The breakdown of the American political system, pointing to a new and better future
Introduction: This is the second in a series of dashed off speculative opinions. Normal procedure on the FM website for these topics would be 3 thousand word posts, supported by dozens of links. I dont’ have the time to finish them, and too many of these outlines have accumulated in my drafts file. Perhaps these will spark useful debate and research among this site’s readers.
The American system is breaking up. The more or less clear lines dividing left from right have blurred into incoherence. This opens the way for new solutions offering real reform.
- Does anti-war mean liberal? Does pro-war mean conservative?
- America tests liberal and conservative solutions
- What comes next?
- For more information from the FM site and an Afterword
(1) Does anti-war mean liberal? Does pro-war mean conservative?
Our wars most clearly show the collapse of the traditional divisions.
- Hillary Clinton, painted as radical leftist by many conservatives, vehemently supports our current wars. President Obama, also painted as a radical by the right, strongly supports the Af-Pak war.
- Patrick Buchanan and William Lind (longtime head of the Center for Cultural Conservatism) oppose our current wars. As does Andrew Bacevich (Colonel, US Army, retired, bibliography here), who describes himself as a Catholic conservative and publishes in American Conservative magazine.
Another perspective on this: Stratfor looks at Obama’s foreign policy, sees Bush’s foreign policy, 30 August 2009.
(2) America tests both liberal and conservative solutions
For a clear and provocative analysis of what went wrong with America during the past decade, see “System Failure“, Christopher Hayes, The Nation, 1 February 2010 — We (the voters) performed a simple test. Hayes describes the results which are not what either side expected. Excerpt:
There is a widespread consensus that the decade we’ve just brought to a close was singularly disastrous for the country: the list of scandals, crises and crimes is so long that events that in another context would stand out as genuine lowlights — Enron and Arthur Andersen’s collapse, the 2003 Northeast blackout, the unsolved(!) anthrax attacks — are mere afterthoughts.
American progressives were the first to identify that something was deeply wrong with the direction the country was heading in and the first to provide a working hypothesis for the cause: George W. Bush. During the initial wave of antiwar mobilization, in 2002, much of the ire focused on Bush himself. But as the decade stretched on, the causal account of the country’s problems grew outward in concentric circles: from Bush to his administration (most significantly, Cheney) to the Republican Party to–finally (and not inaccurately) — the entire project of conservative governance.
As much of the country came to share some version of this view (tenuously, but share it they did), the result was a series of Democratic electoral sweeps and a generation of Americans, the Millennials, with more liberal views than any of their elder cohorts. But it always seemed possible that the sheer reactionary insanity of the Bush administration would have a conservatizing effect on the American polity. Because things had gone so wrong, it was a more than natural reaction to long for the good old days; the Clinton years, characterized by deregulation and bubbles, seemed tantalizingly placid and prosperous in retrospect. The atavistic imperialism of the Bush administration had a way of making the pre-Bush foreign policy of soft imperialism and subtle bullying look positively saintly.
Toward the end of the decade, as the establishment definitively rebuked Bush and sought to distance itself from his failures, the big-tent center-left coalition took on an influential constituency — the Colin Powells and Warren Buffetts — who didn’t want reform so much as they wanted restoration. This was reflected in a strange internal tension in the Obama campaign rhetoric that simultaneously promised both: change you can believe in and, as Obama said at a March 2008 appearance in Pennsylvania, a foreign policy that is “actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush’s father.”
If the working hypothesis that bound this unwieldy coalition together–independents, most liberals and the Washington establishment–was that the nation’s troubles were chiefly caused by the occupants of the White House, then this past year has served as a kind of natural experiment. We changed the independent variable (the party and people in power) and can observe the results. It is hard, I think, to come to any conclusion but that the former hypothesis was insufficient
So what, exactly, is it that ails us?
… There’s a word for a governing philosophy that fuses the power of government and large corporations as a means of providing services and keeping the wheels of industry greased, and it’s a word that has begun to pop up among critics of everything from the TARP bailout to healthcare to cap and trade: corporatism. Since corporatism often merges the worst parts of Big Government and Big Business, it’s an ideal target for both the left and right. The ultimate corporatist moment, the bailout, was initially voted down in the House by an odd-bedfellows coalition of Progressive Caucus members and right-wingers.
