Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Failure Has Consequences: A Tale of Three Essays

I read two essays today (when I should have been doing other things, natch) that seemed to do a good job at capturing our political moment, and the precise contours of its problems: one broadly, one narrowly.

The essay with the broader lens was James Fallows's interesting essay in the Atlantic this month on the current notion that America is in decline, and whether it's true or not. It's largely familiar material -- at least to me; I bet it isn't to a lot of people -- but I'd summarize it as follows: we've always had the sense of collapse, and some of the specific problems are familiar; relative decline is an overstated problem; so many of our worries are groundless -- or would be, except that our political system is too !@#$%ed up to fix them, so in actual fact we're screwed.

Fallows doesn't actually end on quite that pessimistic a note. But it's not a stretch from what he actually says, I don't think.

The piece with narrower focus was Harold Meyerson's weekly column on the disappointment with Obama from liberals (via) and why his term has, in fact, not been what liberals would hope. As he puts it:
The legislative torrents of the New Deal and the Great Society -- a few brief years in the 1930s and the '60s that fundamentally reshaped the nation's economy and society -- are the templates that fire the liberal imagination. ... But as the first anniversary of [Obama's] inauguration approaches, it's clear that despite the impending enactment of a genuinely epochal expansion of health care, a progressive era has not burst forth. Major legislation languishes or is watered down. Right-wing pseudo-populism stalks the land. The liberal base is demobilized. The '30s or the '60s it ain't.
I think Meyerson does a decent job of talking about why this is so. But what struck me reading the two essays was the way they outlined the lost possibility that has slipped away -- probably irrevocably.

Fallows mentions, twice, the lost opportunity after 9/11 to remake a now-paralyzed political system and set our country on course for the coming decades:
...if we can’t fix what’s broken, we face a replay of what made the months after the 9/11 attacks so painful: realizing that it was possible to change course and address problems long neglected, and then watching that chance slip away.

In 2001, America endured an event that should have been this era’s Sputnik ; but it wasn’t. It doesn’t help now to rue the lost opportunity, but there is no hiding the fact that it was an enormous loss. What could have been a moment to set our foreign policy and our domestic economy on a path for another 50 years of growth—as Eisenhower helped set a 50-year path with his response to Sputnik —instead created problems that will probably take another 50 years to correct.

But I think Fallows is slightly off on the timing here. Sure, in some sense, 9/11 could have been a moment for national correction such as Sputnik was. But that opportunity was lost with the post-election fight of 2000. Al Gore might have used 9/11 (assuming a more competent government wouldn't have, in fact, stopped it) in this way. But George Bush, with his incompetence, arrogance and above all allegiance to a fundamentally malign political movement was never going to do this. He might have responded less negatively, not creating (in Fallows' apt if over-optimistic summation) "problems that will probably take another 50 years to correct". But he wasn't going to do anything good.

But there was another lost opportunity -- one that, I am increasingly convinced, has genuinely been already lost -- that is far more painful. And that was the possibility of a liberal renewal in January - March of 2009.

Obama not only came into office with a powerful mandate -- a historic election, a mobilized citizenry and high levels of personal popularity -- and not only had impressive majorities in both houses of Congress. He also took office in a genuine period of national crisis: not just two wars, although those are pretty spectacular, but an urgent economic crisis of a sort not seen since the 1930's and a looming environmental catastrophe of a sort never before seen in recorded history.

This, noble readers, was an opportunity.

And he blew it.

Oh, it looks like he's going to get health care passed. But he had to scratch that out, painfully, over a year, while his inadequate economic response drained away people's hope and his own popularity. He's done what he could on the environment, I suppose -- but it is inadequate to stave off disaster, so no points for effort here. And above all the moment is passed: the moment which combined not only Obama's political apogee, but the stunning, undeniable failure of the conservative movement which has poisoned our national politics for more than a generation.

We won't get that back.

The model that was needed, I think, was that of FDR in 1933. FDR also faced a government utterly inadequate to the crises of his moment. But -- without amending the constitution, by extending and transforming existing institutions as well as creating new ones, and above all by changing customs and expectations -- he not only got us through the crises, he also remade the government. To be sure, some of FDR's government-changing gambits failed spectacularly (most famously this). But he nevertheless remade the federal government, what it could do and how it worked, to solve the problems he was confronted with.

Obama? He tried to be bipartisan. And the hope he ran on drained away as he did.

I think this is the failed opportunity that will haunt us for decades to come.

Sure, political realists now talk about how all that Obama can do is what the 60th-most-liberal-Senator is willing to sign off on. And that is, undoubtedly, true -- now. But in the conjunction of genuine crises and a powerful electoral victory, more might have been done -- if Obama had steered the political conversation, and public opinion, well.

There are all sorts of ways this could have been done. For instance: there is reason to think that when the Senate writes its rules each time a new Senate organizes (i.e. every two years) that the filibuster could be eliminated simply by not writing it into the new rules. To be sure, this would be a gross violation of Senate tradition and decorum -- but then, the routine use of the filibuster is (as has been often pointed out, to little avail) just as gross a violation of Senate tradition, a distortion of a formerly little-used provision into a routine supermajority requirement. Meeting one unfairness-and-borderline-rule-breaking with another could have been justified -- in January 2009. Not now.

