Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Politics of Ideas - A Rant

The Republican Party is in a world of trouble today, and what is worse is that they haven’t begun to plumb the depths of the hole they’re in.

This is not good.

American politics is based on a two-party, winner-take-all system. It has never functioned very well with more than two meaningful parties – eventually they winnow out until only two are left. And it has never functioned very well with only one effective party. That kind of unchecked power to enact whatever whimsical agenda might cross somebody’s mind just isn’t healthy and opposition parties have tended to evolve out of this, regardless of the intent of the actual politicians involved.

And yet we don’t have two meaningful parties now. There is only one.

Consider this situation:

You are a political party that has basically set the agenda for the country for the last three or four decades. Everything the country is, politically – good or bad – is more or less your responsibility. You came to power on the heels of a backlash against the other party and managed to forge a coalition of voters that kept returning you into office, year after year, and even during the rare years when the other side technically had the majority it was still your agenda that set the boundaries of debate. They had to work with your ideas.

But those ideas aren’t doing the job anymore. Times have changed. The economy isn’t based on what it was based on when you came to power three or four decades ago. Social structures are different, the culture unrecognizably so. The old ideas, the ideas that swept you into power, have ossified into dogma and no longer apply to the reality most people live in. In fact a coherent argument might be made that those ideas are now counterproductive at best and – followed to their full measure in light of all those changes – disastrous at worst.

You need to change those ideas – adapt them, bring them more into line with the reality facing the country. The core is still worthwhile, perhaps, even if the applications are no longer valid.

But you can’t do this because you have been taken over by wingnuts, people far more interested in ideological purity than in effective governance. Rather than face reality, their solution is to double down on these dysfunctional ideas – to dig the hole deeper in the belief that this will lead to sunshine. Moderates – the people capable of reaching out to the other side, of adapting your ideas to new times – are being thrown out of your party, and the race to the radical fringe is on, until you are left with the fact that the extremists who are the only people who can win your primaries are too extreme to be elected consistently and even when they are elected they are far too ideologically blinded to make the kind of nuanced policy decisions that governing an actual country full of actual people with actual needs requires. They give good sound bites, but are not the sort of people you want in charge of anything that has real consequences in the real world.

Quick – who am I talking about?

If you said the Democratic Party of 1968, you get a prize.

It took the Democrats almost a quarter of a century to recover from their ideological collapse. They didn’t go away during that time – they controlled Congress for much of it, and even managed to elect a President for a single term not long after 1968 – a surprisingly narrow victory considering that Nixon resigned in disgrace and Ford pardoned him (a move whose merits might be debatable but whose unpopularity never was) but a victory nonetheless. But that was a measure of their power, not their meaningfulness. Power without ideas is hollow and fleeting. They had no ideas, and the emerging modern conservative movement ate them for lunch. Even the name of their agenda – “liberal” – became an epithet.

And now the situation is reversed. So if you answered the Republican Party of 2008-2010 to my question above, I suppose you get a prize as well. Somebody ought to be getting something out of this. It certainly isn’t the country as a whole. Might as well be you.

Modern conservatism has convincingly demonstrated itself to be both morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has failed – repeatedly – to provide effective governance, and by any objective measure the country is now worse off for having endured thirty or more years of modern conservative rule than it was beforehand.

What started as a commendable effort to reign in the excesses of liberalism in the 1970s degenerated into a slash-and-burn assault on the very real progress that those liberals had made in their decades in power, a time when the gap between rich and poor had actually narrowed and more Americans than ever before were being included in the political processes of their own nation. If you weren’t already one of society’s winners in 1980, odds are the conditions of your life got measurably worse under modern conservative rule rather than better, and that’s not the American Dream last time I checked.

The nation’s debt, measured as a percentage of GDP, had been declining steadily since WWII but rose sharply after 1980 as taxes on the wealthy were slashed while spending (particularly military spending) soared, and after the appointment of George W. Bush as president in 2000 modern conservatives quickly converted the largest budget surplus in human history into the largest budget deficit in human history, even without counting the illegal war the nation was somehow conned into fighting. Even with the money we’re spending today to get through the current recession – a recession caused by the excesses of modern conservative policies in the first place – the roots of the problem lay with those who caused the crisis, not those trying to solve it. We will be paying that debt for generations.

And perhaps more importantly, the shift from the politics of money to the politics of values, a shift undertaken by modern conservatives in the 1960s when they realized that they had nothing to offer the vast majority of Americans with their economic policies, has left the United States more fractured, polarized and unstable than at any point since the 1850s, which is quite an achievement given the 1870s, 1890s, 1910s and 1960s.

