Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: WaPo (11-7-10)
September 11. Katrina. Iraq. These events will be forever linked with the presidency of George W. Bush. Now, with the release of his memoir,"Decision Points," the former president has the chance to defend his record and explain his actions. But as historians and the public alike look back on the Bush White House, will we be able to move past the persistent myths that endure about those tumultuous eight years?
1. George W. Bush was an uninformed Texas cowboy.
Nobody loved this myth more than Bush himself. During his 2000 campaign against Vice President Al Gore, Bush went to great lengths to depict himself as the down-home Texan whom voters could relate to. Even on a weekend when Gov. Bush was considering as momentous a choice as his vice-presidential running mate, reporters watched as Bush climbed into his sport utility vehicle and drove down the dirt roads of his Crawford ranch.
That image, of course, was at odds with his upbringing. Bush was born in New Haven, Conn., and his family moved to Texas seeking to establish an economic beachhead in the region's oil industry. With a grandfather who served as U.S. Senator from Connecticut and a father who worked as an oil executive before leading the CIA and eventually becoming president, Bush had plenty of blue in his blood. (The Andover-Yale-Harvard trifecta didn't hurt, either.)
Again in 2004, Republicans deployed the president's folksy image and manner of speech, contrasting Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (the elitist who windsurfs off Nantucket) with Bush (the guy you'd rather have a beer with - even if he doesn't drink.)...
Posted on: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 11:36
SOURCE: National Review (11-4-10)
As was generally predicted, the Republicans appear to have picked up about 65 House seats, the greatest one-year pickup they have had since 1894, and, though it is not certain, seven Senate seats, to close the Democratic lead to 52–48 and force Vice Pres. Joe Biden to stay close to the Capitol to break ties. It was only last year that the Democrats were exulting in their 60 Senate seats, and their presumptive ability to ram through the Obama program because the Republican Senate contingent was anemically small. This was itself an artifice, as the Democrats got to 60 only by the narrow defeat of Alaska senator Ted Stevens after a fraudulent prosecution that produced a conviction that has since been undone; the flight of long-serving Republican Arlen Specter, who faced a Republican primary defeat; and the delayed election in Minnesota of Al Franken by a series of county recounts by partisan local Democratic tribunals. And the errant Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2000, who campaigned against Obama in 2008, was welcomed back into the unfilibusterable Democratic majority.
By the time the theft of the Minnesota Senate seat was complete, the Democratic nirvana was coming to an end, and the movement of opinion was clear from the Republican repossession of the Massachusetts Senate seat held for 57 years by John F. and Edward M. Kennedy. This was one of the storied prizes of the Congress; the future President Kennedy had taken the seat from Henry Cabot Lodge, who with his grandfather had held the seat for 45 of the preceding 59 years, which included the elder Lodge’s defeat of JFK’s grandfather and namesake, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, in 1916, and the younger Lodge’s defeat of the Rascal King, four-term Boston mayor James Michael Curley, in 1936. The senior Lodge was the closest collaborator of Theodore Roosevelt and architect of the defeat of American adherence to the League of Nations in 1920, and the younger Lodge was the presidential-campaign manager for Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, and vice-presidential candidate with Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Arlen Specter couldn’t win renomination even as a Democrat, and Joe Lieberman’s partisan wanderlust may be expected to be fully revived as of midnight, Election Day. The move back to the Republicans of that Massachusetts Senate seat presaged tonight’s sweep....
Posted on: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 10:19
SOURCE: National Review (11-4-10)
On Tuesday, voters rejected President Obama’s attempt to remake America in the image of an imploding Europe — not just by overwhelmingly electing Republican candidates to the House, but by preferring dozens of maverick conservatives who ran against the establishment.
Why the near-historic rebuke? Out-of-control spending, unchecked borrowing, vast new entitlements, and unsustainable debt — all at a time of economic stagnation.
So what is next? Like the recovering addict who checks himself into rehab, a debt-addicted America just snapped out of its borrowing binge, is waking up with the shakes, and hopes there is still a chance of recovery.
It won’t be easy. Obama and his Democratic Congress ran up nearly $3 trillion in new debt in just 21 months — after running a disingenuous 2008 campaign that falsely promised to rein in the fiscal irresponsibility that had been rampant during the spendthrift Bush administration....
Posted on: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 10:18
SOURCE: WaPo (11-3-10)
Getting elected to the presidency is difficult; getting reelected is harder; getting reelected when the economy is dragging is nearly impossible. In American history, only one president has won a second term when the economy was in dire shape: Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. This bleak record would seem to bode ill for Barack Obama, as he looks toward 2012 across a clouded economic horizon.
But Roosevelt's exception to the historical rule leaves some room for hope for Obama and his supporters. Despite an unemployment rate that remained above 15 percent-compared to less than 10 percent today - Roosevelt won 61 percent of the popular vote and swamped Republican Alf Landon of Kansas by the widest electoral margin in American history: 523 to 8.
