The cultural wars of the sixties were fought over many issues – sex, drugs and rock and roll of course – as Mick Jagger and such folks appalled the generation who had grown up on Glenn Miller and then aged and eased into Lawrence Welk once a week on the console television, with Perry Como and Patti Page on the radio during the day. And back then there was the issue of otherwise pleasant young men with long hair and beads, of all things. And there was the Vietnam War – one more of many, but this time people were saying it was stupid, and then that it was immoral, and some burned their draft cards and others left for Canada. There the rift was over what some called your patriotic duty – which you should perform without question – and what others saw as a persistent strain of absurd authoritarianism in the culture – that odd rage many displayed when someone asked a question, like why are we doing this? And that led to a lot of that “America, Love it or Leave It” stuff – good citizens don’t ask questions, they just do what they’re told. If you don’t like that, get the hell out of America.
So one side was saying be a good American, don’t question authority. The other side was saying be a good American, question authority. One side would say one must consider tradition, and received wisdom, and those who know so much more than we know. The other side was saying free thought – and nurturing your ability to think for yourself, specifically – was pretty damned cool, and really quite American itself. That too was an American tradition. And of course none of this was ever settled. We’re still fighting all those battles, save for disputes over long hair and wearing love-beads. No one cares now, if they even cared back in the sixties.
But there were a number of broader disputes, and one of those had to do with personal responsibility. The issue was why some people just turned out bad to the bone. And there the rift was between those who would say this or that particularly crappy person had turned into a juvenile delinquent, or an adult bum, or a mass murderer, or a congressman, all on their own – and others who would say that what any particularly awful person turned out to be was a failure of the social milieu in which they had been enmeshed, and not really an individual failure. So the one side would say that these bad people did it to themselves – they willfully made bad choices – and thus these bad people chose to be bad, and others didn’t, and that was their problem.
But then more and more people found themselves in college, and having to sit through courses in anthropology or sociology, and then starting to think that the problem, when there was one, was systemic – given the specific environment, the bad folks hardly had a chance to be anything but bad, so we ought to cut them some slack and see if they could be, as they say, rehabilitated. This sort of thing infuriated many on the right, of course, where the thought was to punish the bad folks – lock ’em up forever or just execute them – and be done with it, as there was nothing to understand, and even if there was, it hardly mattered. And yes, we’re still fighting that battle in many ways, and always will. It came up again with our recent run of Middle East wars, where some urged we look into why these folks were so murderously angry at us, while others argued that was stupid – they simply hate us and we’d better kill them all before they kill us. There was nothing to understand.
That’s another one that will never be settled, but there is a bit more to it, as the real rift, that underlies most political discourse these days, is between those who see politics as the story of the rise and fall of personalities – there are profiles in courage, and profiles in foolishness, and profiles in just plain nastiness. Politics is thus the story of what certain men, and certain women, do or don’t do. And that means we follow what Obama does, and how he does it, and why he does it – whatever it is – or hope Sarah Palin or Ted Nugent becomes our next president. Policy is not really an issue. We see no more than the person. And that sort of thing drives a whole lot of votes. Would you rather have a beer with George Bush or Al Gore? That was once a real question. And many of us have a vague memory of Chris Matthews on MSNBC saying, after Obama tried bowling in Altoona, and turned out to be bad at it, that it was over – Obama could never win even the nomination – he wasn’t a regular Joe, or something. That’s how many think.
But sometimes there’s a reason to forget the individuals and look at the system in which they operate – shifting alliances and pressure from constituents and donors, and from institutions. Sometimes that matters more than the individual. All politicians operate in a context. And context means everything.
For example, Paul Krugman flags this item published by The Hill on February 5, 2003, and it sheds some light on the current fight over deficit reduction:
As President Bush sent his budget to Capitol Hill Monday, a split opened among congressional Republicans between those who are still deficit hawks and an increasing number, including top leaders, who no longer see deficits as the touchstone of fiscal probity.
