David Frum provides a nearly apt summary of the catastrophe of the killer clown administration of George W. Bush, America's worst and most disastrous presidency with the quip: "The Bush administration opened with a second Pearl Harbor, ended with a second Great Crash and contained a second Vietnam in the middle." Of course, this summary fails to begin at the actual beginning and hence misses the mark in one key respect: The Bush administration actually opened with a stolen election, as perhaps many elections historically had been brokered, burgled, finagled before (John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes and even JFK made, let us say, conspicuously questionable ascents up the White House stairs) but never before in plain sight, in ways that suggested the failure of definitive political processes and institutions like ballots in Florida and an obviously partisan Supreme Court decision that knew itself to be too illegitimate to allow itself to become a precedent -- and hence threatened to become a precedent of another sort. The trauma of the failure of institutions that brought George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to the White House mixed a witches brew of denial, paranoia, and despair that invested Frum's "second Pearl Harbor" with conspiracy, and articulated the experience of institutional failure and decline of his "second Vietnam" with a saucer eyed horror at the realization that the case for war was based on lies and that the war itself was a pretext for indefinite detentions and torture. By the time Frum's "second Great Crash" arrived -- a Crash engineered in truth quite as much or even more by his predecessor Clinton's trade policies and deregulatory enthusiasm as by Bush policies, Brownie's "heckuva job" losing of a great American city in a Greenhouse Storm amidst rampant climate change denial had set the stage for the dysfunctional narrative of collapse into which Barack Obama, the Change candidate, would arrive on the scene.
Given all this, it might seem hard to believe that within a single year the Tea Party would be unleashed on the world (a "grassroots movement" funded and organized by reactionary billionaires) howling about palpably fictional "death panels" and by the mid-term elections a wave of union-smashing science-denying forced-abortion zealots would take over the House of Representatives and half the country's Governor's mansions. Where did they come from? How is it that their know nothing crusades and obvious white racist hostility to the President did not prevent his ascension to the White House in the first place as certainly it has relentlessly obstructed his agency in the years since?
There are two kinds of answers being offered up to these questions that make sense to me. One is embedded in a longer view and another focuses on more recent history. Martin Longman reminds us that the Bush administration wasn't only disastrous from the perspective of the democratic left but of the reactionary right, but for different reasons than the ones we are likely to focus on. He writes:
[T]he Bush administration… made Republican ideology incoherent. One moment the GOP was calling for the liquidation of the Department of Education and planning to let Medicare "wither on the vine," and the next moment they were giving us No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D. One moment they were closing down the government because they wanted spending cuts, and the next moment the vice-president was telling us that Ronald Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. One moment Bush was campaigning on a more humble foreign policy and the next moment, if you weren't with us, you were against us. The Bush administration was awful from every perspective you might wish to view it, and that includes the movement conservative's perspective. But movement conservatives were nonetheless willing to go along with the Bush administration and defend it with the harshest, coarsest, most vituperative language and rhetoric. As they unlearned logical consistency, they also lost the ability to think clearly. Logic became a kind of threat.I think it is important to read this point in light of an awareness that the Republican coalition was already incoherent -- a matter of attracting electoral majorities to benefit plutocratic minorities by whomping up irrational passions, mostly an ugly white racist patriarchal mix of class resentments and fears of change. The inept contradictions of Bush epoch policy were exacerbated by changing demographics and planetary pressures, the irrational negotiation of these contradictions by the Bush apologists who became his accusers were exacerbated by the very same changes and pressures. But I think BooMan is right to emphasize the experience of the Bush years as the cauldron in which the present Civil War was brewed: the left was first shell-shocked and then lost in despair and then enraged by the failure of institutions in these years but the right lived the contradictions of those years in ways that generated rage and despair as well, not to mention for many of them the shocked recognition that they were being used by elites.
