The Drum Beat of a New Nation
The drumbeat of history pours forth, at times, like a torrent, when every day brings forth a revelation which opens a window to how events hang in the balance, and decisions, by the many or the few, have been made that touches the scales. On other times, it seems as if all stands still, and there is a cold quiet. Often, in reality, a cold peace has been made, it is not that weight of history could not swing one way or the other, but that those who are in positions of power recognize that it could, and what would happen should it do so is beyond their calculus.
Now is such a moment. We are seeing a cold peace in American politics.
The orderly cycle of American elections creates a texture to power. There is an election, the people speak. But, like Plato to Socrates, the political class sets down, and that is what is known to history. So they organize, and feel out each others power. The majority, at first, does those things that both sides recognize the election was "about." The minority may oppose, but it will seldom stop. It may join, suing for some kind of armistice in the political war. The majority then pushes for those things which are in reach. The minority tries to halt with whatever means they have the will to muster.
And then, there is, unless events overwhelm them, as they did after 9/11, a halt. There is a peace. The minority sets a line, and says that they will allow to a certain point, but after that they will bring the functioning of the legislature to a halt. Often this halting is unheralded. Daschle did it to the Republicans in the last years of Clinton's second term, in hopes that 2000 would buy more time and a few more votes.
We are at such a moment.
One thing which precipitates this moment is grand economics. The economy is bottoming, and will, in the next few months, leave the "downturn" part of the business cycle. This will be cold comfort for most people, because in a depressionary cycle such as the one we are in, there is a long stretch without expansionary government policy, and during that time employment drags along the bottom, or even decreases even further. However, the great financial houses are saved, the elites are now fighting to pay back as little of what they have borrowed as they can, and everyone -- waits. God grants them, sleep.
A second is that Obama has spent as much of his mandate as he wishes to. He is saving the rest of his capital to save his financier friends and backers, plus some few battles he needs to fight in order not to make himself odious with the activist base. His record, as a legislative President, is pathetic. One of the worst in the Modern Presidency. He has accomplished less than Eisenhower, JFK, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush fils. He has fewer disasters than Clinton, and Bush pere, and has done better than Truman, but Truman's political terrain was far worse. His accomplishments are thin and will be swallowed by history. Not one landmark piece of legislation passed during his short time at the top. Obama's use of executive power is sure and sharp, but his legislative gift is to bully progressives to buy space for blue dogs.
The third is the health of Byrd and Kennedy. With Byrd and Kennedy out, and likely to remain out -- and do not think that Coleman conceding to Franken does not coincide with this -- there are, basically 98 serving Senators. If this were a Democracy, if the Senate were a responsive body, then both would resign, and the people would have some chance to replace them in open election. But the Senate is an oligarchy, and oligarchs pay court to their own. Strom Thurmond was wheeled in for votes, incoherent and half-conscious, and "voted." Byrd and Kennedy are two of the grandest old men that the Senate has ever seen, the members of the minority often owe to them legislative achievements, and compromise. This entitles them, in the unwritten rules of the Senate, to be maintained in place, and allowances made.
One of these allowances is that rather than fighting out, in filibuster, every disagreement, which the Democrats would lose because Byrd and Kennedy are not there, the back room deals are cut to reach the limits of what can be moved without reaching this line.
One beneficiary of this is soon to be Justice Sotomayor. The Republicans could fight her, bloody the Democrats with charges of racism meant to play to the disorganized white male rightwing populist. But you will note, despite some parting shots, that the Republicans have pulled back from this. Sotomayor is not being filibustered. She is replacing a liberal vote, she will not be much more liberal than who she is replacing.
One casualty of this, is the Employee Free Choice Act. What is on the table for this bill is largely a gutting of its important provision, but bones are being thrown. Labor's proxies are enthusiastic on the surface, but they can't put lipstick on the pig. It is typical micro-political capitulation: get enough to tell the donors you did something, ask for money, keep your job. Viciously slap down anyone who points out that while the emperor may not be naked, his fig leaf needs an update. What passes will do something, but not much. It is armistice, waiting another election.
Between these lies Health Care, because it is too volatile to touch, and to explosive not to touch.