Of course, Roosevelt held some key cards, not all of which Obama enjoys. First, he commanded large majorities in both houses of Congress throughout his first term: Democrats outnumbered Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in the House after the 1932 elections, and in the Senate by only a bit less. They increased their majorities in both houses in the 1934 midterm contests. Not every Democrat endorsed everything Roosevelt did; Southern conservatives, in particular, disliked aspects of the New Deal. But when Roosevelt asked something of Congress, he usually got it....
Posted on: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 09:35
SOURCE: Independent (UK) (11-4-10)
When is a defeat actually a victory? When it destroys the enemy's future capacity to fight. Barack Obama can take comfort from this maxim as he contemplates the new reality on Capitol Hill today.
The polls predicted a massive swing to the Republicans and were proven right: 10 governorships, six Senate seats and more than 60 House seats. There has not been such a seismic change in the House for the past 70 years. But it is important to put Obama's defeat in perspective: George Bush lost the House, the Senate, and the majority of state governorships in the 2006 mid-terms, and Bill Clinton suffered a similar drubbing in 1994. Bush was already on the way out, but Clinton went on to win a second term in 1996 – the first Democratic President to do so since Franklin Roosevelt.
So all is not lost for Obama simply because the US electorate has signalled its disapproval. Clinton allegedly declared the morning after the mid-terms: "This can be liberating." A natural conciliator and communicator, Clinton was able to move to the centre and re-fashion his message to suit the mood of the nation. Famously, he declared: "The era of big Government is over", touching on an American preoccupation that has its roots in the Civil War and beyond...
Posted on: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 07:15
SOURCE: LA Times (11-3-10)
A contradiction? Not really. You can commit war crimes on behalf of a just war just as easily as an unjust one....
Let's leave aside the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which the U.S. justified as a way to prevent further carnage. On the battlefield, American soldiers routinely killed Japanese civilians and mutilated Japanese bodies. Yes, our enemies committed all kinds of atrocities during the war. But so did we....
Although some Americans did object to these atrocities at the time, it would be much later before WW II veterans expressed regret for them. In a 1981 memoir, American biologist E.B. Sledge recalled watching American soldiers cut off a hand from a dead Japanese, urinate into the mouth of another corpse and shoot an old woman who was "just an old gook," as one of Sledge's comrades told him. "The fierce struggle for survival eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all," Sledge wrote.
Significantly, though, Sledge continued to believe in the larger purpose of the war. The Japanese had attacked the United States and conquered much of East Asia, and they had to be stopped. Some U.S. military men had committed monstrous acts, to be sure, but America's larger military cause remained just....
Posted on: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 - 23:43
SOURCE: CS Monitor (11-3-10)
Not just for Mr. Beck’s Republican Party, which captured the House and nearly the Senate in yesterday’s midterm elections. The verdict represents a victory for Beck’s political philosophy, a brand of conservatism that sees progressive values as the No. 1 threat to America. One day, historians might look back on 2010 as the year that Americans sounded the death knell for progressivism itself.
The term dates to the early 20th century, when social reformers triggered an unprecedented explosion of government activity. To these self-described “Progressives,” America’s filthy cities, factories, farms, and schools cried out for improvement and regulation. They crafted new laws to bring this undirected chaos under intelligent control....
And that’s precisely what Beck despises about the Progressives. From his daily “lectures” at his television blackboard to the “courses” he offers at Beck “University,” he has mounted a steady campaign to discredit them.
It’s easy to mock the distortions and bizarre conspiracy theories in Beck’s tirades against progressivism, which he has even suggested results in Communism or Nazism....
Posted on: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 - 23:41
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog) (11-3-10)
We might look back on these years of the “Greatest Generation” as heroic, and Roosevelt as unbeatable. But you know what? His Democrats lost the popular vote, losing big in the House of Representatives, and Republicans picked up 47 seats. Because of the way things were then districted, the Democrats did hold on to the House by a slim margin. But they were deprived of a comfortable majority (left with just a 13 seat margin). As the Los Angeles Times noted the day after the election, Roosevelt was left without a real majority, because he always faced defections on any vote. The paper breathlessly noted the dramatic fall of Democratic dominance from the party’s commanding position in 1936....
An even more interesting story could be told about the 1946 midterms, when Democratic President Harry Truman, who had, like won World War II, saw the Republicans pick up an astonishing 55 seats and take control of the House. People were tired of long years of war and sacrifice and the Republicans promised prosperity through unleashing the free market....
Posted on: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 - 14:03
SOURCE: CNN.com (11-2-10)
In the weeks running up to the election, there were some commentators who concluded that the current situation would be the best outcome for President Obama.
Pointing to the example of the 1994 midterms, which gave Republicans control of Congress, they have argued that a bad outcome for Democrats would ironically allow Obama to regain his standing....
Yet this analogy rests on a selective memory of what happened after 1994, which is particularly surprising from someone who worked in the administration. The period that followed those midterms was among the most contentious in recent American politics.
Republicans conducted a series of investigations into the Clinton administration, which consumed an enormous amount of time and political energy from the White House. The investigations culminated in Clinton's impeachment proceedings.
The partisan battles took their toll. While Osama bin Laden and his minions were preparing to attack the United States, Washington was engaged in bitter partisan wars over Clinton's relationship with an intern. As the historian Steve Gillon recounted, the partisanship also drowned a secret effort by Gingrich and Clinton to reach a bipartisan pact on Social Security reform....