Martin Longman proposes that two more events followed the lived crazy-making experience of the contradictions of Bush's killer clown administration to bring us to the specificity of our present distress. The first was the selection by John McCain of Sarah Palin as his running mate on the brink of a financial catastrophe second only to the Great Depression, and that only because the tatters of New Deal regulation still managed to mitigate the scope of the disaster after a generation of eager neoliberal deregulatory irresponsibility. In BooMan's words,
Sarah Palin was a colossal moron who had absolutely no business on a presidential ticket. It also became clear that John McCain had no idea how to deal with the financial crisis, as he suspended his campaign, unsuccessfully tried to skip a presidential debate, and called for an emergency meeting at the White House where he had nothing to say. This forced the conservative movement to defend both McCain and Palin i[n] ways that no sentient human being should ever defend other human beings. I believe the experience caused permanent collective brain damage to the entire Republican community. Arguing that Sarah Palin should be a stroke away from the nuclear football will do that to a brain, and a political party.I quote the whole point, because to do so reveals a tension in the formulation. It seems that Longman is pointing to Palin's lack of qualifications and the necessity of rationalization to defend her as a further breaking down of the critical intelligence of conservatives that rendered them more susceptible to the madness to come. But by yoking the point to the revelation of McCain's lack of qualifications in the face of the financial crisis the point becomes more perplexing. Although I for one would never have voted for John McCain, it doesn't seem right to suggest that he is unqualified for the office of the Presidency in the way that Palin was -- after all, I considered him more qualified than George W. Bush was in 2000 even if I obviously thought Al Gore incomparably better qualified than both of them (even after his own horrific choice of a vice presidential running mate). It is easy to see that Palin is an utterly unqualified political figure in a way that has set the stage for other conspicuous fools -- Herman Cain, Ted Cruz -- to pretend to Presidential viability in ways that risk the viability of the office as such, but it also easy to see how Palin may have seemed a sequel to the earlier choice by Bush the Father of Dan Quayle as his running mate, and hence as less threatening on first blush than it seemed so soon after. In part, Palin's choice was buttressed by the sense that her position in office at the time surely must have signaled a level of vetting that would historically have long since rejected as unviable a figure as unqualified as Palin actually turned out to be. In other words, the choice of Palin reflected institutional failure as well as hasty judgment, but in a context that renders the choice legible if lamentable.
Despite all this, I still do agree that the choice of Palin represents a key inflection point in the trajectory to our current distress. But it is not so much her palpable lack of qualifications but her amenability to circulate in a conservative media culture (she resigned her actual elected office in advance to marinate exclusively in that mediated politics soon enough, after all) that matters most about the choice of Palin. The sense of the McCain operatives that Palin would "excite the base" and "change the narrative" reflected a superficial awareness of the force of this emerging media reality but also revealed that the Republican establishment had not yet grasped the danger of mobilizing these energies to the sustainability of a nationally viable political organization -- a mistake they would re-enact on a much more grandiose and ruinous scale in the 2010 mid-term elections, symptomized most perfectly not in the Republican re-capture of the House in a wave election but in the toppling of the eminently electable Mike Castle by the utterly unelectable Christine O'Donnell, which perfectly presaged the ineffectuality of the new Republican Speaker of that House majority. The politics of the new mediated populists caters to the satisfaction of the emotional lives of isolated individuals (who are resentful and afraid of the lived reality of a diversifying, secularizing, planetizing nation reflected in prevailing multiculture and hence are ultimately unassuageable) and to the short term greed for attention and dollars of celebrities and wannabe celebrities -- also isolated individuals -- who are likely to profit most from energized minorities than the organized majorities who accomplish conventional legislative politics. When Republicans run for President in order to acquire an attentional base from which to launch reality TV shows and national book tours and discipline their messages within the confines of Rush Limbaugh's latest narrative requirements rather than those of legislative compromise then their party is no longer engaged in the work of representational politics except, possibly, at a highly symbolic level that can only connect to reality in catastrophically unpredictable ways and times.
