25th 2011
Monday’s reading assignment: “What Were They Thinking?”

Posted under: American history, wankers


Via Shakesville, Corrente, and pretty much every other political blogger today–go read Elizabeth Drew’s “What Were They Thinking?” which gives an overview of recent political history as well as her prediction that history will not smile on the political leadership we’re stuck with today:

Someday people will look back and wonder, What were they thinking? Why, in the midst of a stalled recovery, with the economy fragile and job creation slowing to a trickle, did the nation’s leaders decide that the thing to do—in order to raise the debt limit, normally a routine matter—was to spend less money, making job creation all the more difficult? Many experts on the economy believe that the President has it backward: that focusing on growth and jobs is more urgent in the near term than cutting the deficit, even if such expenditures require borrowing. But that would go against Obama’s new self-portrait as a fiscally responsible centrist.

There’s lots of interesting gossip and inside baseball about the President’s re-election maneuverings, the different goals of Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Eric Cantor; and the recent negotiations over raising the debt ceiling.  I agree with her perspective for the most part, but the last sentence of the article strikes me as wrong:

This country’s economy is beset with a number of new difficulties, among them that recovery from the last recession remains more elusive than was generally expected, while the US is confronting a variety of international economic instabilities, especially the large debts and possible default of several countries in the eurozone, bringing on unpopular austerity measures. Recent experience with what should have been a simple matter of raising the debt ceiling, normally done with no difficulty, is reason for deep unease about our political system’s ability to deal with such challenges.

Saying that the “political system” isn’t up to the challenges of 2011 and beyond is pretty vague–what does she mean?  The U.S. Constitution?  The two-party system?  It’s unclear, but as I’ve said here before:  it’s a mistake to see President Obama’s failures or the failures of the Democratic Party as failures of the U.S. Constitution or the political system in general(After all, it seems to be working out just fine for the Republicans!)  I would place the blame for our unfortunate situation on the unwillingness of the Democratic Party to present a real alternative to the Republican party, which for years has been driven by crazed and just plain wrong ideas.  There’s nothing new there–just the intensification of the crazzy on the Republican side over the past 15 years or so.

But friends, we in the United States been here before.   The toadying and compromising of the Democratic Party remind me of nothing so much as the Whig Party ca. the 1840s. By the 1840s, it was clear that the Democratic Party stood for one thing:  the protection and expansion of slavery.  But the Whig Party never got up off its a$$ to respond to the challenge.  It continued mistakenly to believe that it could be a “national party” without taking a stand on the great moral and political challenge of its day.  Whigs were so desperate to pander to “centrists” and “independent voters” that they failed to notice that the center no longer existed in antebellum politics.  Thus, it was left to an emergent third party, the Republican Party, to lead the way.  The Republican Party had one issue–antislavery–and it was successful because it joined the Democratic Party its fight for the domination of the U.S.

I’ve given up on the Democratic Party.  Happy days ain’t here again, and they’re never coming back unless people who believe in “we the people” against “we the multinational corporations and the oligarchs” unite with an answer to the great moral and political challenge of our times.  We don’t need a new Constitution, or to ditch the two-party system.  We need a new political party.

UPDATE:  See Drew’s recommendation to Obama for an easy exit from the debt ceiling showdown, which would 1) extract him immediately from an embarassing “negotiation” that has made him look weaker and weaker, and 2) pin the tail on the Republicans.  But of course, it will never happen, because he’d rather be the Most Reasonable Man in America, and in spite of all of the blathering we heard about his “rhetorical gifts,” he is the President in my lifetime (so far) who is the most reluctant to take his cause to the American people.  Besides:  taking a stand is just a little too. . . decisive, and decisive is just two letters away from divisive.


20 Responses to “Monday’s reading assignment: “What Were They Thinking?””

  1. Susan on 25 Jul 2011 at 9:35 am #

    For the past 20 years, the dems have been ceding some ground to the repubs on critical issues. That was crucial for Clinton’s election, and Obama has followed his script.

