Quote of the day: the republic is fucked edition

>> Tuesday, July 19, 2011

This fetish of bipartisanship and compromise would have been the elements of a very good President circa 1954, or maybe 1975. In 2011, with one party that has swore to never compromise on any principle ever again, it’s just a recipe for failure to hear this from the head of the other party. It guarantees bad outcomes. And with an economy in tatters and urgency (the fierce urgency of now, I would say) the order of the day, it has enormous consequences.

-David Dayen, "Obama’s Last Lecture"
Firedoglake, July 17th, 2011

I don't read Firedoglake, but I do read Digby, and when she says something's worth reading, I usually try to mosey over and see if she's right (she often is). Dayen, in fact, makes an excellent point, which is that the critics who accuse President Obama of failing to lead or failing to make a moral statement or educate the nation are dead wrong: if you look at the President's agenda, accomplishments, positioning, speeches, etc., he in fact has laid out a leadership vision: that in a diverse nation, the two (or more) sides on an issue need to come together and work things out to achieve some balanced middle position.

What's horribly depressing about this is that the President's idealism isn't wrong, exactly, and in fact represents a noble intellectual (and liberal) tradition: that reasonable people may disagree, that these disagreements may be principled, that multiple points of view may all have their own legitimacy. It's the kind of position that this nation's conservatives will belittle as entailing "moral relativism" and being mushy and touchie-feelie even as they (most likely) try to instill similar values in their children, to be put into practice when siblings fight over a toy or disputes arise on the playground in school. It's painful to have to say that compromise is bad, that thoughtfulness and empathy are misguided, that a willingness to meet someone halfway has the same consequences in a situation as being unscrupulous and unprincipled.

And one reflects that sometimes compromise is the only hand history sometimes deals to a player. "Appeasement" has become a dirty word since it's catastrophic "failure" in 1938, but those who have followed Winston Churchill's (personally motivated and occasionally malicious) critiques of Neville Chamberlain probably ask the wrong historical questions: the question really isn't whether negotiating with Adolf Hitler was wrong (the answer to that is a no-brainer, isn't it?), but what England (or France) was going to do about other people's messes on the far side of Europe. Britain and France were, for starters, democracies whose public remained beyond war-weary: a second war with Germany would have triggered constitutional crises in both nations and calls for no-confidence votes and recall elections. Both nations were still struggling with the economic effects of not only the Great Depression but the devastating economic crises of the 1920s (whereas the United States had experienced the "Roaring Twenties", Britain and France had experienced an almost unending series of minor depressions and recessions--indeed, part of America's prosperity before Wall Street's collapse in 1929 was the strength of the dollar in Europe; why do you think all those American writers and musicians were getting blotto on champagne in Paris--it isn't because being a bohemian artist was somehow more lucrative ninety years ago, it's because poor American artists couldn't starve in a country where the local currency wasn't worth wiping your ass on). And both nations were colonial states, which is significant in context because while their respective military forces numerically trumped German military might, those armies and navies were stationed in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Pacific; withdrawing troops from India, say, to fight in Czechoslovakia just wasn't an option given (a) the logistics of shipping them 'round the world and (b) they were kind of sort of needed where they were to beat the crap out of that uppity Mohandas Gandhi and his ilk trying to claim that Indians ought to have, you know, independence and rights and all that rot.

I.e., while giving the Czechs to Hitler seems obviously wrong, I'm not exactly sure what Neville Chamberlain was supposed to do.

And what's President Obama supposed to do with a party of reactionaries who are somehow beholden to corporate financial interests and a small-but-distressingly-loud party of political fundamentalists who want to return America to the Gilded Age? (Actually, strike the "somehow": an unspoken deathwish for America's age of suicidally unregulated capitalism is in fact the shared goal of the teabaggers, who think Americans were somehow more free at the time, and the corporations, whose shareholders would undeniably reap short-term benefits if they didn't have to, you know, follow laws and be responsible and stupid stuff like that.) Does he have a choice about being conciliatory, even to people who have no desire whatsoever to claim any moral middle ground with those they disagree with.

