Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Irrelevant Public
I'm doubting that there ever has been a time in American democracy when the preferences of majorities seemed to matter less to elected officials than is the case right now.

Following the UN resolution passed Thursday night, the US military is about to intervene in Libya despite majority opposition. (Admittedly, the "no-fly zone" option has majority support in the underlying poll. The skepticism of the most prominent voices against intervention largely is based on the idea that intervention has an inexorable logic that will take us beyond no-fly enforcement and lead to casualties and expenses incurred.) There's no ambiguity about our role in Afghanistan despite unambiguous public opposition. The conversation domestically is only about cutting expenditures, and largely about cutting entitlements, despite strong opposition there. Majorities favor higher taxes on the wealthy—and always have—but no “serious” official suggests as much. (Sorry, Rep. Schakowsky; sorry, Senator Sanders. That what you're saying makes absolute sense and probably would come close to polling a majority among *Republican* voters doesn't matter.)

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that public opinion should entirely drive policy. In a representative democracy, I believe leaders are elected to lead, and that the great ones actually move public opinion in their chosen direction through a combination of persuasion and the demonstrated efficacy of their policy choices. But at the least there should be some effort to convince the public, or acknowledgement of the roads not taken. We don’t even have that.

I would guess that part of the explanation for the current irrelevance of majority opinion is that those who study politics as practically applied have concluded that partisan polarization is now so irreversibly advanced that maximum mobilization of one’s "own" voters, and demobilization of the other side’s, is the winning strategy. I kind of get this: increasingly bitter and disappointed as I am over Obama’s aping of the Republicans on security-state policy choices, lacking the courage of Democratic convictions on a whole range of domestic policy issues, and generally failing to lead in the manner described above, it’s just north of unimaginable that I won’t vote for him. (Not that this matters in non-competitive New York, but all that means is the addition of the words "just north of.")

There's a truism in politics that the most vicious fights come between factions that are largely in agreement. I'm not sure I'd characterize the Democrats and Republicans that way in philosophical terms: at bottom, the Republicans want the mainstream family/community arrangements of the 1950s with the economic context of "Blade Runner," while the Democrats want the economic context of the 1980s (when unions were starting to die but not nearly dead, regulation was far more lax than 10-20 years earlier but still valid and viable, etc) with the family/community arrangements of present-day Scandinavia. Tactically, though, both parties are looking to throw our military weight around and move the country back toward fiscal stability on the backs of the poor and middle class rather than the wealthy who continue to get wealthier.

That underlying philosophical debate, which is both far more interesting and ultimately far more important than the tactical fights over how much to intervene and how fast to cut government, we never quite have. Perhaps, if our society weren't structured such that it's so easy, in political terms, to start wars because only a tiny slice of the public bears the greatest costs, and that the rich as individuals and in their corporate aspect exert such an outside role in the country's politics, we might.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Crack-Ups Have Consequences
I'm increasingly convinced we've become a society of delusional egomaniacs so singlemindedly intent on our own desires and perceived prerogatives that we're willing if not eager to destroy almost every vestige of community.

Consider, just for starters, the NFL work stoppage and the stripping of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. I'm slightly hesitant to opine on either issue for lack of deep and balanced research, but both seem strongly to fit the model.

In the case of the NFL, you've got a $9 billion industry the true value of which probably goes far beyond that. I don't know how you quantify the joy that the Saints' 2010 Super Bowl victory brought to beleaguered New Orleans, or what the Packers' win early last month did for their community. But it's not even solely about the winners; it's only a slight exaggeration to say that the Bills are mostly what Buffalo's got left, or that the Redskins (offensive team name and duly adjudicated asshole owner aside) are the single biggest unifying element in Washington, DC. That both those teams are awful and have been so for years doesn't diminish how crucial they are to their communities; indeed, the shared suffering of fans might even have the opposite effect.

When baseball endured its work stoppage in 1994-95--an event that damaged the industry for years, by the way, and cost both parties incalculable millions if not billions--there at least was a case to be made that some teams simply couldn't compete, in economic if not scoreboard terms, under the then-current rules of the business. Undoubtedly, raw greed and a desire to settle past scores were at play, but those probably weren't the only factors.