We should hope that the United States is not about to live through a repeat performance of what occurred after 1994. The nation faces too many pressing economic and foreign policy problems to have that happen again.
Posted on: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 - 12:13
SOURCE: Talking Points Memo (11-1-10)
There's a proposition on the ballot this year to change the name of Rhode Island from "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" to simply "Rhode Island." The idea is that the appendage "Providence Plantations" is redolent of slavery and should go. I can't get too crazy up in arms about it. But it'll be an unfortunate change and I'll be sorry to see it go. And in this case, I actually have a decent amount of formal expertise on this topic.
As some of you know, before I got into this line of work I was studying to be a professional historian. I got my History PhD from Brown University, which is located in Providence, Rhode Island. More to the point, my PhD dissertation was on Southern New England in the 17th century and the mix of economic interactions and violent conflict between the region's English settler and Indian populations. So without putting too fine a point on it, on the issue of labor practices, slavery and early Rhode Island I'm actually a bona fide expert. And since this is probably one of the few questions on which I get to write on which I have any formal expertise ... what the hell, here's my take.
The first and probably the most important point is that the "plantations" in Providence Plantations has nothing to do with slavery. That's a meaning of the word that only became current maybe a century or more after Roger Williams named his little colony in the early-mid 17th century. In the 17th century a 'plantation' was what we'd now call a 'colony' or a 'settlement'. The 'plant' in plantation wasn't (or at least wasn't primarily) a cash crop you were growing but the people you were inserting onto the landscape....
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 18:17
SOURCE: Truthdig (11-1-10)
Although Congress for the most part leaves foreign policy to the president, it can occasionally intervene pivotally in that arena, as when it shot down Woodrow Wilson’s plan to have the U.S. join the League of Nations. Obama’s hopes for better relations with the Muslim world were based on a renewed U.S.-brokered peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, on direct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, on gradually bringing the Afghanistan war to an end after an initial troop surge, and on a military withdrawal from Iraq. If the freshman class of 2010 comes into town riding atop elephants, it is likely to contribute to the failure of these policies, some of which were already in trouble, and thus to worsen U.S. security.
Some of Obama’s undertakings were unlikely to succeed from the beginning, such as an effort to have the right-wing Likud Party in Israel, with its far right-wing coalition partners, make peace with the deeply divided Palestinians. A Republican-controlled House, beholden to pro-Israel evangelicals, will back up the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in its refusal to freeze further settlements on the West Bank and its recalcitrance in negotiating in good faith with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, Eric Cantor wants to put aid to Israel in the U.S. defense budget so as to protect it from even the possibility of U.S. pressure. Republicans will pound a nail into the coffin of this round of peace talks, to the extent that they can do so. Since the worsening condition of the stateless Palestinians is the powder keg of Middle East politics, failure could lead to more uprisings and terrorism directed in part at the U.S....
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 13:28
SOURCE: DanielPipes.org (11-2-10)
[Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.]
A new German political party, Die Freiheit (The Freedom), had its inaugural meeting on October 28 in Berlin. I was in town, so its leadership invited me to be the only non-member of the nascent party to witness and report on its founding constituent assembly.
As a reminder of how freedoms have eroded in Europe in this age of Islamist terror, a political party that resists Islamization and supports Israel cannot come into existence in broad daylight. So, like the other 50-plus attendees, I learned of the event's time and location only shortly before it took place. For good measure, the organizers operated undercover; the hotel management only knew of a board election for an innocuously named company. Even now, for security reasons, I cannot mention the hotel's name.
Much of the time was taken up with the legalisms required to register a political party in Germany: attendance was taken, votes counted, organizational procedures explained, steps enumerated to contest Berlin elections in September 2011, and officers elected, including the chairman, René Stadtkewitz, 45. Of East German background, he is a member of the Berlin parliament who belonged to the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union party until his expulsion a month ago for publicly hosting the Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
For me, of chief interest was his oral summary of party policies plus the distribution of a 71-page Grundsatzprogramm ("Basic Program") setting out party positions in detail. Stadtkewitz explained the need for a new German party on the grounds that"The established parties, unfortunately, are not ready to take a clear stand but instead abandon the people to their concerns." The program neither minces words nor thinks small. Its opening sentence declares that"Western civilization, for centuries a world leader, faces an existential crisis."
The new party, whose slogan is"the party for more freedom and democracy," speaks candidly about Islam, Islamism, Islamic law, and Islamization. Starting with the insight that"Islam is not just a religion but also a political ideology with its own legal system," the party calls for scrutiny of imams, mosques, and Islamic schools, for a review of Islamic organizations to ensure their compliance with German laws, and condemns efforts to build a parallel legal structure based on the Shari'a. Its analysis forcefully concludes:"We oppose with all our force the Islamization of our country."
Freiheit robustly supports Israel, calling it"the only democratic state in the Middle East. It therefore is the outpost of the Western world in the Arab theater. All democratic countries must show the highest interest in Israel's living in free self-determination and security. We explicitly commit ourselves to Israel's right to exist, which is not open for discussion."