Washington will work through these cold peace items, and then settle in, and wait for another election. Or an event that alters the political landscape, whichever comes first.
It is this fact that drives a cold peace. If the minority stops everything, it is an invitation to be obliterated in an election by an angry electorate. Moreover, giving the majority something gives the minority something to campaign against. Already the Republican propaganda machine is gearing up on smears about socialism, taxes, and taking. They are painting the most craven compromises as extremism of the left. Outright lies are spewed from their press organs. The Republicans have much to be happy for: Obama has saved the Bush legacy, and nothing that Obama has done cannot be obliterated with a few strokes of the next President's pen. Obama's feebleness as a legislative leader has been exposed, and the Republicans have no reason to fatally weaken him, since he is as useful as the ultimate Blue Dog.
The majority, for its part, needs something to justify its time in power. It also needs to draw the lines for its own partisans, and raise money. Obama's political pillars are simple: save Reaganism, avoid the follies of early Clintonism, and temper, but not replace, Bushism. He is a whig before the Civil War, willing to accept slavery as it is, though restrain its excesses for the delicate consciences of those who want to touch the money, but not the skin, of their peculiar institutions.
This is hard to say, hard to read, and hard as a diamond. It is the one true thing: America now, morally, is at a point as low as the era of chattel slavery, in that it is willing to destroy the lives of millions, in order to have one more day, week, month, year, or decade, of fast food, fast cars, and fast bucks. But it is what history will write about this era: that it was a pathetic moment. We stand sticking ribbon stickers on the back of the huge SUV that is Bush's version of America. But we have not scrapped it, we will not, and we cannot yet.
The Progressive movement is, increasingly, divided between the paid capitulationist and the outsider idealist. The political wing of the movement sells FAIL by the bucket. Their reality -- "We're fails! We're snails! Get used to it!" -- is incrementalism and careerism. But the idealists are no better, even though I am certainly to be numbered among them. There is no one in America who is more than a stone's throw away from one of the following: the military, the land casino, or the global warming enterprise. Every day and every dollar is smeared with the blood of those who will starve, drown, or die, in the future we are making. The idealist will not bend his knees, to compromise, but must bend his or her knees, to enterprise. It is merely one's choice of chains that is at issue.
But for all of this, and it is a great deal, the reality is that we are one political swing away from either the greatest catastrophe in American history, or one of its most compelling and glorious successes. America has a long tradition of slumbering until past the last minute, and then awakening. World War I began in July of 1914, we joined in almost at the end, in April of 1917. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, and Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939. It was over 10 years after the Japanese invasion, and 28 months after the war in Europe, that America was attacked and finally declared war.
The coalition of catastrophe is already forming: a resurgent neo-Hooverism, which hopes to have borrowed enough to bail out the financial system, but not pay taxes to pay it back, is already gathering. This catastrophe coalition wants to burn carbon fuels, save the banks, and hope for one more land boom. Obama's economy is Bush's economy with muscular dystrophy: a war, a financial bubble based on cheap dollars for banks, attracting foreign credit, and the prayer for another land boom. Energy and stimulus have already been massive FAILs, and it is going to be joined by domestic labor law.
The promise of hope is less visible, simply because it has no billionaires backing it. That promise is that after the torrential wash of the Republican swing that will follow Obama's time in power, be it 4 or 8 years, America will be faced with a very stark choice. China's patience is not forever: When they can make cars and have built enough roads, they will open their domestic demand. They are using this economic crisis the way FDR did: to develop for the future. They are building the equivalent of their interstate highway system. This crisis is the compression stroke of an engine that will expand. Already global growth, and global resource inflation, are driven from China.
But it is this very fact that gives America hope. Every carbon based asset is a wasting asset. Every carbon based building, internal combustion engine. China has some green mixed with their black and brown: high use of direct solar, for example, but it is still a carbon economy by design. Their cities are dense, and this helps them, but their hopes are for neo-sprawl.
America will have a clear moment, and less sunk capital. The very aging nature of our infrastructure is an advantage: it is easier to throw out what is clearly worn out. The next wave of progressives will have to be more explosive, and less deferential. If there is a lesson to be learned it is that victories lead to victory: incrementalism is for later. The Republicans can now be incrementalists, and are being so.
