The Nation, 25 November 2013

Three items of note:

Michelle Goldberg’s piece on “The GOP’s Poverty Denialism” includes a paragraph that very clearly expresses a phenomenon that I’ve often noticed on the political right, but that I’ve never been able to put into words:

It seems that to be a contemporary Republican, one must simultaneously believe two things: that Obama has immiserated the country and driven unemployment to intolerable levels, and that the poor have it easy and there are plenty of jobs out there for the taking. When the tension between these two beliefs gets to be too great, Republicans will usually tilt toward the latter.

I’ve spent a great deal of time around Republicans and other American right-wingers in my life, and that pair of beliefs is the single most annoying thing about them.  Whenever a Democratic president is in office, or the Democrats seem to be controlling the state or local government, they’ll bang on about the harm those Democrats are doing to the economy, then in the same breath declare that there has never been more opportunity for those who are willing to work.

I think there is another pair of contradictory beliefs underlying the right-wing addiction to this contradiction.  Most of the libertarians and virtually all of the Republicans I know tend to interpret any case of prosperity in the USA as proof of the virtue of an unfettered free market.  That applies not only to periods of economic expansion, but to any amenity, even roads and and other public works built by tax dollars.   Indeed, the wealth of rich individuals is often cited as a sign of the goodness of a free market, even when those individuals have been enriched entirely by tax schemes or government contracts.  On the other hand, the same people, faced with recessions, poverty, etc, reflexively attribute those conditions to the fact that the USA does not have and never has had an unfettered free market.

Far better to be a radical libertarian like the late Murray Rothbard or Sheldon Richman, who denounce our regulated, subsidized economic system and call it by the name “capitalism.”  Rothbard and Richman are frankly utopian in their call for a freed market, and so are able to be logically consistent in their appraisal of present conditions.  Better still to be a real conservative like Henry Adams, who in his History of the United States Under the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison showed how even 16 unbroken years of bad government could not stop a basically healthy society from prospering, as in other works he showed that good government could not stop a deeply corrupt society from decaying.

Also in this issue of The Nation, Rick Perlstein argues that the people now leading the Republican Party are very much the same as were the right-wingers in that party decades ago.  In some ways I think Perlstein is right.  It never ceases to amaze me when Democrats are hurt and surprised to find that Republicans don’t like Democratic presidents, a phenomenon on which Perlstein comments thus:

This time, liberals are also making a new mistake. Call it “racial defeatism.” Folks throw their hands up and say, “Of course reactionary rage is going to flow like mighty waters against an African-American president! What can we possibly do about that?” But it’s crucial to realize that the vituperation directed at Obama is little different from that aimed at John F. Kennedy, who was so hated by the right that his assassination was initially assumed by most observers to have been done by a conservative; or Bill Clinton, who was warned by Helms in 1994 that if he visited a military base in North Carolina, he’d “better have a bodyguard.”

All right-wing antigovernment rage in America bears a racial component, because liberalism is understood, consciously or unconsciously, as the ideology that steals from hard-working, taxpaying whites and gives the spoils to indolent, grasping blacks.

When Senator Helms made that remark, Democratic friends of mine earnestly explained to me that the reason Republicans hated Bill Clinton so much was because of his activities during the Vietnam War.  Now the same Republicans had been every bit as hostile to Presidents Carter, Johnson, and Kennedy as they were to President Clinton, and the very people who were so concerned for the mental health of the Clinton-haters would themselves soon be making dark comments about what justice would mean in the cases of George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney.  The particular stories and images that people nurse in their hatred of Mr O are of course different than the stories and images that would feed their hatred of a white president, but I cannot see how anyone could honestly say that the degree of the hatred directed at President Obama is or could be any greater than the hatred all of his predecessors have received from their opponents.

However, I do think that Mr Perlstein exaggerates both the continuity between the irresponsible Republican fringe of yesterday and the irresponsible Republican mainstream of today and the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.  His first paragraph describes Senator Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against the Truman administration in terms reminiscent of Senator Ted Cruz’ campaign against the Obama administration.  Mr Perlstein sums up that and several other analogies with the line: “Presto: after decades of trying, the reactionary tail finally wags the establishment dog. The recklessness of the goals, however, [has] always been the same.”

