Sunday, December 26, 2010

Self-restraint

Relaxing in the mist of the holiday, I picked up the latest issue of one of my favorite journals, Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, which was formed about twenty years ago to fight emerging trends in the Humanities. I joined in the early 1990s and have looked forward to the arrival of the quarterly ever since. I am not altogether happy with the direction the organization has taken. It originally included scholars of all political persuasions, including one of our most distinguished Marxist historians, Eugene Genovese, but its tone and, I would imagine, its membership have become more and more conservative over the years, and the current issue, on popular culture, includes a number of articles by associates of right wing think tanks. Yet there are still leftish members like myself, and the journal remains valuable. This quarter's lead article by Lawrence M. Mead, "The Other Danger. . .. Scholasticism in Academic Research," develops a thought I have often had myself, that today's humanities departments increasingly resemble medieval universities and monasteries, endlessly rehashing theoretical controversies of no interest to anyone outside the academy, and specializing far too narrowly to develop any insights of general use. That I must admit had some personal resonance as the year drew to a close. My idea of a historian involves the broadest possible knowledge of at least several centuries of the past, which in turn allows one to put any given era in a broader context and draw some meaningful conclusions about its particular characteristics that intelligent lay people will find intersting. No one knows better than myself that that is not a marketable skill in today's American universities.

But I was even more struck by "A Counter-curriculum for the pop culture classroom" by Thomas Bertonneau, a professor of English currently visiting at the State University of New York at Oswego. The article is not an easy read, and Bertonneau is considerably more conservative than I am in certain respects, but it nonetheless touched on the critical question to which I alluded in my last post, namely, the whole question of self-restraint or regulation of various spheres of human life. (Until the end of the calendar year--in other words, for another five days--the whole journal, apparently, is available on line here.

As Bertonneau explains it, he frequently teaches the popular culture of the past as an antidote to the popular culture of the present. He is quite acute and rather scathing about the latter, which, he emphasizes, is above all a for-profit venture. Today's popular music and film appeal to the rawest senses. They are not participatory--it is almost impossible to sing much of today's popular music on one's own. They are "segmented" demographically, that is, designed to appeal to relatively narrow slices of the population, thus making it impossible for them to create real national discourse. And they are not designed to last. To make these points, Bertonneau explains, he balances them with discussions of two critical episodes from Genesis: Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Cain's murder of Abel. And it occurred to me that those two foundational tales have a great deal with the paradox with which I have been struggling, even though I interpret the first of them very differently from him.

Bertonneau ascribes Eve's (and then Adam's) decision to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree to "resentment," a term which he does not develop sufficiently in the article, but which seems to imply resentment of authority in general. As veteran readers know, my own reading of the tale combines the psychoanalyst Alice Miller with Strauss and Howe. Bertonneau does not mention exactly what the tree is, namely, the tree of good and evil, the judgment of which god, like so many parents, wants to reserve for himself. The lord of the Old Testament is, generationally speaking, a Hero, who has created this beautiful new world (in the same way that the GI generation created the Disneyland world that Frank Rich extolled this morning) and given it to his children on the sole condition that they adopt his view of good and evil. But this is exactly what Adam and Eve refuse to do--they have reached the age when they expect their own values to count, an inevitable stage, especially for Prophet generations born after a crisis. Alice Miller has added that the Lord virtually guaranteed that they would eat the fruit of the tree by forbidding it, since children are always most curious about the things that their parents fear the most. Bertonneau seems to prefer the sexual misreading of the episode that has been so popular over the ages, because he notes that having disobeyed one rule, they have to adopt another, the rule against nakedness. I see this as more of a coincidence: Adam and Eve have become aware of the sexual power of their bodies at the same moment that they have also decided to start making their own judgments. And I have always felt the myth would be truer to life ifthey themselves had decided to leave the Garden, their "parent's" miraculous achievement which to them has become commonplace if only because it is all that they have ever known.

In any event, however, the myth of the Garden has been used over several millennia to try to restrict sexual behavior, and that enterprise was probably most successful in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which, coincidentally or not, also represented the greatest age of rationalism that the world has ever known. Because sex is so powerful it is also frightening, and taboos have surrounded it at least since the time of the Old Testament, including taboos against incest, adultery, sex before marriage, and homosexuality. Male fear of feminine sexual power, I would certainly agree, has led to much more extensive taboos as well, including those confining women to the home and, even in the 21st century, compelling them to cover their bodies and their faces. About half a century ago those taboos began to come apart in western society, with tremendous consequences. Premarital sex has become normal, divorce now ends roughly half of all marriages, women function equally in the workplace, pornography is readily available, and just week homosexuals were formally accepted into the American military, virtually completing their march towards recognition as full citizens. The taboo against adultery has not fallen, however, and indeed in some respects it has become stronger, at least in the United States, where it is no longer tolerated among political leaders, a development I have always found to be lamentable. But even though the Republican Party's coalition has included opponents of all these trends, there is no real evidence that any of them are going to be reversed, and despite the weakening of family life they have helped to produce by de-coupling sex from marriage, I must still regard them, on the whole, as a good thing.

Coincidentally enough, last week I discussed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which remains for me the best single movie about the Awakening of the 1960s and 1970s, with my elective class at the War College. Why, I asked, was McMurphy in prison and then in the mental hospital? "Fighting and fucking," one student replied, echoing exactly what McMurphy himself told the head of the hospital. Those were two of the instincts, we all agreed, that had to be restrained at least to some extent in order for civilization to function. Another student brought up the instinct of greed, against which the taboos, it seems to me, have historically been weaker. And violence and greed, it seems to me, are the key issues in Bertonneau's second example from Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy--jealousy that God, who is still playing the paternal role even to the second generation, preferred Abel's offerings to his own. Abel was greedy--greedy for recognition--and God told him to accept his disappointment and not to give in to the temptation of sin. But give in Cain did, and murdered Abel.

For the last 35 years no passion has so inflamed American politics as the jealousy of the wealthy towards the demands of the government, which has now given lower tax rates the status of holy writ. And today's Wall Street robber barons have not had to resort to violence, at least within the United States, to satisfy their greed--not, at least, the kind of violence that would land them in jail. Yet they have shown nearly as little concern for their fellow citizens as Abel, calculatedly destroying the economy which our parents had built up and laying waste to whole regions of the United States with successive recessions, each one leaving fewer jobs behind, after "recovery," than the last. It was the genius of the Missionary generation, led by FDR, to realize that modern society demanded restraints upon greed to establish a minimum of economic justice. My generation has abandoned those restraints at least as dramatically as it has those upon sexual behavior. The four Boomer justices who (along with Silent Anthony Kennedy) struck down a century's worth of campaign finance law have accelerated that process even further. Historically taxes have grown higher and the government larger during the great crises of American life--but George W. Bush managed to reverse even that trend while unleashing two new wars, and left the federal government unable to respond effectively to the latest economic crisis.

There is another tragic element of this double transformation of American life. I cannot shake the believe that it was because our parents and grandparents had done such a fine job of dealing with political and economic questions that our generation felt free to devote itself to the pursuit of sexual freedom, gender equity, and the rest. While I would not go so far as to describe those parts of life as luxuries, their enjoyment does depend upon the maintenance of a just legal order, the provision of essential circumstances, and a minimum of economic opportunity. Those were exactly the things that our parents had provided and therefore exactly the things that Boomers took for granted and assumed would always take care of themselves. The joy in the rediscovery of the emotions in the late 1960s and 1970s was all the greater because grown-ups still ruled politics and the economy (and ruled them courageously and effectively enough actually to remove a President from office for violating the law.) Our children and grandchildren, alas, may learn the hard way about the nature of societies that lack those essential protections.

True progress would consist of combining greater emotional and sexual freedom with civic spirit and a measure of economic justice. This is not impossible--a good deal of Europe enjoys that combination right now. Such a combination could also restore the faith in western civilization that has been crumbling in much of the world. It is a worthy project indeed--but one which, I am sorry to say, is unlikely to be carried out here in the United States by the generations alive today. The unborn will have great work to do.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Two possibilities for 2011

It was last July 4 that I speculated for the first time that George W. Bush had been the crisis President of our era, that his Administration had shaped our domestic and foreign policies for some time to come, and that the United States was well launched into a new Gilded Age that would last for at least twenty years. That prediction, it seems to me, looks awfully good in light of the tax cut deal. Barack Obama has given up any ideas he ever entertained of leading a liberal resurgence and reviving the spirit of the New Deal. Mainstream commentators are now lauding him as a compromiser because he has pre-emptively given in to the new Republican Congressional minority. More alarmingly, he has agreed to an outrageous, completely unnecessary 2% cut in the social security payroll tax, whose genesis remains a complete mystery to me, but which will serve as an effective foot in the door for Republican efforts to gut the program. In foreign policy he remains committed to the war in Afghanistan. He may, before this weekend is out, have salvaged two victories: the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (see yesterday's post), and the ratification of the START Treaty with Russia. But in general, he seems to have stepped into the role of his fellow Nomad Dwight Eisenhower--the President from the weaker party of his era who enjoyed control of the Congress for only two years, and who rapidly abandoned any idea of reversing the changes inaugurated by the stronger party during the previous decade or more. Obama did, of course, pass one major reform, but I think the odds are about even now that the Supreme Court will rule it unconstitutional by a 5-4 vote within two years. He obviously hopes to ride this new horse into a second term in the White House, and he may well succeed.