    The real problem is that the Democrats are sane, and the Republicans are manifestly not. Alas, if you’re trying to negotiate with a crazy, you will always give up more. (In a rational negotiation, both sides try to figure out what works for everyone. The Republicans don’t want anyone other than them to get anything. I’m not sure I want the Democrats to be as crazy as the Republicans, though it might lead to better results.

  2. Alice Molloy on 25 Jul 2011 at 9:47 am #

    We need a new political stance on the part of ‘the people’, one that focuses on depowering the classes ranged against us: the corporations and the super wealthy. The Supreme Court decision blatantly espousing the personhood rights of corporations rocked the American public, an event that many of us despaired of ever happening. This might just make it possible for there to be a political focus worthy of a third party.

  3. Historiann on 25 Jul 2011 at 9:59 am #

    The Democrats are only “sane” if you remember that they care not about serving a constituency but about re-election and having a place among the Ruling Class. They don’t have an ideological stake in the results of their governance, whereas the Republicans most certainly do.

  4. wini on 25 Jul 2011 at 10:29 am #

    To me, Drew’s closing sentence refers not so much to the Constitution as to the warnings coming out of the ratings agencies, which is its own kind of BS.

    There is an article in the Post today about third parties, a pretty depressing article. In sum: lots of big donors are thinking about starting a third party in order to forward their interests.

  5. OlderThanDirt on 25 Jul 2011 at 10:36 am #

    @wini, “in order to forward their interests”? How much more forward can they get? We’re already in banana republic territory.

  6. OlderThanDirt on 25 Jul 2011 at 10:36 am #

    O.K., I may have been wrong to conflate big donor with oligarchs. I’m a little touchy these days.

  7. Z on 25 Jul 2011 at 11:36 am #

    The moment in 100 Years of Solitude where the Colonel Aureliano Buendia realizes the conservatives and liberals now have no ideological differences but are only fighting over power. He decides to keep on fighting as a liberal, but without illusions. This is a novel about (largely) 19th century Colombia.

  8. Historiann on 25 Jul 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    wini: why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t anyone start a new political party?

    If there is anything left of the left these days, they should start their own party, too.

  9. TriPartite Academic on 25 Jul 2011 at 2:15 pm #

    I read some of the despair over the political system to be a comment on the decline of civility and the rise of rancorous, ugly, and unproductive comments from both parties. There hasn’t been as much of this with the current financial debates as with other issues, but previous rancor has destroyed good will and our political culture.

    Now I do know–despite not being an Americanist!–that things have been ugly like this in the past. But I am struck by the recent deterioration of what passes for political discourse among our elected officials.

  10. rustonite on 25 Jul 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    I don’t see what the point of a new party would be. It would be instantly corrupted by the moneyed class.

  11. Jesse Lemisch on 25 Jul 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    well said, HistoriAnn. In US history, parties come and go. I would welcome the relegation of the Democratic Party to the dustbin. As for “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” Medicare for all is “off the table,” etc — these are just Daniel Bell’s end of ideology reborn.

  12. koshembos on 25 Jul 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    The Democratic Party is not the Democratic members of congress. It is us, FDR, JFK, LBJ and, yes, Big Dawg. Obama, as Marshall Aurback says, is a Tea Bagger. (It’s a projection.) The Party’s congress members have drifted towards the center, in large part, due to the lack of a true progressive wing. We do have social progressives; many of them are very rich and financially and labor wise are Republicans. They brought us Obama. Of the 50 richest county in the US, 47 voted Democratic. Obama got 70% of the votes in Aspen and In Wyoming, the land of the arch enemy of the non rich Alan Simpson, Jackson Hole voted Democratic. Democrats in congress represent these Democrats.

    A dramatic indication for the lack of hard core progressives is the Roosevelt Institute acceptance of anti poor and anti middle class Peterson money.

    It will take at least a generation to cultivate a progressive wing.

