Sunday, May 23, 2010

Can't Lose What You Never Had

. . . American democracy, like Athenian democracy, was a grand thing once. No less than Pericles' orations and Plutarch's Lives, Tocqueville's great book will live on to inspire any future generation that seeks to revive the noble but elusive ideal of popular self-government.
George Scialabba

It is surprising, I suppose, to find an observation like this in a review essay by someone who is supposed to be one of our best critics. To lament the current state of our public life is commonplace. To claim, by extension, that somehow we have lost something that is, for a generation, irretrievable, is false on its face historically, and currently.

There is no doubt that our current civic life, public institutions, and the general public trust necessary to repair that them are broken. The past two decades of rhetorical hostility and practical neglect leave much of our common life looking like I-35 in the Twin Cities a couple years back, for many of the same reasons. Part of the reason Barack Obama has inspired, first, so much fervor, and now, so much disgust, is that he offered himself as someone who really believed in the promise of our common life and institutions, that they are not beyond repair, and that we can rebuild them to work better for all of us. His failure to magically make us better in less than a year and a half in office, for some reason, has left many, particularly on the left, almost incoherent with rage.

George is not incoherent, and there is little rage here. Rather, while certainly coherent, he is in mourning for the loss of the democratic promise of the middle decades of the 20th century in America. It is true that a trend toward social democracy lived in our public policy - a stronger social safety net, much higher marginal tax rates on a more progressive scale, the public and legal support for organized labor, an effort to include more and more marginalized and disenfranchised groups in our public life - and it is also true that much of that was actively dismantled from the early 1970's through much of the previous decade.

Yet, this was hardly the work of a small coterie of business interests, policy experts, and elected officials. Rather, it was a general historical trend, visible should one look for it, that began at the zenith of liberal hubris in the 1960's, culminating, first in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, then the Republican majority in Congress from 1994 through 2006. While it is certainly true that this movement was aided by money from corporations, given talking points by think tanks, and lived as much on obfuscation and dissimulation as it did on serious intellectual and political muscle, these elections, and the ideas and policies they represented would not have turned the way they did if they did not enjoy at least a plurality of broad support. This little factoid is usually missed by left-wing critics. It is the failure of democracy, under pressure from monied interests, that are to blame; they are lied to, misled, too stupid to know what is in their own interests.

For a generation, liberal intellectuals bemoaned the dumb electorate for giving us Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush and even Bill Clinton (I honestly cannot tell you who the left hated more, Clinton or Reagan; the current left-wing rage at Obama is similar to the vitriol heaped upon Clinton) because they refused to acknowledge what should have been clear - these men and the policies they supported and ideas they represented were popular. We usually get the government we both want and deserve.

That beneath the cloak of support for free markets and an expanded zone of personal (usually economic) freedom, much of our public life was left in tatters is true enough. Yet, a significant number of Americans, much as it pains me to write this, have never believed in such a thing as civic virtue, the benefits of our common life, and the duties of living in a society. That these interests coincided with the electoral desires of a major party were enough to create a generation, more or less, of conservative dominance. Liberals were smart enough to understand the results would be catastrophic, in the end. They have never been brave enough to admit that their ideas were in disfavor.

No more.

If one considers the Tea Party movement in the Republican Party in comparison with events in the Democratic Party between 1968 and 1972, I think a little understanding may be gained. After the disastrous Democratic convention and loss in a close election, the Democratic Party set up a commission of reform under then South Dakota Senator George McGovern that sought to change the way the party chose its Presidential candidates. While the long term effects of the McGovern rules have been the election, in 1992 and in 2008, of two of the most popular Democratic Presidents in our country's history, the immediate effects were catastrophic. Many long-time Party leaders and influential members of the intellectual wing of the party left. The party managed to nominate some serious losers - George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis - that left the party struggling after each Presidential election.

The Tea Party movement is a similar, informal, phenomenon. The conservative wing of the Republican Party, regardless for the moments of the merits of their argument, has felt betrayed by the establishment. They are supporting a host of candidates, noisily humiliating stalwart Republican politicians with impeccable conservative credentials, seeking to make the party more ideologically pure. They want the Republican Party to look like them, much as left-wing populist Democrats in the early 1970's wanted that party to look more like them. My prediction is the results will be a kind of mirror. I have predicted all along the Republicans will lose the midterms, and even with the loss today of a House seat in Hawaii, I still predict that.

Yet, this hardly means that we might either sooner or later, restore our country's tattered democratic practices, dismantles slowly or swiftly under the age of the Republican majority. For one simple reason - it never existed. While liberal Democratic policies certainly enjoyed broad popular support, they were hardly the stuff of serious leftist policy. Presidents from Roosevelt on were, to a man, considered dupes and rubes, or worse, active agents of the corporate classes, tossing a bone here and there to the proles while ensuring the survival of those that held the purse strings of power.

And this description, for all that it is a bit morally overwrought and simplistic, was largely true. Like both W. Bush and Obama, Roosevelt sought not to destroy the banking industry, but to save it. He sought not to overturn American capitalism, but to save it from its worst excesses. Obama, at least, is honest enough that this move is necessary. Fixing the structural dynamics that created the problem always need to take a back seat to preventing total economic and social collapse and catastrophe.

Both historically and currently, the politicians we elect, the policies they support, and the people and institutions that support those who are victorious do so not because of the nefarious acts of corporations seeking to pull the strings of government; not because the people are too stupid to even know what is in their own best interest, let alone act upon it; or because the ideas they represent are of necessity covered in lies in order to mask their utter vacuity. No, whether they are liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, the combination of interests and support create conditions that give us the leaders we want.

For good or ill.

There never was a moment when American democracy "really" flourished to be squashed by hostile forces. Even our best politicians and leaders were, for the most part, not that good; our worst far more horrible than we can really imagine. We have always muddled through as best we can.

Our historical moment continues to be one of hope, I think, for liberals. Despite the noise, and the endless stream of support for conservative ideas and policies one reads and hears in our national discourse, most Americans understand, at some level, their utter failure. Our democracy will work as it always has - not very well, but better than any alternative I can imagine - to continue to give us men and women who will work to give us, the people, what we want. The hope, of course, is that what we want, and what we need, coincide.

I believe they do.

Virtual Tin Cup

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