The issue that seems to be driving the current NFL dispute was simply the owners' push for a bigger share of that $9 billion pie, offered for no better reason than "we want it." Remember that these people are almost all billionaires, beneficiaries of an unimaginably lavish TV deal, operators of local monopolies, many of whom were given enormous public subsidies to build their stadiums at the opportunity cost of schools, roads and social services for hard-pressed urban communities. It's a real-life enactment of this famous "Simpsons" exchange:
Homer: You know, Mr. Burns, you're the richest guy I know. Way richer than Lenny.

Mr. Burns: Oh, yes. But I'd trade it all for a little more.

If I'm reading the NYT article linked above correctly, the owners realized yesterday that their bluff had been called and backed off the demand for further revenue rather than release their financial records to the union. But the NFLPA--which had been beaten like a rented mule in past labor disputes--essentially chose to demand disclosure anyway, leading to the lockout.

For "a little more," both sides now risk pretty much everything. I still can't believe they'd be so stupid as to jeopardize the country's most popular sport; there's more than a month until the draft and four months until training camps open. But emotion obviously is in the saddle now, and it's deeply discouraging that things have gotten this far already.

Which brings us to Wisconsin, where we're seeing the ultimate application of political greed over reason and the ethos of compromise that's vital for democracy to function. After arguing that public sector unions must essentially accede to castration in order to put the Badger State on sound financial footing--because the unions had already agreed to all manner of contractual concessions even as newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker cut taxes for his preferred constituencies--the governor and his state senate majority decoupled the bill stripping the unions of collective bargaining rights from the budget measure so they could jam it through. The state senate Democrats, who'd left Wisconsin to deny their body a quorum needed for considering budget measures, thus won a pyrrhic victory--they'd proven the baselessness of claims that the action was about state finances rather than politics--but lost the war.

Then the senate majority leader admitted what was really at play:

"If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you're going to find is President Obama is going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin."

Perhaps it's naive to assert that politics largely should be limited to election season, with public business to dominate at other times. But increasingly politics seems to be all Republicans are about; it would be easier to take them seriously if every single one of their proposed suggestions to address public problems didn't happen to align perfectly with their expressed political intentions, such that they seem to think, or at least publicly hint, that nothing more need be done to balance the federal budget than eliminate funding for NPR and Planned Parenthood. This would seem to be the inevitable result of the closed informational circuit that is Fox News and right-wing radio; facts can't penetrate.

I'm still working through the marvelous collected letters of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who suggested in politics an "Iron Law of Emulation": that institutions (in his original example, different branches of government) in opposition increasingly come to resemble each other. Hence we can trust that Wisconsin's Democrats will spend at least the next two years in single-minded opposition to Gov. Walker and his senate majority. If, as I believe, the Republicans are wholly willing to force a federal government shutdown not in spite but precisely because of of the damage this might do to the economic recovery and Obama's reelection prospects, it's inevitable that the Democrats will respond in kind.

And meanwhile we continue on a trajectory that inevitably furthers our collective decline, as our leading societal actors give less and less of a shit about our collective anything.

Moynihan also has a great line about the interrelation of politics and culture, on the back of the book: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." I think the problem we have right now is that what's needed is for culture to change, and save, our politics. David Brooks was going on about this yesterday, and puts his finger on core issue. Is there any doubt that he could be talking about the NFL owners, or Wisconsin Republicans, or every self-worshipping asshole who's unaware of or indifferent to the larger damage created by their choices and actions?

If Americans do, indeed, have a different and larger conception of the self than they did a few decades ago, I wonder if this is connected to some of the social and political problems we have observed over the past few years.

I wonder if the rise of consumption and debt is in part influenced by people’s desire to adorn their lives with the things they feel befit their station. I wonder if the rise in partisanship is influenced in part by a narcissistic sense that, “I know how the country should be run and anybody who disagrees with me is just in the way.”

Most pervasively, I wonder if there is a link between a possible magnification of self and a declining saliency of the virtues associated with citizenship.

Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise. Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation. I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.
It’s possible ... that some of the current political problems are influenced by fundamental shifts in culture, involving things as fundamental as how we appraise ourselves. Addressing them would require a more comprehensive shift in values.

The "rise of the individual" has had some very positive implications: same-sex marriage, to take one obvious example, now looks all but inevitable. But it's dubious to me whether greater deference to individuals' choices entirely outweighs the decline of our shared institutions and the crumbling of our shared values.