Back in Capital City, Witnessing the End of Greatness

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Having finished my visit at Cornell Law School, I am now back in my familiar environs -- Inside the Beltway. When I left in mid-2009, it was not yet clear just how completely the Republicans in the Senate would derail President Obama's agenda, nor how completely Obama would participate in his own undoing. Now we know.

Two years ago, when Barack Obama was about to be sworn in as President, I began what was intended to be a regular series of posts on Dorf on Law, discussing how U.S. policymakers might best respond to the various crises that they then faced. That series turned out to be, at best, an erratic and short-lived effort. In part, this was because of my BADD (Blog-only Attention Deficit Disorder), which causes me to become interested in other topics as they arise, allowing other ideas to die on the vine. In greater part, however, the explanation lies in the increasing clarity of the dysfunction in Washington. After the first few months of the Obama Administration, it was all too clear that they would, to slightly twist the words of their now-departed (and un-mourned) Chief of Staff, "allow a good crisis to go to waste." It was soon no longer meaningful to discuss the big things that could be accomplished only in a time of crisis, when the new game in town had become to guess how little might be accomplished. (Yes, I know that the 111th Congress passed a lot of laws, some of them historic. In the context of what needed to be done, however, the accomplishments were small potatoes; and they represented a series of quarter-steps and missed opportunities.)

Today, in a quite different historical moment, it seems worthwhile to contemplate the damage that seems sure to ensue during the coming two years (and probably beyond), in a world in which we will either move in the wrong direction or, one is reduced to hoping, not move at all. I will not be so foolish as to declare this post the beginning of a series; but it might become one. In any event, my purpose here is to discuss the possibility that the United States is about to accelerate its descent into mediocrity -- a descent that began roughly in the late 1970's. (If there are subsequent posts on this topic, I hope to describe why I view that rough date as the beginning of the possible end.)

We often forget just how close the U.S. came to completely falling apart during the Great Depression. The high points of both the American Communist Party and the various fascist movements in this country were both reached in the 1930's, with the country coming perilously close to falling into the thrall of one or another cult of personality, which would have brought an end to the U.S. as a functioning representative democracy. A skillful effort by President Roosevelt and his party to save capitalism from itself, along with some simple dumb luck (like Huey Long's assassination), allowed the U.S. to reject the extreme agendas that were being peddled to a scared nation. Nativism, racism, and all of the usual scapegoating that feed public hysteria during hard economic times never quite doomed our democracy. We cannot know how close we came to an all-out political cataclysm, but it seems quite clear that it was a very close call.

I think it is too tempting to take comfort in the thought that surviving the 1930's means that we will surely also survive the 2010's. We clearly lack a leader like FDR today. Even the supposedly liberal papers now happily collude in the attempts to paint Obama's presidency as having been too liberal up until now, and his recent actions as attempts to move "to the center," as a front-page sub-headline in yesterday's New York Times described it. Along those lines, I received an email yesterday from the Clintonite "Third Way" group, gloating that Obama's "Appointment of Third Way Board Member William Daley Sends a Clear Message: Obama Will Govern and Campaign from the Center." Describing Daley as a "moderate," Third Way says that he can "heal the breach between the administration and the private sector." In other words, we are in for more concessions (to start with: this acceptance of the insane idea that Obama has been against the private sector up until now) and even less willingness to stand on principle. Recall from Obama's angry reaction to liberals after the tax-cut deal last month that principles are now apparently only for "purists." And purists are apparently bad.

We face, therefore, an immediate future in which the party that controls the House is set to make every vote a game of chicken, and the other party is already saying that nothing is worth fighting for. While Obama will be able to veto some things (assuming they get through the Senate), other matters must be handled on an ongoing basis. How much will the Democrats give away in order to raise the debt limit? How much will they capitulate in order simply to get a budget?

This might all sound a bit dramatic; but there are times when dramatic things really are happening. The problem is not just that there is no will to fight on the Democratic side. It is that even a stalemate almost certainly guarantees the continuation of economic stagnation (if not much worse), turning the political culture even more toxic and more prone to extremist responses in the coming years. The things that made America great -- that gave us a vibrant middle class -- are all under attack. It has become unthinkable for politicians to defend public works, and nice words about the importance of something so fundamental as education are now coupled with a full-on assault on teachers, public schools, and the very idea that there are scientific and mathematical facts that should guide policy.

The two most likely paths, therefore, seem to be either short-term political disaster or continued (and accelerated) long-term decline. There are also much better possible outcomes. Seeing a path to a better future is, however, much more difficult today than it has been at any point in our lifetimes.