No one ever said that T. S. Eliot was a barrel of laughs. In 1915 he gave us The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock – all resignation and hopelessness. In 1922 it was The Waste Land – which was even more depressing. In 1925 it was The Hollow Men – which Edmund Wilson called the “nadir of the phase of despair and desolation” Eliot seemed to be going through. On the other hand, in all these, the writing was so vivid, and learned, and direct, that they were what critics call exquisite, if you like that sort of thing. And they were quotable. The Hollow Men ends with those words everyone knows – “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Everyone, sooner or later, feels that way in the middle of the night. Everyone’s dreams die. Even larger dreams die. The world is not getting better every day in every way, nor is it rapidly getting all that much worse either, leading to a cataclysmic apocalypse of some sort anytime soon. We won’t get one of those. Things will just peter out. On the personal level, and on the cultural level, no one’s going out in a blaze of glory, or shame. They’re just going, quietly and an unnoticed. It’s nice to have words for that. Eliot is useful.
Robert Frost was a bit more cynical about such things:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Mankind is a miserable lot. Either will do, and despair may not be appropriate. Irony is, because we are an amusingly self-destructive species. Thus Frost is also useful.
What we need now is a poet for the end of the American experience, as things do seem to be falling apart, both culturally and politically, or so says Andrew Sullivan:
Despite getting fewer votes than the Democrats for president, House and Senate, the Republicans are using their gerrymandered majority in the House to block even executive branch appointees from approval. They are determined to destroy universal healthcare. They are launching a national campaign to shut down abortion clinics. They deny climate science. They voted against tax cuts – purely because a Democratic president proposed them.
There are relatively easy compromises to be had right now in a sane republic: short-term stimulus accompanied by long-term structural tax and entitlement reform; reform of universal healthcare to empower individuals rather than burden companies; pricing CO2 more aggressively to abate climate change; investing in infrastructure to help accelerate growth in the long run. There are good arguments to be had in all these areas – how best to tackle climate change? What share of the economy should the welfare state take as boomers age? But the differences, compared with the crises facing many other countries, are relatively minor.
But the cultural gulf has rarely been as deep or as wide. My view on this is that our division is not really about politics or even ideology. Ideology is an often ill-fitting misnomer for something much more powerful – deep cultural alienation between the two parts of America.
Hell, everyone sees that, and of course Sullivan channels Eliot:
I’m not sure there can be a political resolution to this in the short term. Obama was as good a try as any – and he has made underappreciated pragmatic progress in reforming America, shifting our foreign policy back toward sanity, saving us from a second Great Depression or the fate of much of Europe, and even winning universal healthcare. But there comes a point at which he simply hits a brick wall, just as the Islamists did in Egypt and the Green Movement did in Iran and the secularists have in Turkey and the liberal individualists in Tel Aviv against the settlers on the West Bank.
Sullivan blames all the damned fundamentalists everywhere, both religious and political, for this mess, but he’s been saying such things for a long time now. Tolerant free-thinkers are at a premium these days, but they always have been. One must also consider small nasty self-serving men of no particular conviction. It’s those hollow men who also ruin everything.
That happened again as this was the day everyone decided immigration reform was dead:
The already narrow path to enacting comprehensive immigration reform pretty much disappeared in the past 24 hours.
At the Capitol, House Speaker John Boehner stated a specific policy preference Tuesday that will alienate the entire Democratic Party if he adheres to it… It amounts to a de facto endorsement of the conservative view that any steps to legalize existing immigrants should be contingent upon implementation of draconian border policies. As is Boehner’s custom, it also eschews the word “citizenship,” suggesting that even if Democrats agree to a trigger, he won’t guarantee that it would be aimed at a full amnesty program and, thus, eventual voting rights for immigrants already in the U.S.
There will be no path to citizenship. The House Republicans say no, and then there was this:
This morning, William Kristol and Rich Lowry, the editors of the two most important conservative magazines (the Weekly Standard and National Review) joined together to write an unusual joint editorial titled “Kill the Bill,” coming down in opposition to the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill that passed the Senate. The substance of their argument is familiar to anyone following this debate – the Obama administration can’t be trusted, it won’t stop all future illegal immigration, the bill is too long – but the substance isn’t really important. What’s important is that these two figures, about as establishment as establishment gets, are siding firmly with the anti-reform side.
Matthew Yglesias is amazed by some of the other reasoning here:
The more nonsensical argument I’ve been hearing takes the Congressional Budget Office’s conclusion that the Gang-of-Eight bill would cut unauthorized migration in half and appends the word “only” to it. Get it? Immigration reformers say their reform bill will secure the border, but in fact it will only cut unauthorized migration in half relative to the current policy baseline – but of course not passing the immigration bill just leaves us with the current policy, which (by definition!) doesn’t cut unauthorized migration at all relative to the current policy baseline. So disappointment about the border security potency of the bill can’t actually be the reason for not passing it. The reason for not passing it would have to be what it plainly is – hostility to creating a path to citizenship for current unauthorized residents of the country that’s so intense that it outweighs other possible benefits of the bill.
