Sunday, October 29, 2006

Where do the Democrats go from here? How can it be that at a time when public disapproval of the Republican agenda and its performance over the past six years is waxing hot, when it's even possible that a public revulsion is developing, a growing public fear of what is happening to the very Constitutional structure of this Republic, this nation of ours ... how can it be that the Democrats can't stand tall?

I think the answer has to be approached by looking at where the Democrats have been. Some large and necessary chunk of the answer lies in the past, their past and our past. The past forty years, I'll say. It was over the course of this stretch of time and events that the Democrats lost some fundamental and essential capabilities, and caused us as a citizenry and as members of a society to lose some too. The losses were unintentional, mostly. And they were masked by a relentless PR-type focus on the positive elements of their agenda, to the exclusion not only of any objections but also of any doubts or misgivings as well as of any common discussion of alternatives. The Democrats couldn't muster the patience and the confidence in the citizenry that would have permitted great change to be usefully absorbed.

In fact, I think it can be said that what the Republicans have managed to pull off in the past six years could only have been pulled off because of the the groundwork laid - again, mostly unintentionally - by what the Democrats had pulled off in the previous thirty-five years. And now, in a huge but hardly suprising historical irony, the Democrats find themselves incapable of exercising true leadership even as the Republicans take us - as a nation and a society - to the brink of a dark and chaotic vastness, a new frontier never imagined in 1961, an agressive, feudalized military-industrial corporate semi-police state that combines the most disturbing nightmares of the Founding generation and of the Progressive generation. We are the heirs of those generations, however pampered we have become, however unmindful we have become of the undulating waves of sinfulness and danger that roar through all of human history. It was against those waves that the vessel of the Republic was constructed; it is against those waves that we must still strive to maintain this ship, so that her journey through Time might be brightly continued, and we and all of humankind be raised up thereby. It is our watch. The buck has stopped; Time has not.

What have the Democrats done? Forty years ago, under the robust, craggy leadership of another Texan, the Democratic Party led in the achievement of two magnificent and genuinely American pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So excellent were these two achievements that I borrow from the British usage in referring to them collectively as the Glorious '65, after the year in which the second Act was passed.

And - granted the alarmed reservations of not a few Southrons - we achieved it together, as a people. Truman of Missouri, the former artillery captain, desegregated the Army; Eisenhower of Kansas, the former career soldier, sent Federal troops into the South; Kennedy of Massachusetts, the former PT-boat commander, made engaged and enlightened civility a desirable national trait; Johnson of Texas, the bull-sized coyote and professional politician, steered through or around all of the damned torpedoes and brought the ship of state into a harbor as momentous as MISSOURI's anchoring in Tokyo Bay 20 years before. Nor can anyone forget or gainsay King, who wielded the bright stern truths of scriptural Prophetry and Eastern mysticism, and in a sustained clarion call - amplified by a media not unmindful of its responsibility to us, the citizenry - he summoned us as a nation and a people to our dignity and to Truth. And so it was done.

But we are a frail species, for all the zeal of our intentions and the dignity of our ideals. Almost immediately, the Democrats took counsel of their fears. The South had been the bulwark of the Party since the end of the Civil War. Although the cagey but steadfast and mature Lincoln had defeated them, he wanted to reincorporate the Southern states with a minimum of acrimony: "Let'em up easy" was one of his last communications to his victorious generals. But a Southron sympathizer killed Lincoln - 'to send a message' we might say today - and the Radical Republicans who inherited the Federal government's vastly expanded power were fired by a righteous vengeance and a reforming zeal, intolerant of any objections and impatient of any delay. They occupied the South, put it under martial law, and governed by decree at the point of the sword and the bayonet. And they kept on doing that until political necessity required them to remove those troops in order to secure the election of 1876. But by then the damage had been done, and the South is not a place that forgets: it became a bulwark of the Democratic Party for almost the next hundred years. And so, even as he signed the Acts, LBJ observed - not without trepidation - that the Democratic Party had lost the South for the next hundred years. The Democrats in 1966 were torn between two almost tectonic forces: the zeal to ensure that the promise of 1965 was not sidetracked as was the promise of 1865, and the fear of electoral impotence consequent upon the desertion of Southern voters in reaction to the imposition of civil rights in the South.

The zeal drove the reformers to conduct a decisive blitzkrieg so that their initial beach-head, so nobly begun, would not be blunted or choked-off. Impatient of the slow process of discussion and deliberation that is the most local common action of a free society and - worse - mistrustful of it, the Democratic reformers vigorously worked the levers of power to rapidly and efficiently impose their great vision through the dual modes of Executive and Judicial authority.

