Monday, August 18, 2008

DEMOCRATIC OPTIONS

On Salon, Michael Lind has a worthwhile article on “how the Democrats can win big in 2010 and beyond”. (The Newer Deal: The path to a Democratic supermajority”, http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2008/08/15/newer_deal/

I’m almost tempted to say that the Democratic Party as presently construed and comprised, as deeply entangled as it is, as deeply compromised in so many ways, is too far down in the water – and listing too heavily to port – to ever recover or be recovered; workable emergency procedures, even if they might be devised, could not be implemented without tearing the present hull structure apart; the very lethalities are so connected to some parts of the Party that it will be politically impossible to get at them if it were deemed necessary. In emergency rooms this type of patient is called a ‘train wreck’: so many things lethally wrong, and trying to fix one lethality will aggravate other lethalities. One might prudently page the chaplain … but there’s another problem there.

Nor do I say this happily. The Republicans as presently construed and enthralled to their own radical fringes do not present a consoling prospect for the Republic. While the Dems’ National Nanny State poses its own substantive threats to constitutionality and a democratic politics, it’s sorta a domestic problem. Although it has to be noted that to the extent that the world’s cultures try to ape American practices, things can ‘go foreign’ with some ease in our era. And to the extent that the Dems under Clinton developed ‘humanitarian intervention’ (read: aggressive military action) as a nicer reason than the old Domino Theory for sending up the balloon, still, the Dems haven’t put ‘preventive war’ into their Party platform like Bush put it into the National Security Strategy. We aren’t in much of a position to be warring – preventively or otherwise – at this point, and may not be for quite some time.

But Lind has an intriguing thought: “Think FDR-style liberalism, not McGovern.” Of course, he’s already let something out of the bag here: that the Democrats ever actually abandoned FDR-style liberalism in the first place. I sometimes think about the erosion of the national memory – through a corroding education system, the natural impatience and historical unawareness of youth, the unfamiliarity of newly-arrived citizens with the history of the country, and an intractable aversion of the Dems’ major constituent Identities and their Advocacies to an open and free historical review that might well highlight just how very, very large – extraordinary, the Brits might politely say – were the changes that they demanded (and sorta got) starting in the salad days of the late ’60s and the ‘70s. Substantively talking about FDR in the public forum these days might be akin to the band playing ‘Dixie’ at a national event or – say – ‘Marching Through Georgia’ at an Atlanta civic celebration. It simply isn’t done, mon ami.

But as in many other matters of substance, it appears that at this point in the election cycle it is possible (because it appears so necessary) to discuss the differences between FDR and the present ‘McGovern’ liberalism so long as nobody asks how the hell We got from there then to here now. We must thank Whomever is to be thanked for even this constricted opportunity to have a public discourse about the matter. It is – Whoever knows – about time. “The time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things …” Things which previously were not considered discussable. Certainly not by the politically unreliable unenlightened, those unreconstructed or too-simple folk who ‘just didn’t get it’. The night has been moving in funny ways, and so here We are.

FDR’s liberalism was solidly grounded in the sure and certain hope that all citizens are concerned first and foremost for their financial security and – to some sufficient extent - independence. A peasantry, a serfdom, does not offer rich soil for a democratic politics. Persons distracted by anxiety or desperate to keep food on the table are in no position to deliberate and to discharge their function as The People. To be able to meet those bread-and-butter urgencies, common to human beings pretty much universally, would fulfill the government’s unceasing obligations to the common weal and the Party’s abiding dream of reliable electoral majorities.

“The McGovern Party, by contrast, has made social issues its litmus.” Just so, but even more so. By making such “social issues” the gravamen of its politics and policies, the Party found itself increasingly unable to address the huge and hardly unforeseeable challenge of adapting the U.S. economy to the post-1960s recovery of many of the world’s larger economies from the ravaging consequences of World War Two, and then to the development of other rising nations’ economies that began to learn from the American example how to organize and then expand an industrial and commercial base.

As a result, for decades the Democrats have been (with increasing although quiet, well-hidden desperation, I think) trying to maintain the substance or – dangerously – at least the appearance of continued American prosperity and the continuing financial security of its citizens. But having in theory and to some extent in practice doubled the workforce while the number of available FDR-type well-paying and secure jobs remained static and then – ominously – began to decline, the Democrats became a party of keeping-up-appearances. Hence the boom-and-bust economy of the textbooks became more and more of a Bubble economy, and so We proceeded as if in a gauzy-golden dream, from Bubble to Bubble, diverging from the true path of a well-grounded economic productivity rooted in a well-employed citizenry unto a paper-economy of convoluted instruments and inter-corporate transactions whose arcana were presided over by a proportionally small class of wealthy mandarin elites.