Longman completes his diagnosis by proposing, last of all,
The final straw, however, was the decision to oppose every single thing the president tried to do. They turned him into a monster when he was never a monster. He became the Kenyan socialist usurper. That was a decision that Mitch McConnell made before the president was even sworn into office… At that point, with all the bad habits already ingrained, the party just lost control of its base… They… had ramped up the fear of the Democrats to such a height that the base decided that they were facing some existential crisis. Basically, the big steps were ideological inconsistency followed by epic failure which both required people to defend the indefensible which broke people's logical brains and respect for the truth which then caused them to respond to manufactured fear with rebellion against their own puppet masters.There is a lot of truth in BooMan's tale. One of its virtues is that it enables us to assign blame to really bad actors who deserve to be blamed, the irresponsibility of Republican appointees to the Supreme Court who stopped the Florida recount, the irresponsibility of Bush and Cheney who lied us into a war of choice, the irresponsibility of John McCain in selecting the unfit Sarah Palin as his running mate, the irresponsibility of Mitch McConnell to flout norms and exploit procedural weakness to unprecedentedly obstruct a popularly elected President and Congressional majority, the irresponsibility of the establishment to embrace the Tea Party extremists rather than face the changing realities that threatened the continued relevance of the GOP as a long-term viable national party, and so on.
All of this is very true, but there remain questions as to why McConnell and these others made the irresponsible choices they did. McConnell's reckless enactment of all-out obstructionism to make Obama a "one term President" represents the same kind of burn the whole place down mentality now bemoaned by the so-called establishment types (including Mitch McConnell) in the government shutdown over defunding Obamacare, after all. Did the potential of an Affordable Care Act seem like an existential crisis to McConnell before the inauguration as it did to the Tea Partiers in the madness of Death Panel summer so soon after? When Democrats bemoan the rejection by Republicans of the Heritage-approved health care mandate first implemented by a Republican governor, do they overlook the key difference between half-hearted Republican advocacy of a least worst but to them still bad policy in the face of the Clinton's and Kennedy's spirited defense of progressive "HillaryCare" as if it represented an earnest conservative effort at actually solving what they agreed with Democrats to be an urgent problem of inequities in healthcare provision in the United States? Republicans famously battled Social Security and Medicare, and still look keen to dismantle them, and so the passage of RomneyCare in liberal Massachusetts hardly represents the unambiguous accomplishment of a conservative ambition. It is a mistake to overestimate the overlap of liberal and conservative goals, just as it is to disavow the historical context in which present calculations appear to make sense to those actually undertaking them. It is important to ask the question of what it says about McConnell and the establishment he represents that he himself embraced extremism in the moment of Obama's victory and McCain's defeat.
The necessity to ask this question becomes glaring when we turn from reflections on what is happening in our politics right now, to proposals of what should come next if we are to change what is happening for the better. For me, the larger context in this moment of demographic diversification of the endless echoes of America's original sin, the existence of chattel slavery in the land of the free, rationalized by white racism, is as indispensable as ever to our understanding of our present distress. We can never forget that while "Lincoln freed the slaves" his Republican Party was far from accomplishing the program of "free soil, free men, free labor" of which emancipation was just a part (and, hence, in a very real way, slavery abides), and that the Democratic party of the New Deal took up that larger Republican program decades before LBJ's New Society took up the dismantlement of segregation and hence the mantle of unfinished emancipation which eventually effected the radical restructuring of the American political partisan landscape, aligning the neo-Confederate South with the Republicans in the monolithic way that remains to this day. The failure of Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War and then the amplification of Jim Crow in the aftermath of the Second World War by the creation of a white middle class by a New Deal that did not extend to migrant crop labor or domestic service, and then by the failure of Truman to establish a national health service at the same time European states established theirs, all as sops to the racist South to keep the Democratic coalition in power, set the scene for the current Civil War in the Republican party and of the culture wars recently won by the secular left which are fueling that Republican Civil War (in which geographic, demographic, discursive vestiges of the earlier Civil War still conspicuously reverberate for those with ears to hear them).