New ideas are needed. But there are no new ideas coming out of that quarter. The wingnuts have taken over, and any attempt to stray from an increasingly radical interpretation of the party platform is taken as treason, to the party at minimum and – for a group that increasingly makes no distinction between themselves and the country, to the point where they can declare without irony that they are the only “real Americans” – to the nation as a whole.

This certainly applies to their dealings with Democrats, who were left in 2008 with the unenviable task of being the grownups and cleaning up the unconscionable mess left by modern conservative rule. It is telling that when it comes to solving the problems there has been almost no cooperation from the party that created the problems.

Moreover, it also applies within the Republican Party, as those who won’t toe the Teabagger line get removed from power. The Republican Party today advocates as “common sense” positions that would have been part of the lunatic fringe forty or fifty years ago, and they expect unquestioning obedience to those positions. If you listen to right-wing commentators (something I don’t recommend, actually, as it tends to suck intelligence from the room), one of the terms you will hear thrown around with causal abandon is RINO – “Republican In Name Only.” This suggests that there is a purity test for being a Republican, that it is in fact something of a cult, with orthodoxies that must be adhered to and heresies that must be rooted out with fire and tongs. Even from the outside, the savagery of these assaults is appalling. This is not a party that is capable of adapting its ideas to changing realities. This is a party trying to dig its way to the sunshine.

To my knowledge there is no such thing as a DINO.

This is not to say that the modern conservative movement and the Republican Party that it took over after 1968 are going away. Just as the Democrats did during their long exile in the intellectual wilderness, I expect that they will win some elections and even, at times, form a majority in the government. They will remain powerful. But they won’t be meaningful, not really, not until such time as they begin to realize that the old ideas need to change. My guess is that this won’t happen until the current generation of media figures that runs the party these days retires or passes on. That’s how it usually works, anyway.

It took the Democrats nearly a quarter of a century to claw their way back to meaningfulness – to be a party that actually had ideas, whether you agree with them or no. Whether the Republicans can do this any quicker is an open question – my guess at this point is no, since they don’t seem to have realized that there is a problem to be solved, let alone actually begun trying to solve it. For the next few years I expect them to get more shrill, more extreme, and more angry, until such time as some of the younger conservatives – people with no particular personal stake in the old policies, people who can recognize the excesses of their own side along with the virtues and the virtues of the other side along with the excesses – begin to try to take their movement in other directions. They will have to fight for it, though, as the old guard never goes down easily and always trains up successors.

If this were a movie, it would be entertaining. The stakes are higher in reality, though.

6 comments:

Eric said...

It's a good piece, but I'm not sure I agree with it, particularly with the comparison between the Democrats of 1968 and the Republicans of 2010.

I would say that the Democrats' domestic agenda was largely a success through the 1960s. The party's massive vulnerbility during the era was on the foreign policy front: because the Democrats were afraid of appearing soft on communism after Truman had been hit so hard on the issue, Kennedy and Johnson allowed themselves to be drawn into Vietnam--Johnson in a big, damned-whatever-you-do fashion.

While the Democrats imploded, largely on the Vietnam issue, Nixon had three major strengths: he had undeniable anti-communist credentials, he was willing to lie about having a "secret plan" to end the war, and he was a member of the opposition party at a moment in history when the party in power had bitten off more than it could chew between an unpopular war and a bold social agenda that required undivided attention to succeed.

There are similarities between the Republican situation in 2008 and 1968 to be sure: unpopular wars, divisions over the domestic social agenda. But I'm not sure the Great Society's attempt to continue the New Deal was morally or intellectually bankrupt or lacking in vision. For that matter, to be fair, while I find the Republican social agenda to be repulsive, I have to accept that I may be on a fringe and that there may not be a substantial backlash against those ideals even if I agree they're noxious and counterproductive.

I almost hesitate to point out another distinction, except that it goes to your comment about "extremists winning primaries": two contingencies that helped complete the fracturing of the American left in 1968 were the assassinations of MLK and RFK that year. While I'm not a big fan to "Great Men" theories of history, I have to concede that the loss of leadership that year came partly from outside and it's possible that a 1968 Presidential race between RFK and Nixon would have had a different outcome from Nixon/Humphrey, particularly if, say, MLK had rallied antiwar support behind Kennedy. (Or maybe not: RFK would have had to make a stronger showing in the Northeast and Midwest than Humphrey did, or somehow steal Nixon's home state from him and win another; it may not have been mathematically possible, who's to say?)

