This post shall break an unspoken rule that has guided my hand for a good year now. I am about to write about domestic politics.
Long term readers of the Stage know that American political issues do not get much coverage here. Save in the rare cases where they intersect with the broader realms of history, international affairs, and strategic thinking, I leave my thoughts on domestic politicking at the door. The reasoning behind this decision is simple: picking the truth out of the nest of theatrics, sound bites, hatchet jobs, and electoral machinations that make up America's domestic political system is a tiresome and mind numbing exercise.
This is not to say an aversion to boredom is the only reason I keep the course. By avoiding the temptation to devote this site to cheap political potshots, the Stage has remained unscathed by the swarms of partisan hacks that are as inevitably drawn to them as flies are to dump heaps. Far from being a trolling station, this blog has drawn readers from across the political spectrum, and the discussions in the comment threads have been all the better because of it. I would hate to ruin a successful formula.
I am afraid I shall do so anyways. I do not depart from tradition lightly – there is a good reason for my change of heart. I have grown increasingly concerned with the state of American political discourse. I keep a close eye on conversations in camps both left and right, and what I see disturbs me. Ours is a political culture handicapped by self-imposed insularity. Not simply collections of like minded people, political persuasions have become secluded bubbles that cast their occupants asunder from reality. Meaningful dialogue between the two sides is gone. Dead. Eradicated. In its place is a battle of caricatures, both camps engaged in a fierce competition to see who can burn the most strawmen at the party bonfire. And who can blame them? Those dwelling worlds apart from reality form a poor picture of it. Having fooled themselves into believing their own propaganda, America's pundits thunder past each other, shouting not to gain the attention of – much less engage with – their stated opposition, but to win the acclaim from the throng that holds them up.
This is an unhealthy development. Not without precedent in our history, but a dangerous ailment nonetheless. Democracy bereft of dialogue is dead. Like it or no, our current state of affairs has created a trivialized people and a divided republic
And this genuinely frightens me.
So I shall do my part to stop it. The mixed readership of the Stage makes this site an ideal forum for such an effort – or at least, as ideal a forum as can be found among semi-popular blogs of a political nature. What I aim to present below is an accurate portrayal of current progressive and conservative thought, absent hyperbole or spin. My hope is not only to spark a frank exchange of views from both camps, but to recalibrate the lines upon which we debate. You shall be the judge of how successful I am.
Over the last few weeks "reconciliation" has become a rather popular word in Washington. Particularly popular with the President and his cohorts, it is a term mostly used by those from the left side of the fence. The adoption of this trope is quite recent. I first noticed its use shortly after the election of Scott Brown (R-MA) as Democrats scurried about trying to piece together a strategy in wake of an electoral defeat they were utterly unprepared for. Shortly afterwords the President and his men began to use the word with some enthusiasm; if nothing else, the Obama administration knows a winning rhetorical device when they see it. Thus the last month and a half has seen my mailbox (the recipient of my subscription to White House's e-newsletter ) cluttered with messages lauding the President's efforts to work with the Republican opposition. Even the White House's health reform web page reflected this change in emphasis, with conspicuous tabs trumpeting "Republican Ideas" and "Bipartisan Meetings" quietly added in.
I doubt this conciliatory posturing is done for the Republican's sake. The message has been delivered mostly through mediums conservatives avoid (who reads White House e-mails but progressive fanboys anyway?), and has had, as far as I can see, little impact in conservative circles. No, the target demographic for the message of 'reconciliation' are those the Democrats are truly afraid of losing in the upcoming elections: moderates and progressives frustrated with the Democrat's inability to accomplish what they promised. In other words, Scott Brown Democrats.
In a time where most Americans are frustrated with Washington as a whole and find little to like in either party, calls for reconciliation are useful. It is an easy way for the Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Republicans. "Look", they say to voters, "we have been trying to fix this country all along. We have even been willing to go to the other side for help. They are the reason this country has ground to a halt." It is a truism amongst Americans that a house divided cannot stand; Democratic media hands never fail to point out that it is the Republicans who keep the house divided.
A standard example of this line of reasoning was published but a few days ago in Merced Sun Star (H/T Rethinking the US):
The Republican Party has taken a position entirely new to this country.
