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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, June 28, 2024

How we got here

 The catastrophe of last night's debate is simply one more milestone in the gradual collapse of the American political system as it developed from the 1930s through the early 1960s.  We cannot go back and redo these decades, and the collapse may get worse before it gets better.  Yet we perhaps experience some catharsis by tracing the tragedy, just as we must face more and more death as we grow older, all the while knowing that life will continue.

How did Donald Trump become a candidate for president in the first place eight years ago?  Our professional politicians became complacent and lost touch with the American people.  Neither party seriously opposed the changes instituted by Ronald Reagan and consummated under Bush I and Clinton: the tax cuts on the rich, the failure to control spending on elections, and the collapse of the effective regulation of Wall Street.  Meanwhile, the influence of television on elections replaced well-thought out prose with images as the currency of politics.  We stopped paying much attention to what the average politician said--something that never happened in the age of radio.  Trump understood slogans and sound bites, and he made his reputation as a reality TV host.  Neither Jeb Bush nor Marco Rubio nor Hillary Clinton could, as it turned out, defeat him.  Clinton also suffered because of Barack Obama's very sluggish response to the financial crisis, his failure to do much about the changes that had brought it about, and his adoption of most of George W. Bush's foreign policy.  The Republicans nominated their outsider, Trump, in 2016, while the party establishment defeated the Democratic outsider, Bernie Sanders. Trump won.

And how did Biden become the next president?  Here I must return to one of my well-worn themes--the catastrophe of the modern vice presidency and its effects.  Hubert Humphrey, George H. W. Bush, Al Gore, and Joe Biden had all tried for their party's nomination and failed dismally at least once, and Walter Mondale had never tried for his at all.  Yet each of them, after subsequently being chosen as vice president, immediately became the front runner for the nomination in the next election.  The vice presidency (and Hillary Clinton's eight years as first lady) earned each of them the necessary name recognition and the access to leading contributors that they needed. The two most successful Democratic politicians since John F. Kennedy--Bill Clinton and Barack Obama--did NOT win the nomination because they had been vice presidents.  They relied on real personal appeal.  

Exactly how Biden became the front runner in 2020 after two disastrous showings in Iowa and New Hampshire is not clear to me.  Uncle Google tells me that two books have been written about that campaign, but I can't check them now.  I do suspect that Kamala Harris--another disastrous presidential candidate who became vice president and heiress apparent--dropped out before the New Hampshire vote, after threatening Biden's standing with black voters, in exchange for a promise of the vice presidency.  James Clyburn, another venerable member of the Democratic establishment, swung the mostly black Democratic vote in South Carolina for Biden, and he was on his way.  He won the election because a bare majority of the country was sick of Trump. Now, if he stays in the race, he will probably lose it because the nation is sick of him and knows he isn't up to the job.  He will also lose because he, like Clinton and Obama, assumed that the free market would indeed fix the economy.  Richard Nixon in 1971 imposed wage and price controls because he knew that inflation threatened his re-election.  Biden looked helplessly on while inflation destroyed his approval rating.  

Something else has changed in the Democratic Party in the last 60 years.  Harry Truman in 1945 called for national health insurance, and in 1948, for civil rights legislation.  Faced with a conservative coalition in Congress, he could not bring either of those proposals even to a vote--but he stuck to them for the rest of his presidency.  They became part of the Democratic program, and Kennedy and Johnson eventually got them through.  Bill Clinton gave up his health care plan after one Congress's worth of failure.  Obama's cap-and-trade proposal suffered a similar fate.  Biden has balanced some environmental initiatives with new opportunities for the fossil fuel industry.  No one believes that the Democrats can accomplish much anymore.

Now, Biden has shown that he does not have the mental acuity we expect as a president.  Not only did he suffer one complete breakdown over Medicare, but he could not credibly explain what he was trying to say about the social security cap.  He let Trump bring him down to Trump's level, so that in the last part of the debate they began arguing about who was the worst president of all time.  Yes, nearly everything that Trump said was false--but is that so surprising?  Our academic elite gave up the idea of truth several decades ago, in favor of the idea that everyone has the right to their own truth based on their own life experience, and that the concept of truth itself is just a political weapon.  If they will not stand for truth, who will?  What does it mean when, as I pointed out here, a former Washington Post executive editor and a former head of CBS news announce that journalism has to move "beyond objectivity?"  

Our system worked when we still valued intellectual integrity and understood the need to control our emotions.  The great attack on those traditions began in the late 1960s and has continued until now.  We can keep them alive as individuals, but the tide is running in the other direction.


Energyflow said...

I read a recent article discussing that since 1995 increasingly everything is on the Internet and that links disappear, whereas earlier citations were in print somewhere. Wikipedia is a changing reality. One recalls the 1984 concept of changing all back history to fit the Party's s current whims. With all communications increasingly online then this becomes more common. My wife is quite the Soviet and WWII history buff and notices how incidents, articles of importance to our generation get memory holed quickly. For example normal attitudes of mainstream politicians 20 or 30 years ago are now reserved for Farage, Meloni, Seidel, Trump. This is similar to shifting moral standards on gays and trans. I recall an old film from early 60s where a congressman was blackmailed for once having had a same sex affair during military time and killed himself. One can envision weird futures where straights will be shamed mercilessly and whites driven to desperation, trying to pass for black or latino. This is like denazification in Germany. The opposite is the Israeli defensive superiority complex. Biden refuses a cognitive test which would obviously show his all too apparent dementia. One thinks of Brezhnev and other aging leaders just before the Soviet fall. A leaderless ship drifting aimlessly runs around. Hyperinflation and indebtedness, mass illegal immigration and interest groups of various sorts controlling the nation randomly lead to disaster. Take Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan. Military, arms manufacturers, neo cons, Jewish, Israeli lobbyists, Russophobes, NATO expansionists feel a need to use America for their own ends. Open borders is a liberal policy taken to an extreme. Nobody is illegal. A similar policy concept is used in liberal areas to legalize squatters taking your home while you are on vacation. I thought marijuana legalization would reduce crime. It turns out illegal plantations run by Mexican and Chinese cartels are undercutting that. We are becoming Colombia. In a few years interest on the national debt could run in multitrillions. State bankruptcy is as forgone a conclusion as Biden's dementia results. There is no way to avoid this. Milei's concept of eliminating state programs with a chainsaw is the only solution. Soldiers needing wheelbarrows full of cash to shop for food at Walmart or not getting paid months at a time will take their support elsewhere, perhaps their guns as well, say to an independent Texas or break-off Oregon counties. When it comes so far then one needs only as a spark a heinous immigrant crime against a local to dissolve the Republic. Min mi

Paul Zimmy Finn said...

Hello Prof. Kaiser,

As you may recall from past comments I've left, I produce a podcast about Strauss and Howe's ideas. If you would be interested in having a recorded conversation, I would be pleased to have you come on. Let me know.

Paul "Zimmy" Finn
Producer, The Generation Report

David Kaiser said...

Dear Paul Finn,

I'd be glad to. I won't be available for anything until late this week however.

David Kaiser