I don't think the Republicans can blame anyone else for their lack of leadership. Indeed, one might suggest that the leadership is part of the problem: the more sober old hands in the GOP seem to be afraid of their own base and thus waffle insincerely between untenable positions.

Finally, and most regrettably, the Democrats clawed their way back to relevance largely by co-opting moderate Republican positions. The oft-repeated claim that corporatist centrists like the Clintons or Obama are "liberals" (much less "socialists") is a symptom of the deoxygenation of American politics. (It's also probably been a factor in the GOP's extremist drift, since some Republicans have tacked right to differentiate themselves from their opponents.) I agree that the country suffers under what is effectively a one-party system; the problem is that this is arguably where we've been since 1992, with the GOP's recent self-destruction merely being a final act rather than a recent development.

Thank you for the provocative post!

David said...

Eric, thank you for your considered response – I am always flattered by people willing to take my ideas seriously enough to challenge them constructively. Please take my response in the same spirit.

I would agree with your point that the Democratic domestic agenda was largely a success through the 1960s in terms of its effects. As I said, income gaps actually declined and more Americans were participating in politics than ever before. This was a moral victory as well as a political one. The fact that modern conservatism is a moral and intellectual failure is separate, and I put that later on down the post for that reason. Mostly I was aiming at a structural analysis, rather than a substantive one.

I don’t think that this domestic policy was as unimpeachable politically as I read into your comment. I think it had reached something of an end point in its ability to come to grips with society on the ground in the 1960s. The intellectual framework of those policies was forged in the Depression and it strikes me that maintaining it in the prosperity of the 1960s (uneven though it was) was going to be hard at best – part of LBJ’s groundwork was to convince the American middle class that poverty still existed at all, for example, which was not something FDR had to contend with.

More importantly, the society and politics had changed so drastically by 1968 that I think it left Democrats bewildered. This was the birth an especially powerful identity politics, for example. It was a time of increasingly radical demands for equality from outcast groups, demands Democrats as a group sympathized with in theory but didn’t know how to adapt to in practice.

Republicans did know – they opposed them, labeled them unpatriotic/ungodly/un-whatever-is-good, and crafted strategy accordingly.

And here your point about RFK/MLK comes in. While I too doubt the Great Man theory of history, I do believe that the right person in the right place and time can have a disproportionate impact on things, and the lack of such can as well. I think RFK could have won and changed things, but without him and MLK the Democrats splintered into opposition, with no coherent leadership, strategy, or ideology, and they began a race to the fringes. I’m seeing much the same dynamic (without the assassinations) in today’s Republican party. Who speaks for them? Michael Steele? Glenn Beck? Rush Limbaugh? Not one an actual political candidate for anything, and all they can do is race to the extreme and dance on the edge.

Your point on Republican leadership is well stated, as is your characterization of the Democrats as co-opting moderate Republican positions. But like them or not (and from reading your blog I think your a bit further left than I am, though not radically so), they’re reality-based ideas that present a coherent picture of what the party wants the world to look like when they’re done with it. This is more than the Teabagging Republicans have at the moment. And that worries me.

What’s interesting to me is that Republican foreign policy has arguably been more of a disaster this century than Democratic foreign policy was in the 1960s, and yet their base won’t call them on it the way the Democratic base did with Vietnam. I’m not sure I get that.

Thank you again for the exchange!

Eric said...

Good points.

I don't know if the social changes of the '60s left Democrats bewildered so much as divided, which Nixon exploited in '68 and might have blocked an RFK victory if he'd lived. Southern Democrats responded to social changes in exactly the same way the Republicans did; indeed, the Republican "Southern Strategy" was rooted in merely co-opting Dixiecrat resentments and convincing Dixiecrats to turncoat instead of running as a third party again. (Looking at maps of the '60 and '68 Electoral College results, it's distressing to note that while JFK won pre-'60s Democrat strongholds like the Carolinas and Georgia and even took half the Electoral votes in Alabama, in '68 those states all went to Nixon or Wallace--or, I'm sad to say of my home state, both.)

I think the Dems knew how to respond as two groups and it cost them; as I said, too many Southern Democrats knew how to respond--as you say of the Republicans, "they opposed them, labeled them unpatriotic/ungodly/un-whatever-is-good." The remaining Democrats, in general, were favorably disposed and knew how to respond although I suppose there's a question as to whether they had the cojones LBJ had to act on that knowledge: Johnson, to his eternal credit, knew that his racial and poverty policies would alienate conservative Democrats and, so the story goes, said aloud that the Dems had "lost the South for a generation" as a result.