  13. Indyanna on 25 Jul 2011 at 7:10 pm #

    We probably do need a whole new party and party system, but I’m not betting on it. We might be as likely to find a comparable continent on a similarly-situated planet and do an “our population for your population” swap. This one has had too much reality t.v., too much dancing with the stars, too many X-Games, too much NASCAR, etc. to have any real political sinews left.

    Re the Update: Oliver Cromwell was on the shlubby side except when he needed not to be. The NYT is talking about the “constitutional option” again. If it were me, in addition to the previously announced TVA closure, I’d be inclined to raise the debt ceiling by executive order, surround the Capitol with… about three hundred popcorn trucks borrowed from some circus museum… and prepare for Act III. I agree with H’ann that the guy wouldn’t do it, but it would be interesting.

  14. Feminist Avatar on 26 Jul 2011 at 2:06 am #

    I think the real problem here is not ‘the constitution’ or even ‘the political system’ per se, but the fact that capitalism is no longer working (or rather it’s working fine, we just don’t like the results), but we are holding on for dear life. I think the nature of the current economy and financial crisis has led people to ask why some people get to be rich and other’s don’t, especially when the mechanics of how this works are unveiled and it is no longer through ‘hardwork’, but bailouts and old boy’s networks. As a result, the wealth of the few looks a lot less fair- but, we are not quite at the stage where we want to acknowledge this, so instead talk about ‘crisis’ and ‘emergencies’and ‘political systems’ instead.

  15. Third Parties in American History: Not Usually Effective Agents of Change : Lawyers, Guns & Money on 26 Jul 2011 at 7:33 am #

    [...] throw elections to Republicans. The only reasonable possibility is along the lines of something Historiann suggests, that the Democratic Party no longer remains a functioning entity and that a new party rises from [...]

  16. scott on 26 Jul 2011 at 8:33 am #

    I see that A-listers at LGM linked this piece, but Loomis and his commenters spent their time pooh-poohing the 3rd party idea and sang the praises of reforming the DEms (how?) from within. Yeah, right.

  17. Historiann on 26 Jul 2011 at 8:36 am #

    Everyone’s got an opinion, right?

    I guess I felt like the 2000s were about reforming the Dem party and taking it over from within, but it’s clear that Dem social networking (blogs and FaceBook) have been more powerfully used by the old party hacks to their own ends more effectively than grassroots progressives have used them. So I don’t recommend a third party strategy as an end in itself, and I think Erik Loomis gets that anyway (even if his readers don’t.)

    I think a new party will have to consume the old Democratic party to become one of two parties, not one of three parties.

  18. scott on 26 Jul 2011 at 9:14 am #

    Who knows? Abe Lincoln was an old Whig who revered the old party but went beyond, so perhaps we can hope (and work) for something similar.

  19. Adam Stephanides on 26 Jul 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    The analogy between your progressive third party and the 1850s Republicans isn’t all that close. For one thing, as Erik Loomis points out at LGM, the Republicans came along after the Whig Party had disintegrated. More pertinently, the Republican Party didn’t consist just of anti-slavery Whigs and those whose anti-slavery was too radical for the Whigs. It also included a big chunk of Northern Democrats who were disgusted at the extreme pro-slavery positions the Democratic Party had come to espouse. Many of these ex-Democrats would have been perfectly happy just restoring the Missouri Compromise (which outlawed slavery in the territories north of a certain line, but permitted it in territories below that line), which had been repealed in 1854. So would some of the ex-Whigs.

    A closer contemporary analogy would be an “anti-Crazy party” combining Democrats with Republicans who were disgusted with the Tea Party’s antics. (Unfortunately, if the latter are present in large numbers, they haven’t done a very good job of speaking up.) Such a party would be far from what progressives want, just as the Republican Party was far from what abolitionists desired.

    “I think a new party will have to consume the old Democratic party”

    I’m curious. Why would a party which had “consumed” the Democratic Party behave any differently from the Democratic Party? It would have exactly the same incentives to compromise as the Democrats do.

  20. Z on 28 Jul 2011 at 8:55 am #

    Group like Tea Party to pressure Dems to left?

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