, who were secretly behind Lincoln's run for the White House. They want to decriminalize, as the abolitionists had wanted to immediately free the slaves.

Giving illegals citizenship benefits goes even beyond that of the Radical Republicans in merely freeing the negroes, although it was in Radical Republicans' interest then to give them the vote to keep control from the Democrats. One can easily imagine a similar strategy here, with the vote coming later, after the essential decriminalization.

All the best

Ed Ciliberti said...

Aloha Dr. Kaiser,

Long time we no talk story!
(Pardon the pidgin, I needed an entree.)

I think, sir, you are hasty in proclaiming “We are nearing the climax of the fourth great crisis in American national life”. In my mind it speaks of American navel gazing when what is called for is a world-wide, 360-degree view. Strauss and Howe cast their theory in terms of the American Experience. Is the experience they describe unique to America, or do other societies experience similar cycles of history? And if they do, where are the Americans vis-a-vis the others?

I ask because I see the world as still dealing with the consequences of the deals made in Paris in 1919 (happy 100th anniversary!) at Versailles following the end of WW1. By the way, was there a lot of attention paid in the West to the Chinese celebration last month marking the 100th anniversary of its May 4th Movement? The what (from your readers)? You didn’t know that China in 1917 entered the war on that side of the Allies sponsored by the British? You didn’t know that some 140,000 Chinese laborers were sent to Europe to support British operations? I say look it up.

My perspective is that WW2 put paid to the empires of the European colonialists. I think Roosevelt understood that that would be one of the outcomes of the war and thought up the United Nations as a way of dealing with this new world-wide reality. I think he understood that the USA would inherit some of the economic fallout from this forthcoming new world order and figured the UN was the best hope of managing it to good outcomes. A good thought perhaps, but Mammon stood in its way.

Events like American support of French opposition to Vietnamese rebels and the American led overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran soured good will and trust Americans had built up after the war. The Korean War became a stalemate with China. The Second Indochina war was lost to the Vietnamese and Chinese. Our good friends in Saudi Arabia destroyed southern New York City and America elected to fight with a Tar Baby called Afghanistan to which we’re still stuck. Then America opted to overthrow the one guy tough enough to hold together the artificial construct resulting from the 1919 Treaty of Versailles known as Iraq. In doing so America launched a war refugee wave of millions that has destabilized our European allies. And our current clown president chooses to piss in our allies’ soup pots.

At home the Republicans, with a tenacity and discipline Lennin would admire, successfully conspire to reduce American society from a democratic republic to an oligarchy of the rich, by the rich and for the rich.

As I argued several years ago on this site, all the previous crises have been resolved by violence. To be meaningful at this level, the crisis must be existential. I think we’re at the WW1 stage now. There’s more to come. How bad will it be? As the clown likes to say, “We’ll see what happens.”

Put on that helmet and flack jacket, soldier! Stay alert, stay alive! War’s a coming!

Ed Ciliberti

NoOne said...

My concern is that the Democratic party can easily unite behind climate change which is an existential issue facing all of us. Yet, there was so little on climate change in the two debates.

The economics-based Ray Fair model (https://fairmodel.econ.yale.edu/vote2020/index2.htm) only gives the Dems 46% of the vote (nationally for president) in 2020. It has been a very successful model and predictor of the past few presidential elections. With the economy doing so well and with the Democrats in a food fight to see who can give away the farm the fastest, I'm really worried about 2020. The only presidents from the opposite party (like Trump in 2016) to not get re-elected are Carter, Hoover, Benjamin Harrison and Quincy Adams. (I'm not including Grover Cleveland because he did get a second non-consecutive term and I'm combining Taylor and Fillmore into one.)

Energyflow said...

Likely a country divided, arguing, irrelevant as after ivil war. Only problem is that the USA after the tortuous fight against itself from inner divisions of Civil War became in European and Asian conflicts of WWI/II semingly the only adult in the room, managing spoiled children in kindergarten fighting one another(reminds me of Putin's attitude towards us now). So yes we need to revisit our shadow, do psychoanalysis, discover real purpose again. Decades of internal battles lie ahead between ethnic, racial groups and ideological, regional ones. Lincoln said that 'a house divided against itself cannot stand' echoing perhaps revolutionary war phrase 'if we do not hang together we will most surely hang separately'. In the latter phrase obviously an external pressure is to be presumed. Nowadays that pressure is rebuilding from Eurasia and from internal entropy. Such problems as infrastructure decay, pension problems, high debt on every front, overstretched, incompetent military, stock market decoupled from classic valuation models, govt. economic measurements of national health GDP, unmployment and inflation increasingly useless and health care system as a rapacious profit system feeding vampirelike off the body public. Presumably a series of internal and external crises will force a rethink, if not systemic collapse, like in USSR post Chernobyl. This year's coming massive crop failures could be a start. Maybe other natural disasters like san andres fault break or hurricane swarm with trillion dollar damages could break the bank. Likely is nibbling away at the substance in every area as above. Millenials become a lost generation instead of a hero generation, confounding the standard pattern due to overindebtedness and inflated real estate prices(low interest rates pumping easy money that direction) and dogged low earnings, video game addiction and drug usage, low family formation. Ideological formulas won't work, from Washington or elsewhere. People themselves make decisions based on deep sense of need in personal lives. So universities are closed as they bring student negative benefits, no job prospects,crushng debt. Local governments likewise become bankrupt as they are just porkbarrel for public unions like teachers who can't teach but demand high pensions, police who appropriate proprty and break down people's doors in SWAT manner to retire at public cost. Meanwhile streets go unpaved, bridges and schools, water mains unrepaired 50 years long. So the individual turns inward as education is useless, job prospects few, public life uncertain. When schools are prisons, universities debt diploma mills, public services nonexistent or declining the young live online with friends and do gig work or make money online. Party politics is of interest only as virtue signalling. Like religion is very private nowadays ( jewish yogi uses wicca and buddhist meditation or conservative christian goes church shopping each sunday a different congregation looking for a 'buzz'). Politics will be similar, not just duopoly and very local. 20 years of internet and we have Orwell. Freedom of knowledge, communication, enterprise became ologopoly working for and with the state. Innovation always ends in a dead end. 'Pursuit of happiness' as Buddha might have said 'is a fool's game'.

Energyflow said...

Another interesting generational article, author interview. Not neccessarily meant as commentary.