However clear these passages, as well as the rejection of Turkish accession to the European Union, they comprise only about 2 percent of the Basic Program, which applies traditional Western values and policies generally to German political life. Its topics include German peoplehood, direct democracy, the family, education, the workplace, economics, energy, the environment, health, and so on. Offering a wide platform makes good sense, fitting the anti-Islamization program into a full menu of policies.
The establishment of Freiheit prompts two observations: First, while it fits into a pattern of emerging European parties that focus on Islam as central to their mission, it differs from the others in its broader outlook. Whereas Wilder's PVV blames nearly every societal problem on Islam, Freiheit, in addition to opposing"with all our force the Islamization of our country," has many other issues on its agenda.
Second, Germany is conspicuously behind most European countries with a large Muslim population in not having spawned a party that stands up against Islamization. That's not for a lack of trying; previous attempts petered out. Late 2010 might be an auspicious moment to launch such a party, given the massive controversy in Germany over the Thilo Sarrazin book ruing the immigration of Muslims, followed by Chancellor Angela Merkel announcing that multiculturalism has"utterly failed." A change in mood appears underway.
The Freiheit party has been conceived as a mainstream, earnest, and constructive effort to deal with an exceedingly complex and long-term problem. If it succeeds, it could change the politics in Europe's most influential country.
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 13:21
SOURCE: Dissent (11-1-10)
We hear a lot today about federalism, the doctrine that emphasizes the rights and powers of the states versus those of the federal government. The political Right expresses alarm at the dramatic expansion in central government power that began under George W. Bush during the 2008 financial crisis and that continued during Barack Obama’s first eighteen months in office, first through the government’s bailouts of financial institutions and the auto industry and then through the passage of the landmark national health care bill. Liberal groups, on the other hand, have turned to federalism in response to the perceived failure of the federal government during the Bush years to address major economic, social, and ecological challenges. Progressive Californians, for example, have been pushing ecologically friendly bills in their state, given the obstructions such legislation has faced in Congress. Massachusetts enacted its own government health care bill in response to a long period of federal inaction on the issue. Many gay marriage and marijuana legalization advocates now believe that they can accomplish more in state rather than national arenas. These advocates want to “free” their states from the grasp of federal authority on the issues that matter most to them. In this essay I explore the historical background to the current interest in federalism and argue that the powers possessed by state governments throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were more capacious, influential, and resilient than we customarily recognize them to have been. The durability of the states as a force in economic, social, and cultural affairs can only be understood by reference to an expansive and constitutionally sanctioned doctrine of police power. Police power endowed state governments (but not the federal government) with broad authority over civil society for at least the first 150 years of the nation’s existence. The Civil War posed a sharp challenge to this doctrine, and, for a time, it seemed as though Reconstruction would inter it. But in the late nineteenth century, state legislatures, backed by the federal courts, rehabilitated this doctrine to attack and, in many cases, to reverse the centralization of power in the federal government that the Civil War seemed to have done so much to advance. Federalism finally did weaken in the 1930s and 1940s, but not until the 1960s and 1970s can we say that the central government had superseded the states as the premier center of political authority in America. Federalism’s demise, then, is still a relatively recent phenomenon, a fact that fuels the hopes of those who want to see it revived....
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 13:09
SOURCE: LA Times (11-1-10)
This month, UNESCO is expected to designate for the first time one or more of the world's culinary traditions as an "intangible cultural heritage." The cultural category, established in 2003 as a supplement to the better-known category of "tangible heritage" (castles, cities, landscapes), was created to protect traditions in the developing world by encouraging tourism. Already the tango, Croatian lace-making and Sardinian pastoral songs have been chosen.
This year the leading culinary contenders — both repeat applicants — appear to be Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco for the "Mediterranean diet," and Mexico for the indigenous cuisine of certain villages in the state of Michoacan. If UNESCO finally gives food the official heritage nod, it's likely that other organizations will follow its lead and make their own designations.
Should we cheer? Perhaps. It's good to see credit going to cooks who imbue a place with its identity, to make explicit what we all know — that cuisine is more than just ingredients and processes protected by denominations of origin; it's the totality of the eating tradition. And if recognition boosts tourism, which is what the heritage industry is all about, then that's good too.
At first blush, the UNESCO project for culinary heritage seems so self-evidently a good thing that only a grinch could grumble. On closer examination, though, it's plagued with problems, not the least of which is the very possibility of preserving cuisines....
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 13:04
SOURCE: LA Times (11-2-10)
Leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Assn. were thrilled when William Howard Taft agreed to address their convention in 1910, the first U.S. president to do so.
They were less thrilled, though, when he proceeded to compare women to Hottentots, and not in a good way. "The theory that Hottentots or any other uneducated, altogether unintelligent class is fitted for self-government at once or to take part in government is a theory that I wholly dissent from," the president said.
Hottentots! His words were greeted with hisses. Taft, however, saw no need to apologize. In April 1910, women could vote in only four sparsely populated Western states, and the political risk to a president who insulted the distaff half of the nation's population was negligible....