In the wake of the healthcare sausage-making, writers from Tim Carney on the right (author of the provocative Obamanomics) and Glenn Greenwald on the left have attacked the bill as the latest incarnation of corporatism, a system they see as the true enemy. There is even some talk among activists of a grand left-right populist coalition coming together to depose the entrenched interests that hold sway in Washington. Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake touted her work with libertarians to oppose Ben Bernanke, more AIG bailouts and the Senate healthcare bill (“What we agree on: both parties are working against the interests of the public, the only difference is in the messaging”); David McKalip, the tea-party doctor who got into trouble for forwarding an image of Obama with a bone through his nose, wrote an open letter to the netroots proposing that they join him in fighting the “real enemy,” the “unholy corporate/government cabal that will control your healthcare.”
I don’t think that coalition is going to emerge in any meaningful form. The right’s anger is born largely of identity-based alienation, a fear of socialism (whatever that means nowadays) and an age-old Bircher suspicion that “they” are trying to screw “us.” Even in its most sophisticated forms, such as in Carney’s Obamanomics, the basic right-wing argument against corporatism embraces a kind of fatalism about government that assumes it will always devolve into a rat’s nest of rent seekers and cronies and therefore should be kept as small as possible.
But the progressive critics hold that we can and should do better. The Medicare Part D model is a terrible way of running a government for a number of reasons. First, and most practical, it’s expensive. When paying off protection rackets is the price of passing legislation, you have to come up with a lot more money. Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices would have saved the government as much as $30 billion a year. The strong public option would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, save $85 billion over ten years. Once everyone has laid claim to their vig, you soon find yourself tapped out.
The second problem is that this form of governance degrades the integrity of the state. Historian Tony Judt made this point eloquently in his October 19 lecture “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy.” Delegating fundamental state activities to private actors, he said, “discredits the state.” Instead of a straightforward relationship between citizen and state, we have a mediated one that has the potential to perversely feed the anti-statist arguments of the right as the state becomes, in Judt’s words, “represented in the popular mind by a grasping private profiteer.”
But the corporatism on display in Washington is itself a symptom of a broader social illness that I noted above, a democracy that is pitched precariously on the tipping point of oligarchy. In an oligarchy, the only way to get change is to convince the oligarchs that it is in their interest — and increasingly, that’s the only kind of change we can get.
The Bush years have brought us to the brink of disaster. The Left has little to offer, as seen in this history of Obama’s years in Chicago: “Chicago’s Real Crime Story“, Heather MacDonald, City Journal, Winter 2010 — “Why decades of community organizing haven’t stemmed the city’s youth violence” (a powerful article, I recommend reading it).
(3) What comes next?
Nothing concentrates the mind like the sight of the gallows. We have tried both sides of the conventional spectrum and found no true reform. As described in The first step to reforming America (the final version), insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. We need new solutions. Recognition of our current dead end is the first step to real reform.
Marxists confront such situation with optimism. As he said in his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):
Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.
For those of us worshiping at a different church — or none at all — this economic determinism gives us no help. I recommend faith in us, in our collective strength. We have overcome more difficult challenges in our past, and will confront still more difficult challenges in our future. Today we merely lack confidence in each other, and faith in the American project. The solutions are out there; we merely need reach for them.
(4a) For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page. Of esp relevance to this topic:
- America – how can we reform it?
- Financial crisis – what’s happening? how will this end?
- Good news about America, a collection of articles!
- Obama, his administration and policies
Posts about Change:
- American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
- “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt, 21 November 2008
- Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
- Obama supporters mugged by reality (and learn not to believe in change!), 9 December 2008
- Change you should not have believed in, 10 February 2009
- Quote of the Day, 20 May 2009 — Connect the dots between Bush and Obama to see the nice picture.
- Stratfor looks at Obama’s foreign policy, sees Bush’s foreign policy, 30 August 2009
- Motto for the Obama administration: “The more things change, …”, 5 September 2009
- Change, the promise and the reality, 11 October 2009
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