There are, however, two threats to this picture of emerging consensus. Obama has nothing to fear from progressives like myself, who, especially where foreign policy is concerned, matter only in primaries. We have been decimated in Congress and are not restoring our ranks, and we have no large body of organized allies among the people. He does, however, have to deal with the militant, Tea Party Republican right, who are determined to seize the political initiative. More importantly, we still do not know if the country can survive in the state to which it has evolved, especially economically, over the last few decades--the state which he and his advisers have now accepted as the new normal.

The most interesting reading I did last week was this article in The New Yorker about Congressman John Boehner and the new Republican minority. The first half of the article, about Boehner himself, is the less interesting part, because he is not a very interesting man--he is almost a caricature in miniature of his fellow Ohioan (and fellow Prophet, generationally), George Babbitt, created more than 80 years ago by Sinclair Lewis. The more interesting parts come at the end, which turns to three of Boehner's leading lieutenants, all Gen Xers: Patrick McCarthy, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor. (It's an interesting symptom of the changes in American political life that the House Republican leadership consists of three Catholics and a Jew; WASPS, except in the South, are more likely to be Democrats.) These men are true revolutionaries dedicated to gutting federal and state government. Ryan wants to turn Medicare into a voucher system allowing seniors to buy private insurance--a catastrophic idea that would kick in just as his own Generation X began to retire. They do not trust Boehner and intend to hold his feet to the conservative fire in months to come. It was for their benefit, I am sure, that Boehner explicitly rejected the word "compromise" in his interview with Leslie Stahl. Developments yesterday suggest that a government shutdown is only months away.

I mentioned a week or two ago that there seemed to be a split emerging between establishment Republicans in the Senate and the new House. When every Senate Republican sent a letter announcing that they would oppose any new legislation in the Senate until the Bush tax cuts were extended in toto, they added that they also would demand a new budget that would carry the federal government well into next year. That interesting proposal appeared to be a hedge against an early, Tea-Party led confrontation with the White House, reminiscent of the 1995 government shutdown from which Bill Clinton emerged the victor. The Senate Republicans, however, apparently lost their nerve. Yesterday they triumphantly blocked a budget bill that would have funded much of the government through the current fiscal year. The old Congress should of course have taken care of the budget months ago, but Republican obstructionism made that impossible. Now the Senate Republicans say the new House has to be heard from--and it will be. We will have to wait and see how far they want to go, and what kind of "compromise" Barack Obama will have to give in to to pass a budget. Given his performance this month, when he still had considerable bargaining power, I am not optimistic about where he might make a stand

Deficit cutting, an end to stimulus programs, and an end to serious regulatory projects will leave the economy more or less where it is. When unemployment benefits run out, as they almost surely will, misery will become more widespread. Meanwhile, Republicans at the state and local level, especially in red states, will be poushing a variety of anti-government and theocratic projects. Rick Scott in Florida is preparing a statewide school voucher plan, and the Governors of Ohio and Wisconsin have already killed big high-speed rail projects in the midst of the worst unemployment since the Depression. That is the potentially fatal flaw in Republican plans: they will do nothing for the country, and very little for the deficit. The question is whether they can continue successfully to blame Obama and the Democrats for anything that goes wrong--and whether, as seems most unlikely, the Demcoratic Party can now reverse course and start building a genuine left-wing following.

"A special Providence," Bismarck once remarked, "looks after fools, drunks, and the United States of America." Until now we have had enough friends on Olympus to avoid the worst, but our luck may have run out. I hate to say this, but a new bipartisan consensus that turns its back on government intervention to create jobs and continues to feed our leading corporate beasts may actually be the best alternative we can hope for for the time being. I really have no idea where further economic decline and budgetary chaos might lead us. Our political class, however, seems as feckless, money-beholden and irresponsible as it did in the decades after the Civil War. Liberals will rejoice if Don't Ask, Don't Tell is repealed today, and that would remove an important obstacle to full participation in American life. Alas, the opening of opportunity to women, minorities and gays has been accompanied by an increase in economic inequality, a steady collapse of government services, and the rise of new and very powerful institutions who do little or nothing for the public at large. Eventually I shall be exploring the question of whether those changes, in some bizarre way, actually go together.

P.S. The repeal is how history and it is a great day in America, and especially within the American military. An institution that relies on integrity cannot but be hurt by hypocrisy. I'm looking forward to going to work tomorrow.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A guest contribution

Last March I did a post attacking the opinion of Air Force General McPeak, retired, who had argued against repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell and claimed that he did not know of anyone who had argued that allowing gays to serve would make units more combat effective. "General," I said, "let me be the first." I may have been the first, but I wasn't the last. The following op-ed by a Marine Captain appeared today, addressed to the commandant of the Marine Corps.

Sexuality Won't Matter In Battle

By Nathan Cox

I am an active-duty U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer. I have deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and have commanded infantry Marines in combat.

On Tuesday, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said he believes repealing "don't ask, don't tell" and allowing gay and lesbian Marines to serve openly could "cost Marines' lives" because of the "mistakes and inattention or distractions" that might ensue. I am not homosexual. And in this instance, I must respectfully disagree with my commandant.

The commandant cites the importance of cohesion within small combat units and warns against its disruption by allowing homosexuals to stop concealing their identities. In my experience, the things that separate Marines in civilian life fade into obscurity on the battlefield. There, only one thing matters: Can you do your job? People care much more about whom you voted for or what city you're from while on the huge airbase with five Burger Kings, or back in the States, than they do when they're walking down a dusty road full of improvised explosive devices in Haditha or Sangin.

In the end, Marines in combat will treat sexual orientation the same way they treat race, religion and one's stance on the likelihood of the Patriots winning another Super Bowl. I do not believe the intense desire we all feel as Marines to accomplish the mission and protect each other will be affected in the slightest by knowing the sexual orientation of the man or woman next to us.

In the recent Defense Department survey, 58 percent of combat arms Marines said they felt allowing homosexuals to serve openly would negatively affect their unit, but 84 percent of combat arms Marines who had served with a homosexual said that there would be no effect or that the effect would be positive. It seems obvious that if allowing homosexuals to serve openly degraded performance, rather than improved it, a majority of Marines who had served with homosexuals would oppose repeal. Yet this is not the case, and homosexuals serve openly in the militaries of Britain, Canada, Australia, Israel and others with no ill effect. This suggests that much of the opposition toward repeal within the Marine Corps is based on the politics of individual Marines and not any measurable military effect.

Repeal would undoubtedly produce some disruption, but if other nations' experiences are any guide, it will be so minimal as to be essentially nonexistent. Consider what is likely to happen if and when "don't ask" is repealed: Lance Cpl. Smith will be having a typical Marine conversation with Lance Cpl. Jones, and the topic will turn to women. Smith will remark on how much he enjoys their company. Jones will reply: "Actually, man, I like dudes."

Smith: "Really?"

Jones: "Yeah, man, really."

Smith: "Wow. I didn't know that."

Both will then go back to cleaning their rifles.

Is it really likely that lance corporals who know each other better than brothers, and may have saved each other's lives in split-second reactions during deployments, are suddenly going to refuse to serve in the same unit or quit the Corps because they have to share a shower?

Repeal will of course have many effects. Gay and lesbian Marines who are now barred from discussing their identities honestly with their superiors, peers and subordinates would be able to do their jobs free from the nagging knowledge that they are being less than honest with their brothers and sisters in arms. It is difficult to see how this could do anything but improve their job performance. Gay and lesbian Marines have long fought and died for a country that refuses to acknowledge their existence. Some are certainly among the Marines who have passed through Bethesda Naval Hospital and rest in Arlington.

I believe the reluctance many Marines feel about repeal is based on the false stereotype, borne out of ignorance, that homosexuals don't do things like pull other Marines from burning vehicles. The truth is, they do it all the time. We simply don't know it because they can't tell us.

It is time for "don't ask, don't tell" to join our other mistakes in the dog-eared chapters of history textbooks. We all bleed red, we all love our country, we are all Marines. In the end, that's all that matters.


I don't know if the author is a Gen Xer or a Millennial, but to me he is an American hero.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Who is Barack Obama?

I met Jonathan Alter in 1977, I believe, when he was a sophomore and I was a junior faculty member at Harvard. In 1978-9, his senior year, I advised his senior thesis, which rather eerily paralleled a critical part of the book I was going to write twenty years later on the origins of the Vietnam War. It was one of the most successful theses of that year. At that time he was hesitating between politics and journalism, and he chose the latter and has been at Newsweek for most of the time since. He has now written three books, the second, The Defining Moment, about the beginning of FDR's Presidency, and the third, The Promise, on the first year of Barack Obama's, which has only just appeared. It is surely the most thorough book we have on Obama and his works, although the tone of restrained optimism on which Jon managed to end it now seems sadly out of date.

Jon hails from Chicago, his subject's adopted home, and the book is dominated by midwestern restraint. His FDR book, as I understand it, was cut back significantly by his editor and was in some respects, I thought, a bit thin; this one is about as detailed as a piece of contemporary history can be. Like Bob Woodward, he has relied largely on interviews, but without letting the interview become the story in the way that Woodward so often does. The book alternates chapters on the major policy issues of Obama's first year, including the stimulus, the auto industry rescue, relations with the financial community, foreign policy issues, and health care, with chapters on Obama the man, his life in the White House, and a few other key figures like the Clintons and Rahm Emmanuel. Democratic Congressional leaders get less attention, and Republicans get almost none. Essentially the book treats the growth of the Republican opposition the way the White House did--as unfortunate background that occasionally intrudes. Neither Obama nor Emmanuel nor Alter seems to have understood, when Alter finished the manuscript in the early spring of this year, how devastating the November elections would be.