But the technical details aren't important. They might not even have been necessary, if the proper approach to the politics had been taken. If Obama had told the right story about the crises we were in, about what brought us there, and what his election meant, it might have created a political wave that couldn't have been fought.

But Obama didn't do it. And now it is, I fear, far too late.

(Parenthetically, this is why I think the oppose-the-health-care-bill liberals are ultimately wrong. The better bills of their dreams -- which would, of course, be much better -- were lost last spring, if not before. Now, now, the current cobbled-together sausage is the best that can be done.)

If Obama had used the sense of crisis properly, he could have passed a stimulus large enough not only to stave off catastrophe (as the actual stimulus was) but to have put America back to work (as what he passed was not). And this, more than anything, would have improved his poll numbers, which are now falling in no small part as people (reasonably) begin to ascribe more of the failures of the economy to his and not Bush's column. Political success creates momentum and political capitol: a stimulus bill such as this might have helped us get a better health care bill later.

And more than that: a good stimulus bill would not only have allowed us to begin to attend to the rotting infrastructure that Fallows mentions in his above-linked article. It might also, if done well, have kick-started some of the economic changes we need to begin to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. A good stimulus bill might not have only saved the economy -- it could have begun the most urgent task of all, saving the planet.

And more: a vigorous, successful use of the government to ward off disaster would have combined with the manifest failures of anti-government conservatism (from the negligence that abandoned the victims of Katrina to the deregulation that almost destroyed the world economy) could have been used to do the crucial ideological work of restoring the name of liberalism, tarnished by several decades of conservative lies and propaganda (and, to be fair, some of its own failures remaining from its heyday (outmatched by its successes, but the conservative propaganda have ensured that only the failures are remembered)).

And all this could have been done while changing the political culture, the very way our government works in that one brief moment of opportunity -- as FDR had to change his to build a federal government able to confront the great depression (and the Nazis).

It could have been done. But it wasn't. And when might a chance come again? If Obama muddles through, that won't actually fix what needs fixing. If he fails, he'll be replaced by someone from the party of Sarah Palin -- the most bile-filled, boneheaded and unabashedly crazy political party ever to afflict our Republic. A mediocre political party will be replaced with one that is stupid where it is not malevolent. And by the time they fail again, it will most likely be too late.

Lest anyone claim that this is all retrospective griping, I will point out that this was foreseeable well in advance. The best formulation of it that I've seen was the article by the brilliant historian Rick Perlstein, called "The Liberal Shock Doctrine", from August, 2008. He wrote:
Progressive political change in American history is rarely incremental. With important exceptions, most of the reforms that have advanced our nation's status as a modern, liberalizing social democracy were pushed through during narrow windows of progressive opportunity -- which subsequently slammed shut with the work not yet complete....

[FDR and LBJ] legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points -- our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism, and our concentration of vested interests -- to make change possible any other way....

...if Barack Obama is elected president with a significant popular mandate, a number of Democrats riding his coattails to the House, and enough senators to scuttle the filibuster of his legislative agenda -- all of which seem entirely possible -- he will inherit a historical opportunity to civilize the United States in ways not seen in a generation....

Weisbrot and Mackenzie's The Liberal Hour is a very aptly named book: a splendid evocation of just how evanescent American moments of reform truly are. They are not unlike an action movie starring Bruce Willis, who has 60 minutes left to defuse a time bomb before everything blows up. Take immediate action, and you might just get reforms that had seemed impossible the day before but are impossible to imagine America without just one and two generations later. Take it slow, however, and you might not get anything at all.
Perlstein spells out the details in the full article. (It includes the apt retort to those who point out that Obama did not run as a radical transformer, namely, that FDR didn't either, and that LBJ in the 1960 election was seen as a conservative Democrat. Obama running as a moderate didn't mean he couldn't have seized the moment when it was offered.)

But what Perlstein wrote then as a hope -- that a moment of progressive activity worthy of the heritage of the New Deal and the Great Society, that might improve our country as the lasting achievements of those eras of reform did -- has become bitter, a lament to what might have been. Perlstein accurately forecasts how conservatives have tried (with depressing success, especially given the failure of their own governance) to undo Obama; he spells what Obama could have done to avoid it.

But Obama didn't do it. And now the moment is lost.

Perlstein's article -- outlining the best hope for our nation's future -- is now a grim reminder of what could have been, but no longer can be.

In politics, it is often said (quoting the title of a famous book) that ideas have consequences; on the same pattern, it is said that elections have consequences. But failure, too, has consequences. Obama had a chance to transform the country for the better -- possibly even save it from decline. And he pissed it away.

Good as Fallows's and Meyerson's essays are, I think that Perlstein's essay -- of seventeen months ago -- encapsulates best what has gone wrong with our politics now.

In January, 2010, it makes for hard reading.

What now? Fallows has some suggestions, none convincing. The moment to informal rewrite the rules of our politics (at least for the better; rewriting them for the worse seems an always-open option) has been lost. Any formal rewriting of them is highly implausible -- and likely to be disastrous even if it could be brought about.

And so the problems that need fixing cannot be fixed. There are too many choke points in our politics: and the conservatives have grasped them, and have us by the throat. The country, and most likely the world, will be long the worse in consequence.

1 comment:

Rick Perlstein said...