Partisanship and National Security

“The Worst Threat to America: A Partisan and Self-Paralyzed Congress”
Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 13, 2012

When congressional partisanship reaches the point that one of America’s most respected defense strategists has to turn the fire hose on both parties in a high profile document aimed right at that audience, something has gone terribly wrong.

Put another way, when any interest group with a traditional alignment with one side of the aisle gets so fed up with inaction that it has to call both sides to task, then we have reached the point where the partisanship itself is the problem.

A government of competing ideologies is no government at all. Until Americans can learn to compromise again in the name of the greater good, our government will be divided and weak.

Matt Taibbi and the Criminalization of Compromise

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rolling Stone National Affairs Chief Matt Taibbi, who has written the introduction to the 40th Anniversary Edition of the late Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, was interviewed about this singular honor and about Thompson in the June 27th Edition of The Village Voice.

Now, Taibbi and I only occasionally find ourselves in agreement, as much because of his tone and tactics as his content. His coverage of the collusion between government and the banks has been some first-class reporting that should be making the staffs at both The Wall Street Journal and Mother Jones blush in embarrassment.

Sadly, his polemic style undermines his reportage, if not his effectiveness with your average Rolling Stone reader. Taibbi’s goal is to enrage and mobilize at least as much as it is to argue and analyze, and to me this kind of fire-and-brimstone-upon-the-converted from ideological extremists lies at the heart of the modern American political dysfunction. Taibbi’s style is as much a part of the problem as Rush Limbaugh‘s. Passion should be the seasoning in politics, not its substance, and reasonable points get lost when concern boils into outrage.

To offer just one example of what I mean, in his interview with The Voice, Taibbi makes some cogent points about the Left’s disillusionment with Obama:

“I think a lot of what Occupy is is disappointed idealism. A lot of the people who thought, in Hunter terms, that Obama was the “Great Shark” who was going to come and right all the wrongs. And then they realized that he was very much, for all his good qualities, a conventional Democratic party politician, and all the negatives that that comes with. I think people were extremely disappointed, and that’s why they’re all out on the streets right now. There’s a tremendous cynicism embedded in mainstream American politics right now, where people who are in Washington and live on Capitol Hill really don’t think they have any obligation to be truly honest.”

As I read that, I was banging on my desk screaming “yes, Yes, YES,” like Meg Ryan in a deli, smacking the two-ton benchwright table so hard that the monitor was bouncing. Taibbi gets it, I think. Then, in the very next sentence, he tosses in a barb that ruins it all.

“They [i.e., the politicians] think that everything is a compromise. They’ve lost touch with what people actually want. And they [the voters] really do want somebody who is idealistic.”

Ach, der leiber Gott, Matt, this is the heart of the problem with both progressives and reactionaries: they want idealists in power, and because of that we wind up with Solons who could not compromise even if they wanted to because their electoral mandate is to hew to an idealistic line. As a result, today we have a government made up of puritanical idealists on the one hand and cynical sell-outs on the other whom together have effectively institutionalized political gridlock.

Are Americans tired of watching Washington serve as a feather bed of public self-servants? Of course. But the answer is not more idealism in the halls of power. What we need is a government made up of moral, ethical public servants who have strong ideals yet who recognize that in an ideologically diverse nation like our own, compromise is essential to progress. We want leaders who understand that compromise for the sake of genuine progress is no vice, but that compromise for the sake of personal empowerment or enrichment is at least morally reprehensible, if not a felony.

History bears witness to the truism that idealism in government is the pathway to division and tyranny. A government in service of ideological absolutism, whatever its flavor, is a government at odds with democracy and an open road to despotism. That a correspondent of Taibbi’s stature cannot see this elemental fact is not just disappointing, it is downright frightening.

I can only hope that the readers of Rolling Stone and The Village Voice know better. But I worry. When you start throwing around words like “moral” and “ethical” with many liberals, you don’t get nodding heads, you get a fiery debate about WHOSE morals and WHICH ethics. This is the problem with relativism in society: the good people stand around arguing about where to draw the line between right and wrong while the bad people are cleaning out the store.

That said, buy the book. Thompson did not create the modern genre of popular political science (that laurel goes to Teddy White for The Making of the President, 1960), but he reinvented it with Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72, and in the process wrote a book that every voter should read at least once.

Taking Out the Trash

Reading John Bolton‘s thoughtful review of Peter Collier‘s Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick (“Blue Jeane” in June’s Commentary Magazine), I was surprised to learn that Kirkpatrick was lambasted during her career by feminists. How is that possible? A woman who succeeded in academic circles that had heretofore been dominated by men, who considered herself a feminist, and who rose to the highest levels of government, was rejected by the very people who should have been cheering her success.  Bolton notes:

As she put it, “with a bitter smile,” in Collier’s description, “Gloria Steinem called me a female impersonator. Can you believe that? Naomi Wolf said I was ‘a woman without a uterus.’ I who have three kids while she, when she made this comment, had none.” A professor at Brown named Joan Scott said, “She is not someone I want to represent feminine accomplishment.” And those were the polite criticisms.

So much for sisterhood. My point, however, is not about feminism. It is about trash politics.

I had a discussion on Facebook recently with my friend Ada Shen and a gent by the name of Greg Diamond. Greg, for those of you not following Orange County (California) politics, is a self-proclaimed “very liberal” Democrat running for State Senate in the 29th Senatorial District representing the cities of Brea and Fullerton. Greg and I would likely find ourselves debating the opposite sides of any given issue, and I have some very strong objections to some of his positions.

Nonetheless, as I told him in our conversation:

I tread carefully on feelings because I think it is high time to exorcise the ad-hominem attack from politics. We need to assume the best of intentions on the part of those with whom we disagree, not the worst (unless proven otherwise in a court of law, of course.)