Confronted with projected deficits until fiscal 2007, senior GOP lawmakers are backing away from long-standing rhetoric about the government’s duty to live within its means.
The switch – whether from conviction, circumstance, or both – is bringing charges of hypocrisy from Democrats.
Some lawmakers view the existence of deficits as a useful tool to keep spending down.
“I came to the House as a real deficit hawk, but I am no longer a deficit hawk,” said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). “I’ll tell you why. I had to spend the surpluses. Deficits make it easier to say no.”
The existence of deficits is a useful tool to keep spending down? Ah, Steve Benen explains:
The recent history has largely been forgotten, but when the Bush era began ten years ago, there was no deficit. Clinton had bequeathed a large surplus and had already begun paying off the national debt. Projections showed that the debt was on track to be paid off entirely – for the first time in nearly two centuries – in roughly a decade.
But that was before Republicans decided they “had to spend the surpluses.” Deficits weren’t an accidental outcome of a misguided policy; they were a deliberate choice. GOP officials feared that the existence of surpluses would lead Democrats to want to invest in public services and national priorities, and Republicans would have trouble saying, “We can’t afford it,” when in fact, they could afford it.
In fact, Benen contends that Republicans created a fiscal mess on purpose. The idea was to generate deficits that would explode later and trap the Democrats, and no one could argue for spending more on anything:
Remarkably, all of them changed their minds, simultaneously, right after Democrats won in 2008. Those who created the deficits decided it was imperative that Democrats clean up the mess.
And before the right starts saying, “It doesn’t matter how we got here; it only matters what we do about it now,” that’s nonsense. Accountability matters. Credibility matters. Responsibility matters. When those who screw up deliberately and then demand that they alone know what they’re talking about, it matters.
But it was a systemic problem. There were two juggernauts – one rolling over everything on its way to fully fund public services and national priorities, and reinforce the safety net, to make us all secure and happy, and the other rolling over everything trying to defund the government as much as possible, so that it could do as little as possible, to make us all free and rid of any pesky meddling. Individual politicians were just along for the ride.
And now, in the Senate, there’s that Gang of Six, which according to its participants was very close to striking a bipartisan debt-reduction deal, and almost ready to take the particulars to their respective caucuses. But that just broke down completely – Senator Tom Coburn, from Oklahoma, sort of moved the goalposts – he brought up all sorts of new demands, and ignored previous stuff that he’d already agreed to. The other five senators found that they weren’t dealing with an individual. They were dealing with a party. And that party had told Tom Coburn to toe the line. Make no deals, as deals make Obama look good.
And Coburn heard that loud and clear. Benen puts it this way – “It’s almost as if a far-right Republican was concerned that a deal was coming together, so he had to scuttle his own progress.”
And Matthew Yglesias explains here why this keeps happening:
Bipartisan talks begin on the Hill. They make progress. Sometimes a little progress, and sometimes a lot of progress. Then at some point during the progress-making, the conservative participants in the talks realize that they have a problem – the talks are making progress! So then they start casting around for new demands or new reasons to break off the talks. Eventually, Lucy yanks the football away and we’re back to square one.
You can critique the motives or behavior of Tom Coburn (debt) or Lindsey Graham (immigration, climate) or John McCain (Gitmo, climate) or Bob Corker (financial regulation) or Chuck Grassley (health care) on some individual deal or particular gang. But the repetition of the story strongly suggests a structural issue.
But Benen goes on to argue that that structural issue isn’t a mystery, and he calls it “Mitch McConnell’s approach to policymaking.”
Indeed, the Senate Minority Leader has occasionally been quite candid about his thinking. A year ago, for example, he explained his decision to try to kill health care reform from the outset, regardless of merit or Democratic compromises, by demanding unanimous Republican opposition: “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is okay, they must have figured it out.”
It’s a dynamic that made compromise, quite literally, impossible.