Deeply entangled with this context, and always enabled by it, is a second deep confusion and conflict over the terms in which America understands its place in history more generally. This is a larger story, a story I ramble on about quite a bit in this blog, and for which my own sense of the answers are admittedly idiosyncratic ones. More widely recognized is that modern movement conservatism was an organized resistance to the New Deal, that it involved the mobilization of long quiescent go along to get along big business interests (many of which had accommodated themselves to New Deal conditions as before they had accommodated to the Gilded Age) into investing in the long-term support of an anti-academic, anti-scholarly, anti-science insurrectionary think-tank and media infrastructure devoted to market fundamentalist ideology as delineated by figures like Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt, Rand, and Friedman. The stealthy dependence of this market fundamentalist movement politics on ugly disavowed white-racist energies (see my American Libertarianism Is Racist Through and Through for more on this) became less obscure in the Reagan epoch, when religious fundamentalism re-enacted the earlier organization of big business but this time to divert patriarchal conservative religiosity into the organized evangelical Religious Right, creating an electoral coalition of market and religious fundamentalism the incoherence of which was sublimed away by the momentum of its potent ascendance.
But just as important in my view, and less well understood, was a deep discursive vacuum this organizational energy sought practically and also rhetorically to fill. I believe that the American idea of multicultural governance is democratic in a way that is profoundly mischaracterized as capitalist, socialist, anarchist, or mixed -- to take up the terms ready to hand in our political lexicon. I believe it is a lack of clear headedness about the discernment and defense of our diverse democratic governance that renders us vulnerable to fundamentalist derangements, especially given the deeper racist and patriarchal and incumbent irrationalities they feed and which we so readily disavow rather than address. While Karl Marx (one of Lincoln's correspondents, recall) and John Maynard Keynes both proposed systems of political economy premised on the repudiation of laissez-faire capitalist assumptions, it is clearly important to distinguish the very different, to my mind equally radical, alternative visions they proposed -- it is easy to discard the Fox-watching know-nothings who treat Marx and Keynes as more or less interchangeable, but it is harder and worthier to grasp the specific differences that make a difference between the materializations of radical democracy they differently aspire to. But it is harder and worthier still in my view to grasp the ways in which FDR's New Deal was itself a different and uniquely American vision of both governmental but also economic democracy than the one Keynes proposed, let alone Marx! The story of Roosevelt's New Deal is a story indebted to Alexander Hamilton and DeWitt Clinton, and Teddy Roosevelt, too, and the rhetoric with which he championed it, in the positive promulgation of the Four Freedoms as well as in his negative attacks on the Economic Royalists, has a clarity and coherence that has never really been matched except by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the next generation.
I believe that there is a revolutionary vision of multicultural democracy shared by FDR's New Deal and King's Beloved Community that names more clearly than most otherwise available formulations the specificity and radicalism of the American Revolution and the long history of its ever more perfect union. Compare these rhetorical projects of articulation to that of, say, John Kenneth Galbraith, who recognized that there was indeed something different about "American Capitalism" from laissez-faire idealizations as well as from Keynesian productivist forms (though, unlike today's true tenured radical ideologues in Econ departments, Galbraith wasn't macroeconomically illiterate, he thankfully understood and accepted the advances represented by the achievement of the new Keynes-Hicks commonsense), and understood the "countervailing powers" of regulation as of a piece with Constitutional separation, federation, and subsidiarity of powers, but he nevertheless got caught up in the inevitably distortive metaphorics of the "mixed economy." To me the only theorist who really has managed to grasp the uniqueness of the American form of revolutionary democracy was the immigrant thinker Hannah Arendt, who described it not as capitalism but as consensual civitas and always recognized the links between the American Revolution, the American Constitution, and the American tradition of civil disobedience and nonviolent social struggle. (Of course, the name of this blog, Amor Mundi, is my genuflection to Arendt's personal motto, her own subversive mis-citation of Nietzsche's anti-political amor fati.)