Today's sorry state of political discourse, where even female candidates rip into each other like pit bulls, would doubtless dismay the suffragists of a century ago. But years after the suffrage victory, when she was focused on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, Alice Paul mused that "if we get freedom for women, then they probably are going to do a lot of things that I would wish they wouldn't do; but it seems to me that isn't our business to say what they should do with it. It is our business to see that they are free."
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 13:01
SOURCE: TomDispatch (11-2-10)
[Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).]
By the time you read this, I’ll already have voted -- the single most reflexivepolitical act of my life -- in the single most dispiriting election I can remember. As I haven’t missed a midterm or presidential election since my first vote in 1968, that says something. Or maybe by the time you’ve gotten to this, the results of the 2010 midterm elections will be in. In either case, I’ll try to explain just why you don’t really need those results to know which way the wind is gusting.
First, though, a little electoral history of me. Certainly, my version of election politics started long before I could vote. I remember collecting campaign buttons in the 1950s and also -- for the 1956 presidential campaign in which Dwight Eisenhower (and his vice president, Richard Nixon) faced off against Democratic Party candidate Adlai Stevenson – singing this ditty:
Whistle while you work,
Nixon is a jerk,
Eisenhower has no power,
Stevenson will work!
Even in the world of kids, even then, politics could be gloves-off stuff. Little good my singing did, though: Stevenson was trounced, thus beginning my political education. My father and mother were dyed-in-the-wool Depression Democrats, and my mother was a political caricaturist for the then-liberal (now Murdoch-owned) tabloid, the New York Post. I still remember the fierce drawings she penned for that paper’s front page of red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy. She also came away from those years filled with political fears, reflected in her admonition to me throughout the 1960s: “It’s the whale that spouts that gets caught.”
Still, I was sold on the American system. It was a sign of the times that I simply couldn’t wait to vote. The first election rally I ever attended, in 1962, was for John F. Kennedy, already president. I remember his face, a postage-stamp-sized blur of pink, glimpsed through a sea of heads and shoulders. Even today, I can feel a remnant of the excitement and hope of that moment. In those years before our government had become “the bureaucracy” in young minds, I was imbued with a powerful sense of civic duty that, I suspect, was commonplace. I daydreamed relentlessly about becoming an American diplomat and so representing my country to the world.
The first presidential campaign I followed with a passion, though, was in 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination. In memory, I feel as if I voted in it, though I couldn’t have since the voting age was then 21, and I was only 20. Nonetheless, I all but put my X beside the “peace candidate” of that moment, Lyndon B. Johnson, who had, in such an untimely manner, inherited the Oval Office and a war in Vietnam. What other vote was there, since he was running against a Republican extremist and warmonger, an Arizona senator named Barry Goldwater?
Not long after his inauguration, however, Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombing of North Vietnam. It had been planned before the election, but was kept suitably under wraps while Goldwater was being portrayed as a man intent on getting American boys killed in Asia and maybe nuking the planet as well.
Four years later, with half a million U.S. troops in South Vietnam and the war reaching conflagration status, I was “mad as hell and not going to take this any more” -- and that was years before Paddy Chayefsky penned those words for the film Network. I was at least as mad as any present-day Tea Partier and one heck of a lot younger.
By 1968, I had been betrayed by my not-quite-vote for Johnson and learned my lesson -- they were all warmongers -- and so, deeply involved in antiwar activities, I rejected both Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had barely peeped about the war, and his opponent Richard Nixon (that “jerk” of my 1956 ditty) who was promising “peace with honor,” but as I understood quite well, preparing to blast any Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Laotian within reach. I voted instead, with some pride, for Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.
(Okay, I didn’t say this was going to be pretty, did I?)
Nor was it exactly thrilling in 1972 when “tricky Dick,” running for reelection, swamped Senator George McGovern, who actually wanted to bring American troops home and end the war, just before the Watergate scandal fully broke. And don’t forget the 1980 election in which Jimmy Carter was hung out to dry by the Iran hostage crisis. As I remember it, I voted late and Democratic that Tuesday in November, came home, made a bowl of popcorn, and sat down in front of the TV just in time to watch Carter concede to Ronald Reagan. Don’t think I didn’t find that dispiriting.
And none of this could, of course, compare to campaign 2000 with its “elected by the Supreme Court” tag or election night 2004, when early exit polls seemed to indicate that Senator John Kerry, himself an admittedly dispiriting figure, might be headed for the White House. My wife and I threw a party that night which started in the highest of spirits, only to end, after a long, dismal night, in the reelection of George W. Bush. On the morning of November 3rd, I swore I had “the election hangover of a lifetime,” as I contemplated the way American voters had re-upped for “the rashest presidency in our history (short perhaps of that of Jefferson Davis).”
“They have,” I added, “signed on to a disastrous crime of a war in Iraq, and a losing war at that which will only get worse; they have signed on to whatever dangerous schemes these schemers can come up with. They have signed on to their own impoverishment. This is the political version of the volunteer Army. Now, they have to live with it. Unfortunately, so do we.”