This is part of the problem with Obama's moral vision, you know, and part of what Dayen's post nails. I'm not trying to Godwinize things by comparing Republicans to Nazis: they're not, and there's no such basis for comparison and that isn't the point. The comparison, at the risk of casting the Republicans into the role of Nazis (which, again, I'd rather not do because that would be really, really stupid) is between Obama and Chamberlain, the latter being an extreme case of somebody trying to take a civilized approach to dealing with people who had absolutely no interest in civilized approaches to anything. Republicans are nothing like Nazis in any moral, ethical or ideological scope, but they are as intransigent and truculent; there is no other way to describe a party that has viciously turned on proposals (in healthcare and economic reform, for example) that originated on their side and have been offered back to them by the President in the spirit of meeting them more than halfway.

In such a situation, accommodation--appeasement--seems less like a virtue to try to bring peace [economic prosperity, security for the elderly, medical care for children, sustainable energy development, a cleaner environment) for our time than a one-sided suicide pact. If the other side were willing to act in good faith--if the other side had smart, conservative, wonkish guys whose worldviews were shaped in part by the shared national service and shared national triumph against tyranny that the Second World War represented--a commitment to accommodation would be not merely effective but heroic, democratic, rational: further evidence of American culture as a vital and leading thing in the world. The President and his bipartisan advisors, colleagues, friendly rivals and so on would all be in Life magazine profiles of the hustle and bustle of Washington's wheeling and dealing political culture where anything can be negotiated and everything is. Instead, what we have is a political culture that effectively has been profiled in ten thousand Peanuts cartoons: the Republicans, played by Lucy van Pelt, will promise yet again that this time they really, really, really won't scoop away the football when Barack Obama (our Charlie Brown, of course) comes running up to kick the ball; and dammit, we were all certain they weren't going to move the ball again, right? Right?

There's that old line that madness is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. A friend's film proposes a fugue state is doing the same thing over and over again expecting the same result. So the President's crazy and the rest of us are dissociating like nobody's business, right?

I dunno; I'm spent. The republic, I think, I fear, is well and truly fucked, "The best," like the man said, "lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Or is it that the best hold the wrong convictions and the worst are adamantly stonewalling? It becomes too depressing to give much more thought to at the moment.


Steve Buchheit Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 10:55:00 AM EDT  

It appears the signature on this document wasn't notarized.

David Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 2:14:00 PM EDT  

One of the many things that I find bitterly humorous about all this is that for all the Teabaggers' insistence on worshiping the Founding Fathers, they simply don't get anything about them.

The ability to compromise - to rise above one's petty private interests for the good of the whole, to meet reasonable differences of opinion with reasonable digressions from the Plan - was considered a signal virtue in the early republic. The kind of bull-headed zealotry of the ignorant masquerading as principle these days was not.

Laugh or cry.


Chamberlain had several options other than the utter moral failure that was the Munich conference. For one, he could have allowed the Soviets to honor their defensive treaty obligations toward the Czechs instead of giving the imprimatur of legitimacy to the handing over of half a sovereign nation to the illegitimate demands of another. He could have insisted that the Czechs at least be invited to the conference instead of literally locking the Czech ambassador out of the conference room while that ambassador pounded on the door demanding to be let in. He could have insisted the Soviets be allowed to attend as well. He could simply have done NOTHING - just let events happen on their own without his stamp of approval - and it would have been preferable to endorsing the events that followed.

So I'm not sure your analogy holds up, though I agree wholly with your larger point.

Eric Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 5:31:00 PM EDT  

David, re: Chamberlain: the point really wasn't to justify appeasement (which didn't work for England any more than Obama's conciliatory gestures towards the GOP have worked for Americans), but to acknowledge that his options were all bad ones. You're right that Munich was a disgrace and Chamberlain could have done things differently; however, any option that would have brought Britain into direct conflict with Germany would have (a) triggered a government crisis and (b) probably been strategically suicidal (British military planners--much like American military planners in reaction to Japan--were looking at the likelihood of eventual direct confrontation with Germany, but only further down the road, not in the year it actually reared its head).

I'm not sure Obama has any good choices as far as dealing with the Republicans, and compromise may be the only one that appears to be a plausible course for him right now--hence the Chamberlain comparison. But it also appears to be a track doomed to failure because those he's negotiating with are not rational actors and/or are not acting in good faith--also hence the Chamberlain comparison.

I don't know what the answer is. I'm not sure there would be much to be gained if the President told the GOP to go fuck themselves, although morally I think that's actually the best thing he could do at this stage. (And that, by the way, is part of what's so depressing: we shouldn't have a Congress so despicable that being told to fuck off is the only moral recourse in dealing with them. They ought to act like adults who care about their country.) Compromise clearly isn't going to work either, despite being the civilized virtue.

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