And the elected representatives whose societal legitimacy rested in their presumed concern for the economic well-being of all the citizenry, found themselves simply pandering to the demands of the social-issues groups and of the mandarins. The mandarins were further presumed to be morally mature and honorable, regulating their lust for wealth so as to provide the public service of contributing to the economic well-being of the whole citizenry; while the social-issues groups kept loudly and vividly dividing and sub-dividing the citizenry on their ‘issues maps’ into ever more discrete, separate, and aggrieved fractions. Asking what one could do for America was now considered the stance of a chump, a loser who ‘just didn’t get it’, a doormat who wouldn’t stand up and grab a slab of the pie. Anyone who asked what he or she could do for America was obviously a self-hating lump; ‘sacrifice’ was just a fancy world for ‘self-hate’ and proof of chumpery. Ah, so much changed as the ‘60s went along.

And after a while the elected representatives, the legislators, found themselves unable to reconcile or even justify the myriad demands of the issues-groups and simply kept caving and giving, with no regard to any larger consequences for the common weal. Ultimately, the representatives found that it was politically advisable not to take too much ‘responsibility’ for deliberation, and simply passed whatever laws and policies were demanded of them. Let God, or the courts, sort it out. Judges, mostly, were not burdened by the need to be re-elected. The country was limitlessly wealthy and militarily unchallengeable, so why worry? There would be no moment of reckoning. Responsibility is for criminals, not leaders. Leaders must be judged by a lesser standard. After all, they have so much more they’re trying to do.

And the mandarin-class – with a shrewd though merely tactical prudence that they did not apply to any larger vision of the American polity – kept sending along chunks of their new swag to the legislators, through PACs and lobbyists and this or that funneling scheme.
And the legislators found themselves like the proverbial donkey, caught between their fear of the social-issue groups’ loud opprobrium and their lust for the cash proffered by the mandarins. These dark donkey days have lasted for decades now, and extend to the present day, wherein We are most piteously bethump’d.

It doesn’t take a Washington, a Madison, a Jefferson, or a Lincoln or an FDR to figure that a legislature motivated by fear or greed or both is of no greater utility to the Republic and to a democratic politics than is a peasantry or a citizenry of serfs. Some of the Founders were more attuned to the fear of an incapable citizenry, others more to the fear of a venal government, but all of them had deep, deep concerns. This explains their careful and indeed anxious construction of a Constitution that – like those wondrous machines concocted on paper by Leonardo and those Goldbergy contraptions developed for the industry of the late-18th century – would clunk and rattle and whirr but would get the job done, and would keep getting it done.

Lind proposes that the Democrats “create a new Roosevelt Party”, one thus based on that economic well-being which is an abiding concern – perhaps the first concern – of a massive majority of American citizens. This is an excellent new Old Idea.

And he’s also right that if the Democrats don’t do it, “the Republicans over time just might”. Well, any congregation of even modestly-endowed primates at any of the better zoos might come up with it as well – it’s that obvious. But the fact that it hasn’t been widely or openly discussed is no reflection on Lind; it is a clear indictment of the Political Correctness that for decades now has stifled free and open public deliberation. And that created a debilitating vacuum into which manipulative propagandizing, of the Left even before that of the Right and this terrible ‘war on terror’ in the East, poured like bad, bad wine into unripe skins.

But as excellent an idea as it is – and as it was back in FDR’s day – there are now some serious obstacles to its being realized.

The late-60s saw the importation into this country of ‘radical politics’, and there is every question as to whether the radicality did not trump the politics. ‘Radical politics’ was not simply radical in content; though many of its ideas were counter-intuitive at best, and the fact that they ran counter to ‘tradition’ and ‘common sense’ surely indicated that time and effort would be required for public deliberation, at the end of which some amount of acceptance – no doubt short of total fulfillment of the radical proposals – would have been the best achievable result.
But the ‘radical’ in ‘radical politics’ not only comprised content; it included method as well. The method of a democratic politics was for a wide public deliberation, in which advocates for an idea would put their proposals ‘out there’ for the public to consider; opponents, or just plain skeptics and doubters, or simply those who wished to think things through – they’d all get their say and others would then consider and deliberate until some workable consensus was reached, and then the legislators and courts would get a sense of what might be workable for public policy.

But the late-60s were full of impatient kids and older folks who had heard a far siren call, and thus the idea of a public deliberation envisioned by the Founders was overshadowed by a seductive and youthy Maoist concept of revolutionary ‘politics’ (‘political power flows from the barrel of a gun’) that had itself been derived in no small part from Lenin. And that gentleman’s illumination was that only a correctly enlightened vanguard elite – who ‘got it’ – were capable of making decisions, ruthlessly force-feeding ‘correct’ thinking into the lumpish masses, liberally deploying terror to liquidate any who objected to or doubted or simply questioned the absolute truth of the revolution’s agenda. (Lenin, for all his faults – and their name is Legion – was no relativist: there was indeed an Absolute Truth: the revolution’s.)

Clearly, any movement that had taken ‘radical politics’ as it existed in the late-‘60s, even if only in small doses over long periods of time, was not going to have any time or inclination for the unglamorous and unpredictable ruminations of a deliberative democratic politics. Nor, really, could it accurately be called ‘liberal’, since even though it professed to work for the people in the name of the people, yet for all practical purposes it condescended to the people and sought to manipulate them, deploying for that purpose state and police terror and as much if not more torture and extermination than the Tsars.