Anyone who wants to understand Barack Obama in action should read the book. However his Presidency turns out, Obama, like Bill Clinton and, I suppose, Ronald Reagan, is an extraordinary American success story, rising from genuinely modest origins and a broken home to become the first black President. He reached the top almost exactly as quickly as Clinton but he had a much shorter political career (much to the Clintons' disgust.) The book deepens, rather than altering, our understanding of him. He is both extremely intelligent and very careful, and his equanimity is genuinely legendary. (In one of his more daring moments, Alter suggests that every successful black man still has to take care not to seem too angry, although there are certainly exceptions to this rule in academia, at least.) On the other hand, Obama has a disturbing weakness for overbearing men around him--Larry Summers and Rahm Eammanuel both come to mind--which suggests he may be relying on others to act out the tacit parts of his own psyche. He has a real sense of justice and wants to do good. Yet I came away feeling more than ever that this remarkable man has a truly tragic flaw: he trusts the system. And because our system desperately needs fixing, that alone, I am afraid, makes him the wrong man in the White House at this moment in American history--even though he certainly still looks to me as good as any of the other major candidates in the year 2008.

Barack Obama was certainly capable and dedicated enough to have risen through our educational system without affirmative action, but I cannot help but wonder if it had an effect on him nonetheless. In generations past, those like W. E. B. Dubois or Thurgood Marshall whose skin color denied them certain educational or professional opportunities inevitably became skeptics dedicated, for better or worse, to fundamental change. In the same way, although a combination of ability, birth and circumstance gave me every possible educational advantage, my professional life has instilled me with eternal skepticism about the "best and the brightest" of many eras, but especially of my own. To put it bluntly, Obama seems to have a good deal more respect for the leading economists, bankers, and even politicians of our time than I do either for those same people or for my fellow historians. In the economic sphere, especially, he surrounded himself with very conventional thinkers, led by Larry Summers, whose previous record of creating havoc at Harvard did not disturb him. "[Treasury Secretary] Geithner," Alter writes, "didn't beliee in punishing Goldman or anyone else. And he didn't back fundamental restructuring of the banking industry because at bottom, he didn't think the system was broken." There are no Harry Hopkinses or Harold Ickeses in the upper ranks of this Administration, men with backgrounds as social workers who felt the system had to be changed. The same is true in foreign policy, where Hillary Clinton has turned out to be an entirely conventional secretary of state. If one thinks that the status quo in domestic and foreign policy just needed a little fine tuning, this would make sense. If on the other hand you believe that the economic and foreign policies of the last 10-20 years have led us to the brink of disaster, then Barack Obama is not your man.

To a considerable extent Alter accepted the Obama Administration's own view of its actual accomplishments. He gives them generous credit for the simulus, for the rescues that avoided the collapse of the banking system and the auto industry (both of which, to be sure, had begun under George W. Bush), and even for health care reform. Indeed, some of the most interesting passages of the book suggest that the health care bill will allow for a real transformation of American medicine, including the end of fee-for-service compensation. If that is true the Administration was very careful indeed not to tell us about it, though, and the changes in our political life that have taken place in the last year do not make it seem more likely. But having studied FDR, Alter is only too keenly aware of Obama's nearly complete failure to emulate FDR's greatest achievement, his ability to make the American people feel, in much worse times than these, that he was on their side and would lead them to safety.

A few weeks ago I heard FDR's grandson Curtis Roosevelt, who has become a good amateur historian himself, discuss the didfferences between Obama and his grandfather. He too had read Alter's book, and he emphasized Obama's isolation within the White House and his trust of the experts. Like Obama, FDR heard from the leading economists of the day that public works programs wouldn't help the economy in the long run, but unlike Obama, he didn't care. "[The Obama White House's] disconnection from the world," Jon writes, "was the malign consequence of the American love of expertise, which, with the help of citadels of the meritocracy, had moved fro a mere culture to something approaching a cult. Obama was skeptical of cant but still in thrall to the idea that with enough analysis, there was a 'right answer' to everything. But a right answer for whom?" By 2010, Alter writes, Obama was moving towards new job creation moves, but it turned out to be much too late.

Our leadership, both Democratic and Republican, has failed us, just as it did in the 1920s and for a long time in the aftermath of the civil war. Having grown up in the secure world created by our grandparents and parents, the Boom generation has blithely torn it apart, drawing perhaps on the evidence of our childhood and youth that nothing we did could do lasting damage to existing structures. Unfortunately, it has. I am delighted that my old student declined to jump on any particular bandwagon. He has given us an unusually detailed and balanced account of a key moment in recent history, far more informative per page than any of Bob Woodward's, and I like to think that the intense year we spent putting his thesis together might have had at least a little to do with it.

Friday, December 03, 2010

A new era begins

The almost complete disconnect between the machinations of Washington, D. C. and what is actually happening in the United States at large has seldom been more apparent. Conservative Republicans, of course, claim that the Tea Party movement and the new Republican majority in the House will close that gap, but this is the reverse of the truth, because the Tea Party has even less of substance to offer than corporate-dominated establishment Republicans and Democrats. Today's Republican Party presents a remarkable paradox. It commands impressive financial resources and has a 24/7 profit-making propaganda machine with no parallel in history on Clear Channel and Fox News. It has determination, affect, emotional commitment, and a strong and identifiable ideology. But it has nothing positive to offer in the sphere of government. It now also has to deal with its revolutionary Tea Party minority, which is dreaming, yet again, of remaking Washington and returning the country to some pastoral paradox that actually never existed. As the lame duck session goes to work, it is becoming clear how they may use their new power.

Several stories in the last few days' papers illustrate this point and paint a frightening picture of what is to come in the next few months. Senate leaders Mitch McConnell and Jim DeMint have made it clear from early 2009 that their priority was Obama's defeat in 2012. To make it happen they practiced maximum obstructionism for two years, fought effective measures to deal with the recession, and rode economic distress to success in the recent elections. They have emphasized the deficit among all our ills but their first act is going to be to insist upon keeping the Bush tax cuts, which are responsible for a very large portion of it, in place. And because every Democratic political consultant seems to accept the idea that the Republicans have successfully defined the terms of the public debate, Barack Obama is not, apparently, going to try to stop them. The Constitution gives him the trump card: he could veto any extension of the tax cuts, or any extension that does not restore the Clinton-era rates on the highest bracket, thus bringing a great deal more money into the Treasury without hurting anyone who is currently unemployed. But he is not going to do so. Truly responsible action has been ruled out by thirty years of hysterical anti-tax propaganda. Instead, an excellent Washington Post story yesterday suggested that Obama's price will be more tax breaks for the working poor--a noble goal, surely, but one which will help make the deficit even bigger. Are we totally out of responsible politicians?

The same story had an interesting footnote introducing some subtlety into the McConnell-DeMint strategy, and heralding a Republican split. Every Republican Senator signed a letter the other day promising to stop consideration of any legislation (as Senate rules allow them to do) until both the extension of the tax cuts and an increase in the debt limit is passed. What slipped by was that they want to make the debt limit increase big enough to let the government keep operating until next October. McConnell is old enough to remember the government shutdown in the second half of Clinton's first term, which discredited Newt Gingrich and the Republicans badly, and he wants to stop militant Tea Party House Republicans from pulling the same trick. Today reports say the Administration wants to get a huge appropriations bill through as part of the price as well to tie the new Congress's hands until the fiscal 2012 budget has to be prepared. Curioser and curioser.

The Republicans are obviously in an uncompromising mood, and Barack Obama, as Paul Krugman rather angrily pointed out yesterday, seems to be in a yielding one. But the Republicans have nothing to offer--neither relief for the unemployed, which costs money they will not spend, nor real deficit reduction, which means cuts in programs upon which their older voters rely, or higher taxes to which they will never agree. Thus, as I suggested last week, a move towards a new "center"--one which half a century ago would have represented the right--still seems more likely than anything else. The President is also busy touting the war in Afghanistan, a trip which I have to admit reminds me of Johnson and Nixon's excursions to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, in the real America--the one the average population inhabits--things are getting worse once again. Unemployment rose last month by .2 per cent. The New York Times story on this reports that the public sector (which will now be starved more than ever) lost ground while private sector job growth was extremely modest. Corporate profits have been going up, but what the story does not explicitly say is that corporate profits now tend to correlate negatively, not positively, without growth--instead of pushing companies to hire more workers, they reflect shedding workers. The bulk of those hired have been temporaries, who do not receive benefits. This in turn suggests that we have already reached the point President Obama was warning us about when he introduced the health care reform bill: health care in the United States is too expensive for corporations to hire workers. That is why the only real cure was a public option, but it dropped out of the bill because it did not command the support of Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, who for two years were the most powerful men in America. Another story, a brilliant piece of reporting by op-ed columnist Gail Collins, also relates to health care. In its rush to cut the budget, the Arizona legislature stripped certain transplants from Medicaid coverage, and now a laid-off 32-year old truck driver with four children named Francisco Felix has been denied a liver transplant he needs to survive because he does not have a $200,000 deposit. Senator John McCain's office declined to comment on the situation and Governor Jan Brewer, the scourge of illegal immigrants, refuses to take some federal stimulus money and put it into medicaid funding. It will be interesting to see if Collins' story has any results.

I have returned several times during the last year to the analogy between Weimar Germany, which became ungovernable in the midst of a depression, and the contemporary United States. The "conservative" Republican movement and the Tea Party, I have said again and again, are not really like the National Socialists--but in a sense, one could argue, that is actually unfortunate. Adolf Hitler had horrifying plans for the future which cost humanity tens of millions of lives, but in the short he realized that the depression had brought him into power and that he had to get the German people back to work. He did not undo the public works programs that previous governments had already begun--he expanded them massively, building the autobahns, and, of course, ramped up rearmament. The German economy had very serious problems throughout the 1930s, including shortages of food, but it was the only advanced economy in the world without unemployment. The Tea Party's policies are designed, in effect, to make our economic mess worse. Next week, I hope to discuss why the Democrats have failed so utterly not only to offer convincing policy alternatives, but also to connect with the American people.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What does the future hold?