About civitas, and about the indispensability of nonviolence to democratic civitas as well as the autonomy of that civitas from historical capitalism, socialism, anarchism, and mixtures with which it is sometimes confused or for which it is too often disdained, I have already written many times, as I said, most recently this:
The metaphor of the "mixed economy" is absolutely mystifying. The idea of sustainable consensual equity-in-diversity, of democratic commonwealth, is the unmixed expression of civitas. Civitas would guarantee equitable lawful recourse for the nonviolent adjudication of disputes (including disputes over what properly constitutes violence and equity and democracy); would ensure nonviolent transitions in authority through periodic elections, universal enfranchisement and office-holding and freedom of assembly and expression; would provide a scene of informed, non-duressed consent to the terms of everyday commerce through the provision of generous welfare (education, healthcare, social support, living wage, unemployment benefits) paid for by steeply progressive income, property, and transaction taxes; and would eliminate the violation of common and public goods through their accountable administration in the service of commonwealth. All of these ideas have been implemented in comparatively democratic welfare states -- many of them have been implemented less well lately due to the influence of facile, falsifying capitalist and socialist ideologies, and most of them could be implemented incomparably better simply if the process and spirit of stakeholder compromise were to prevail (which you might say is another "mix" that isn't actually a mixture at all, but the substantial if interminable accomplishment of reconciliation of which the political actually, essentially, consists). The ongoing generational churn of the plurality of stakeholders who make up the present world, peer to peer, ensures that the ongoing accomplishment of equity-in-diversity is endlessly re-negotiated, re-enacted, re-figured. What tends to be called "capitalism" and "socialism" are historically unrealized, logically unrealizable derangements of either the diversity dimension or of the equity dimension of the democratic value of equity-in-diversity. The contractual arrangements to which moral cases for capitalism are devoted will always depend for their actual legibility as consent on a substantial provision of general welfare and socialization of common and public goods typically denominated socialism from those argumentative vantages, just as anti-authoritarian cases for (eg, democratic) socialism will inevitably allow for differences of preference and outcome typically denominated capitalism from those argumentative vantages. This is because civitas, the democratization of the struggle for sustainable equity-in-diversity, is the political base from which capitalist and socialist abstractions are strained and deranged. It is what passes for capitalism and socialism in thought that is mixed up, the "mixed economy" is not a mixture of these two derangements from good sense.It is important to return to what might seem abstract theoretical considerations like these, not least because they remind us that Movement Republicanism was born in the mischaracterization of the American Way with capitalist idealizations that mask even deeper, far uglier, mis-recognitions of America with its white-racist and Christianist-fundamentalist traditions.
William F. Buckey, Jr, famously fumigated the Republican Party of its Birchers and Randians half a century ago in a bid for national viability, but it is crucial to remember that when he just as famously defined conservatism as a matter of standing athwart history, crying "Stop!" he was locating himself as continuous with the very forces he publicly disdained. The New Deal was indeed something New, but it was also something uniquely American, and world-historical -- as was the American Revolution of which the New Deal self-consciously considered itself a vital continuation. To resist its implications was indeed to stand athwart history in ways that have never been quite sane, even if there have been moments in which that Republican stance has at any rate seemed a bit saner than at other times. The nonviolent social struggles and legislative struggles for civil rights have slowly supplemented the economic and political democratization of American multiculture represented by the New Deal and the GI Bill and the New Frontier and the Great Society, and the emergence of the diverse Obama coalition has by now fatally exposed the imposture of sanity that has sometimes bolstered the politics of irrational Republican reaction.
Those who now counsel the Republican establishment to exert their energy to effect a return to such sanity fail to recognize that this would be the return to what has never been more than a semblance of sanity, and one that can no longer pretend to relevance in the diversifying, secularizing, planetizing lived reality of Obama's America. The Republicans have embarked on a Civil War because the alternative was to admit final defeat in the Civil War itself, to put white racist patriarchal corporate-militarism to rest at last and embrace the radical democratizing force of the American Revolution and its Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitutional Preamble's Declaration of Interdependence for good. The white racist patriarchal Christianist theocrats and neo-Confederates with their insurrectionist private gun arsenals and secessionist threats are dying into harmless marginality, and the plutocrats who have opportunistically mobilized their irrational energies for so long in the support of libertopian pieties confront the terrifying demand not of a return to sanity but an arrival at sanity, a re-assessment of a nationally viable and historically sustainable role for the conservative temperament in the actually real America that besets them. I know of no Republican, however "establishmentarian," "institutionalist," "moderate" they may be, who seems ready to take up this painful, costly, thankless work on the realistic terms it demands. Until then, our Civil War will rage on, as indeed our Democratic Revolution does as well.