As regards Senator McCarthy, that strikes me as patently false.  Senator McCarthy’s original pet cause on Congress, before he devoted himself to an effort to create the impression that the US government was infested with vast numbers of Soviet agents, was support for public housing.  By today’s standards, McCarthy’s economic views would put him on the left wing of the Democratic Party.  Even the hallucinatory drama of a crusade against subversive influence in Washington, with the names of the players updated as the times require, is endlessly replayed by Democrats and Republicans alike in this age of security clearances, free speech zones, and universal surveillance.   World Communism may not be too frightening these days, but Republican administrations can always find sinister foreigners with whom they can accuse their opponents of sympathizing, and Democratic administrations can always find dangerous misfits in the interior of the country whom they can caricature as mortal threats to an open society.  So the cycle of Red Scare and Brown Scare continues, so the federal police powers grow steadily, so Guantanamo Bay and the National Security Administration maintain a smooth flow of operations.

As for the difference between the Democrats and republicans, consider this paragraph from Mr Perlstein’s piece:

The reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s day; I’d estimate it as hovering around 30 percent. A minority, but one never all that enamored of the niceties of democracy—they see themselves as fighting for the survival of civilization, after all. So, generation after generation, they’ve ruthlessly exploited the many points of structural vulnerability in the not-very-democratic American political system to get their way. For McCarthy, that meant using the rules of Senate investigations—in which the accused enjoy few of the procedural protections of the courtroom—to shape the direction of the government through the sheer power of intimidation. For the Goldwaterites, that meant flooding low-turnout party caucuses at the precinct and county level to win control of the Republican nomination process. In the past, such minoritarian ploys were stymied in the end by bottlenecks. For McCarthy, it was the canons of senatorial courtesy. For the Goldwaterites, it was the necessity of actually winning general elections. Now, however, the bottlenecks against right-wing minoritarian power are weaker than ever; America’s structural democracy deficit has never been greater. And that’s the biggest difference of all.

I place great importance on the integrity of the political process.  I would rather my favored side lose a fair election than win an unfair one.  People who are like me in that way have at several points formed voting blocs that held the balance of power in the USA.  The 1970s were such a time.  That was why the release of the Pentagon Papers did so much to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War early in the decade, why the Watergate scandal and the subsequent pardon of Richard Nixon so damaged the Republican Party in the middle of that decade, why the Church Committee investigations into abuses of power by the CIA raised the prospect of real reforms, and why laws were enacted to move toward public financing of political campaigns.  The public had seen that the political elite was not living up to a code of fair play, and voters who were indignant about that were able to swing elections against politicians whom they blamed for the misdeeds.

Where I disagree with Mr Perlstein is in the question of who it is who must believe in this code of fair play.  It is not the politicians, and not their most committed partisans.  I say that I would rather lose an election fairly than win one unfairly.  That is why I would not be a successful politician.  In the heat of the contest, of course candidates and their supporters will do whatever they can to win.  If they aren’t so absorbed in the contest that they will resort to any dirty trick that is likely to gain the victory, they probably won’t be able to conduct themselves effectively if by some chance they do win.  That holds regardAless of party or period.  It is for voters to hold them to a code of fair play.  The better job voters do, the less politicians will have to gain and the more they will have to lose by resorting to wickedness.  Of course, as Mr Perlstein points out, the US political system is structured to limit voters’ ability to do their job.  That makes it all the more important that we do work at it.

Also in this issue, Jackson Lears reviews several books about happiness.  In addition to the authors of the books reviewed, Mr Lears mentions the following eminences: Ernest van den Haag, Samuel Beckett, Steven Pinker, Philip Rieff, Margaret Thatcher, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Carlyle, Alexander Pope, Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Milton Bradley, William James, Theodore Dreiser, Ray Stannard Baker, G. Stanley Hall, Alfred Tennyson, Theodore Roosevelt, J. W. Goethe, Dale Carnegie, Studs Terkel, William Whyte, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Steve McQueen, Betty Friedan, Michel Foucault, Benjamin Franklin, D. H. Lawrence, Abraham Maslow, Clifford Geertz, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, John Brown, Barack Obama, John Muir, C. S. Lewis, John Keats, John Maynard Keynes, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Niccolo Machiavelli, Bernard Mandeville, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Day, William Morris, Edmund Burke, and Robert Frank.  Quite an impressive roll call, though a bit imbalanced in regard to gender and race.  The gender imbalance might not be quite so irritating if Mr Lears had not mentioned Frankenstein, but not Mary Shelley.  As for the racial imbalance, you can at least give Mr Lears credit for being clear as to what a brother has to do to gain his attention, since the only non-white person mentioned is currently serving as president of the United States.

