Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thomas Frank vs. Jonathan Chait: Despair or Optimism for the United States of America in the Age of Obama and Early 21st Century?

This entry contains two very different political columns -- one by Thomas Frank (he of What's the Matter with Kansas? fame) and another by one of my favorite political writers, Jonathan Chait*-- on whether or not despair or optimism is warranted at this time in American history.

(*My favorite economics writer, of course, is the great Paul Krugman.)

I specifically refer to the Age of Obama (Great Disappointment or still Great Hope?) with its radicalized neo-Confederate GOP, obscene wealth disparity and corporate oligarchical overclass power mixed (not so?) paradoxically with tremendous social tolerance.

It is an age of overall profound American political and economic dysfunction and relative decline in which all existing domestic institutions of Church, State, Business, and "the Press" (that would be the media/entertainment machine) have broken down.

Yet still "centrist" authorities continue to spew their nonsense -- I refer to the morally vulgar "Washington Consensus" of Fred Hiatt's Washington Post editorial and op-ed / Beltway pundit elites' neoliberal economic and neoconservative imperialistic dreams).

In the end, I think Chait -- by putting it in a much grander historical sweep that recounts the reactionary ugliness of the 19th Century including and especially slavery and Southern / Jacksonian populist culture, to say nothing of the notions of the public good and the role of government, and how it eventually turned out -- carries the day. But Chait's argument is predicated on things working out in the long-run, and we all know about the long run ...

The pictures to break up the Frank piece come from the ones I took on my roughly 15-mile bike ride on Sunday from West Falls Church Metro back to D.C. via the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Trail (W&OD Trail) and Mount Vernon Trail.

The pictures accompanying the Chait piece are from No. 9 bartender Aaron's recent trip to the American Southwest including Monument Valley and Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. This was was one of his less exotic trips -- given that his other destinations in the past year have included Malaysia, rural Vietnam, and Zanzibar, to name a few.



Sunday, July 20, 2014 07:00 AM EDT

Right-wing obstruction could have been fought: An ineffective and gutless presidency's legacy is failure

Yes, we know, the crazy House. But we were promised hope and change on big issues. We got no vision and less action

by Thomas Frank

(Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Salon)

Web link here.

The house at 2341 Grove Avenue at the corner of McDaniel Drive on the boundary of Falls Church, Va., 5:03PM July 20, 2014.


Predicting the future course of American politics is a lively and flourishing vocation. Guessing how future generations will commemorate present-day political events, however, is not nearly as remunerative. In the interest of restoring some balance to this tragic situation, allow me to kick off the speculation about the Obama legacy. How will we assess it? How will the Barack Obama Presidential Library, a much-anticipated museum of the future, cast the great events of our time?

W&OD Trail in Falls Church, Va., 5:20PM July 20, 2014.


In approaching this subject, let us first address the historical situation of the Obama administration. The task of museums, like that of history generally, is to document periods of great change. The task facing the makers of the Obama museum, however, will be pretty much exactly the opposite: how to document a time when America should have changed but didn't. Its project will be to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open and the old platitudes could no longer paper it over -- when the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse and the newspaper pundits were like street performers miming "seriousness" for an audience that had lost its taste for mime and seriousness both. It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in -- and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.

W&OD Trail in Arlington, Va., 6:09PM July 20, 2014.


The Obama team, as the president once announced to a delegation of investment bankers, was "the only thing between you and the pitchforks," and in retrospect these words seem not only to have been a correct assessment of the situation at the moment but a credo for his entire term in office. For my money, they should be carved in stone over the entrance to his monument: Barack Obama as the one-man rescue squad for an economic order that had aroused the fury of the world. Better: Obama as the awesomely talented doctor who kept the corpse of a dead philosophy lumbering along despite it all.

W&OD Trail in Arlington, Va., 6:10PM July 20, 2014.


The Age of the Zombie Consensus, however poetic it sounds, will probably not recommend itself as a catchphrase to the shapers of the Obama legacy. They will probably be looking for a label that is slightly more heroic: the Triumph of Faith over Cynicism, or something like that. Maybe they will borrow a phrase from one of the 2012 campaign books, "The Center Holds," and describe the Obama presidency as a time when cool, corporate reason prevailed over inflamed public opinion. Barack Obama will be presented as a kind of second FDR: the man who saved the system from itself. That perhaps the system didn't deserve saving will be left to some less-well-funded museum.

The high-tension wires that run along / above the W&OD Railroad bicycle trail, 6:12PM July 20, 2014.


Another prediction that I can make safely is that the Obama Presidential Library will violate one of the cardinal rules of presidential museums: It will have to be pretty massively partisan. As I noted last week, presidential libraries usually play down partisan conflict in order to make the past seem like a place of national togetherness and the president himself like a man of broadly recognized leadership, but in order for Obama’s presidential library to deliver the usual reassuring message about himself, it will have to stand convention on its head. As president, Obama has been reluctant to take the reinvigorated right too seriously. But as legacy-maker, I predict that he will work to make them seem even crazier and more unstoppable than they actually are.

