Feb 28, 2016

February 27, 2016: The Nature of Populism, Ideological Ambivalence, A Question of Leadership

“Anti-establishment populism has been the most important force in our politics for the last twenty years. It is neither liberal nor conservative. Politicians on both sides have used it effectively.  American populism has three important characteristics.  It is ideologically ambivalent. And it has displaced progressivism as the dominant motif of American Politics.  Elites tend to be rich and well-educated, hence, economically conservative and culturally sophisticated. Populism is anti-elitist and therefore just the reverse—left wing on economic issues and right-wing on social and cultural issues.”
                        --Political analyst William Schneider, 1986 (1)

Writing nearly a quarter century ago that America was nearing the ‘boiling point’, conservative political strategist Kevin Phillips, author of Richard Nixon’s 1968 ‘Southern Strategy’, documented the agony of America’s middle class as it writhed in pain under the impact of Reaganomics.  Little could he have imagined that the Middle Class would continue to endure the pressure cooker for more than another two decades.   Phillips, in his initial work “The Politics of Rich and Poor” and his sequel to “Boiling Point”, “Arrogant Capital”, documents not only the pressures and decline of the contemporary middle class in the United States, but puts the present conundrum in the context of previous ‘populist’ revolts that have served to correct the abuses of wealth in this country.  His reference here to the observation of contemporary political analyst William Schneider that American populism is a schizophrenic affair in that it is economically liberal and socially conservative is both illuminating and not new.

Historian Richard Hofstadter, writing more than a quarter century before Schneider and Phillips in his work “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” (2) had many of the same observations regarding previous eras of political reform.  The historical record reveals that all ‘populist’ movements are a mix of liberalism and conservatism, specifically in the United States the Greenback and Progressive movements of the late 19th and early 20th century have always been a complex mix of liberal and conservative, intellectual and anti-intellectual elements struggling for dominance in an effort to give political definition and produce political remedy to the challenges of their times. Therefore, it was the ‘prairie fire’ coming out of the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, as well as from the Deep South, that drove the revolts of the late 19th century organized around the Grange and the Greenback movements and thrice nominating the scourge of Wall Street, Democrat William Jennings Bryan for President of the United States.

And it was the same impetus from the same regions added to the industrial unrest in the Mid-West that fueled the revolts producing the great Progressive upheaval of the early decades of the last century and thereafter the New Deal.  But make no mistake about it, the same political forces that gave us the 8-hour work day, ended child labor, won for women the right to vote, re-instituted a federal income tax and eventually produced a ‘progressive’ graduated income tax, enforce anti-trust and broke up the cartels, instituted referendum, recall, and the direct election of the U.S. Senate, was the same movement that created and enforce Jim Crow in the South, restricted immigration, resisted attempts to end lynching’s.  Even as late as the 1930’s to the 1960’s, efforts to move a ‘progressive’ agenda depended on working with or getting around the mossbacks of conservatism, congressional committee chairmen almost all of them from Southern States.  Just as FDR had to make his deals with the likes of Arkansas Senator Joseph Robinson who ,as Senate Majority Leader, he would have to rely upon in order to herd much needed New Deal Legislation through the Senate , so LBJ would have to wheedle his way past the staunch opposition from the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee chairman James Eastland of Mississippi, Eastland’s fellow Mississippi Senator John Stennis, Georgia Senators Richard Russell and Herman Tallmadge, as well as Strom Thurmond and a host of others that held powerful committee and sub-committee chairmanships and all signers of the ‘southern manifesto’ hell-bent on stopping the civil rights initiative of the Johnson administration in its tracks.

Socially conservative but economically liberal, these representatives of the American ‘heartland’, would regularly enough line up to support federal programs like the TVA but would stand in stalwart opposition to any attempt to extend their progressive agenda to minorities.  Indeed, it was Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to do that very thing—that is extend the benefits of the New Deal to those that were left behind—that brought about the unravelling of the New Deal Coalition. The ‘populist’ movement broke apart into its constituent elements with ‘populist’ economic liberals joining fellow social liberals and ‘populist’ social conservatives aligning themselves with emerging religiously based ‘Moral Majority’ joining forces with the main-line eastern moneyed interests and in the process forming a new governing coalition that would, with some slight interruptions, dominate American politics for the next half-century.

Ideologically ambivalent, profoundly anti-establishment, anti-elitist and—according to historian Hofstadter—more than occasionally deeply paranoid Populism has today emerged as a full-blown political upheaval. No longer simply “ideologically ambivalent” but spanning the entire political spectrum from the ‘political revolution’ offered by the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders on the American left, to the deeply paranoid, anti-intellectual, the populist revolt now underway in the United States is now systematically about the business of rejecting the ‘political elite’ in an effort to free itself from the yoke of what the middle classes view as a governing ‘class’ that in Reagan’s haunting words are ‘the problem’. 