The media, still feeling the bracing surge of excitement and importance that flows through the blood of those who know they are in the vanguard of great things, embraced the Cause, for it was a good Cause, against which doubt or hesitation or delay could only be considered as a failure of spirit and nerve, a betrayal of the great work. And so being for the Cause was praised in the media, while anything else was dismissed as obstruction or backlash or lumpen-stubborness. In such heady times the careful and time-consuming sifting for Truth among the media and the mature capabilities of democratic discourse among the citizenry were considered inessential: after all, the Cause was so obviously Good that it would be a almost-criminal negligence to waste time and energy entertaining any alternative input.

Worse, hadn't the Southrons used all those old-fashioned things to obstruct the promise of 1865 until they had erected the monstrous reign of Jim Crow? 'Tradition', 'reason', 'the sense of community', 'common sense', 'natural law', patience and deliberation ... hadn't all these things been used as excuses for delay and evasion, until the vengeful but righteous redemption delivered by the blood-bright sword was finally put off for a hundred years? Such abstractions would not remain available to recalcitrant Southrons to bethump the promise of 1965. There was too much at stake: a people had to be free who should have been free a hundred years ago. The Democrats, who had launched this awe-full craft, now found it taken by currents and winds beyond their control. But what could they do?

Because they were afraid, truly afraid: who would rise up to replace all those Southron voters? And if this liberation of a people spread into the North, who then would replace all of those voters? And in the North there was already political unrest as adult Democrats watched hippies and yippies claim to be the true life of the Party. And how to keep citizens from asking too many questions, taking up too much time, delaying a voyage through troubled and uncharted waters that were best navigated quickly. It would do in the emergency to stampede folks, but stampedes have a notoriously short shelf-life and the stampedees tend to take it out on the whip-holders, once the dust settles down. How to keep a good work going and yet remain still viable as a political party? How to win a new voter base without making it look like you've gone and declared war on your old voter base? Or - if that one can't be solved - then how do you get a big enough voter base fast enough to keep you from being overwhelmed by the anger of the previous voter base?

The solution that the Democrats hit upon was to raise up Identities as voter-blocs, and to promote Emotion rather than Reason as the primary motivation in public activity. They didn't pull this out of thin air. There was a school of thought that held that there were no virtues, that there was no such thing as Virtue or a Virtue; instead, a word like that was simply a coded way of expressing the preference of the particular person using the word. Meanwhile, French literary theory was toying portentously with some possibly useful and impressive-sounding stuff. Derrida dismissed what he called the "metaphysics of presence", the need among humans and their societies for certainty. Then he went and dismissed the possibility of certainty altogether: it could never be claimed because it could never be gotten-to because it didn't exist. And in making that assertion he did away with one of the carrying-walls of Western civilization, or of almost any civilization at all. Saussurian thought asserted 'anti-foundationalism' and 'difference': there is no common humanity, no universal human-ness, no abstract Human or Human Nature; there is no universality or abstraction (and there went Truth, Justice, Reason, Love, Freedom, and all those other great capital-letter words). There is only difference, of one group from all the others, of each from all. There is no commonality among humans; there is only difference, inescapable, unchangeable, unbridgeable, unending. Fanon wielded that thought like a sword, asserting that abstractions and capital-letter words are simply tools that oppressor people wield to keep down people whom they oppress, the oppressed.

Powerful stuff, at least in its destructive potential. If there are no capital-letter words or concepts, then what grounds a daily life? What makes it all 'worth it'? These questions have been around as long as humanity, and each of the world's civilizations have come up with an answer relying upon one or several capital-letter concepts; all of them have acknowledged that while daily life is sort of small-letter, there is another aspect of being or another level of being that seems to require a capital-letter. Or a bunch of them. But the Democrats were in trouble and in a hurry. And it was the Sixties.

And then in 1971 a book came out that warned of the passing of America's period of manufacturing pre-eminence; we had succeeded so well in re-building or building up the rest of the world that now they were becoming our rivals in manufacturing. There went the blue-collar voters of the Northeast along with their jobs, another huge chunk of the traditional Democratic bloc gone.

And the liberation of a people, that in the 1950s and early-60s had been a common concern and task of Americans united by the ringing but prayerful words of Martin Luther King, had morphed into something else: an agressive, assertive and demanding presence, fueled by a sense of outrage and grievance and not averse to violence. The great project of liberation upon which the Democratic Party had knowingly risked its existence - calculating that the grateful liberatees would become good citizens and even better voters - had turned, it clearly appeared, into an attack on white society. And on top of that, Nixon was making some shrewd overtures to the liberatees himself, and there was a real possibility that those for whom they had risked all would abandon the Democrats and go Republican if Nixon put in the highest bid. But it was too late for the Democrats to turn back now.