The Four Mile Run where it empties into the Potomac River on the Arlington / Alexandria boundary, Va., 6:41PM July 20, 2014.


Why? Because all presidential museums are exercises in getting their subject off the hook, and for Obama loyalists looking back at his years in office, the need for blame evasion will be acute. Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?

The tarmac of Reagan Washington National Airport, 6:48PM July 20, 2014.


Well, duh, his museum will answer: he couldn't do any of those things because of the crazy right-wingers running wild in the land. He couldn't reason with them -- their brains don't work like ours! He couldn't defeat them at the polls -- they'd gerrymandered so many states that they couldn't be dislodged! What can a high-minded man of principle do when confronted with such a vast span of bigotry and close-mindedness? The answer toward which the Obama museum will steer the visitor is: Nothing.

A jet taking off from Reagan Washington National Airport above Gravelly Point Park, Arlington, Va., 6:51PM July 20, 2014.


In point of fact, there were plenty of things Obama's Democrats could have done that might have put the right out of business once and for all -- for example, by responding more aggressively to the Great Recession or by pounding relentlessly on the theme of middle-class economic distress. Acknowledging this possibility, however, has always been difficult for consensus-minded Democrats, and I suspect that in the official recounting of the Obama era, this troublesome possibility will disappear entirely. Instead, the terrifying Right-Wing Other will be cast in bronze at twice life-size, and made the excuse for the Administration's every last failure of nerve, imagination and foresight. Demonizing the right will also allow the Obama legacy team to present his two electoral victories as ends in themselves, since they kept the White House out of the monster's grasp -- heroic triumphs that were truly worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Which will be dusted off and prominently displayed.)

A jet taking off from Reagan Washington National Airport above Gravelly Point Park, Arlington, Va., 7:01PM July 20, 2014.


But bipartisanship as an ideal must also be kept sacred, of course. And so, after visitors to the Obama Library have passed through the Gallery of Drones and the Big Data Command Center, they will be ushered into a maze-like exhibit designed to represent the president’s long, lonely, and ultimately fruitless search for consensus. The Labyrinth of the Grand Bargain, it might be called, and it will teach how the president bravely put the fundamental achievements of his party -- Social Security and Medicare -- on the bargaining table in exchange for higher taxes and a smaller deficit. This will be described not as a sellout of liberal principle but as a sacred quest for the Holy Grail of Washington: a bipartisan coming-together on "entitlement reform," which every responsible D.C. professional knows to be the correct way forward.

The walkway along the George Mason Span of the 14 Street Bridge looking toward Crystal City / Arlington, Va., 7:11PM July 20, 2014.


How will all the legacy-shapers of the future regard the Obama movement, the political prairie fire of six years ago that transformed the Senator from Illinois into a folk hero even before he was elected? What will the Obama library have to say about the people who recognized correctly that it was time for "Change" and who showed up at his routine campaign appearances in 2008 by the hundreds of thousands?

It will be a tricky problem. On the up side, those days before his first term began were undoubtedly Obama’s best ones. Mentioning them, however, will remind the visitor of the next stage in his true believers' political evolution: Disillusionment. Not because their hero failed to win the Grand Bargain, but because he wanted to get it in the first place -- because he seemed to believe that shoring up the D.C. consensus was the rightful object of all political idealism. The movement, in other words, won’t fit easily into the standard legacy narrative. Yet it can’t simply be deleted from the snapshot.

The Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C., 7:16PM July 20, 2014.


Perhaps there will be an architectural solution for this problem. For example, the Obama museum’s designers could make the exhibit on the movement into a kind of blind alley that physically reminds visitors of the basic doctrine of the Democratic Party's leadership faction: that liberals have nowhere else to go.

My own preference would be to let that disillusionment run, to let it guide the entire design of the Obama museum. Disillusionment is, after all, a far more representative emotion of our times than Beltway satisfaction over the stability of some imaginary "center." So why not memorialize it? My suggestion to the designers of the complex: That the Obama Presidential Library be designed as a kind of cenotaph, a mausoleum of hope.

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

Four young men at the base of the Washington Monument, Washington, D.C., 7:25PM July 20, 2014.


In Defense of American Optimism
By Jonathan Chait
July 21, 2014

Web link here.

The Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River, Arizona, July 5, 2014.


A few months ago, President Obama delivered a tribute to Lyndon Johnson that was also a tribute to his optimistic vision about American history. Obama reminded his audience that the triumph of justice was not easy, continuous, or automatic. "[W]e know we cannot be complacent," he warned, "For history travels not only forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways." This was Obama's caveat to his main point, which is that, for all the struggle and imperfection and reversals and injustice that remained, over the long haul, moral improvement has carried the day:

"Still, the story of America is a story of progress. However slow, however incomplete, however harshly challenged at each point on our journey, however flawed our leaders, however many times we have to take a quarter of a loaf or half a loaf -- the story of America is a story of progress."

The floor of Antelope Canyon, Arizona, July 5, 2014.