I know it is good form to quote and link in a blog. But there is little point now. The truths outlined here: that a cold peace has descended, the mandate of 2008 is expended, and the results are a pathetic failure of wit, wisdom, and will -- stand by themselves. That the coalition of catastrophe is gathering, preaching burn and churn as its new policy -- burn carbon, churn land --- is evident to anyone who can read Dick Morris' new book, or watch MSNBC. Hooverism hovers close. Don't believe me, believe Paul Krugman.
So what is now? What is now is to realize that the fix is in, your leaders are selling you out, and they will present the dregs of capitulation, mixed with little real compromise, and some sparse victories, as great and sweeping. There is tremendous pressure to lie and say otherwise. I will not.
Could things have been different? Perhaps. Could they be different now? Yes, but only in the abstract sense. That the leadership of the Democratic Party and the Progressive Movement are ready, willing, and eager, to sell out is not invisible to the Republicans. The right knows that if they leave a narrow gap, that the Democrats and Progressives will rush through it, and be slaughtered politically. The right is at a low ebb, its ideology discredited, its powerful financial backers -- temporarily -- coopted, its public figures so clearly third and fourth generation. A muscular left would spend this moment to shatter and remake the American consensus. But that is not what is being done. The only people the leadership of the left can bully are members of the left. They have no problem with that.
But can things be different in the future? The must be, it is necessity. And that is the one element that is missing from the present crisis. For all the talk of 1929 redux, the reality is that this crisis was a paper crisis, not a physical one. Once the overheating of Iraq, and the total incompetence of Bush was removed, the world was no longer on the verge of unravelling at any moment. It is not a good present, but Goldman Sachs would be crying all the way to the bank, if they weren't already there.
Necessity will come. This is because while we are seeing the peak of light oil, that is cheap oil, the peak of total oil is in front of us. Iraq is coming back on line, and will do so faster soon. Demand from the US has been crimped, there are alternate sources available. But that delays by only a short while physical peak. Similarly, the stabilizing mechanisms of earth's climate have kicked in. One is that the soot that supercharged the global warming of the 2000's settles fast. Another is that melting ice cools the oceans. Another is that hot currents in the ocean sink atmospheric heat, another is that warmth leads to plant growth and slows progress of carbon dioxide. We are in a thermopause, but it will not last for ever. We have decided to squander it.
And with necessity there will come a moment for leaders more willing to tell the truth to the public, and a public more willing to listen. The fat die young, and their ability to linger in the after-twilight of political power will be more limited. The deprivation of the Depression and New Deal generation meant they they could vote liberal for longer. The excesses of the present mean that they will die sooner.
Necessity will mean that the shower of lies from the right will create a physical political conflict. The old formula is to replace bullets with ballots; the right wing, to have a populist base, must preach the reverse: to replace ballots with bullets. Because of who they are, that time must and will come. Economics will drive them: The construction workers are the new Freep. In the wake of defense down-sizing, the right wing organized the military culture to hate the left. Thus was born the legions of Drudge, and the Free Republic's followers: the freep. Obama was intent on avoiding this mistake, and keeps the military well employed. The stimulus bill was supposed to keep the construction worker employed. But that money is being sucked down to protect middle class entitlements and lower taxes. It is not delivering stimulus. Compare China's stimulus to the US. Their growth is back on track; ours is mired. Theirs is into new constuction; ours is to prevent tax increases.
Necessity will be our leadership, but only if when that moment arrives we are ready. We must be ready first by decrying compromise in the present, we must be ready by having ideas that are crystal and clear, and fit within a few words in their outlines. We must be ready by learning that most important lesson: When we have a mandate, we must use it.
The drum beat of history is loud at moments, and almost an imperceptible hush at others. But it is steady, and unceasing, and so must be our marching to it. It is the Valley Forge of the next progressive wave, but in these cold days a new nation is being born, one which will act where the last one averred, one that will do what is now left undone, and one which will hold substance, not style, as its measure of success.