I suppose history may say there's a similar polarization in the Republican party, though at the moment it looks less like the progressives-versus-reactionaries divide that split the Dems, and more like the Republicans simply have no meaningful leadership at all.

That phrase, by the way--"progressives versus reactionaries"--may be a crucial distinction between the '68 Dems and contemporary Republicans. Until 1968, much of the South had been reliably Democratic since before the Civil War, and indeed this was the core of the Democratic Party until the Dems co-opted the Populist/Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th Century, incorporating Progressive DNA into its own biology in the process. '68 was the year long-simmering tensions between progressive Northern and Western Democrats and reactionary Southern broke into open war and a rift that wasn't ever healed--the reactionary Dems largely jumped party rather than reconciling.

I'm not certain there's an equivalent process at play in the Republican party, though as I write that it does strike me as possible that the fractiousness in the party is in fact the splintering of the social-conservative-big-government and fiscal-conservative-libertarian coalition that Reagan forged with the sacrifice of 10,000 adorable kittens to Satan.

The funny thing about Republican foreign policy is that it's almost always a disaster. Nixon, of all people, did an alright job and I guess Eisenhower coped alright. Reagan was at best a mixed bag. The Republicans continue to be seen as strong on foreign policy and military policy despite having been on the wrong side of some of the most serious issues (see also: isolationism, World War II) or making a muck of things. The 21st Century, you're right, has been the biggest nightmare of all. It may be that the Republicans have been able to avoid being called out because they've mostly had the luxury of being critics in the "critics are like eunuchs in a harem" sense for much of the past hundred years. (So long as a Democrat was in the White House, Congressional Republicans could stand back and say he was doing it wrong without having to implement their own lousy ideas.) But that might be a whole 'nother topic!

David said...

“…the fractiousness in the party is in fact the splintering of the social-conservative-big-government and fiscal-conservative-libertarian coalition that Reagan forged with the sacrifice of 10,000 adorable kittens to Satan.”

And this, I think, is the key to the problems in the current Republican Party (kitten blood having an effective lifespan of two decades in politics). That they have no meaningful leadership is in some ways a byproduct of this. The social conservatives took over the party after 1968, on the backs of Nixon’s Southern Strategy (as LBJ knew they would), the internalization by conservatives of the left-wing message that “the personal is political,” and the latest of the religious revivals that this country has gone through roughly every 60 years like clockwork since the First Great Awakening around 1740 (that’s another blog post in itself). They hit their stride with Reagan, who was adept at balancing both wings of the party even if he belonged more to the second group, and consolidated their hold in the 90s.

Since then they seem to be driving out the fiscal-conservative-libertarians – I am not sure that Barry Goldwater (who lived long enough to ask what the hell business of the government it was to get involved in the issue of gay marriage at all) could get nominated for much in the 90s party of Gingrich, and certainly not the current party of Palin/Beck/et al. Oddly enough, they keep spouting the rhetoric of this outcast wing of the party, but that’s all they seem to have kept of it.

All that remains is an authoritarian movement bent on making ME behave in accordance with the dictates of THEIR faith. I find that objectionable, on both political and spiritual grounds.

I like your analysis of the splits in the 1960s Democrats. I will have to consider that further. Though if you are correct, it adds to the parallels in my original post.

Nixon’s foreign policy achievements were surprisingly many, given the way his administration functioned at home. Sometimes I think he was the last American president who actually knew what a coherent foreign policy looked like, let alone had one.

beatricemdfr said...

From this side of the pond, the Democrats recently won big on an issue that is terribly unsexy, uninteresting, yet vital to the USA's further financial health -- health care reform. Disregarding morality, the USA would have had an economic meltdown in the next ten years if they hadn't addressed this issue.
Morally, they have decided not to do what is so often done in the States -- let the sick and old wither and die. They need to capitalize on that gain. We are not Eskimos putting our old and weak out on an iceberg.
As for poverty in the 30's or 50's, let's talk about the '00s. The gap between the rich and the poor is wider than ever, and the middle class' condition has deteriorated. When will the Democrats address that issue? When the culture changes? I'm not holding my breath.

beatricemdfr said...

OK, I don't get it. What does the comment about the sacrifice of kittens means?