I write this not to pat myself on the back, but to point out that it is possible to have a conversation with a liberal (or, in a liberal’s case, a conservative) with whom we disagree without having the discussion implode into name-calling and a suspicion that the other person is an Epsilon-minus semi-moron.

If the internet has a downside, it is that it has aided in the decline of political dialogue until most of it rests in the gutter. Enough, already. The loss of civility in political discussion does not elevate a cause, convince a skeptic, or improve the nation. Let’s give respect, even undue respect, to those who disagree with us.

After all, this is, in the end, the United States. It would be nice to keep them that way.

Living with the Rump New Deal

A New FDR Emerges.

In a retrospective on the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a chorus of scholars and writers has chimed in at the National Archives to consider the legacy of the Man from Hyde Park.

Much of what was written was laudatory, some was panegyric, but one thoughtful quote by Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter was worthy of repeating:

Today we live in another conservative era, but Roosevelt’s legacy is in a new place. While it would be an exaggeration to call FDR fashionable, liberals are looking to the past as a source of renewal for today’s political battles. And conservatives are finding that much of what Roosevelt wrought is permanent. When government does not respond to Americans who need help, as Bush found after Katrina, the President pays a steep price. In that sense, FDR is now part of the DNA of America.

We can have ideological arguments about the FDR’s policies, and I was a strong supporter of Ronald Reagan’s efforts to dismantle the runaway excesses of both the New Deal and the Great Society. But it is essential to recognize that the majority of Americans has no desire to yank the country back to the 1890s or 1920s.

To give but one example: whatever Rick Perry‘s virtues, it would be fair to say that he would have been unelectable in a general election with a platform that sought to end Social Security and demolish what remains of the New Deal. Even Ike, a mere seven years after FDR’s death, acknowledged that there were chunks of the New Deal that were simply part of the American landscape.

That acknowledgement, however, should not be interpreted as an endorsement of everything that is done in the name of those policies FDR put into place. Excesses lurk in every corner, and the price of government involvement is eternal vigilance, lest scandals like the Long Island Rail Road disability claims fraud expand to engulf our tax dollars.

It’s Our System, Not China’s Cheating

China’s Not the Big Trade Cheat Harming America’s Domestic Economy – Print View – The Daily Beast.

Zachary Karabell at The Daily Beast takes strong exception to Mitt Romney‘s characterization of China as the big villain in Main Street’s economic downturn. While I suspect Karabell’s partisan motives and disagree with some of his premises, I do agree with this point:

But in terms of pure competitive advantage, all of the many American freedoms and cultural incentives to be innovative, be entrepreneurial, build a business, or go to college to create a career do not change one iota the sclerotic inability of government to urgently and productively invest for the common future. American government did that for the middle years of the 20th century to great effect, and even in smaller ways in the 19th century. No longer.

Karabell stops short of mentioning the name of Dwight Eisenhower, but that is who he is talking about.

Both Limbaugh and the DCCC are Wrong

PETITION: Tell Republicans to Denounce Rush Limbaugh’s Cruel Tirade Against Women | DCCC.

As a conservative (albeit not a Republican since the GOP became the party of reaction), I think Rush Limbaugh’s comment about Sandra Fluke was inappropriate, over the top, and reflected badly upon himself and his intended audience.

In fairness, however, I think the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee‘s approach to Limbaugh is more emotional than strategic, and will in the long run hurt the DCCC’s cause.

As a one-time listener to Mr. Limbaugh, I know that he thrives on this kind of negative energy. Call for his censure and you only make him stronger, not only with his core audiences, but with those who are on the margins, including those who are uncomfortable with some of the other stances the DCCC is taking.  In short, this approach only polarizes the audience rather than building a larger tent for all Americans.

What the DCCC is not doing, but should be, is pointing out that Rush makes these statements either because of hubris or because he needs the attention. They should point out other commentators on the right side of the aisle that are worthy of respect, even if they don’t always agree with them. Not only does that serve to marginalize Rush and those who subscribe to his thinking, it makes the DCCC look like the reasonable party in the argument.

I suspect the leaders of the DCCC know this, so we have to ask why they are not taking this approach. I suspect that the DCCC and the Democrats generally are no more interested than the Tea Partistas in being reasonable or moderate. What they want to do is mobilize the money and passion of their core following, and could care less that the approach cannot but polarize the nation.

We need a different approach in our politics. We need to empower the voices of reason and intelligence rather than those of of the shrill, passionate extremes. I’m reaching out from the right. Anyone from the left?

David Brooks Sees Our Problem

The Lost Decade? – NYTimes.com.

I don’t always agree with David Brooks, and in particular he and I part ways when it comes to his somewhat superficial understanding of China. I agree with him more often than not, however, and I can forgive him his ignorance of China if he will forgive me my similarly thin understanding of New York.

In what was possibly one of his best editorials yet, Brooks was motivated by the prospect of a “disastrous double-dip recession” to call out both Republicans and Democrats for their singular failures and, to borrow a phrase from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, their “two-dimensional thinking.”

The prognosis for the next few years is bad with a chance of worse. And the economic conditions are not even the scary part. The scary part is the political class’s inability to think about the economy in a realistic way.

He really gets to the heart of the matter a few grafs further down when he notes:

Yet the ideologues who dominate the political conversation are unable to think in holistic, emergent ways. They pick out the one factor that best conforms to their preformed prejudices and, like blind men grabbing a piece of the elephant, they persuade themselves they understand the whole thing.

It is a balanced, intelligent essay, and one that should be read, digested, and internalized by everyone who cares about the future of the United States.

Bravo, David.