Paul Waldman says you can also see it this way:
Those two efforts at health care reform were always understood as a conflict between a Democratic administration seeking a longtime Democratic goal, and Republicans in Congress trying to stop them. It was reported like a sporting event: Clinton loses, Republicans win; Obama wins, Republicans lose. Immigration, on the other hand, has been reported largely as a battle within the Republican Party. President Obama, knowing full well that anything he advocates immediately becomes toxic for most Republicans, has been using a lighter touch when it comes to public advocacy for comprehensive reform. I’m not saying he hasn’t been pushing for it, but he hasn’t done the all-out, campaign-style barnstorming tour that would help turn it into a purely Democrats-versus-Republicans issue. The story has always been, “What will the Republicans do?” and if reform goes down, the headlines won’t read, “Obama Defeated on Immigration Reform,” they’ll read, “Republicans Kill Immigration Reform,” with subheadings like “Danger ahead for GOP as Latino voters react.”
The focus will be on the hollow men, and Kevin Drum chimes in:
Why are Republicans backing away from immigration reform? Probably because they never really liked it in the first place – but why are Republicans saying they’re backing away? Partly they’ve taken solace in Sean Trende’s “missing white vote” theory, which suggests that Republicans can gain more by increasing their vote share among whites than they can by appealing to Hispanics. And who knows? That might even be true in the short term. But in the last couple of days, critics have latched onto yet another argument: if President Obama can delay the employer mandate in Obamacare, then he can probably sabotage an immigration bill too if he feels like it.
That’s what Steve Benen explains:
The talking point appears to have started in earnest with this Washington Examiner piece from Conn Carroll, who argued that the Obama administration delayed implementation of the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act – a move the right should, in theory, love – which proves the White House shows discretion when it comes to enforcing parts of major laws, which proves Obama might not enforce the border-security elements of immigration reform, which proves Republicans can’t trust him, which proves Congress should kill the bipartisan bill. …
[Rep. John Fleming] went on quite a rant yesterday, arguing, “Whatever we pass into law, we know he’s going to cherry-pick. How do we know that? … ObamaCare! He’s picking and choosing the parts of the law that he wants to implement. This president is doing something I have never seen a president do before: in a tripartite government with its checks and balances, we have lost the balances. We have a president that picks and chooses the laws that he wants to obey and enforce. That makes him a ruler. He’s not a president, he’s a ruler.”
Actually he’s an administrator. That’s why they call it the administrative branch, and this is what administrators are actually supposed to do, but Drum can only add this:
All the signs of doom are here. Boehner is falling deeper into the tea party rabbit hole every day; the establishment has decided to cut its losses; the intellectual superstructure of opposition is gaining ground; and the hot-air crowd is finding ever more deranged conspiracy theories to rally the troops.
This will end with a whimper. The hollow men will assure that, but this is part of something larger, and the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes that larger thing:
It’s not unusual to hear dirty hippie liberal blogger types (and the occasional lefty Nobel Prize winner) point out that today’s GOP has effectively abdicated the role of functional opposition party, instead opting for a kind of post-policy nihilism in which sabotaging the Obama agenda has become its only guiding governing light.
But when you hear this sort of argument coming from Chuck Todd, the mild-mannered, well respected Beltway insider, it should prompt folks to take notice.
Post-policy nihilism, you say? Sabotage, you say? That is pretty much what Chuck Todd and Mark Murray were saying at MSNBC’s First Read:
Here’s a thought exercise on this summer morning: Imagine that after the controversial Medicare prescription-drug legislation was passed into law in 2003, Democrats did everything they could to thwart one of George W. Bush’s top domestic achievements. They launched Senate filibusters to block essential HHS appointees from administering the law; they warned the sports and entertainment industries from participating in any public service announcements to help seniors understand how the law works; and, after taking control of the House of Representatives in 2007, they used the power of the purse to prohibit any more federal funds from being used to implement the law.
As it turns out, none of that happened. And despite Democratic warnings that the law would be a bust – we remember the 2004 Dem presidential candidates campaigning against it – the Medicare prescription-drug law has been, for the most part, a pretty big success.
But that thought exercise has become a reality ten years later as Republicans have worked to thwart/stymie/sabotage – pick your word – the implementation of President Obama’s health-care and financial-reform laws.
A majority of both houses passed the thing, Obama signed it into law, the Supreme Court declared it constitutional, and a minority now will destroy it, in the name of democracy or something:
Recently, the top-two Senate Republicans – Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn – wrote a letter to the NFL and other major sports leagues warning them not to participate in any campaign to promote implementation of Obamacare. The Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity is in unchartered waters running TV ads to help prevent the law from being implemented, while the Obama political arm is also on the air promoting implementation. And Senate Republicans have vowed to filibuster any nominee (no matter how qualified) to run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the financial-reform law. …
And this all raises the question: What’s the line between fighting for your ideology and ensuring that the government that pays your salaries actually works – or even attempts to work? At some point, governing has to take place, but when does that begin? We know what opponents will say in response to this: These are bad laws, and we have to do whatever it takes to stop them. But at what point does an election have a governing consequence?