I had hoped to be posting this weekend on a new book, The Promise, by my old friend and one-time student Jonathan Alter, but the book is so thorough and moves at such a relaxed pace (something I am enjoying, actually), that that will have to wait. It is really a portrait of the modern Democratic elite, composed both of my contemporaries and those about a decade younger (like Alter himself), and it does explain a lot about the failure of liberalism in the era of Boomer leadership, but I shall have to get further to have too much to say about it. Meanwhile I have been pondering the future in the wake of the elections, and particularly the role of the Tea Party, and although it is much too early to make any definite predictions, I would like to put forward a hypothesis as to what their role might be.

While the Tea Party undoubtedly benefited enormously from generous corporate support, it represents an authentic grass-roots movement, driven by fear, anger, and resentment. Much of it genuinely opposes the Republican establishment as well as the whole Democratic Party, and a terrible battle is brewing within the Republican Party to determine whether the nominee in 2012 will be Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin. (I would give Palin at least an even chance at this point.) The Tea Party is now strong enough in the House of Representatives to make real legislative trouble for the federal government, and a story in today's New York Times indicates that the new chief House investigator, Darrell Issa, plans extensive investigations of federal bureaucracies to uncover waste. The Tea Party is also rumored to contain powerful isolationist elements (led by Rand Paul, its leading Senate infiltrator) who might actually want to reduce the US role around the world. How far is this likely to go?

The answer, in my opinion, is not very far, at least with respect to actual results. The Tea Party is actually the first Boomer-led political movement since the protests against the Vietnam War (as opposed to social movements like the women's and gay rights movements), and is therefore long on outrage and vision and short on specifics. Its vision repudiates the last 80 years, if not the last century, of American history. And thinking about comparable movements in other lands, I am reminded on the one hand of the Parisian sans culottes during the French Revolution, and the German artisan movement during the revolution of 1848--two more or less radical groups defending what they saw as their way of life, who left relatively little imprint upon history.

The sans culottes represented the Parisian mob in the early 1790s. They hated aristocrats and thus initially were the shock troops of the middle-class Jacobins, led by Robespierre, but they were not really in sympathy with the Enlightenment or the modern world. Being artisans and urban workers themselves, they distrusted capitalist enterprise, which was in its infancy in France, and free markets. Their biggest economic demand was for a "just price" of bread. Like Tea Partiers, they wanted direct democracy. The German artisans in 1848 were in a similar position: they wanted political rights, but they also wanted to stop the march of free markets and capitalism that was going to destroy their way of life, and the middle class professionals in the Frankfurt Parliament that was trying to unify Germany shunned them.

The Tea Party, it seems to me, is in a comparable state of denial about the modern world. Big government remains a necessity, not an aberration. As their own equivocations show (see for example this exchange between Rand Paul and Eliot Spitzer), they have no plan actually to cut the federal budget significantly because they cannot significantly reduce the entitlements upon which their older supporters defend. They will be no more successful than the moribund left in reducing our presence abroad. And Palin herself, with her eye on the White House, is most unlikely to favor anything that would actually make corporate America--including the big banks--very angry. And thus, I predict, the Tea Party will have a fate similar to that of the Sans Culottes, whose leaders were guillotined by the Jacobins early in 1794, not long before Robespierre's own fall signalled the end of the radical phase of the French Revolution. They, like the radical Republicans in the late 1860s and early 1870s, will eventually be defeated without achieving their goals, and this in turn will mark the forging of a new American political consensus, one likely to last for a couple of decades.

Because the Tea Party can only offer investigation, rants and obstruction during the next two years, it is very likely to discredit itself. The Republican leadership in the House and Senate--which has pandered to the Tea Party without, for the most part, actually embracing it--is leery of a replay of the government shutdowns of the Gingrich era, which helped Bill Clinton on his way to re-election. There may be shutdowns all the same, but the leadership, I think, will be forced to bring them to an end fairly quickly. I expect some federal workers to be laid off and I expect my salary to be frozen--an equitable decision in itself, although less equitable since there are no comparable checks on the compensation of the Wall Street traders who got us into this mess. The government will obviously make no new efforts to create jobs, unemployment benefits may be allowed to lapse, and certain important infrastructure projects may well be cancelled. There will also be a renewed conservative onslaught on social issues in states like Kansas which are now totally in Republican hands. But although the Bush tax cuts now seem certain to be renewed in their entirety, the George W. Bush Administration pushed the tax cut frenzy about as far as it can go for the foreseeable future. Their achievement was, from their point of view a remarkable one. The great fortunes they created will dominate our political system for many years to come. They indeed shifted the political center even further to the right than Ronald Reagan did, and we Boomers will live with the effects of that change for the rest of our lives. But I suspect that as a practical matter, the conservative revolution has run its course, and the Tea Party will be disappointed.

The discrediting of the Tea Party will parallel the final discrediting of New Deal liberalism that has taken place over the last two years. Barack Obama has been a very moderate reformer (a subject for a later post), but Republican propaganda and the election results have now convinced the mainstream media (e.g. David Brooks) that he was too liberal for the American people. To judge from the way the White House is caving in on the tax cut issue, he himself may have reached this conclusion himself. In our last national crisis the New Deal initially discredited the extreme right, but the postwar reaction beginning in 1946 then discredited much of the Left, which had allied during the war with the Communist Party of the United States. We now seem ready to see the same drama played out in reverse. Liberalism seems ready to be proclaimed dead; the most militant conservatives will have to be sacrificed to create the new consensus--the consensus which, ironically, Barack Obama dreamed of recreating. His wish may yet come true.

Indeed, it is possible that in 2017, Barack Obama will leave office having played the role of the new U.S. Grant or Dwight Eisenhower, the man who actually put many of our partisan struggles behind us. That will be even more likely if Sarah Palin wins the Republican nomination and loses, as I am inclined to think she probably would. That in turn would spur the Republicans to become somewhat more respectable as well. None of this will be especially good for America. Unemployment will remain at levels that would never have been tolerated between 1946 and 1980; inequality will continue to increase; and the Millennial generation will have a very tough time establishing itself in secure employment. We will also, quite probably, remain mired in the Middle East. To judge from the post-civil war example, it could well be another thirty years before Congress seriously addresses the nation's real problems again. (Some states, in all likelihood, will revive activist government sooner than others.) But this is, as Strauss and Howe postulated, the rhythm of history. Liberalism seems to have lost this round of our great national struggles, and a period of quiet will be needed before battle lines can be redrawn and the struggle can resume with some hope of success. Let us hope that new foreign or domestic catastrophes will not usher in a further period of militance, which is likely to benefit the right once again.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking for civic virtue

Now that the election is over we have to face the reality of what it means. Having spent the last two years pursuing maximum feasible obstruction, the Republicans in Congress now have the possibility of making things much worse. Early indications suggest that they will do so. Senator John Kyl of Arizona has suddenly decided to pull the plug on the START Treaty with Russia, which calls both for deep cuts and for inspections, claiming that the Obama Administration hasn't shown enough commitment to modernization of our nuclear forces (on which the Administration is willing to spend $10 billion a year!) or to missile defense, one sacred Republican cow that the President has been willing at least to downgrade. This has brought outrage from older Republicans like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Lugar, but not, as far as I can see, from a single Republican Boomer politician. In fact this obviously seems to reflect the broader strategy, already enunciated by minority leader Mitch McConnell, of denying the President any successes at all in order to doom any hope of his re-election. As such it represents perhaps the most irresponsible foreign policy stance of my adult lifetime.

Once again some history is in order. Harry Truman and the Democrats in 1946 suffered a Congressional defeat even more devastating than this one, since they lost the Senate as well as the House. So low was Truman's personal standing that a Democrat, Senator J. William Fulbright, publicly suggested that Truman appoint a Republican Secretary of State--who would under existing law be next in line for the White House--and resign. The election had turned on domestic issues, led by inflation, a reaction against organized labor, and, among the Republican base, a chance at long last to take on the New Deal without the intimidating presence of Franklin Roosevelt. Overseas, however, trouble was looming in Europe, where a hard winter was crippling already devastated economies and Communist parties were growing in strength. Several days after the election Truman held a press conference. Here was his opening statement.

THE PRESIDENT. [1.] Gentlemen, I have a statement for you, which I will read to you. Then it will be handed to you in mimeographed form as soon as the conference is over.

"The American people have elected a Republican majority to the Senate and to the House of Representatives. Under our Constitution the Congress is the law-making body. The people have chosen to entrust the controlling voice in this branch of our Government to the Republican party. I accept their verdict in the spirit which all good citizens accept the result of any fair election.

"At the same time, and under the same Constitution, the duties and responsibilities of the Chief Executive and the executive branch of the Government are entrusted to me and my associates.

"Our Government is founded upon the constitutional principle that the three branches of the Government are independent of each other. Under this principle our country has prospered and grown great. I should be less than candid, however, if I omitted to state that the present situation threatens serious difficulties.

"Only by the exercise of wisdom and restraint and the constant determination to place the interests of our country above all other interests, can we meet and solve the problems ahead of us.

"The stake is large. Our great internal strength and our eminent position in the world are not, as some may too easily assume, indestructible.

"I shall devote all my energy to the discharge of my duty with a full realization of the responsibility which results from the present state of affairs. I do not claim for myself and my associates greater devotion to the welfare of our Nation than I ascribe to others of another party. We take the same oath of office. We have at one time or another been equally willing to offer our lives in the defense of our country. I shall proceed, therefore, in the belief that the members of the Congress will discharge their duties with a full realization of their responsibility.