And for the media, as well. They were in for a dime, they were in for a dollar. It became necessary now to allow only the most positive spin to be put on certain topics of public interest; anything other than that might inflame a reaction that could destroy not only the gains of the previous years but even the two-party system itself. "Political Correctness" was born, new to the United States but well -established in the totalitarian societies of Europe and Asia. The mid-60's TV show "Hogan's Heroes" eerily reflected it: the German POW camp commandant or his sergeant would suddenly blurt out an obviously accurate comment (on, say, how the war was going against Germany) and would suddenly stop himself and with a look of horror warn himself out loud "Whaaaaat am I sayyyyying?" What had been going on just twenty years before in the Nazi Reich (which we had defeated) was now starting up here, although in a much better Cause. Truth itself was not the objective; it was the version of 'truth' that the government had put out for today. We laughed at Klink and Schulz ... great uniforms but they really didn't get it, those poor dumb Nazis.

And in that same 1971 another book came out. It proposed that if you opposed change then you would often be hiding your guilty opposition by blaming the victim. And this maneuver - which you may not even know you were performing - would victimize the victim (yup - sentences started to look and sound like this now) all over again, a second time. Suddenly the Democrats found themselves shepherding not only outraged voters, but outraged voters who were victims and wanted their demands met without further ado, because any questioning of the outrage would simply re-victimize the victim and was, anyway, just a cover for an oppressor's guilt. How could the Democrats placate them without running the high risk of being labelled as oppressors themselves? Yet each and all of these Identities had to be placated. Otherwise, who was going to be left to vote Democratic?

And so the Seventies. The great historic American effort to abolish slavery had been a massive and demanding effort, conceptually and morally as well as politically. It had reached a splendid point in 1965, and now less than ten years later it had taken on a life of its own; rather than seeing the national concentration on skin-color retired as a thing of the past, it was suddenly re-introduced as the wave of the future. And expanded widely. Because as each Identity came to be raised up, its birth process followed the same pattern: an Outrage created an Identity, and that Identity had an Emergency created by that Outrage and that Emergency had to be Resolved Immediately and It was so Good and so Urgent that anything short of Total Support and Immediate Gratification would constitute Collaboration with the Perpetrator. No public discussion was needed or desirable or allowed. But what could the Democrats do? Placate them all, as best it could be managed - allowing nothing, absolutely nothing, to interfere with the demands of those who would, it was hoped, bring in votes, if not become good voters.

And the media went along. What other options were there, with the Republicans left to make something out of the disgruntled and agitated Southrons, with their country music, their car racing, and their bumptious preachers. The good Cause had now become the only news in town, and the only Cause, and since there appeared to be no Truth, then who better than the press to say what the 'truth' would be? If 'Truth' was up for grabs, it was best that it be grabbed by the professionals. Who could deny the wisdom in that?

From among the Identities Outraged by Victimization and demanding Immediate and Unquesitoning Redress of their particular Emergency, there then emerged the demand for abortion-rights. And this was to become a watershed in the Democrats' already thorny dilemma. 'Tradition', 'common sense', 'reason', 'natural law', Truth, Justice and all the other major abstractions ... all of these had already been done away with. And it hadn't caused too much outcry among the citizenry: the media were ready to pounce on dissent ('backlash', it would have been called), and most folks didn't use any of these terms in day-to-day life. If a professor from a famous university or a psychiatrist or a celebrity came along and said that something that looked contrary to commonsense really wasn't, well then let it be. But with abortion, you had to start toying around with God, and did the Party really want to start putting that word in quotes? Or start using a small 'g'? The Bible had figured strongly in the civil rights struggles; aside from some Southrons still deploying their literal reading of the Bible to defend slavery and race subjection as they had done a century before, just about everybody felt that the Bible held a dim view of slavery. But in the case of abortion, most folks had the strong impression that the Bible came down forcefully for human life (assorted non-believers excepted in the early Books). There was a religious element here. And Americans - the citizenry - were a strongly religious people.

What could the Party do? Women constituted more than half the population; the men with blue-collar jobs were fading as an identifiable voting bloc, and Nixon was starting to make some impressive overtures to the recently liberated. The only solution would be to quickly placate the demands of women, insofar as these claims could be known from the organizations that claimed to represent them. But where to put God? How to keep Him in the Party without having Him spoil it? The possible conceptual solutions were unattractive, although Jefferson's passing comment about separation of Church and State in a letter provided some amount of historical support, or at least the appearance of it. Eventually, it would become a matter of leaving any talk about God from the public discourse, such as it was, then hope that the folks who didn't want Him in there were placated and the folks who did would simply go home and pray quietly.

