May 11, 2009

Recycled Politics

I've been reading the last full book by David Halberstam, written before his recent, unfortunate death on the San Mateo Bridge in an auto accident.  A major loss to humanity and to the field of contemporary history.  This book is entitled The Coldest Winter, and it's about America during the earliest years of the Korean War, particularly 1950.  But one of the joys of reading Halberstam is that he believes in digressions and context, so that if he's discussing Douglas MacArthur he's sure to tell you the story of MacArthur's father, another general who not only fought in the Civil War but was the viceroy of the Phillipines following the Spanish-American War, in much the same way that Douglas MacArthur was viceroy of Japan following World War II.  Suffice it to say that Halberstam sides clearly with Harry Truman in the great controversy surrounding the decision to relieve MacArthur of his command of the Korean War, and that Halberstam agrees with the historians who believe MacArthur got a lot of American GIs unnecessarily killed in the north of Korea because of huge misjudgments about the intentions of the Chinese to intervene in the war.

Halberstam fills in context on the domestic front by describing the usual squabbling between Republicans and Democrats in the post-World War II years.  After the singular reign of FDR, the only president ever elected to four consecutive terms, the nation finally turned Rightward again in 1946.  The GOP picked up 50 seats in the House and 11 in the Senate.  It seems likely that the GOP would have won the presidency in 1948 if they had run Ike then instead of waiting four more years.  In that freshman class of 1946 the likes of Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin came to town, and the Right wing criticism of Truman's liberalism reached a fever pitch, fueled by the long frustration of the GOP.  They had been kept out of power since 1932.

In those days the GOP was quite frankly the party of the well-to-do, the country club set, big business.  They believed in low taxation, hated all of FDR's social programs (which they called either "socialistic" or "Communistic" depending on mood and who was complaining), and favored big government spending only for defense.  Truman, on the other hand, worked hard to drastically reduce military spending in an effort to pay off the WW II debt.  The total national debt stood at $250 billion, a quaint number by today's humongous standards, but it was intolerable to the fiscally conservative Truman.

In other words, the political tango was danced much the same in 1950 as it is today.  The main difference is that the United States has lost most of its great middle class from the post-War era. The GOP, running out of fat cats to fill out their electorate, were forced during the Nixon years to employ the so-called Southern Strategy, in which they conned the Evangelicals and other non-pluocrats into voting Republican on the basis of "social issues" such as abortion, homosexuality and, most important of all, racism.  Prior to the "sell-out" of the Southern Democrats by Kennedy, Johnson and other turncoats who insisted on enforcing the 14th Amendment, even if it meant allowing black kids to go to school with white kids in Alabama, the Democrats could count on a solid South voting bloc.  Now the Deep South is actually the only remaining reliable stronghold of the quasi-theocratic Republican Party.  Even the uber-rich are probably evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, since the wealthy own equal numbers of each in Congress.

One might call this "stability" through the generations, this pattern of recycled power traded back and forth between the Donkeys and the Elephants.  I'm more inclined to think of it as late-stage stagnation.  There is nothing in the Constitution, after all, which mandates or suggests that specific political parties must exist forever.  But they do in the U.S., and it's been these two parties for a long, long time, with no meaningful competition.  They never have any new ideas, and I think it's a direct result of this stagnation.  They have the same arguments, decade after decade, and they always use the same solutions.  Taxes go slightly up, then they go slightly down.  The defense budget goes slightly up, then slightly down.  We keep fighting wars of intervention, always on the same basic principle.  If we don't, whatever problem we're fighting will "spread."

The talk now is of the "death" of the Republican Party.  This won't happen.  The American people got tired of FDR's activism and internationalism and they voted in a bunch of isolationist, small government-big defense politicians.  The American people were appalled by the stupidity and incompetence of George W. Bush (they couldn't really believe they'd elected this clown) and they turned on the GOP with a vengeance.  But the American people will tire of the Democrats in turn, and then the other exhausted, ossified, no-idea party will be back running things again.

I think this is all a failure to adapt, of decadent processes which choke off real innovation and invention.  These parties limit their "initiative" and strategy to the preservation of power, which they pass back and forth on a fairly predictable schedule.  But it will take a generalized meltdown, not just an economic downturn, to get rid of them.  I think, however, they're quite capable of producing such an event, if not much else.