March 11, 2012

Democracy in a Complex Age

"However, during the 1850s, Know-Nothing supporters came out of the proverbial closet and formed the American Party. It championed restrictions on immigration, exclusion of the foreign-born from voting or holding public office and a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship. By 1855, 43 Congressmen were American Party members; in 1856, it backed Millard Fillmore for president, who secured nearly 1 million votes, a quarter of all votes cast. The growing battle over slavery led to its demise." David Rosen, "The New Know-Nothings."

I recently heard Eliot Spitzer, one of the more trenchant and perspicacious of the TV political talking heads (also a fearless and effective anti-corruption crusader who, for that very reason, had to be hounded from office so that Fraud As America's Business Model could proceed unimpeded), sum up the modern Republican Party as follows: The GOP is no longer a single, monolithic party representing country club members and pasty-white Commie baiters. Rather, it has degenerated into three separate factions.

The first phalanx remains the golf playing martini drinkers who are interested in politics to the extent it either (a) leaves them alone to make money or (b) channels public money into their business uses, and have no interest in government as a guarantor of social welfare. The second group is the Tea Party, a largely incoherent cohort with poorly-defined political goals who seem to want contradictory things, such as limited government with a strong military establishment dedicated to fighting endless wars. The third group is comprised of the theocrats, mostly Christian Evangelicals who want America returned to a simpler time when sex was suppressed, abortion illegal, marriage (and divorce) only between Christian men and Christian women and generally disfavor any intellectual developments in the modern world which have occurred after the Enlightenment, such as evolution, cosmology, paleontology or climate science.

Since these three tranches do not share common "ideological" ground, it is impossible for any one candidate in the GOP primaries to command a convincing majority, and this situation accounts for the difficulty Mitt the Vulture Capitalist has had in "closing the deal," as they say on the cable news networks.

In line with the idea that there is nothing new under the sun, Mr. Rosen's recall of the Know-Nothings of the 1850's is instructive. The name of the party was derived not so much from a love of ignorance and fondness for the usual scapegoating as from a feigned ignorance concerning domestic terrorism (blowing up synagogues, attacking minorities, the usual Klannish stuff) carried on by the more militant Know-Nothing cadres.

I can certainly sympathize, to a degree, with the plight of the Tea Party activists and even the Evangelical theocrats as they struggle to figure out what happened to America in its desuetude (roughly from 1973 to the present, the long decline after the post-war boom of 1946 to the first oil shocks). America, in a sense, got taken away from the Middle Class, and the thrashing and scapegoating, as in the mid-1800's as the Peculiar Institution which had given the South an economic advantage of free labor, came under attack. Now the entire country is under siege as the result of the globalization of labor and competition for increasingly scarce non-renewable natural resources, such as oil. It's not surprising that the usual scapegoats would emerge: illegal aliens, gays, and now Rick Santorum suggests that pornography has sapped the national vitality, much as flouride in an earlier age sapped our precious bodily fluids and left us vulnerable to the Red Menace.

Simple answers are appealing because it's nearly impossible to understand the true complexities of the modern political-economic reality in this country. To take one example, consider the question, dear to the Tea Party heart, of whether the Wall Street banks should or should not have been bailed out in 2008-09. Hank Paulson, a Republican, Treasury Secretary under Bush, and a Wall Street player from way back, claimed that "tanks would be in the streets" if the banks were not bailed out. In general the new Tea Party cadres in the Republican caucus in the House were opposed to bailouts and TARP, its acronymic symbol, which set up an intra-party schism (along the lines described by Eliot Spitzer). In retrospect, the TARP battle in the House was one of the early signs that the GOP was undergoing a fundamental change. I remember thinking (and writing) at the time that it seemed strange the Republicans would ever do anything which could be seen as anti-Big Business.

Meanwhile, many liberal Democrats were in favor of the bailouts, along with learned pundits like Paul Krugman and Democratic insiders like Tim Geithner, the incoming Treasury Secretary and former head of the New York Federal Reserve. Obama was for the bailouts (or appeared to be, it's always difficult to tell where he actually stands on anything), John McCain was for the bailouts.

Others, such as Nuriel Roubini of NYU and William Black of the University of Missouri, thought that certain of the big banks should be nationalized, their corporate suites cleaned out, and their assets taken into receivership. The concept of "moral hazard," that a bank which can run any sort of unconscionable risk can nevertheless have its losses "socialized" while retaining all the bonuses and ill-gotten gains (that is, from fraud), sets up a pattern of recurring irresponsibility.

The champions of bailouts, such as Krugman, cited dangers such as bank runs if the Too Big to Fails were allowed, after all, to fail, and a total freezing up of credit (which seems to have occurred anyway) and cascading business failures leading to a Depression; thus, the preference for maintaining the status quo and the same gang of bankster operators were left in charge, more monopolistic and rapacious than ever.

How does one resolve the issue? One thing is certain: it is not possible to run a controlled experiment on the economy in such a situation. The bailout advocates, such as Paulson and Geithner, can issue dire warnings and argue no other course was possible, but we really have no way of knowing. Yet among the Tea Party activists, this has become an article of faith, along with a very certain attitude that the Federal Reserve system should be dismantled and replaced with some fixed marker of currency value, such as gold.

We're fond of believing that democracy can work its way through any muddle, but it's very obvious that issues of this kind (and many other policy issues, such as the privatization of pension plans versus Social Security, or the nationalization of health care versus private medicine or ceding of issues of health care and pensions to the local level versus the national) are enormously complicated problems requiring exhaustive research and objective analysis to get anywhere near a clear understanding. And the public, meanwhile, is fairly certain that members of Congress do not approach such issues "exhaustively and objectively," but simply bend with the venal whims of corporate lobbyists.

In other words, there really isn't any way for this system to function democratically anymore, which is why the political process is the giant mess it has become. Everything has been reduced to slogans, bumper stickers, talking points and TV ads because, realistically speaking, a very small percentage of the voting populace has any realistic chance of understanding these complexities in an informed manner, and voting accordingly. Thus, one answer to Thomas Frank's telling question in What's the Matter with Kansas?, that is, why do the middle class people of the Great Plains vote against their own interest, is that they can't even figure out what their own interests are in such a complicated contraption as the American political system.

So Eliot Spitzer's tripartite analysis makes sense. The fat cats vote to keep taxes down (a simple issue), the Evangelicals vote in line with a 2,000 year old book full of old Hebrew wisdom, and the Tea Party people vote for any damn thing on the agenda as long as it sounds kind of angry and anti-Big Government, provided it's not the parts of Big Government they like.

And I really don't see any way this is going to change at all in the foreseeable future. It isn't that the system isn't functioning properly; it's at the point where it can't function at all.