I take no position here on any of the initiatives the Party developed to placate its Identities. But I point out that the overall operating plan of precluding public discourse and refusing any capital-letter talk that could stand in judgment over whatever initiative was demanded ... that plan did a huge disservice to the integrity of public discourse and to the ability of the citizenry to engage in sustained public discourse. This was a more or less unintentional consequence, but it is a real consequence nonetheless. And it affects us to this day. And its poisonous fruits were hanging low when the Republicans got rolling.

The Democrats today have been functioning as, and have trained as, placators and not leaders. And it's been going on for forty years or so, such that only a few very very senior Democrats even remember the days when a politician actually exercised leadership (not to be confused, in our democracy, with the militaristic commandership claimed by the current Administration). They have learned to wheel and deal not simply with money and influence (all pols do) but with the very foundational elements of Western civilization, of any civilization. They live in a world of appearances, and many of them can no longer distinguish appearance from reality, and perhaps are not even able to grasp that there is a distinction between the one and the other. (The fact that the Republicans are in the same boat cannot be considered good news to any serious citizen.)

For all practical purposes the Democrats have already disavowed the capital-letter words and the capital-letter realm. They haven't opposed the Iraq occupation as immoral? How could they? The same morality - and the Virtue or God that anchors it - that could stand in judgment over the Iraq invasion might then be used in judgment upon abortion or some other initiative dear to an Identity. No Martin Luther King has risen up against the current American reality? How could one arise? On what rock would he anchor his position? Fluidity has been the overriding principle of the Party for decades. Can it be any wonder that those who came along touting even the appearance of solid rock-ribbed Virtue and Godliness have been raised up by a citizenry too-long force-fed the thin gruel of political tactics and gamesmanship?

Those pretenders may in the coming weeks be cast down, part of the way, at least. But what then? Will the Democrats be able to lead? In the service of a good Cause and through a concentration upon the tactical and the apparent the Democrats have for decades grown away from the capital-letter dimension, the Vertical dimension of human existence. In doing so they have shrunken the vision-world of their Party and they have shrunken our civic world. They have reduced themselves to one-dimenionsal life and they have rendered our civic life monodimensional, a Horizontal world of appearance without angulating substance.

To do us any good at all, they must Go Vertical.

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Blogger Davidco said...

Welcome to the blogosphere, Publion! I like your title. Chez Odysseus was not Ithaca but rather the journey itself - which is better than any particular destination. :~))

10:37 AM  
Blogger Davidco said...

See Frank Rich in NYRB 10-19-2006 for conventional wisdom on "Ideas for Dems'.

I, on the other hand, say let's forget about having our cake an eating it too.

The only true thing Bush has ever said is that he is fighting for the 'American way of life as we know it'.

We need to decide whether we will accept the current definition of 'our way of life' or fashion a new definition that does not require Star Wars and guns blazing on all seven continents to sustain our current levels of consumption.

We need to acknowledge lies and gross errors, withdraw from Iraq and pay reparations after things settle down and a stone can, once again, be put upon a stone there.

We need to subject globalizing multinationals to the power of government on behalf of the commonweal and end the subjection of US governmental power to the predatory agenda of private capital. This requires electoral reform.

We need to relinquish imperial claims to 20% of the world's natural resources, cease depending on East Asian capital to finance our debt and begin to live within our means.

We need to cease life as an international outlaw in the areas of human rights, environmental protection and international economic development and humbly rejoin the community of nations.

We need to adjust our foreign policy and development aid in such a way that international terrorism ceases to be a military issue and becomes, once again, a matter for the police within the framework of civil liberties to which all are entitled.

This county has been gravely wounded by two terms in which the focus has been the stirring of ethnocentrism and divisive paranoia as an ideological basis for imperial war to secure unlimited access to economic resources. This has been a fool's errand from the outset and hundreds of thousands have died for it. The prostitution of corporate-owned media of communication has been a major factor in this tragedy. Ways must be found to protect its independence.

On the domestic front, science and reality testing must be restored to their proper place in the confection of public policy that is to say: tax cuts must be rolled back and a regime of austerity imposed to get contol of the national debt, restore some minimal productive capacity to the American economy, fund public works, education, social services, restructure agriculture, revolutionize transportation and city planning in the light of the approaching obsolescence of fossil fuel dependence.

It will take decades to recover a healthy basis for national unity and international cooperation. That process should begin at the next election but it won't because the positions of Dem candidates are indistinguishable from Bush The Lesser on all these issues.

7:38 PM  

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