And at this point, there are now – as Nixon and Reagan saw in their day – large numbers of persons, not all of them lumpish or unintelligent, who still have some deep questions about some of the major policy decisions of the Democrats of the McGovern Party, during whose heyday not just one but a still-rolling succession of new visions and new demands by new Identities were put forth not for public deliberation but for legislative approbation and judicial enforcement upon society.

So any attempt to create the FDR Party, marvelous as the proposal truly is, must now reckon with a huge pent-up (and hardly illegitimate) trove of questions and even doubts and opposition as to this or that now long-standing Democratic position and policy. And there is most likely a sizable fraction of those kind of folks who are also unsure of the utility of ‘radical politics’ in Our democracy and may even harbor some profound doubt as to whether the Democrats, so deeply debauched for so long by such ‘radical politics’, can ever be a fit vehicle for the hopes and urgent needs of great chunks of the American citizenry. Or at least doubt whether the Democrats can change from McGovernite (I’d coin a phrase and call it Mao-ite) politics to FDR-politics in the short space of time remaining before the election.

I think Lind sorta senses that, as do other commentators I’ve read, and his solution is quietly slipped in (as it almost has to be): in the process of enlisting presently-construed social-conservatives into the Democratic tent, it need only be presumed that “social conservatives hav[e] lost the culture war”.

Now this proposal, in its content as well as in its mode of delivery within the article, is almost ‘classic’. Surely, the content of much of the societal initiatives and changes, purposely never deliberated upon and possibly comprised of much that is erroneous or unworkable in American society, cannot simply be given a free pass. So much has been done with insufficient analysis and deliberation on the part of the public or even by the legislators and even by the courts, that it would be highly imprudent for any even modestly-endowed citizen to simply forego any deliberation and wave a wand of approving amnesty over the whole stew. Ford tried to do that with Nixon’s pardon; Bush has most likely not even begun to preventively pardon or otherwise insulate all of the baad things done – albeit of course with the best of intentions – in the Seven Years’ War already waged and still raging. Do the Democrats want to go down that route?

And conceptually, Lind’s own terminology raises the dense problem: what the Dems have been doing for decades now is – and rightly – characterized as ‘war’. Not to be known – and far too easily – as a ‘culture war’, it has been a state of war, of many wars, fomented within American society with vigorous acrimony by one group against some other targeted group (for every rising Advocacy has to have an ‘enemy’, an ‘other’, a ‘monster to destroy’). There has been a non-shooting civil war going on for decades now in this country, and the Dems have been up to their elbows in it, supporting their favored Identities like Bush has favored the Georgians (not the Atlanta kind; the … other kind). Can all of this simply be swept away in the name of a political expediency, no matter how necessary or urgent or desperate?

But actually, the Dems have been all the way up to their necks in it. And We are kind of caught by the neck now as well. If the Dems lose in November, then there’s no guarantee there will be enough of a democracy left in another 4 years. Although if the sex-offense mania is tried out on yet more types of ‘monsters’, there may not be much of a citizenry still left able to vote, either; the National Nanny State – constructed like a certain Doctor’s monster to enforce the vision of the Second-Wave and thus to lure the votes of the female demographic – is only modestly less poisoned than the National Security State, and if the Republicans lose, then the Nanny State might metastasize as U.S. hegemonic thinking did when freed from the constraining presence of the Soviet Union.

So the fruits of the poisonous ‘culture war’ get a free pass and, if the FDR idea works, the Democratic Party gets a new lease on life, and the Republic with it. (I really do fear for the Republic in the next 4 years with a Republican president, given the way the former Party of Lincoln has itself become poisoned).

But it’s not going to be easy selling this. Already, the feminist Advocacy is making a last-ditch, double-down effort to establish ‘abortion’ as a Fact On The Ground by including it in the Democratic platform. And not simply as ‘safe, legal, and rare’, but rather as a definitive moral good, as ‘the high ground’. However a Lind-ian negotiator, seeking to incorporate as many discrepant voters as possible into the FDR tent, might go about finessing the common acceptance of that assertion is a question for the gods (and goddesses). It’s thus possible that the Democratic Party will see its (Our?) last election in November, dragged under by the ungovernable white whale that it has been pursuing for lo these many decades. (If only it had pursued the white male, instead – but I digress).

Whether We, cast as the crew of the American ‘Pequod’, would go down with the whale and the Democratic Ahab, is an interesting question, and not at all purely speculative. The dangers to the Democratic Party of a loss in November are serious: it comes more and more to resemble that description of a certain German situation described in the narration-text of the splendid British “World At War” series: “Germany was a bundle of competing interests held together by the strap of the National Socialist Party”. Certainly in Our present instance, those interests are not only competing but possibly irreconcilable as they are presently stated.

But We must reclaim a robust competence in a democratic politics.

And We must do it quickly. The next phrase in that narration is: “And the buckle of the strap was Hitler”.

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