"Inevitably, issues will arise between the President and the Congress. When this occurs, we must examine our respective positions with stern and critical analysis to exclude any attempt to tamper with the public interest in order to achieve personal or partisan advantage.

"The change in the majority in the Congress does not alter our domestic or foreign interests or problems. In foreign affairs we have a well-charted course to follow. Our foreign policy has been developed and executed on a bi-partisan basis. I have done my best to strengthen and extend this practice. Members of both parties in and out of the Congress have participated in the inner council in preparing, and in actually carrying out, the foreign policies of our Government. It has been a national and not a party program. It will continue to be a national program in so far as the Secretary of State and I are concerned. I firmly believe that our Republican colleagues who have worked intelligently and cooperatively with us in the past will continue to do so in the future.

"My concern is not about those in either party who know the seriousness of the problems which confront us in our foreign affairs. Those who share great problems are united and not divided by them. My concern is lest any in either party should seek in this field an opportunity to achieve personal notoriety or partisan advantage by exploitation of the sensational or by the mere creation of controversy.

"We are set upon a hard course. An effort by either the executive or the legislative branch of the Government to embarrass the other for partisan gain would bring frustration to our country. To follow the course with honor to ourselves and with benefit to our country, we must look beyond and above ourselves and our party interests for the true bearing.

"As President of the United States, I am guided by a simple formula: to do in all cases, from day to day, without regard to narrow political considerations, what seems to me to be best for the welfare of all our people. Our search for that welfare must always be based upon a progressive concept of government.

"I shall cooperate in every proper manner with members of the Congress, and my hope and prayer is that this spirit of cooperation will be reciprocated.

"To them, one and all, I pledge faith with faith, and a promise to meet good will with good will."

It is sufficiently depressing, I think, to imagine President Obama making a similar statement or taking the time to read it on camera. Our sound-bite culture, alas, does not seem to allow for such a pungent, yet thorough, exploration of the difficulties before us. Truman, not known for his eloquence, struck the right note. But what is even more remarkable is that it worked.

The Republicans carried out their wish to put a dent in the New Deal. In particular, they passed the Taft-Hartley Law, rolling back significant labor gains and forcing Communists out of leadership positions in unions, over Truman's veto. The Republican led House Un-American Activities Committee kicked off the purge of Hollywood and exposed Alger Hiss, making the careeer of freshman Congressman Richard Nixon. But that same Congress passed the Truman doctrine in the spring of 1947 and, more critically, the Marshall Plan a year later. Bipartisan foreign policy became a fairly settled principle, and in fact, American cold war strategy was rarely more sensible than in the years from 1947 to 1950.

It is against this background that Republican threats against the START Treaty are so depressing. To reject it will in effect repudiate our own obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--specifically, to work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons--just when we are trying to keep it alive vis-a-vis Iran. This morning I heard that Senator McConnell had called for the extension of the Bush tax cuts as a top priority, and perhaps the Administration can make a deal to cave in on that front--as it evidently intends to do--in exchange for ratification. Yet I am not hopeful. The Republican leadership seems determined to make the government as unworkable as possible for as long as a Democrat remains in the White House.

Friday, November 12, 2010

. . .and Woodward Rides Again

I have now finished Bob Woodward's latest real-time account of American diplomacy, policy and strategy, Obama's Wars,, covering the Obama Administration's first eighteen months, during which time it decided eventually to increase the American troop commitment to Afghanistan by more than 30,000 men. It was far more interesting than I had expected from various reviews, and in many ways far more depressing. As we all know by now, Woodward, who began as investigative reporter trolling among the lesser employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President in 1972, has for decades made his living printing whatever powerful men and women would tell him. This time his major sources evidently included Lt. General Douglas Lute, whom George W. Bush appointed as his czar for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who stayed on at the NSC; Tom Donilon, a former political aide with foreign credentials who served as Deputy National Security Adviser under retired General James Jones and has now replaced Jones; either Vice President Biden, or someone very close to him; General Cartwright, the Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Richard Holbrooke, who would almost surely have been Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton and who is now the special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some of these people have provided Woodward extraordinarily detailed accounts of high-level meetings including President Obama--the kind of accounts which historians like myself normally have to wait 25 or 30 years to see. Had I the time, I suspect I could write at least fifty pages about this book and its various implications, but I do not. I'm going to confine myself, as I often say in the lecture hall, to about five main points.

The essential drama running through the book from Obama's inauguration to one year ago, when he announced the deployment of between 30,000 and 33,000 troops to Afghanistan, involves a polite but determined struggle between the President and the Pentagon to shape the next decade, really, of American foreign policy in Central Asia and, because of the stakes involved, in the entire world. Initially, both General Stanley McChrystal, who had just taken over in Afghanistan, and his more famous superior General Petraeus, then the CENTCOM Commander fresh from his relatively successful tour in Iraq, wanted to repeat what they continually refer to as the successful counterinsurgency operation in Iraq with 40,000 additional troops and an open-ended commitment. The Taliban, they argued in effect, had to be "defeated" because of its previous connection with Al Queda, and because a Taliban victory would embolden jihad all over the world. From the very beginning of the discussion, President Obama accepted the need to change the deteriorating balance of power in Afghanistan. In an early meeting he asked whether anyone favored complete withdrawal, and no one, sadly, did. But at the same time, the President was determined not to make an open-ended commitment to the Taliban's complete defeat, set unrealistic targets for the build-up of Afghan security forces, or find himself in an ever-larger war when the next Presidential election rolled around in 2012. He would not go as far as his Vice President, Joe Biden, who wanted relatively small fores designed merely to seek out and kill Al Queda operatives and Taliban fighters, but he repeatedly clashed with the military as well. And the final mission statement, which he wrote himself and which Woodward reproduces, makes all this clear and insists that in the middle of 2011--that is, about seven months from now--the United States will be discussing how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and, in theory, what territory can now be given to Afghan security forces. Yet Woodward provides ample evidence that our military leadership, including General Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, never took this seriously. As soon as the decision was made they began trying to deprive it of all meaning by arguing that any withdrawals would have to be based on conditions on the scene, that is, on progress, and they have continued to do so in the last six months. Now the Administration itself is suddenly shifting the critical date three years forward,, to 2014. Is progress likely in either time frame?

Neither the President or, I am sorry to say, any of his top advisers seem to be willing to admit what the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan really is, and what options it actually leads the government of the United States. In order to talk himself into this decision, persuaded himself that 30,000 more troops could have some significant positive impact over the next eighteen months. Petraeus does not seem to harbor any such illusions. He has made his name and, indeed, saved the reputation of the U.S. Army by writing the new Field Manual on Counterinsurgency and supposedly implementing it successfully in Iraq. Yet given his own assumptions, repeatedly reported by Woodward and elsewhere, I as a historian who has been studying these issues for many years would seriously question whether what Petraeus has done and is now doing counts as "counterinsurgency" at all. That is because the United States has been, and remains, a foreign occupier, and because nothing that we do will be lasting if it does not securely establish a client regime in power.

The very idea of "counterinsurgency" implies, to me, an insurgent threat to an existing government which that government has to meet. Thus, Chiang Kai-Shek in the early 1930s in China carried out very successful counterinsurgency against Mao Zedong's Communist forces and drove them into a remote corner of the land, only to come to grief later after the war with Japan had totally transformed the balance of power. The British, a colonial power in Malaya, carried out a successful counterinsurgency against a small rebel group in the 1950s, and the Philippine government did the same. The El Salvadorean counterinsurgency in the 1980s, which relied on US material aid and advice, fought Marxist insurgents to a standstill and then wisely reached a settlement with them--even though I have been told by officers involved in that effort that the government never really reduced the rebels' strength. Those situations are not analogous to post-invasion Iraq or Afghanistan, however, at all, because in those cases the United States wiped out the existing government and had to try to build a new one. We have had only very modest success along those lines in Iraq (except in Kurdistan) and the government crisis there, which has now lasted the better part of a year, is not hopeful. We have had even less success in Afghanistan. What Petraeux managed to make happen in Iraq was a relatively successful occupation by American forces who made some key local alliances and managed to root out the worst insurgents and stand up some Iraqi forces of very uneven quality. We have not however left Iraq and it is not clear when the remaining 50,000 or so troops will do so. Our occupation of Afghanistan, now finishing its ninth year, was not large enough to be remotely successful, and Petraeus and McChrystal never promised to secure the whole country even with their maximum requests. They argue, however, without much evidence, that they can establish enough security for a strong Afghan government to come forward. That was our goal in South Vietnam as well and it seemed to have been largely achieved in 1971, but we had not, as it turned out, created a South Vietnamese government that could face the military threat from the North or the political threat from the Viet Cong. Local political forces decided the issue, just as they will in Iraq and Afghanistan. As in South Vietnam, we can only prevent the Taliban from coming to power in much of Afghanistan (though probably not all) if we remain there with large forces indefinitely. Some military leaders, to judge from Petraeus's much-quoted statement that we will leave these wars to our children, seem to believe that we will. What no one, throughout this whole book, was quoted as saying was that to do so would surely exacerbate the very problem we are trying to combat. This is the first major point I want to make.