It is worth noting here that of the candidates offering themselves for consideration in the present election nearly all with any discernable experience in governing have been summarily jettisoned by the electorate.  Gone is Rick Perry of Texas, the nation’s longest serving governor and the first to make his exit, followed by the Governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and one John Ellis (JEB) Bush, leaving now the Real Estate Tycoon with the bad hair, the former Detroit neurosurgeon, the neophyte Senator from Florida and one Ted Cruz of Texas who, Senator Graham has informed us, if he were to be shot and killed on the Senate floor his assailant, were he to be tried by Cruz’s fellow Senators, would be acquitted and set free.

We have been here before.  A century and more ago our ancestors likewise rose in revolt against what Phillips now refers to as arrogant capital.  Rising in revolt against the excesses of the Gilded Age our ancestors managed to harness the pain, the anxieties, and the anger of those being exploited by the dominant economic elites by taking control of the language, controlling the debate, and marshalling the political energy by forging a truly Progressive movement.  As Gore Vidal once observed about Roosevelt and the New Deal, “it could easily have gone the other way”, meaning that the movement could have degenerated into a crypto fascist affair.  The outcome, as the experiences of twentieth century Europe attest, is neither reliably progressive nor a foregone conclusion.

This, it seems to me is what lies at the heart of this election.  The question isn’t simply a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.  It isn’t simply a question of progressives wresting control of the party from the clutches of the mossbacks in the form of the remnants of Bill Clinton’s old DLC cabal; it is a struggle for control of the larger populist movement now transcendent across the political spectrum.
Bernie Sanders is quite right. Donald Trump’s supporters are Bernie’s natural constituency inasmuch as Bernie is addressing the economic issues that so belabor the working classes—those remnants of the ‘Reagan-Democrats” cum ‘Teabaggers’ whose protest is largely over economic rather than social issues and for whom the Republican alliance with big business and Wall Street are anathema.  These people have no interest in dismantling the New Deal, they have no interest in savaging the safety net, or in cutting education, road building or any of the rest of the agenda of groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth.  And they are now exercising enough power to send the pre-emptive ‘establishment’ favorites—the Scott’s, the Bushes, the Christies—packing. 

The question before us in this election is who is going to lead this revolt?  Who is going to give definition to the movement? Will it be the Republicans or the Democrats?  Will it be the Liberals or once again the conservatives?  The last time such a revolt occurred nearly half-century ago in 1968 it was the conservatives that gave definition—Nixon’s Southern strategy and his “Silent Majority”.  Will they once again steal the floor and become the voice of the discontent?

It is worth repeating here.  When Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968, many of his followers—especially in the old populist regions of the country (the South and plains) moved their support to George Wallace.  On its face one wouldn’t link these two political figures in American politics.  But Wallace, stripped of his avowedly racist overtones, was like his precursor Huey Long a populist.  Stridently anti-elite railing against ‘brief-case toting beaurocrats and ‘pointy-headed intellectuals’ Wallace was, as was Long who waged war against the dominance of Standard Oil and other major interests in Louisiana politics, nevertheless a stalwart defender of the economic interests of the middle classes.

The present revolt of the Middle Classes, now spanning the entire political spectrum, is pregnant with possibility and fraught with danger.  As the ground beneath us begins to tremble and the earth begins to move beneath our very feet the question before us is “where will the new political center fall?” and “what will be the nature of the coalition that emerges that will govern this country for the foreseeable future?” These questions are not left to chance.  These questions are solved by political organization and advocacy, translating themselves into political agendas and votes; about which I have two observations:

First, the political ‘left’ or what passes for the political left in this country is late to the table.  Groups like the ‘Freedom Foundation”, Billionaires like the Koch Brothers and others, and conservative stink-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and Club for Growth, have been working for years on developing agendas and building political organizations.  They, heretofore, have determined the language and, therefore, the terms of the debate.  Liberals have been slow to recognize this resulting in the wholesale losses of seats in state legislatures, governorship's, and seats in the U.S. congress.  A great deal of ground must be made up in a real hurry if we are to marshal the political energy engendered by the revolt into constructive public policy.