Hermetic Systems and Mad Elephants
Six years later, we are indeed poorer in all the obvious ways, and some not so obvious ones as well. How, then, could the 2010 midterms be the most dispiriting elections of my life, especially when Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News assured us, in the days leading up to the event, that it would have “the power to reshape our nation’s politics.” Okay, you and I know that’s BS, part of the endless, breathless handicapping of the midterms that went on non-stop for weeks on the TV news?
Still, the most dispiriting? After all, I’m the guy who penned a piece eight days after the 2008 election entitled “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart.” In what was, for most people I knew, a decidedly upbeat moment, I then wrote, for instance: “So, after January 20th, expect Obama to take possession of George Bush's disastrous Afghan War; and unless he is far more skilled than Alexander the Great, British Empire builders, and the Russians, his war, too, will continue to rage without ever becoming a raging success.”
And take my word for it, when I say dispiriting I’m not even referring to just how dismal my actual voting experience was today in New York City. I mean, two senators and a governor I don’t give a whit about and not a breath of fresh air anywhere -- not unless you count our Republican gubernatorial and “Tea Party” candidate, a beyond-mad-as-hell businessman, who made a fortune partially thanks to state government favors and breaks of every sort and then couldn’t wait to take out that government. (And when Carl Paladino talks about taking something out, you instinctively know that he’s not a man of metaphor.) Okay, that is dispiriting, just not in a lifetime award kind of way.
No, it’s the whole airless shebang we call an election that’s gotten to me, the bizarrely hermetic, self-financing, self-praising, self-promoting system we still manage to think of as “democratic.” That includes the media echo chamber that’s been ginning up this nationally nondescript season as an epochal life-changer via a powerfully mad -- as in mad elephant – populace ready to run amok.
What Goes Up…
I’m no expert on elections, but sometimes all you need is a little common sense. So let’s start with a simple principle: what goes up must come down.
For at least 30 years now, what’s gone up is income disparity in this country. Paul Krugman called this period “the Great Divergence.” After all, between 1980 and 2005, “more than 80%of total increase in Americans' income went to the top 1%” of Americans in terms of wealth, and today that 1% controls 24% of the nation’s income. Or put another way, after three decades of ”trickle-down” economics, what’s gone up are the bank accounts of the rich.
In 2009, for instance, as Americans generally scrambled and suffered, lost jobs, watched pensions, IRAs, or savings shrink and houses go into foreclosure, millionairesactually increased. According to the latest figures, the combined wealth of the 400 richest Americans (all billionaires) has risen by 8% this year, even as, in the second quarter of 2010, the net worth of American households plunged 2.8%.
And in this election year, dispiritingly enough, it’s clear what went up is indeed coming down. It’s been true for years in our electoral campaigns, of course, but this year we’re talking genuine financial downpour. Up at the top, individually and corporately, ever more money is on hand to “invest” in protecting what one already possesses or might still acquire. Hence, this election has a price tag that “obliterates” all previous midterm records. It’s estimated at $4 billion to $4.2 billion, mostly from what is politely called “fundraising” or from “outside interest groups” -- in other words, from that 1% and some of the wealthiest corporations, mainly for ad and influence campaigns. In other words, the already superrich and the giant corporations that sucked up so much dough over the last 30 years now have tons of it to “invest” in our system in order to reap yet more favors -- to invest, that is, in Sharron Angle and Harry Reid. If that isn’t dispiriting, what is?
The right-wing version of this story is that a thunderstorm of money is being invested in a newly aroused, mad-as-hell crew of Americans ready to storm to power in the name of small government, radically reduced federal deficits, and of course lower taxes. This is a fantasy concoction, though, even if you hear it on the news 24/7. First of all, those right-wing billionaire and corporate types are not for small government. They regularly and happily back, and sometimes profit from, the ever-increasing power of the (national security) state to pry, peep, suppress, and oppress, abridge liberties and make war (endlessly) abroad. They are Pentagon lovers. They adore the locked-down “homeland.”
In addition, they are for the government giving them every sort of break, any sort of hand -- just not for that government laying its hands on them. They are, in this sense, America’s real welfare queens. They want a powerful, protective state, but one that benefits them, not us. All of those dollars that scaled the heights in these last decades are now helping to fund their program. For what they need, they only have to throw repeated monkey wrenches into the works and the Tea Party, which really isn’t a party at all, is just the latest of those wrenches.
...Must Come Down...
Faced with all our national woes, are we really a mad-as-hell nation? On that, the jury is out, despite the fact that you’ve heard how “angry” we are a trillion times in the “news.” Maybe we’re a depressed-as-hell nation. There’s no way to tell, even though the anger story glued eyeballs this election season. What we do know, however, is that the rich-as-hell crew are making good use of the mad-as-hell ones.
Amy Gardner of the Washington Post recently offered us a revealing report on the Tea Party landscape. Of the 1,400 Tea Party groups nationwide that the Post tried to contact, it reached 647. Many of the rest may have ceased to exist or may never have existed at all. (“The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated.”) What the Post researchers found bore little relationship to the angry, Obama-as-Hitler-sign-carrying older crew supposedly ready to storm the gates of power. They discovered instead a generally quiescent movement in which “70% of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year.” Most of them were small, not directly involved in the midterm scramble or even electoral politics, and meant to offer places to talk and exchange ideas. Not exactly the stuff of rebellion in the streets.