Whether we admit it or not, the United States is clearly trying at this point to do at least two things: to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, and to prevent the spread of militant Islam anywhere the world. (A third objective established by President Bush--the destruction of any hostile Islamic state that poses a conventional or potentially military threat to American interests and allies--has been put on the back burner for the moment, but could easily return to the top of the list with respect to Iran.) We shall take up the question of terrorist attacks in the US in a moment. What seems obvious, meanwhile, is that the presence of American military forces in the heart of the Muslim world has consistently fueled Jihad, not moderated it. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have been magnets for young Jihadis, just as Afghanistan was when the Soviets occupied it thirty years ago. Millions of Muslims--literally--will never accept the long-term American occupation of Muslim nations. The Taliban has become larger, more militant and better organized in response to our presence, as General McChrystal's initial 2009 assessment of the situation recognized. The obvious person to have raised this issue within the Obama Administration, it seems to me, is Secretary of State Clinton, but she evidently buys the argument that we must show resolve in Afghanistan lock, stock and barrel, and she also commented in one meeting that we had to stay in Afghanistan partly for the sake of women's rights. In fact, thinking over the experience of reading the book, I am not sure that the policy makers included a single person who qualifies as a genuine expert in the Muslim world and who might have made this obvious point. Although Administration figures from Obama on down differ on exactly how many Americans we need in Afghanistan, they all implicitly accept the idea that we can fight Jihad with exactly the kind of American-backed client governments that Jihadis resent the most.

The question of terrorist attacks on the United States emerges in the latter part of the book as critical, after the failure of two attacks, the Christmas day airplane shoe-bomber and the Times Square bomber, both of whose devices fortunately failed to function. The former was apparently trained in Yemen, the latter in Pakistan. And Pakistan, as responsible American officials do understand, is both the refuge of Osama Bin Laden at the moment, and the place where Al Queda is training young men with US or European passports to commit attacks in the West. Several people do mention during this book that it seems unlikely that Al Queda would ever return to Afghanistan, since they seem to be so much safer where they are. Yet the Administration persists in regarding Pakistan as our ally, and in believing, as is detailed at length in the book, that a mixture of very generous aid (billions of dollars annually) and avuncular tough talk can make the Pakistanis do something about it. Only a few of the bolder second-level Americans ever dare state the obvious: that Pakistan does not, taken as a whole, want to do anything about this problem. We have similar illusions with regard to Afghan politics and Afghan leadership, but I will leave those for another day.

Pakistan, to be sure, is not united on this point--but the most powerful institution in Pakistan seems to be the Inter-Service Intelligence Agency, ISI, which has long maintained close contacts with the Taliban in Afghanistan, with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group that carried out the Mumbai attack in India, and with other terrorist groups--including, at least at one time, Al Queda itself. They seem to be playing a role similar to that of the Black Hand, the secret organization within Serbian military intelligence before 1914 that organized the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and triggered the First World war. It is very clear, although it is only obliquely acknowledged in Woodward's book, that the ISI and the Pakistani government want the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan. That is one reason they allow them to operate in safe havens on their side of the border and it may be why they do not stop attacks that have destroyed a number of American convoys supplying our troops over the roads from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Exactly why the Pakistanis cannot stop the training of terrorist who want to kill Europeans and Americans is less clear. It seems at least possible that some of the ISI shares the whole Jihadist agenda. Faced with this situation, the leadership of the American government continues to hope that Pakistan, facing the threat to itself, will turn over a new leaf. But the threat the Pakistani government worries about the most is India, and it is convinced, indeed, that our protege Hamid Karzai is a tool of Indian intelligence, as well as of the United States.

Incredibly, Pakistan for ten years now has managed to play footsie with both of the major antagonists in the war on terror, Al Queda and the United States. I have argued here repeatedly that it would behoove us to face reality and offer the Pakistanis a simple deal: we will disinterest ourselves in Afghanistan if they will hand over Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the rest of the Al Queda leadership. Instead Woodward makes very clear that a time bomb is ticking right now. Within another year, I predict, another western citizen trained in Pakistan will successfully carry out a significant attack in the US, killing dozens or hundreds of people. At that point, we are poised to strike as many as 150 targets inside nuclear armed Pakistan. If we do, I think almost anything is possible in return, including nuclear terrorism. Barack Obama, weakened as he is by the election and new setbacks abroad, will probably have to do something rather spectacular if an attack succeeds. The alternative of telling the American people now that we cannot prevent such attacks, and will probably have to live with one as the British, Spanish, and Indians have, seems not to be on the table.

I was appalled to learn, in fact, that General Jones had actually told the Pakistani President that Obama would have to respond because of political pressure in the United States. That, however, was only one of many incidents suggesting that a Democratic President--even one elected with a substantial majority like Barack Obama--cannot afford to follow his own instincts in foreign policy for fear of being branded a wimp. This came out frequently in the narrative. Republican Senators like John McCain and Lindsay Graham think nothing of telling senior military leaders like Petraeus to try to force Obama to do what they think is best. Obama was dissuaded from cutting back further on the Pentagon's troop request by the threat that Secretary Gates, the Bush holdover whom he had asked to stay on (and still wants to remain as long as possible), might resign if he did. No Democratic President, CIA director Leon Panetta remarks at one point, can afford to take on the Pentagon. It is almost as if one of the most critical provisions of our Constitution, that making the President commander in chief of the Armed Forces, does not apply when a Democrat is in the White House. Obama himself played to this appalling state of affairs at least once, telling Lindsay Graham that he had to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan by 2011 not because the country needed it, but because "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party." The idea that Democrats like myself might simply be right is, apparently, unmentionable.

The book's heroes include several second-level officials. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired general now in Afghanistan, tried in a leaked cable (which I believe I commented on at the time) to warn Washington that Hamid Karzai would never change to the extent necessary to make our Afghan dreams come true. I am adding to this post on Sunday evening, and it has already provoked a comment claiming there is no analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but it is wrong. Any intervention of this type is ultimately hostage to our local clients, and Karzai and his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai bear an almost uncanny resemblance to Ngo Dinh Diem and Ngo Dinh Nhu, who were equally unable to stem the rebel tide. President Karzai's interview this weekend calling for a smaller and less aggressive American presence perfectly echoes what Nhu was saying during 1963. John O. Brennan, the NSC deputy for counterterrorism (the post once held by Richard Clarke), evidently understands that what we are doing in Afghanistan cannot possibly help him prevent terrorist attacks on the US. But as in 1964-5 under LBJ, the senior "principals", with the exception of Biden (another parallel), backed the expanded effort. I have often remarked that nearly ever ambitious person eventually reaches a level at which he is no longer paid to think. I'm glad I've never gotten there.

Which brings us to Barack Obama the man. This is, surely, the most detailed account we have yet of Obama as President, and it was not reassuring for me. He is highly intelligent and has some good instincts, but he is, above all, a consensus builder who strives to reconcile the consensus with his own views--sometimes at the expense of reality. And in foreign policy as in economic policy, he is obviously a centrist who trusts expert advice. Given the domestic and foreign policy innovations that George Bush had put through in his eight years in office, that meant that Obama was not going to try to undo them and get us on a truly new path. He is, sadly, handling the Bush legacy the way Dwight Eisenhower handled the legacy of Roosevelt and Truman. Today's newspapers report that the White House is going to cave in on the extension of all the Bush tax cuts. The President's own deficit commission has released a draft report that is almost incredibly conservative, and very dangerous. Obama now presides over an America that has moved very far from the right, and he has repeatedly proven that he has no plans to do very much about that.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Where do we go from here?

For the past 16 years the United States has been in a bloodless civil war, parallel in many ways to the shorter, far more violent one during the 1860s. Millions of Americans have questioned the legitimacy of each of our last three Presidents. The Republicans have helped create a vast media establishment that daily trumpets the idea that Democrats are not real Americans. They have also adopted the idea that the federal government has become the enemy of the American people. During the last few years they have begun to propagate a new view of American history--new at least in the mainstream--which attempts to repudiate all the major developments in American government since the presidency of William McKinley. The Republicans have purged nearly all the moderates from their ranks, while the voters, last Tuesday, purged a great many moderates from those of the Democrats. Very few wars run smoothly from beginning to end, and in 2006-8, the Republicans lost the initiative and suffered significant setbacks. This in no way altered their campaign plan, however, and they have now regained the initiative and have a significant chance of coming back into power throughout the government in 2012. And all the while, they have become more and more detached from reality--and that, more than anything else, makes it very difficult to predict what is going to happen during the next two years.

Rush Limbaugh--one of the real victors last Tuesday--raised some eyebrows early in 2009 when he announced that he wanted President Obama to fail, but given his priorities, he could hardly have done otherwise. The modern Republican Party of which he is a critical part cares about one thing and one thing only: winning elections. To do so it will shut its eyes to any unpleasant reality and take advantage of any popular resentment. Since Newt Gingrich's famous memo back in the early 1990s, it has shamelessly used its own form of Newspeak to characterize everything the Democrats try to do. Republicans now routinely reform to Obama's watered-down, insurance-industry approved health care plan as "a government takeover of health care." Obama, they say, launched his political career in Bill Ayres's home. From there it is a small step to the tacit approval of the idea that Obama is a Muslim or a non-citizen. And of course, the Republicans never stop railing about the deficits that their own tax cuts have been creating at every opportunity since 1981. The biggest reason why I simply cannot believe in the sincerity of the Tea Party is this: if they truly cared about balanced budgets, Bill Clinton would be their favorite President. He is not.

The Republican strategy has worked brilliantly, on the whole, by redefining our political agenda and skewing our debate. When one spends so much time reporting or debating fantasies, there's no time left to focus on reality. I suspect the number of Americans who could identify Monica Lewinsky is far higher than the number who could accurately remember the state of the federal budget in 2000. The media, including the few outlets that can fairly be described as liberal, spend the most space on extreme Tea Party candidates. Who got more ink this fall, Christine O'Donnell, who never had a chance to be elected, or Russ Feingold, a long-time Senator? Why does Sarah Palin get more attention than all the rest of the Republican hopefuls combined? Because she is obviously unqualified to sit in the White House.