Anyway, of the six books actually under review, five strike Mr Lears as silly and pernicious.  Some are pseudo-science, some are collections of platitudes, all are designed to forestall any criticism of the way American capitalism operates today.  The exception is How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky.  Of the Skidelskys, Mr Lears writes:

[T]he authors reveal an uncommon sensitivity to the abrasive impact of capitalist culture on human relationships. They prefer to focus on friendship rather than community as a nodule of the good life (claiming persuasively that “community” is too easily reified into a collective ideal that somehow transcends the welfare of its individual members). And they note the difficulties of sustaining friendship in a culture obsessed with mobility, autonomy and utility, where the speed-up is a way of life. “You need to rid your life of Leeches and replace them with Energizers,” says American lifestyle coach Robert Pagliarini. It is one of those quotations that, in its very banality and predictability, encapsulates the depth of our moral predicament. Free-market fundamentalists, the Skidelskys argue, “get things precisely backwards. It is not human beings who need adapting to the market; it is the market that needs adapting to human beings.” You cannot find a more succinct and compelling indictment of neoliberalism than that.

The Skidelskys’ alternative is modest and deeply humane, and involves no posturing or jargon. They are social democrats, not socialists, and they want to retrieve the ethical language of social democracy—on the assumption that if we start talking seriously about the good life again, we can begin re-creating the institutions to sustain it. They believe personal autonomy is one good among others, without giving it special preference. They believe that the cultivation of personality is a good as well, and that people need “a room behind the shop,” a protected place apart from commercial transactions to pursue that cultivation. They believe in the importance of property as a base for cultivating one’s tastes and ideals—one’s personality. But they like their property small; they are drawn to the traditions of Catholic personalism and distributionism—the localist communitarianism embraced by figures as diverse as G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Day. They know, with William Morris, that the precondition for leisure is the reduction of toil. (That would include, for starters, the relaxing of demands for increased productivity, the slowing down of the speeding up.) They also know there are links between social Catholicism, the sociological liberalism of Tocqueville, and Burkean conservatism; with the thinkers in these traditions, they share an enthusiasm for mutual-aid societies and employee cooperatives—for voluntary associations that provide a meeting ground between the remote organization and the isolated individual. They might have mentioned the Protestant Social Gospel, and the need to recover and reassert it against the cult of prosperity that for several decades has commanded center stage in contemporary evangelicalism. An enlarged Protestant ethic—one that prizes commonwealth over wealth—could enrich their vision of the good life as well.

In the Skidelskys’ vision of the good society, noncoercive paternalism would be balanced by localism. The state would bear responsibility for promoting basic goods, would ensure that the fruits of productivity are shared more evenly, and would reduce the pressure to consume—perhaps through a progressive expenditure tax like the one proposed by the economist Robert Frank. This would restrain what he calls the “runaway spending at the top,” which belies the myth that the 1 percent is the “investing class” and has “spawned a luxury fever,” Frank writes, that “has us all in its grip.” To that same end—the dampening of consumption—the Skidelskys propose eliminating advertising as a deductible business expense. They are also refreshingly resistant to free-market globaloney. The good life, they make clear, is not (and cannot be) dependent on globalization: “Developed countries will have to rely more on domestic sources of production to satisfy their needs; developing market economies will need to abandon export-growth models that rely on ever-increasing consumption demand in developed countries.” Scaling back consumption means scaling down international trade. This is not an ascetic agenda—the charge so often leveled against critics of consumer culture, as if consumption is the only imaginable form of leisure. On the contrary: How Much Is Enough? is an effort to imagine possibilities for a satisfying life beyond market discipline.

In his habit of promiscuous quotation, in the deeply ingrained conservatism revealed by the sources he favors for his quotes, in his constant suspicion of and frequent dismissiveness towards fashionable opinion, and in his high esteem for leisure as a goal of civilized life, Mr Lears reminds me of the writer who has influenced me more than any other, Irving Babbitt.  Because of that resemblance, as much as the content of his argument, I am inclined to read the Skidelskys’ book.

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