Sargent takes it from there:
I’d take it further; it goes well beyond Obamacare implementation and the relentless blockading of Obama nominees for the explicit purpose of preventing democratically-created agencies from functioning. We’ve slowly crossed over into something a bit different. It’s now become accepted as normal that Republicans will threaten explicitly to allow harm to the country to get what they want, and will allow untold numbers of Americans to be hurt rather than even enter into negotiations over the sort of compromises that lie at the heart of basic governing.
Let that sink in. They will harm the country, doing massive damage if necessary, to get what they want:
Sam Stein’s big piece today details the very real toll the sequester cuts are taking on real people across the country, and crucially, it explains that the sequester was deliberately designed to threaten harm in order to compel lawmakers to act to reduce the deficit. But Republicans will not consider replacing those cuts with anything other than 100 percent in cuts elsewhere, which is to say, they will only consider replacing them with 100 percent of what they want. Meanwhile, Republicans are drawing up a list of spending cuts they will demand in exchange for raising the debt limit, even though John Boehner has openly admitted that default would do untold damage to the U.S. economy. Indeed, even if default doesn’t end up happening, the threat of it risks damaging the economy, yet Republicans still insist they will use it as leverage to get what they want, anyway.
This is insane:
The current GOP campaign isn’t just about opposing the Affordable Care Act or arguing for its repeal. It’s about making it harder for uninsured Americans to gain access to coverage under a law passed and signed by a democratically elected Congress and President, and upheld by the Supreme Court, in service of the political goal of making it a greater liability for Democrats in the 2014 elections (the law, after all, isn’t going to get repealed).
This is small nasty self-serving men of no particular conviction making a functioning government impossible, out of spite, and a hope for power, later. It’s those hollow men who ruin everything. They want everything to end in a whimper, and Heather Parton adds this:
Apparently, the political establishment is waking up to the fact that just because Obama passed health care reform, there was no guarantee that it would be implemented as passed. And they are realizing that looking to past implementations of major progressive legislation doesn’t really tell you much in an era of extreme right wing radicalism.
This is not news to everyone. Some of us realized that we were dealing with people who had become unmoored from any consciousness of the need to govern. The problem is – what now?
Maybe the American experiment in self-governance now ends in a whimper, but hurting others and ending it all, to get what you want, is a dangerous game for the Republicans, as Slate’s John Dickerson notes here:
The public debate over immigration reform has the potential to erupt into a self-inflicted wound again because it touches on the most sensitive issues of racism, tolerance, morality, and adherence to the rule of law. Both sides have been trying to appeal to the other in order to build a coalition for a final piece of legislation, so the rhetoric has been somewhat tempered. But each side thinks the stakes are enormous. On Meet the Press two weeks ago, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said Republicans were in a “demographic death spiral as a party and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” The next week, Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho made the opposite case. If Republicans support the Senate bill that Sen. Graham is promoting, “politically it’s going to be the death of the Republican Party.”
Whatever happens, someone is going to need bereavement therapy. All this talk of death may be hyperbole, but a voter not involved in the clubhouse spat might wonder why one side or the other is committing suicide. Whatever this voter decides, the rhetoric from Republicans leaves him or her with the view that half of the party is not simply wrong, but insane.
Dickerson offers this:
Voters unsure of where to place the blame will have trusted sources like the Wall Street Journal helping them. When senators appeared ready to block the effort in that body on the grounds it did not secure the border, the Journal’s editorial page questioned the motives of senators on the ”restrictionist right,” arguing that their concerns about security were a fig leaf for their basic disinterest in granting citizenship to undocumented workers. “The real game here is to kill a bill that would create a more pro-growth and humane immigration system for America and the millions already here or in line to come. If the right succeeds in blowing all this up, one wonders what comes next. Perhaps Republicans can campaign in 2014 on self-deporting the 11 million illegals who are here now. That worked so well for Mitt Romney.”
If House Republicans follow Lowry and Kristol’s advice, that kind of tone and language is likely to become more common.
That is a problem:
Republicans don’t always look good when debating immigration reform. They get emotional, judge each other’s motives, and generally provide Democrats with opportunities to point fingers at them. Republicans on both sides of the issue point to the trouble the GOP has had talking about immigration in the past. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado is blamed for years of immigrant bashing that made the party look intolerant. In the 2012 GOP primary, the unresolved immigration issue caused a rolling fracas between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. When Romney came out for “self-deportation,” many in the party believe it defined Romney and the GOP as cold and unwelcoming. This public squabbling not only looks unseemly, it also blocks Republicans from spending time talking about a positive agenda for the future that appeals to a wider range of voters.
Yes, but what if what Chuck Todd and the First Read crew finally noticed is true? Perhaps they’re not interested in any positive agenda for the future. The evidence is there, so maybe we should all be reading Eliot’s depressing but exquisite poems, for the appropriate quotes that capture dreams dying and the quiet end of everything. As Eliot notes, it all does end in a whimper.