Nostalgia for a gentler politics


I'm not saying that I'm particularly smart, anyone who tried to copy off me during middle-school spelling tests or caught a glimpse of me on a Friday night can testify to the fact that I'm a virtual idiot most of the time.  My bullshit detectors are functioning superbly however.  I can tell that there is something a bit unsophisticated and silly about the shared nostalgia on both the center-left and the center-right for the days when American politics were less "parliamentary" and more friendly.  When politicians could get together and put the people's interests over their personal differences.  When all the members of our political elite could argue over policy on the Hill, but still get together and abuse a hooker or two after work.  You know.... the good old days!

Now I admit that as a political radical I have a hard time accepting the basic ground-rules of American politics.  But maybe this lonely distance allows me to allows me a more objective picture of the mainstream than those who openly embrace the prevailing hegemonic discourses.

Take for example today's op-ed in The Baltimore Sun by Jean Marbella.  (Yes, I'm a college student, reading The Baltimore Sun, hungover, on a Sunday morning.  Anyway...) The narrative of the article is really a tired one that I've heard repeated over and over again for much of my life.  "Blah blah, bipartisanship." "Where are all the moderates?" "Remember when they all use to belong to same country club?" Etc., etc. Lately the right wing has attempted to focus on Ted Kennedy the "deal maker" and the "bipartisan," a far cry from the liberal demon they spun him as while he was still sharing air with us.  Here is one particular gem from Marbella's article:

The clubby, collegial Senate that he came to symbolize no doubt died before he did. And it wasn't just the Senate, but everything about politics -- the way politics is practiced, covered by the media and followed by the public.  You have to wonder what it was like to serve over a span of time that encompassed so much change, from a time when it was a largely patrician institution, to now, when the heated debates on the Internet and cable news and talk radio tend to outshout those of the so-called greatest deliberative body in the world.

The article's ridiculous premise continues until its long overdue conclusion:

It's ironic, but we've heard more about how great compromise is these last few days in regard to the late legislator than to the current health care legislation. Any sign of moving toward the middle in the health care debate from either the left or the right, is viewed as caving in rather an attempt to compromise. Perhaps that will be one of Kennedy's legacies - to restore the idea that to compromise is, well, compromising.

This one article is emblematic of the ahistorical outlook of most of the media and the inherent limitations of liberal (read: bourgeois) ideology. To begin with Marbella, someone that the free market will thankfully probably soon put out of a job, seems to thinks that crazed plebeian screams are drowning out the tenor of the bourgeoisie's gentlemanly Senate.  She implies that these men should be isolated to an extent from the aspirations of the people so that they can properly deliberate amongst themselves.  It's an argument reminiscent of Zell Miller's call for the repeal of the direct election of Senators after he was appointed to his Senate seat.  The article, like that Newsweek article from last year that proudly and openly identified the ruling class in America, is sort of refreshing.  It used to be a struggle during the mid-20th century for Marxists to try to explain that behind America's shared prosperity and "people's capitalism" was class rule.  Now the apologists for the status quo openly concede the point.

What really "killed" bipartisanship?

Simply put, it's not personalities that clash today, but rather ideologies rooted -- to put it quite vulgarly -- in an economic base.  Though for around a decade Republicans violently fought the New Deal reforms by the time of Eisenhower the Republican Party had subscribed to the New Deal consensus and largely to the economic policy of Keynesianism.  Shared prosperity fueled mass consumption and the golden age of capitalism.  Democratic Senators from the South who supported populist economic programs could be joined by liberal Northern Republicans in supporting legislation.  LBJ got Medicare passed above loud objections from within his own party with the help of Republican votes.  Ditto for Civil Rights legislation.  The consensus was shattered by the Vietnam War, the upheavals of the 1960s and -- often ignored -- the stagflation phenomenon.

According to conventional wisdom of Keynesianism weak growth was suppose to yield low inflation, but throughout the 1970s weak growth combined with inflation.  Milton Friedman, though unfairly demonized by much of the Naomi Klein-left, offered a coherent explanation for this and neoliberalism took hold.  Unions and regulations--  instruments that interfere with the market -- were cut down through a class offensive by capital.  Lower wages and higher unemployment kept workers in check and to a degree got the economy back on track.  Import substitution and welfare capitalism was out the world over -- along with rising inflation.  Many Senators from both parties were once again reunited -- yes, this includes Kennedy -- through this common platform of neoliberal deregulation.

Yet today in the 21st century there are in practical terms little common ground between the Congressional progressives and their Republican colleagues.  This is not to say that the majority of Democrats can't still be described as neoliberals, but rather that the Republican Party is still a quite a radical party committed to a vision of free-market orthodoxy and deregulation -- completely undeterred by the worldwide discrediting of neoliberalism as an economic ideology.  The segments of the Democratic Party moronically labeled as radical by the reactionary Right are actually quite conservative. Responding to the failures of deregulation they are taking baby steps back towards operative Social Democratic economic policies, while preferring a more isolationist and less "proactive" American foreign policy.  Additionally, on social and culture issues the chasm between conservatives and liberals couldn't be wider (a division that Republicans have kept at the core of their electoral campaign since the late '60s).

The partisanship we are seeing now is the confrontation between two starkly different variants of capitalist ideology.  The bipartisanship we saw in the past was a reflection of a shared ideology permeating through the two parties of the ruling class.  Marbella's last point is perhaps her most ridiculous as it suggests that through a triangulation between radical free-market orthodoxy and tepid social liberalism a "moderate center" can be found.  This assumes that the ideal solution to a problem is naturally found somewhere in between the two opposing arguments and that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party represent the left and the right wings of the political spectrum, instead of the center and the right.

The bipartisan bickering and vitriol in American politics will only slowly abate when a new crop of Republicans come into power and accept a new neo-Keynesian consensus.  This is not to say that a neo-Keynesian outlook can save capitalism or help the United States enter another era of shared prosperity or that such a consensus will even come to pass, but it is what it is.

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