And it’s a systemic problem:
Soon after, McConnell explained the importance he and the House GOP leadership put on “unifying our members in opposition” to everything Democrats propose, because unanimous Republican disagreement would necessarily make Democratic ideas less popular. “Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do,” McConnell conceded. “Our reaction to what Democrats were doing had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion.”
And Benen comments:
The way McConnell sees it, for much of the American mainstream “bipartisan support” is akin to a national seal of approval. It must be good, the thinking goes, if both sides agree. Likewise, there must be something wrong with partisan ideas – after all, if they were sensible proposals, negotiated in good faith, then both sides would like it.
So that leads here:
The “structural issue,” then, is Senate Republicans putting elections above governing. Bipartisan talks have to fail, or the GOP’s strategy falls apart. The goal isn’t to strike deals, it’s to kill deals and blame Dems for a lack of bipartisanship. Create favorable electoral conditions so the GOP can win is the only thing that matters. Period. Full stop.
As the Senate Republican leader has admitted, “Our single biggest political goal is to give our nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful.” Is it any wonder, then, that bipartisan negotiations keep falling apart?
Well, that’s the system. Individual politicians are only cogs in a larger machine. They ride their particular party’s massive juggernaut, somewhat passively.
And similarly, Benen notes here that the Republican approach to the debt ceiling is evolving, as it seems it is starting to break up into distinct factions:
One group, including the congressional Republican leadership, wants to raise the debt ceiling, and agrees that failure to do so would cause a disaster, but nevertheless intends to hold it hostage until Democrats pay a ransom. Another group, including many rank-and-file House Republicans, is convinced that concepts such as “default” and “full faith and credit” just aren’t a big deal.
But there’s a third group growing in size, one that would prefer to avoid national default, but just doesn’t believe it’s important to act anytime soon:
Top Republicans in Congress are advancing the idea that allowing the U.S. to default on its debts for a short time will be fairly harmless, and is a far better option than lifting the debt ceiling without simultaneous, dramatic spending cuts.
The new push comes just days after the country hit its statutory debt limit. In essence, the GOP is arming itself with a rationale to continue to oppose a debt ceiling hike, despite dire warning from economists, finance experts, and the Obama administration about the consequences of default.
This week, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have been pushing the notion that the United States shouldn’t really default, but if the country misses some payments on our international debts, well, no biggie. They’ve even found some former hedge-fund manager, Stanley Druckenmiller, to endorse the idea.
Maybe the idea of a market crash and bank runs worldwide, for just a few days, would show folks what power they have, if they really try to use it. You cut off the hostage’s ear, but you don’t kill him.
And Benen adds this:
It’s very tempting to note all of the reasons the Toomey/Cantor argument is crazy, and would cause “seriously bad consequences,” but instead let’s consider the competing sides of the argument.
On the one hand, we have the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, nearly all sane economists, Wall Street executives, American business leaders, Ronald Reagan, and up until very recently, the top leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties. This contingent believes the debt ceiling must be raised on time, or the consequences will likely be catastrophic.
On the other hand, we have conservative congressional Republicans who’ve been wrong about every major economic challenge for as long as anyone can remember, and Tea Party activists, who are generally in a state of perpetual confusion. This contingent believes raising the debt ceiling just isn’t a big deal, and there’s no real need to take the threat seriously. (A senior administration official noted last week of this group, “These are the kinds of people who get eaten by bears.”)
Here’s the question: how much are Americans willing to wager on this?
There seems to be a systemic problem here:
If the first group is wrong, and policymakers scramble unnecessarily to raise a debt limit that’s really not especially important, nothing happens. It’s just the status quo and the political world moves on to the next fight. If the second group is wrong, the economy falls off a cliff (again). This doesn’t strike me as an especially tough call.
But then everyone is locked into their own little world here. Everyone is a product of their environment. No one is a free agent.
But of course that does not absolve them from being fools. Ah, that was the flaw in the argument that everything is systemic. There are always fools.