Forget about Charles Dickens. We are so far beyond any talk of the best of times and the worst of times that any reference to that cliché runs the gamut from trite to painful. Let’s not kid ourselves. These are rotten times. Indeed, the one proposition that may actually find agreement among those on the far left and those on the far right has to do with just how bad things are.
Indeed, there is probably even agreement on why they are so bad, at least to the extent that progressives are as willing to point the finger at Barack Obama as are the most dedicated conservatives. Beyond that one point of agreement, however, paths differ; and that is where dysfunction takes over the whole picture. At the heart of that dysfunction is a change in the practice of politics itself, a change that had a lot to do with why those of us who voted for Obama chose to do so. I submit that we saw the Bush Administration as an object lesson of what can happen when the forces of reason must give way to self-interest run rampant. We saw Obama as the leader of an Administration guided by ideas rather than ideologies.
What we did not realize was that ideas have lost all currency in today’s political system, regardless of who is sitting at the desk in the Oval Office. Here is how Michael Tomasky put it in his “Republican Days of Wrath” piece for The New York Review:
Usually a political movement is driven by its ideas. Then it chooses the rhetoric it thinks best advances the ideas. I’ve long thought that sometime in the 1990s, this normal process reversed itself on the American right, and rhetoric began driving, and even elbowing out, ideas. Once this wall is breached, compromise on any important issue becomes impossible, and responsible policymaking nearly so.
Tomasky then makes the case that conservative rhetoric has less to do with any agenda for the future of the United States and more to do with demonizing those who do not agree with them:
When you call someone an “enemy” enough times, when you say enough times that the person across from you doesn’t have simply wrong ideas but wicked ones, how can you tolerate compromise with such a person? The conservative rhetoric factory has persuaded millions of Americans that Democrats and liberals are evil, that the poor are lazy, that government is incapable of any good, and that the press, television, and Internet are in on the conspiracy to make sure they all triumph at the expense of everyone else.
In the midst of this “cognitive chaos” we have a President who continues to assume that, sooner or later, things will get bad enough that everyone will have to grow up and go back to the old-fashioned way of thinking about how to solve the prevailing problems.
Tomasky’s basic point is that this ain’t gonna happen. The conservatives are getting too much mileage out of their rhetoric to sacrifice it. Meanwhile, ideas are not fairing much better in the White House itself. This side of the story has now been addressed in today’s edition of The New York Times by Michiko Kakutani in her review of Ron Suskind’s new book, Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President. This book comes across as a “searing” (Kakutani’s adjective) indictment of a chief executive who can neither form nor manage an effective team for getting the country out of the economic mess made by his preceding Administration. Obviously, this book does not track Obama’s progress all the way up to today’s headlines; but it certainly leaves us wondering whether or not anything has changed since Suskind’s manuscript went to press.
What, then, are progressives to do? This question came up recently in a panel discussion on Book TV. Katrina vanden Heuvel (of The Nation) seemed to speak for the entire panel in her recommendation that progressives should give up on the 2012 presidential election as a lost cause and set their sights for 2016, to which my grandmother would probably have replied, “You should live so long.” The panel also agreed that progressives should not desert the polls and should not push for a Democratic nominee to replace Obama. The point of agreement is that splitting a party always leads to losing the election. That, of course, is not strictly true. Republican John Anderson ran for President as a third-part candidate against Ronald Reagan; and we all know what happened. (I voted for him. I knew he would lose, and I knew to whom he would lose. I just felt he deserved getting enough votes to qualify for funding as a legitimate candidate.)
The consensus on the panel was that, no matter how bad things were, a Republican in the White House would only make them worse. I am not sure I agree; and it’s not because of the usual how-much-worse-can-things-get argument. (A major corollary to Murphy’s Law is that, when you assume that things cannot get any worse, they always do.) Rather, I wonder whether the progressives might function more effectively as the force of opposition. (Norman Thomas never won an election. Nevertheless, just about everything he advocated eventually found its way into law.) Face it, progressives are already in the minority as the only players in the current political system still trying to work with ideas; so, whoever is in the Oval Office, those who depend on rationality alone are not going to establish any significant power. I would argue that progressives can build more political capital by establishing their position as a “loyal opposition” (even if that means breaking with other Democrats) and then sticking to their guns. Thus, if they really do want to set their sights for 2016, there is no reason why they cannot be building their platform even before the Democratic Convention of 2012.
Shifting public opinion away from shallow rhetoric to substantive ideas is not going to be easy. It’s going to take a lot of time. If you want that shift to have a foothold by 2016, then it’s going to take a lot of preparation. As Hillel said, “If not now, when?”