Republican enthusiasm has several sources. I pointed out six years ago that the Republican coalition includes the losers in the two previous crises in our national life: white southerners and corporate interests. (It is interesting that the corporate interests continue to prefer Republicans even though their control over Democratic officeholders is nearly as absolute.) Sadly, whole generations of white southerners have grown up since the civil rights movement who still seem to resent the ignominy it cast on their region--all the more so, of course, because they deserved it. A bad conscience remains one of the most powerful historical forces in human life. Meanwhile, the corporate elite has benefited almost unbelievably from the tax cuts and deregulation that began under Reagan, and seems to want even more. Their huge fortunes, combined with the Citizens United decision, have given them unprecedented power over political campaigns. Their money was used this fall to arouse resentment, above all against Barack Obama, our first black President, and Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American political history. And it worked. The Republicans have also drawn, of course, on the revival of religious faith, although that part of the coalition seems to be declining somewhat in importance at the moment. And the Republicans have made substantial gains among my own Boom generation, which seems to be worried about its entitlements and unable to grasp that the Democrats not only put those entitlements in place but have a far better record of standing up for them.

The Democratic response to the Republican onslaught has been disappointing in the extreme. Democratic politicians have criticized Republicans--especially President Bush and Vice President Cheney--but have made no parallel, systematic attempt to demonize them. More seriously, from their point of view, they have offered no serious alternatives on the policy front, with the sole exception, for which they get no credit, of fiscal responsibility. (The deficit has, of course, increased under Barack Obama, but that is because of the economic crisis he inherited. Those wishing to understand the actual source of the deficit should go back a couple of posts.) As I wrote last week, they are just as much under the control, effectively, of the financial services industry, the communications giants, the food industry, and the health care industry as the Republicans. Because their coalition still contains a few genuine New Dealers like myself and because they theoretically believe in government reform, they spent the last two years passing bills claiming to reform health care and the financial services industry, but they were completely unable (and in the latter case unwilling) to do anything serious. Obama and his closest advisers also accepted free-market orthodoxy with respect to their response to the great recession, eschewing serious efforts to reduce mortgage foreclosures or raise employment, and thus incurred the wrath of the electorate, as they will again in critical states in 2012 if nothing much has improved. The Democrats are the party of the establishment, and establishment solutions are not working. Last Sunday I heard Curtis Roosevelt, FDR's grandson and a good amateur historian, confirm that FDR never trusted establishment wisdom and insisted on results. Obama, alas, is a different matter.

The best data I have found to illustrate what actually happened last Tuesday is a summary of exit poll data on House races provided by the New York Times. I urge all readers to look at it, and in particular, to check "Size bars according to population of groups" in the box at the left. The graph breaks down Republican and Democratic votes along various demographic lines, including race, gender, and income. To begin with, Republicans made large gains, usually 10-20%, this fall in every single category. They wiped out the gender gap among women, leaving the Democrats just 1% ahead in female votes, while increasing their share of the male vote 36% relative to what it was in the 2008 Congressional elections. (To be clear, a 36% increase in their vote meant about an 18% increase in their share of those voters.) They even increased their black vote by 7% their hispanic vote by 8%, and their Asian by 18%, and won 60% of the whites, where they enjoyed a narrow majority last time. They increased their vote in every income category, although the Democrats held on to narrow leads in voters from households making $50,000 or less. Even more stunning was the actual makeup of the electorate. Two thirds of the voters were at least 45 years of age, and these older voters went heavily Republican. As measured by these polls the electorate was about 80% white--that's right, 80%. The combination of relentless Republican propaganda and Administration failure on the economic front has turned significant numbers of every demographic against the White House. Those who felt their economic situation had improved or stayed the same voted The handwriting is on the wall for 2012. A plurality of those polls counted themselves as tea party supporters.

We have every reason to believe that Republican strategy will remain the same for the next two years. Mitch McConnell has already stated that his first priority is to make Obama a one-term President. Hannity and Limbaugh are trumpeting the need to continue the fight (and Limbaugh, interestingly enough, spent much of the Wednesday broadcasts complaining that establishment Republicans hadn't done enough to help Sharon Angle in Nevada or O'Donnell in Delaware.) I would not be surprised to see a House committee begin an investigation of President Obama's early life and career, complete with subpoenas to the state of Hawaii asking for his birth certificate and to Bill Ayres and Jeremiah Wright to explain their views and their nefarious influence upon him. Such tactics would be no less frivolous than those they applied against the Clintons. And the media, enthralled by such spectacles, never bothers to point out that they make the actual government of the United States impossible.

Meanwhile, the United States has real problems which only the government can solve. We shall have no more stimulus packages for at least the next two years, which will mean that unemployment will remain high (quite possibly contributing to more Republican electoral success next time) and that our infrastructure will continue to deteriorate. Any chance of actually reducing dependence upon fossil fuels, as the entire rest of the industrialized world has been doing for decades, is gone for the foreseeable future--a catastrophe whether one believes in global warming or not. Health care reform will either be cut back or, quite possibly, struck down by the Supreme Court, where Republican ideology is now in the ascendancy. That means health care will drain more and more money from the economy.

The question right now is whether the Tea Party freshmen and their allies like Senator Jim DeMint, the new John C. Calhoun, will actually be able to bring the federal government to a halt. This is not at all impossible. No money can be spent henceforth without the consent of the Republican House, which will have to authorize large increases in the debt limit. Perhaps the House leadership will be able to appease them by finding token programs to cut, but that is unlikely to work very long. We face a crisis, as Germany and the United States did in 1931-2, because we have effectively ruled out the only possible solutions to very real problems. Popular rage will increase without any evident hope of drawing any effective response to those problems.

Perhaps the best hope, at least from the standpoint of the stability of the United States, is for a coalition of some establishment Republicans and Democrats to agree on absolutely essential measures like increasing the debt limit, just as they did, eventually, on the TARP program in 2008. But as I read those words myself, it is clear that such an approach is exactly what McConnell and DeMint, at least--and probably John Boehner as well--want to avoid. They remember that that is what Newt Gingrich did in 1995-6, leading to the re-election of Bill Clinton. They do not want Barack Obama to become known as a successful bipartisan President; they want to keep the image of him as a proto-totalitarian alive. The establishment media will tend to assume that they will work with the President because it seems so eminently sensible--but that is not what drives these Republicans. While they have nothing to offer at a policy level, they are totally serious about validating their propaganda and winning it all. They will also receive all the personal reinforcement they need from their own constituencies and their own media outlets.

Democratic strategists believed after 2008 that demographic trends would keep them in power for a long time. That prediction looks rather shaky today. The youth vote did not turn out in force. Hispanics apparently saved Harry Reid and Michael Bennet in Colorado, but not several Democratic Congressmen in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. Meanwhile, the coming redistribution of House seats will put at least ten more in the Sun Belt. The President's chances of once again carrying Indiana, Ohio, or even Pennsylvania appear to have taken a big hit, and his prospects in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina look even worse.

I have followed the trend of the campaign and totally ignored foreign policy, but it is, if not an elephant, at least a camel lurking in the living room corner. The President will undoubtedly be tempted to put more of his energy into it, even though he can no longer travel outside the country without the Drudge Report headlining outrageous estimates of the hourly cost of his trips. Already, however, the Israeli press is predicting that the Republican revival will make the Administration more pro-Israel. And what will happen when a Times Square bomber succeeds, which only seems to be a matter of time? Then the President will face an unpleasant choice between reacting appropriately and being blasted as weak or pro-terrorist, reacting with large-scale strikes against Pakistan and bringing the threat of nuclear terrorism infinitely closer. That, however, will be the subject for another post.

Lastly July I speculated that our great crisis had actually begun in 2000 with the stolen election, and that President Bush, not President Obama, had shaped the new America. At this point I think the Republican Party could easily make that prediction come true by adopting the even more centrist positions, especially on deficit reduction, that the President also seems ready for. With liberalism's favorite projects already dead (financial regulation) or dying (health care reform), we could have a new consensus on small government and high unemployment, and our politics might calm down. Yet the Republicans, like their radical counterparts after 1866, do not seem ready for this. They want to continue trampling Democrats and their ideas into the dust. And since we have had no great war, this time there is no General Grant or General Eisenhower on the horizon to provide at least the appearance of consensus. These will be testing times indeed for American democracy.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Changing Times

I thought I was done posting for the weekend (see yesterday for a more important one), but as often happens, a few stories in this morning's New York Times set me thinking about the evolution of America and the American media. Herewith a few comments.

The Times leads with a big story on the fight for the U.S. Senate, one that illustrates the continuing conflict between older and newer forms of journalism and, indeed, of thought. The story, by Jeff Zeleny and Carl Hulse, includes a map handicapping the Senate races. The map shows the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, New Hampshire and Alaska as "Leaning Red," that is, Republican. It shows Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, and Pennsylvania as "toss-ups." It does not explain what those designations are supposed to mean.

Some months ago the Times scored a brilliant coup, in my opinion, when it hired Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com to post his almost daily columns on the times web site. Silver began his career as a baseball analyst for the excellent site Baseball Prospectus, which took the essential insights Bill James developed during the 1980s and pushed them to new levels of sophistication. Their premise--and Silver's--is that numbers do not lie, although they also spend a lot of time developing confidence estimates for the numbers data gives them. Silver uses a number of models, frequently updated, to use all available data to estimate the results of coming races. His measure of the reliability of data is closely tied to how reliable it has been in past elections. If a certain pollster has a tendency to favor one side or the other (as many do), he controls for that within the data. I don't have the data in front of me but as I recall he predicted the electoral votes in the last Presidential election almost exactly.

