The Exhaustion of American Ideologies

         There is an air of defeatism and desperation to Keith's "After November" piece. The tone reflects what seems to have become the attitude of a growing number of Democrats who give the impression of having already written off their chances for holding their political ground in the upcoming elections. This is a massive come-down from their self-assurance a mere four years ago when Barak Obama swept into Washington and drove Republicans before him like a broken army. At the time, Democrats talked confidently about a possibly permanent progressive realignment in America along the lines of FDR's post-Depression coalition.

So what alien counterforce is it that has now emerged? To hear Keith and his fellow Democrats tell it, the main problem is Big Money, which Republican plutocrats can always bring to bear and which they are now pouring in like hot fire against President Obama and the other honest progressives in government.  Keith has even carried the argument so far as to claim media bias against them, resurrecting a favorite bugbear of the Right and turning it on its head.

This narrative, however, doesn’t run very deep.  The Democrats too are funded by Big Money, and in the last presidential election cycle by even more of it generally than that which backed the Republicans. In my own home state,  for example, Representative Chris Shays, who had for many years represented the Fourth District of Connecticut as a moderately conservative Republican, lost to a former Goldman Sachs executive, who outspent him several times over.  This pattern played itself out on a grand scale as Democrats concentrated abundant financial resources on tightly contested races across the country.  On a national level – Fox News aside – the mainstream media covered the Obama campaign as though it harkened back to some wondrous combination of FDR’s brain-trust, JFK’s glamour, and  MLK’s moral gravitas.

Yet only those Republicans in the most extreme state of denial would have imagined they lost elections because of money and media bias. They lost because their ideology had run out of steam. Ronald Reagan's program of lower taxes and lighter regulation of business had been a constructive formula for addressing the serious  economic problems the country faced during the 1970's and early 80's. Giddy with success, however, Republicans allowed this formula to harden into an ideology. They behaved as though they believed the American economy had reached a state of permanent prosperity that could sustain momentum forever if supported by ever-lower taxes and ever-lower interest rates. Remarkably, Republicans even stopped worrying so much about the growth of Government, which continued its relentless pace during the Bush years, so long as higher taxes weren't necessary to pay for it.

There were warning signs along the way. One was the 1998 collapse of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge-fund following an investment strategy governed by two Nobel-laureate economists who were on the on the LTCM payroll. Their quasi-mystical faith in the accuracy of free-market pricing lured them into a disastrous cul-de-sac. Another danger sign was the 2001 bankruptcy of Enron,  a company whose founder Kenneth Lay was also an apostle of free-market dogma. The Enron failure was part of a much bigger breakdown at the time,  as puffed-up technology stocks, having fed on free markets, suddenly deflated. This spectacle exposed,  as market crashes always do, the weakness in the "efficient market" thinking favored by right-leaning economists.

As prosperity and rising markets resumed in the early years of the new century, these problems for a while appeared to be little more than blips in the receding past. The blips, however, were revealed as foreshadows in 2008,  when our financial markets came crashing down and threatened to take with them our banks and our general economy. People's livelihoods were at risk now,  and the general public took notice. Since 2008 was also a presidential election year, voters did their jobs and threw out the people in power. More than that, the general public seemed to have picked up an intuitive grasp of where the crisis came from.  While the Democrats had been active collaborators in much that had gone wrong, it was Republican ideology that had fueled the immediate triggers to the crisis. Big Money and media bias did little more than exaggerate what would have been a landslide victory for the Democrats in any event. They came to power fairly and with an indisputable mandate.

Unfortunately, it became immediately clear that the Democrats had learned very little over preceding decades.  Interpreting the election results as proof that  they had been entirely right all along about the powers of Government, and their political enemies entirely wrong,  they developed a romantic and atavistic obsession with FDR's legendary "First Hundred Days". They set about designing a complex of the new government programs, economic stimulus and regulation that emulated the policies of  the 32nd President, albeit dressed up now with a modernistic focus on Green Energy and environmental science.  Like FDR's people, Obama's administration was determined to drive their work home quickly while they still had the power.  The two hallmark pieces of legislation to emerge from their two years of virtually undisputed control over government were the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, overhauling health care and finance respectively. While both of these Acts addressed genuinely glaring problems, both were massively over-engineered and were from the start doomed to bog down in a minefield of unintended consequences. More ominously, the money to pay for it all drove the federal budget deficit, already arguably at unsustainable levels, to unprecedented heights.

 And just as the Republicans in better days had their ideological apostles, so do the Democrats now. The most visible of these in the economic sphere probably is Paul Krugman, yet another Nobel Laureate ruined by fame. He has labored mightily to convince his party, and all of us, that the only problem with our current outsized budget deficit is that it isn't outsized enough. His most recent book entitled "End This Depression Now!", complete with exclamation point, sounds as though it could be the work of a self-help guru promising all good things to anyone bold enough to follow the formula and not ask stupid questions. We’re being instructed to keep pounding the fiscal pumps like real men and abandon worrywart concerns about deficits.

The voting public, however, isn’t having much of this and is asking lots of questions, many of them not as stupid Dr. Krugman would have us believe. With their momentum now stalled, the Democrats have good reason to worry about the coming election. Campaign finance is a legitimate issue for discussion,  but it is largely a red herring in the current environment. If the Democrats lose more ground, it will be not because any financial disadvantage, but because,  as with the Republicans last time around, their policies are failing and they’ve run out of ideas.

I suspect the Democrats, having over-estimated their standard-bearer in the last election, may be underestimating him now. He is, in my opinion, one of the most gifted politicians and orators of our era and is likely to overwhelm Mitt Romney in debates. Obama may have a weak record to defend, but so does Romney,  who cannot escape answering for the dysfunction of his own Party. There is a very good chance the President will regain the loyalty of his wavering followers, even if not their bright-eyed enthusiasm,  and that he will win over a fair number of Independents.

Contrary to the usual most-important-election-ever rhetoric now emanating from both sides, however,  I personally don't think it makes a great deal of difference who wins in November. Whoever emerges with the Presidency and control of Congress will face the same set of intractable problems that exists now. And since both parties remain beholden to tired ideologies, our next crop of leaders will find themselves mostly trying to re-shuffle a deck of weak cards that have already been played.

Keith mentions the possibility of a third party emerging in the U.S.  There's surely no comfort in the prospect of a third party on the extreme right or left. Such a development would lead us even further down the road than we already are towards a mass-scale version of the morass now enveloping Greece. I agree, however, that a different kind of third party could be welcome. This would be not so much a bland "centrist" party as one that  would pick and choose strong but non-ideological core values and then take bold steps to address problems. Such a party would be genuinely committed to financial prudence and fairness at the same time. It would embody the spirits of pragmatism, efficiency and innovation, and would have no affinity for political grudges, dogmas or grandstanding. While there seems little immediate prospect for such a force materializing, we can all hope that the "better angels" of American democracy are still secretly at work somewhere, ready to exert a benign influence when the time is right. Unfortunately, an extreme crisis may prove to be the necessary catalyst. 

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