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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

If America Declines ...

... Don't Expect Anyone to Talk About It

by Kevin Phillips

AlterNet (April 08 2008)

The following is an excerpt from Kevin Phillips' newly-released book, Bad Money (Viking, 2008).

Rarely in US history has a president, especially a two-term president, been so unpopular at a time when the Congress, captured in the midterm elections by the opposition, is held in no greater regard. In such a case, the norm is for the two to fight, with one side gaining the edge. But that has not been true of George W Bush and the Democratic Congress elected by running against him in 2006.

The two sides have gone after each other in a fashion, but more often they have simply talked past each other to their separate party constituencies, repeating familiar commitments to keep the true believers on each side somewhat more contented than the unimpressed independents - those who bulk so large in the sixty to seventy percent of voters convinced that the country is on the wrong track. Most office holders on both sides seem to rest easier if everyone stays away from uncomfortable themes, even ones in the headlines, like costly US overreach in the Middle East; the reckless expansion of private debt, as well as the federal budget deficit variety; the new economic (and political) dominance of the financial sector; and the mounting probability that the nation will have to choose between desirable energy supplies and global warming measures. After all, what you can sidestep today might go away tomorrow.

True, the public is not impressed - "no guts" and "living in a dream world" are frequently heard descriptions of politicians. However, most big party contributors tend to donate based on established relationships and sympathies or on nonideological desire for access, not on philosophical engagement. No parallel to the simultaneous public distaste for a president and his opposition Congress comes to mind, but then modern polling goes back only to the 1930s. Let me stipulate: despite the obvious salience of predicaments like oil, climate, the volatile dollar, run-amok debt and credit, the housing bubble, and imperial overinvolvement in the Middle East, I would be the last to say that any more than five to ten percent of the electorate would favor a 2008 debate over American decline. Average voters do not.

In these matters, history does not merely urge caution; it demands skepticism - and about both public attention and likely governmental achievement. It is necessary to consider two other symptoms of weak, even failed US politics: the entrenchment in Washington of a staggering array of interest groups, which has engendered a soulless political dynamic of perpetually raising and dispersing campaign funds; and the further, bipartisan trend toward what can only be called a politics of inheritance and dynasty.

Money politics and entrenched interests

The English-speaking peoples, when filling in new lands, had a certain naviete about the power of entrenched interests and how these could be subdued by locating a political capital in a remote federal preserve far from the existing centers of (corrupting) urbanity and wealth. The capitals were thus located in backwaters at a time when geography trumped media (Washington, DC, Ottawa, and Canberra); but today, those names have become shorthand in their respective electorates for (1) metropolitan areas with strikingly high (and recession-resistant) per capita incomes; and (2) hothouses of seething interest-group concentration where elected representatives, shedding whatever grassroots fealty they may once have possessed, often train to retire after ten or twelve years to triple or even quintuple their salaries by becoming lobbyists.

As an aspiring theorist four decades ago, I developed a belief that the realignments seen in US presidential politics every generation or so had an (idealized) cleaning-up component. The victors, with a mandate of sorts from an annoyed electorate rearranged in new party coalitions, came to the capital city and purged it of the used-up elites of the crowd that had just been voted out. Some of that occurred after Thomas Jefferson's election in 1800, Andrew Jackson's in 1828, Abraham Lincoln's in 1860, and Franklin D Roosevelt's in 1932.

At any rate, it didn't happen after the 1968 election, although Republicans held the White House for twenty of the next twenty-four years. And it certainly hasn't happened since. Congress and the White House have been in the hands of different parties two-thirds of the time since 1968, so the United States has progressed to a new kind of interest-group influence: the simultaneous entrenchment in Washington of the "used up, don't want to go back to Peoria" elites of both major parties. This electoral duopoly is in turn protected by various state and federal election and campaign-finance laws that make it hard for new parties to take hold or flourish. It's not that there aren't differences between the parties; it's just that they are limited differences and ones often reflecting cultural polarization.

In the early 1980s, an American sociologist by the name of Mancur Olson published a book called The Rise and Decline and Nations (Yale University Press, 1984). Its thesis was that decline comes because after many years of success, a nation's political and economic arteries get so clogged with special-interest groups that its life-giving circulation of ideas and elites is impaired. Countries that are beaten in wars and occupied receive a new lease on life because their old interest-group structures get uprooted. He dwelled on Britain, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, none successfully invaded or occupied over the last few centuries, as examples of impaired political and economic circulation. Olson misjudged the links between inflation and political failure, but his interest-group focus may have a partial utility in explaining political and governmental entrenchment and decline.

If one goes back and looks at the capital cities of the four previous leading world economic powers, in later eras attempts were made to divide, abandon, or relocate them. Capitals in both Rome and Spain were relocated - in the fifth century AD the Roman capital moved to Ravenna, and Spain's for a while moved from Madrid to Valladolid. Concern about elites that were calcified and verging on permanence worried people then, too.

Parties and factions can also run out of creativity. British party politics was chaotic in the decades between the two world wars, which limited innovation and complicated any prospect of renewal. There is little more to be said for US party politics in the early 2000s. The Republicans were discredited by eight years of failure in war, diplomacy, and fiscal honesty, and the Democrats won no laurel wreaths for effective opposition. Institutionally, the 180-year-old Democratic Party and the 150-year-old Republican Party have, over the last forty years, uprooted themselves from what were their constituencies and allegiances as late as the 1960s.

Gone on the Democratic side is the southern and western geography of opposition to northeastern financial elites under the aegis of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry S Truman. Instead, there is a new Democratic politics of new national elites - financial, high-tech, and communications. The Republicans, in turn, have lost many of their old, post-Civil War northern and western constituencies and biases, turning to the South and the interior West and a combination of old-line northern business elites and the Sun Belt power structure so ascendant in the late twentieth century. For both parties, the bottom line is usually the same: the bottom line. Fund-raising. Money. Comparative rootlessness makes it easy.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc, from Bad Money by Kevin Phillips, the author of many books.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kevin Phillips
Copyright (c) 2008 Viking Press. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten


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