Obama's optimistic disposition toward American history is one I share. But it's also something that has divided liberals for a long time, and the division, ironically, has deepened during, and because of, Obama's presidency. Indeed, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Elias Isquith, two writers who occupy the left-wing side of the divide, quoted Obama’s warning about how history can move sideways or backwards as if it were his central point, rather than the caveat.

Light shining down into Antelope Canyon, Arizona, July 5, 2014.


The last few weeks, I've read What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe, an engrossing history of the United States from 1815 through 1848. This is a period known -- to the extent that Americans remember much about it at all -- as "the Age of Jackson," but Howe argues that this label is a mistake. America was not so much unified by Jackson as it was polarized in a way (this is my view superimposed on Howe's history) we would find highly recognizable today. America was split, geographically and sociologically: Red America favored militaristic foreign policy, the maintenance of existing racial and social hierarchy, and fiercely opposed big government; Blue America favored a more restrained foreign policy, a more amicable treatment of racial minorities, and activist government support for economic growth.

A dissipating storm with rainfall and virga as seen from Monument Valley on the Arizona / Utah border, July 5, 2014.


The Jacksonians favored the gold standard and believed the Constitution prohibited the federal government from any program not specifically delineated. "I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for making the Federal Government the great almoner of public charity," declared Zachary Taylor, in terms reminiscent of modern conservative objections to the individual mandate. Blue America was more culturally effete and enamored of public education; Red America suspicious of centralization and steeped in a culture of violence.

One of the famed buttes (East Mittens?) of Monument Valley silhouetted on the awesome night sky, Arizona / Utah border, July 6, 2014.


Blue America, then as now, was centered in the Northeast and what we now call the upper Midwest, and represented by the Whigs. Red America, then as now, was centered in the South and represented by the Democrats. Howe's provocative thesis is that, even though the Whigs famously disappeared, their philosophical vision is the one that eventually prevailed. He explains how a series of accidents (like the death of Benjamin Harrison), blunders, and close-run events destroyed the Whigs. The pattern of long-run triumph and short-run debacle can be seen over and over throughout the period.

The Milky Way -- representing the Galactic Center and inner spiral arms of our Galaxy -- and the "closer" field of individual stars as seen from Monument Valley, Arizona / Utah border, July 6, 2014.


Social and economic progress poked along at a torpid pace, and was replete with infuriating half-measures. The notion of national emancipation was far too radical to gain any practical traction, and the liberals of the time focused on attainable victories. In 1817, the state of New York banned slavery, but emancipation would not take effect until 1827, so as to mitigate the hardship felt by slave owners.

The view from Point Imperial on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, July 7, 2014.


This was the sort of compromise that makes bargaining away the public option look rather tame. It also created a perverse incentive for slave owners, sitting upon assets whose value would suddenly disappear, to sell their slaves to states where slavery would remain legal. (This was formally illegal, but slave holders used smugglers to circumvent the ban.) Even the incremental triumphs were punctuated by setbacks. The Jacksonian post office banned the mailing of any anti-slavery tracts into the South; several states eliminated the right to vote and other civil liberties for their free black citizens. History often moved backwards.

Another view from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, July 7, 2014.


The Erie Canal is one of the products of the era whose reputation has survived. It was hardly the subject of easy consensus. After it failed to attract federal support on Constitutional grounds, New York governor DeWitt Clinton had it built over determined opposition. Opponents called it "Clinton's big ditch," Thomas Jefferson deemed the project "madness," and both workers and businessmen opposed it for fear of higher taxes. The canal's successful operation eventually blunted the criticism, but its construction and enactment were surely experienced by contemporaries, like the passage of Obamacare, as a controversy at best and a debacle at worst.

The hoodoos of the giant amphitheater that is Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, July 8, 2014.


By the conclusion of Howe's history, the Whigs are nearing extinction and the slave states have grown even more fanatical. It would have been difficult for a modern liberal living at the time to discern a pattern of progress over the previous three decades. And yet currents of history still flowed beneath the surface. By 1848, it was possible for feminists to gather in Seneca Falls and call for equal rights. Their manifesto mimicked the Declaration of Independence -- "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal" -- in a long pattern of bringing the reality of America in line with the idealized version. A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. would do the same.

Mighty Glen Canyon Dam, Arizona, July 7, 2014.


Obama has a single message he passes on to the young people who work in his administration. Its core is historical optimism:

"We get White House interns to come in and they work at the White House, and they're there for six months, and then I usually speak to them at the end of six months. And I always tell them that despite how hard sometimes the world seems to be, and all you see on television is war and conflict and poverty and violence, the truth is that if you had to choose when to be born, not knowing where or who you would be, in all of human history, now would be the time. Because the world is less violent, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is more tolerant and it offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history."

Zion National Park, Utah, July 8, 2014.


Activists often resist this sort of thing as happy-talk; they fear it will breed complacency, or justify existing ills. I believe the evidence shows it does neither, that confidence breeds the courage necessary to move forward. But I also believe, utility aside, that optimism is analytically sound. Optimism is the most fundamental truth of American history.

Angels Landing in Zion National Park, Utah, July 8, 2014.


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