Rather than helping to govern, in what historically has been known as the role of "loyal opposition," out-of-power Republicans instead have decided to put party ahead of country -- and so they refuse to participate.
No matter what bills are proposed and how much good they might do an obviously ailing country, Republicans vote "no."
On most issues in the U.S. Senate, it's all of them.
And because of arcane parliamentary rules that dictate Senate action, a unified minority of 40 senators in this 100-member body can stop anything even from being debated -- let alone brought to a vote.
So what you have is total gridlock, and Republicans consider that a "victory" because it gives them a chance to claim Obama and the Democrats couldn't fix the country's problems.
We've reached a point where the good of the people, those same people Republican Abraham Lincoln once claimed owned their government, has been tossed into a passing Dumpster.
All that matters is politics.
For the Democrats the advantage of this narrative is clear: it not only relieves them of the responsibility for their first year of failed governance, but provides them with with a new villain to crusade against – the corrupt and Machiavellian politicians who care about nothing but power, known by most people as Republicans. The disadvantage of this narrative has also made itself clear: many progressives have actually started to believe in it.
Is there truth in the claim that the Republican minority is being obstructionist simply because it is in their political best interest to do so? Of course. Yet no one – least of all progressives – ever seek to explain why this is so. How is it that the Republicans can bring the entire system to a halt without taking any flak from a base that whips itself into a frenzy upon hearing of government waste and bureaucratic politicking? The answer, I think, is that this base – and the politicians it elects – do not see the party's obstructionism as a matter of politics, but principle. This point was aptly summarized by a post written by at Three Sources, home to many conservative blog friends of mine:
"Boulder Refugee." ThreeSources.com. 18 February 2010.
Over the past 80 or 90 years, the US has gradually drifted to the left in the form of expanded government regulation, bureaucracy, oversight and personal intrusion. During the periods in which Conservatives have prevailed at the ballot box, the result has been an arrest or a slowing of the leftward drift, not an actual move back to the right. There have been some notable periods of deregulation and reduced tax burden, but even under Reagan, the actual size of government never slowed as measured by Federal budget or number of agencies. The best we have enjoyed is a smaller government as a percent of GDP, but that does not represent an actual return of personal authority and freedom to the people.
The country has now reached a crossroads: we either move once-and-for-all into Euro-socialism or we start to reclaim the individual liberties that the Constitution and founders intended. To use a football analogy, the Left can see the goal line and is intent on crossing it. At the same time, the Right understands that this is a goal line stand. We either stop the Left and push them back or we lose the game.
The Tea Party protests are the manifestation of this reality. An awaking population is not only saying "no" to nationalized healthcare and "no" to expanded government, many are saying, "Return Liberty to its rightful owners." In this fundamentally ideological battle, there is no middle ground. Prior comprise has only resulted in extending the time to a socialist state.
Though rarely heard in conservative circles, the progressive response to this viewpoint is predictable. It would sound something akin to this: "What the hell is he talking about? Do we live in the same country?"
This reaction is justified, in part. As progressives see it, conservatives can talk all they want about this new age of left wing tyranny, but all of this talking does little to disguise the fact that President Obama's policies are barely distinguishable from those enacted by the last guy. A quick look at the list of things President Obama has actually accomplished confirms this. Was it under the watch of President Bush or President Obama that America's deficit skyrocketed, unemployment increased, troops were "surged" half a world away to shore up an imperial counterinsurgency campaign, America's wealth was redistributed in the name of economic stimulus, and faltering industry leaders were bailed out from bankruptcy?
That is unfair, the conservative will cry - what about the few places were clear differences between the two are undeniable? The progressive reply is not difficult to fathom. What has become of these legitimate differences? Does America have a new cap-and-trade carbon regime? Has she entered into direct negotiations with Iran?
Strip away the President's veneer rhetorical flourish and it is hard to see a difference between him and conservatives who came before. Far from being a progressive Moses guiding America to the promised land, Obama has proven to be a mere mortal, misguidedly working in the service of the status quo.