On the other hand, the funding machines like Tea Party Express (run by Sal Russo, longtime Republican operative, aide to Ronald Reagan, and fundraiser/media strategist for former New York governor George Pataki), FreedomWorks (run by Dick Armey, former Republican House majority leader), and Americans for Prosperity (started by oil billionaire David Koch) have appropriated the Tea Party name nationally and were pouring money into “Tea Party candidates.” And don’t forget the Tea-Partyish funding groups set up by Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s bosom buddy and close advisor.
That these influential “tea partiers” turn out to be familiar right-wing insiders -- “longtime political players,” as the Post put it, who since the 1980s"have used their resources and know-how to help elect a number of candidates” -- shouldn’t be much of a shock. Nor can it be so surprising that familiar right-wing political operatives are intent on creating a kind of political mayhem under the Tea Party label. Still, if that’s not dispiriting, what is?
...And Where It Landed
As for the TV set that’s been filling your living room with the sound and fury of an epochal election that may, in itself, signify relatively little, take a moment to consider the context for all the noise. We know how the money went up and we’ve all been watching it coming down. Isn’t it curious, though, how little attention all the commentators, pundits, and talking heads on that screen pay to where so much of that money is actually landing? I mean, of course, in the hands of their bosses. Vast amounts of it have come down on the media itself, particularly television. I’m talking about all those screaming “attack ads,” including the ones sponsored by those unnamed outside interest groups, that are probably driving you completely nuts by now, and that the talking heads just love to analyze, show bits of, and discuss endlessly?
Those are the very ads enriching the media outfits that employ them in a moment when the news world is in financial turmoil. It is estimated that, for election 2010, the TV ad bill may total $3 billion (up from $2.7 billion in the 2008 presidential campaign year, and $2.4 billion in the 2006 midterms that brought the Democrats back to power in Congress).
For the companies behind the screen, in other words, those ads are manna from heaven. If, in another context, someone was selling you on the importance of a phenomenon and was at the same time directly benefiting from that phenomenon, it would be considered a self-evident conflict of interest. In this particular case, all those ad dollars are visibly to the benefit of the very media promoting the world-shaking importance of this election season. But remind me, when was the last time you saw anyone on television, or really just about anywhere, even suggest that this might represent a conflict of interest?
The media aren’t just reporting on the next election season, they’re also filling the space between your ears, and every other space they can imagine with boosterism for just the kinds of elections we now experience. They are, in a sense, modern-day carnies, offering endless election spiels to usher you inside the tent. However they themselves may individually think about it, they are working to boost the profitability of their companies just as surely as any of those right-wing funders are boosting their corporate (or personal) profits. They are, that is, not outsiders looking in, but a basic part of the hermetic, noisy, profitable system we think of as an election campaign.
Oh, and as for the election itself, none of us really had to wait for the results of midterm 2010, the Anger Extravaganza, to know that it won’t be transformative, not even if the Republicans take both houses of Congress. This isn’t rocket science. You already know what the Democrats were capable of (or, more exactly, not capable of) with 60 theoretical votes in the Senate and a humongous advantage in the House of Representatives. So you should have a perfectly realistic assessment of how much less of “the people’s business” is likely to be done in a more closely divided Congress, or even in one in which the Republicans hold a seat or two advantage in the Senate -- and with Democrat Barack Obama as president.
After the election, whatever the results, you already know that Obama will move more toward “the center,” even if for decades it has been drifting ever rightward without ever settling on a home; that he will try to “work with” the Republicans; that this will prove the usual joke, and that the election, however breathlessly reported as a Republican triumph or Democratic save or Tea Party miracle (or anything else), will essentially be a gum-it-up-more event.
Though none of the voluble prognosticators and interpreters you’ll listen to or read are likely to say so, those right-wing fundraisers and outside interest groups pouring money into Tea Party candidates, angry maniacs, dopes, and whoever else is on the landscape undoubtedly could care less. Yes, a Congress that gave them everything they wanted on a proverbial silver platter would be a wonder, but gum-it-up works pretty darn well, too. For most Americans, a Washington in congressional gridlock in a moment of roiling national crisis may be nothing to write home about, but for those fundraisers and outside interest groups, it only guarantees more manna from heaven.
And the good news, as far as they are concerned, is that the state that matters, the national security, war-making one, hardly needs Congress at all, or rather knows that no Congress will ever vote “no” to moneys for such matters. Meanwhile, the media will begin cranking up for the even more expensive Election 2012. Long before this election season came to a close, my hometown paper was already sporting its first pieces with headlines like “Looking Ahead to the 2012 Race” and beginning to handicap the presidential run to come. (“Although [President Obama] will not say so, there is at least a plausible argument that he might be better off if [the Democrats] lose… [I]f Republicans capture Congress, Mr. Obama will finally have a foil heading toward his own re-election battle in 2012.”) And don’t think for a second that the New York Times wasn't in good company. On the weekend before November 2nd, the first Associated Press-Knowledge Network poll was already out asking Democrats if they wanted Obama challenged in the 2012 primaries.