Secondly, for the above reasons it will be a complete disaster if the Democrats were to nominate Hillary Clinton for president of the United States.  Hillary, the ultimate ‘insider’, Wall Street’s and the Walton Family’s favorite Democrat, is hardly in a position to tap the current rage against the political elite’s that have created this economic and national catastrophe.  Indeed, her continual insistence that she is the one with ‘experience’ while it may win her the nomination, is as ham-handed and tone-deaf as JEB Bush insisting that the remedy for our current angst is for people to ‘work harder’.  For it should have long since been obvious that the public’s rejection of the most experience candidates on the Republican side as well as the remarkable success of the insurgency of outsider Bernie Sanders that the public does not and will not respect the dictates of the ‘elites’.  And why should they?  What did all that experience produce?  Longer hours, less pay, more money being funneled to the investor class. 

The question, as previously formulated is who is going to lead this revolt?  If the Dems nominate Clinton, the beneficiary is Trump and the conservative movement just as the nomination of Humphrey in 1968 benefited first Wallace and then Nixon.  The political center, as in 1968, shifts to the wrong.  If the Dems nominate Sanders, then liberals have a real chance at claiming the votes not only of large numbers of independents but also of that part of the Republican base that has no interest in social conservatism at the price of sacrificing their own economic interests
This much is certain: The political center has given way; it no longer holds. No one is interested in Obama’s third term or, given that Obama surrounded himself with the likes of Geithner, Summers and a host of Wall Street contributors and advisers from Bill Clinton’s administration, Clinton’s fifth term.  It’s so passé, so late 20th century.    
(1). See Phillips, Kevin P. “The Boiling Point”. Random House, New York 1993 page 58
(2) Hofstadter, Richard. “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”  Alfred A. Knopf, New York

                        1970 434 pages.

Feb 27, 2016

February 26, 2016: The Monk of Clairvaux, Depth of Decline, Know Not How to Govern

Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) (1) in a letter to his disciple Eugenius had this to say about the vices and Tumults of Rome:

“Who is ignorant”, says the monk of Clairvaux, “of the vanity and the arrogance of the Romans? A nation nursed in sedition, cruel, untractable, and scorning to obey, unless they are too feeble to resist.  When they promise to serve, they aspire to reign; if they swear allegiance, they watch the opportunity of revolt; yet they vent their discontent in loud clamors, if your doors or your counsels are shut against them.  Dexterous in mischief, they have never learned the science of doing good.  Odious to earth and heaven, impious to God, seditious among themselves, jealous of their neighbours, inhuman to strangers, they love no one, by no one are they loved; and while they wish to inspire fear, they live in base and continual apprehension.  They will not submit; they know not how to govern; faithless to their superiors, intolerable to their equals, ungrateful to their benefactors, and alike impudent in their demands and their refusals.  Lofty in promise, poor in execution: adulation and calumny, perfidy and treason, are familiar arts of their policy.” (2)

This account of the sorry state into which the once proud Romans had degenerated by the 12th century could easily describe contemporary America and the malaise currently gripping the American psyche.  Nothing, better describes attitudes and behaviors of the contemporary United States currently in the grip of the narcissistic Boomers, the ‘Generation of Swine”; and nowhere is this malignancy more manifest than in the mischief presently perpetrated by the knuckle-dragging conservative movement which releasing itself from the bonds of reason has proceeded to make a mockery of not only public policy but the very legitimacy of governance itself.  History, it appears, has run its course on the American Empire as the cancer that is the American Conservative movement works its way through the body politic.

Across this land one hears a constant chorus of ‘it can’t be done’.  We can’t afford health insurance; we can’t afford to invest in infrastructure; we can’t afford to invest in our people and our labor force; we can’t afford the new technologies necessary to save ourselves, and perhaps the planet, from the devastating demands being imposed upon mother nature by modern civilization. This has become the Mantra of the Swine.

This isn’t a recent development.  It began precisely at that junction when the “Boomers” came, politically speaking, ‘of age’.  Just as the ‘Can-Do’ attitudes of our fathers put a man on the moon the “Boomers”, having chased a President from office and about to vote for the first time, added to their critique of war and peace the questioning of our investments in the space program.  The argument, so it went, was that we couldn’t afford the program.  And so Nixon, always with his ear to the ground, cut the funding for NASA eliminating at least two more moon missions and relegating the space program for decades to the continual circling of the earth in low space orbit.  The era of “Can’t-Do” had arrived.

And so began the not-so-slow downward spiral as one program after another suffered budget cuts and America began a serial disinvestment in its future and in itself.  The “Boomers”, embracing a conservative and libertarian creed, have by degrees hollowed out not only the industrial economy of a once great nation but it’s very soul; to the very point where we now “know not how to govern” and, indeed question the very legitimacy of governance itself.   
(2). Gibbon, Edward “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.  Methuen & Co

            London 1914. Volume VII, page 228