These two visions are hard to reconcile. One presents America as a nation teetering on the pit of fanatic progressivism. The other sees an America mired in the mud of moneyed interests, her potential chained by conservative cronyism. That two narratives so radically opposed can comfortably be held by members of the same ruling class stands as a testament to the insularity of our times.
It also betrays the essential uselessness of dividing American politics into camps "left" and "right". While useful for holding up media bigwigs and party bosses, this distinction has lost all true descriptive utility. For all their narrative differences, the two parties are in practice one and the same. Both are engaged in viscous boxing bouts with shadows, more concerned with soundbite triumphs than girding up to face the Republic's most pressing problem: the fundamental bankruptcy of the system in which we reside.
This is a crisis everybody – from the TEA folk to Democrats despairing filibuster rules – recognize, but few are willing to face head on. Our Union has become sprawling mess of bureaucratic regulations, servile citizens, and oligarchic financiers. The Republic has proven itself incapable of providing meaningful action for the protection of the liberty and prosperity of the people. This course is not sustainable.
In this sense the progressives were right: the problem is not that President Obama seeks radical reform, but that he does not. Like an old lady adjusting her living room furniture even as the house in which she dwells threatens collapse, Obama has occupied himself with the vigorous pursuit of scattered parts of his domestic agenda, lending nary a thought to the health of the system as a whole as he goes.
It does not have to be this way. Stop for a moment and look at what we have become. Is this what we want? It is far past the time for Americans to step out of their rarefied bubbles and truly grapple with both each others' ideas and the problems that plague this Republic. The moment for the citizenry of this country to stand up and show that they are ready to cast off the title of sheep is now. Ours is to begin a great conversation – an honest discussion on how best to reform, purify, restore, or construct the structure and scaffolding of our society and state.
This is our choice. We can decide the future shape of our country now, or wait until the next shock arrives and have someone else decide it for us.
America's Greatest Challenge -- and Danger
"T. Greer". The Scholar's Stage. 18 January 2010.
A short overview of the real challenges faced by the Republic, as it currently exists - the twin evils of an apathetic citizenry and a core elite more interested in stealing from the rest of us than governing. These two facts also go a long way in explaining why our current party system endures in its present form.
Down with the Plutocracy!
Donal Goodman. The Distributist Review. 17 March 2010.
I have a hard time deciding whether to put this in this category or the one below; Goodman provides both an extensive and excellent review of the rise of an American oligarchy (his word is 'plutocracy') and suggests some practical steps American citizens can take to end it.
"The Big Picture: Privatize the Gains, Socialize the Losses."
Peter T. Treadway. The Big Picture. 30 January 2009.
It is an easy thing to say America's financial system is broken; it is another thing altogether to show how it became so. In this latter task the author brilliantly succeeds. Here you shall find presented a history ranging from 1910 to the present day of the events that have pushed America down the road of state corporatism.
Jonathan Rauch. National Journal. 5 September 1992.
Rauch provides a lucid description of the institutional decay that plagues our political structure. I cannot recommend this essay enough.
Is the United State Good For America?
"Joseph Fouche". The Committee of Public Safety. 28 January 2010.
Blog friend JF asks an important question - is the United States good for America? (I wrote a response to this piece that can be found here.)
SUPPLEMENTAL READINGS: Building Blocks for a New Conversation
Light the Fireworks - The Campaign Begins Today!
"Fabius Maximus". Fabius Maximus. 9 March 2010.
A call for the citizens of this country to stand up and take their country back. Much recommended.
Divided We Stand
Paul Starobin. Wall Street Journal. 13 June 2010.
A manifesto for devolution, one possible alternative to the current system.
The Civic State: Remoralizing the Market, Relocalize the Economy, and Recapitalize the Poor
Philip Blond. ResPublica. 27 July 2009.
This essay has been making great waves across the pond, but the basic ideas presented within can be applied here. Blond strikes me as a 21rst century Burke; his cause is to replace the "Market State" with the "Civic State", an entity whose goal is citizen empowerment and societal improvement based upon the traditional models - in essence a return to the world that developed liberal democracy in the first place. His is another option worth our consideration.
More links will be provided as I find them. Submissions - particularly from outlets normally deemed progressive – are welcome.