Now what is interesting is that although Silver now works for the times, the reporters who write for the print newspaper evidently feel no obligation to pay any attention to him, because his numbers tell quite a different story than the ones on page 1 this morning. Rather than rate Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Kentucky as "leaning" to the Republicans, he gives them a 100% or 99% chance in each of those states and in several cases has regarded a Republican victory as a certainty for months. He gives Russ Feingold a 95% chance of losing in Wisconsin which is also described in the story as "leaning." Turning to the "toss-up" states of Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, he gives Republicans Pat Toomey and Sharon Angle chances of 92% and 81% respectively in Pennsylvania and Nevada and Patty Murray an 81% chance in Washington state. He agrees that West Virginia is now pretty firmly leaning Democratic but the only genuinely close races left, in his view, are Colorado and Illinois. Individually the Republicans are more likely to win either one of them, but it is probably more likely that the two races will be split. Exactly why the national reporters and their editors feel entitled to ignore the best data available--published by their own organization--is not clear. I suspect that in two years Silver may actually appear in the print edition, but I'm not sure.

A second, unrelated bell went off in my head when I began Richard Brookhiser's review of Ratification, on the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, by the excellent historian Pauline Maier. Maier is a traditional political historian of the American revolutionary period. Having gotten her Ph.D in the mid-1960s, she has managed to have actually had a career at a major university nonetheless, in her case, M. I. T. And like me (I barely know her, by the way), she isn't afraid to write about previously well-covered topics; this book follows another very fine one that changed my understanding of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Brookhiser is something of a political historian himself, but he feels compelled to insert, near the beginning of a very favorable review, the following sentences: "One caveat: To like this book, you have to like politics. 'Ratification' is an ur-text of the Almanac of American Politics. It has process, issues, arguments, local context, major players, minor players--and hoopla." I do not think that sentence would have found its way into a review of a similar book 30-40 years ago, for the simple reason that a Times reviewer would have assumed, in those distant days, that his or her readers were engaged in American politics and its history as a matter of course. But of course in a sense Brookhiser is right: today's history majors can pass through four years at an elite university without learning the details of American politics in any era. Maier was trained by Bernard Bailyn, one of our most eminent historians, who taught colonial America and the revolutionary/constitutional period at Harvard for several decades. Today the Harvard History Department does not include a single scholar who has written detailed work on high-level American politics and government in any era of American history--not one.

It has been many years since I have taken much interest in the National Football League. I was as obsessive a fan you could find through the 1960s and 1970s, but my move to Pittsburgh in 1980 coincided with the Steelers' fall from grace, and the birth of my children forced me to cut some things out of my life, and the NFL turned out to be one of them. Still, Judy Battista's story on the front page of the sports section, on linebacker James Harrison, who was given a heavy fine for a dangerous hit last weekend, caught my eye. Harrison represents a type that has certainly gotten much more common in the last half century, even if it could occasionally be found even then--a fundamentally asocial young man who has never been able to accept authority and who has been in trouble with authorities for much of his life (although he has been arrested only once), challenging coaches to fights and, for a long time, being unable to learn defensive schemes. Yet he has survived a lot of career ups and downs and emerged as a star nonetheless, largely because he tackles so hard. The story actually seems quite sympathetic to his plight--suddenly, the league, in an attempt to prevent the onset of early dementia in so many of its players, has decided not to allow him to tackle in ways dangerous to players' long-term health. And Battista, after quoting a friend that Harrison loves will do anything for children but doesn't seem to care much for adults, actually writes, "That woudl seem like the ideal personality for a football." The players George Plimpton chronicled in two books 40-50 years ago cared about other adults, including both teammates and opponents, and seemed to understand that a certain cooperative ethic was necessary for success. That, of course, is the lesson we now seem to have forgotten at almost every level of our society.

Friday, October 29, 2010

How did we get here?

Last July 4, in what was probably the most important post I've made since Barack Obama took office, I suggested that the great crisis which I had been expecting since reading Strauss and Howe in the 1990s had not begun in 2007 or so, but rather at the time of 9/11, or perhaps, one might suggest, at the time of the stolen election of 2000--a most inauspicious beginning for one of the critical eras in American history. I had reached that conclusion because it seemed quite unlikely by last July that Barack Obama and the Democrats were going to reverse the course of American history and bring back the expanded government responsibilities, the well-regulated financial system, and the desperately needed infrastructure investments that were the hallmark of the New Deal. That sense has been more than vindicated during the past four months, as Democratic prospects for Tuesday's elections got worse and worse. While it now seems very unlikely that the Republicans will control the Senate after Tuesday, they do seem likely to emerge with 48 or 49 seats, and they have a better than four in five chance of taking control of the House of Representatives. Worse, for reasons which I am not going to try to go into today, the demonization of liberalism and all it stands for has if anything accelerated. Democratic candidates are running away from the President's achievements rather than running on them, with many incumbent Congressmen pledging not to vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker again. Pundits galore are proclaiming that Obama has come to grief because of Democratic radicalism, even though it is not clear that he even attempted one reform of genuine significance. The only fervent New Dealers left seem to be 60-somethings like Paul Krugman, James Galbraith, Robert Reich, and myself, and it is not at all clear where a new generation of such leaders or thinkers would come from.

Where, then, does the United States stand today? What has happened to us?

In the Gilded Age, America was dominated by unregulated bankers like Jay Gould and Jim Fisk and (later) J P. Morgan; by railroad magnates like Vanderbilt and Pullman and Harriman and many more; by heavy industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick and, a little later, Henry Ford; and by John D. Rockefeller and the emerging energy industry. My generation was apparently the last one to grow up reading textbooks who painted these men as villains and lionized the trust-busting progressives who at least put a dent into their power, laying the foundation for the New Deal. Of those four power centers, two remain. The financial industry, whose power and wealth were drastically curtailed by New Deal reforms, has now come back stronger than ever since those reforms were largely repealed in the 1990s, and it had more than enough influence in the Obama Administration to prevent even an attempt to bring those reforms back. (It was painful indeed to hear the President tell Jon Stewart that my old antagonist Larry Summers had done "a heckuva job.") The energy industry managed to prevent the Senate from voting on a very weak cap and trade bill. Neither heavy industry nor any transportation mode remains an economic and political power in the United States. Their place has been taken by the health care industry, which protected itself effectively against any drastic changes in the health care reform bill; the food industry, which does enormous damage to the nation's health and quality of life; the national security establishment, which is once again using up an increasing share of our GDP for purposes of very little use to the public; and, I would suggest, our state and local employees--including police, firefighters, prison guards, and teachers, especially--who have enormous claims on both present and future resources. One might also add the higher education establishment, which sells entry permits into several of these sectors.

These are, it seems to me, the growth sectors of our economy--and all of them are to one extent or another parasitic, if not indeed harmful, upon productive sectors. The private entities among them operate in defiance of the antitrust laws, from which health insurers are specifically exempt. The public entities face some threats to their future owing to the poor economy, but they are still holding their own. Among the many societies I have studied at one time or another, I would suggest that Old Regime France presents particularly striking similarities to our current plight. While private power operates unchecked with the help of enormous influence over the government, the average citizen is locked out of decisions, and pays a much higher than average percentage of his or her income in taxes. (Effective rates, it seems to me, are probably highest on people making between $50,000 and $150,000 a year.) Meanwhile, a great many public positions (though not civilian federal civil servants or most teachers) receive not only good salaries and benefits, but handsome pensions, often for more than half of their adult lives.

Two years of the Obama Administration have in my opinion established beyond doubt that one of this changes very much according to who is in power. Obama came in as a reform President and the Democratic Congress went through the motions on health care, for which it may have done a little good but no more, and finance reform. He spoke a new language on foreign policy but there, as in economic policy, he relied on establishment advice, and has made no real changes yet. After next Tuesday he will have no hope of advancing a domestic agenda, even if he still has one, and he may well become more of an activist in foreign affairs. He could still vindicate the Nobel Committee's premature hopes for him, but there is not much sign of it yet.

The long-term economic future of the bottom half of the country remains bleak, but it is not clear that the upper half sees itself in a crisis. With the help of the elderly--another growing and still relatively well-to-do group--the Republican Party is set to regain control of the House and certainly has a decent chance of regaining the White House next year. It is difficult to believe that Obama can win Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Nevada and Colorado again, and meanwhile, the Republicans will gain at least 10 electoral votes thanks to a redistribution of seats. They will not, clearly, be able to help the economy very much, but neither did U.S. Grant. I suspect Karl Rove now hopes his party can regain power based simply on not being Democrats--and he may be right. The real problem, as in the 1868-1901 period, is that the alternation between the two parties does not seem to make much difference. The Citizens' United decision and the proliferation of huge fortunes will continue to ensure that.

If things take another turn for the worse economically, or if the United States sustains more serious terrorist attacks, or if we become involved in another prolonged struggle in the Muslim world, the legitimacy of the government could be seriously threatened again. But I am not sure that it will. The anti-government orthodoxy has grown along with the power of private institutions, and it once again enjoys a powerful bastion in the Supreme Court. We are not on the verge of a new outbreak of totalitarianism in advanced countries; our problem is too little authority and organization, not too much. We do seem destined to fall further behind much of the advanced world in health care and our income distribution will probably become even more unjust. Eventually a real reform impulse will arise again, but I do not see how it can revive--or, more to the point--who is likely to revive it. Like the civil war crisis, the much less costly crisis that we seem to be passing through now has not strengthened institutional authority, and does not seem likely to do so.