Whether the country I once wanted to represent was ever there in the form I imagined is a question I’ll leave to the historians. What I can say is that it’s sure not there now. What remains, angry or depressed, has made for a toxic brew as well as the most dispiriting election of my life. For what it's worth, consider that my ballot box blues on this dreary Tuesday in November 2010.
Posted on: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 - 10:35
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog) (11-1-10)
David Broder is a respected political analyst. I once had breakfast with him and I like him. I often think his columns are on the mark.
So I am sure he by now regrets his piece on Saturday in the Washington Post on how Obama can get the country out of the economic doldrums.
Broder says that there are two engines for recovery from a Depression or a deep recession. One is the market workings of the business cycle, which are mysterious. The other is war, or even, apparently, preparation for it. Since, he says, Obama cannot really affect the business cycle, his best option would be to prepare for conflict with Iran. He does not appear to envisage a war but seems to think just getting the country on a war footing would do the trick. I don’t understand the American fascination with war. We’ve been at war one way or another all my life. Is that normal? And nowadays the politicians have pulled off the trick of having us be at war and not even notice it. Almost nobody reading this could even tell me how many US troops died in Afghanistan last month, or even how many are there and which provinces exactly they are fighting in. Broder can only broach this absent-minded atrocity because we have all developed war dementia– it is off our minds, as the Latin indicates.
Posted on: Monday, November 1, 2010 - 17:05
SOURCE: WaPo (10-30-10)
Next year, the country will begin observing the sesquicentennial of the bloodiest war in U.S. history -- the Civil War. But the question of how to remember that war sometimes seems as contentious as the war itself was. On Oct. 20, The Post reported that in Virginia, fourth-grade students received textbooks telling them that thousands of African Americans fought in Confederate armies during the Civil War. The textbook's author, who is not a historian, found that false claim repeated so many times on the Internet that she assumed it had to be true.
She thereby helped propagate one of the most pernicious and energetically propagated myths about the Civil War. According to that myth, anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 Southern blacks -- both free and enslaved -- served voluntarily, loyally, consistently and as fully fledged combatants in the South. Most of those who make these claims do it to bolster another, bigger myth -- that most Southern blacks supported the Confederacy.
As a matter of fact, one of Jefferson Davis's generals did advise him to emancipate and arm slaves at the start of the war. But Davis vehemently rejected that advice. It "would revolt and disgust the whole South," he snapped. During the first few years of the war, some others repeated this suggestion. Each time, Richmond slapped it down. Not only would no slaves be enlisted; no one who was not certifiably white, whether slave or free, would be permitted to become a Confederate soldier.
Posted on: Monday, November 1, 2010 - 16:51
SOURCE: CNN.com (11-1-10)
Former President George W. Bush loomed large throughout the 2010 campaign even though he has been out of office for nearly two years.
The upcoming publication of Bush's memoirs, "Decision Points," offers us an opportunity to consider the relationship between the former commander-in-chief and the Tea Party activists who played such a major role in energizing the GOP this summer and fall. While the Tea Party attacks on President Obama and his policies were front and center, their anger was also directed toward the nature of Republican politics in the age of Bush.
The Tea Party movement has opened up a civil war within the Republican Party. Recently these tensions exploded when Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, said the Tea Party was not very "sophisticated." Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee called Rove an "elitist" and said that "unfortunately, there is an elitism within the Republican establishment. And it's one of the reasons the Republicans have not been able to solidify not only the Tea Party movement but solidify conservatives across America."...
Posted on: Monday, November 1, 2010 - 16:38
SOURCE: American Interest (11-1-10)
The midterm elections find the two parties, and the United States, in an uncomfortable position. Even as it apparently moves toward a major victory, the Republican Party is divided between the Tea Party and the Establishment wings, and it is still haunted by the failure of the last era of Republican rule. The Democrats, who dreamed briefly in 2008-09 that the charisma and skills of Barack Obama would reverse the Republican tide that has been flowing since Richard Nixon discovered his Southern Strategy, face the sobering prospect that this might just be a center-right country after all. Could it be that Ronald Reagan still owns America and that Barack Obama was just borrowing it for a while?
The presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 were both fought out over the same issue. Think of America as a car: the Democrats offered a competent and smooth ride to Boston. Under the accident-prone George W. Bush, the Republicans offered a bumpy ride towards Dallas. In 2004 and 2008 Democrats attacked Republicans for crashing the car; Republicans attacked Democrats for wanting to take it in the wrong direction. In 2004, the Democratic argument did not convince. In 2008, with the economy melting down, it did. Barack Obama ran as a competent, smooth driver who would make the ride so pleasant and easy that the country wouldn’t much care where he was going. Republicans keep driving off the road, the new President argued, because the roads to Dallas are bad. Without a vigilant government to invest in infrastructure, superintend the road builders, subsidize ethanol, enforce speed limits and require safety belts, the road to Dallas is a series of disasters waiting to happen. The road to Boston, on the other hand, has been built by intelligent, credentialed technocrats. The tolls may be high, the renewable fuel has some problems, and the 35 mile an hour speed limit can be a little irksome, but the road is safe and the ride is smooth....
Posted on: Monday, November 1, 2010 - 15:31