HISTORY: NOT OVER YET

I was surprised to see Ross Douthat, in commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, invoke Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, a post-Cold War tract whose star has fallen somewhat since 9/11. Fukuyama argued that whereas the 20th century was marked by intellectual crisis between liberal democracy and its ideological competitors, fascism and communism, once the Soviet Union fell, only liberal democracy was left standing. Now, Fukuyama argued, there is no viable, transnational ideology remaining to compete with liberal democracy, which satisfies a human aspiration for freedom that the Cold War proved to be universal. Thus: the end of history. Liberal democracy is here to stay, and things will not get too much better or worse from here on out. Since his book came out, of course, Fukuyama has gotten slammed by critics on the right convinced that with the Islamist Menace, what we’re actually in is not the End of History a la Fukuyama, but the Clash of Civilizations a la Samuel Huntington.

The stronger critique of Huntington, I’d say, comes from the left. Fukuyama describes, in Douthat’s words,

the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Like Huntington, Douthat places “liberal democracy” and “free market capitalism” in the same breath. Like two syllables on Sesame Street that inch closer together until they become a single word. On a global scale, the ideological competitor to democracy – to one person, one vote, people’s meaningful exercise of voice over the decisions that impact their lives – is laissez-faire capitalism.

Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God offers a great (and very funny) exploration of how acts of consumerism get rebranded by elites as the new acts of citizenship and the market is christened as democratic. But markets are not democratic. And as Michael Moore reminds us with a confidential CitiGroup memo in his new movie, the people who the markets award the most power know this (as he says, the bottom 99% of the population “have 99% of the votes”).

Who will decide what happens to natural resources or public sector jobs in a third world country? The majority of the people who live there, or international elites with structural adjustment plans and threats of turmoil? Who will decide whether a group workers for a union? The majority of the people who work there, or managers that wield the power to harass and fire them?

Those questions will make history.

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A PRAYER FOR THE CITY

Just finished Buzz Bissinger’s A Prayer for the City, which he wrote after shadowing Ed Rendell (and staff) through his first term as Mayor. It’s a compelling read and gives an interesting sense of the politics of early ’90s Philadelphia and, more than that, of how folks in City Hall go about their jobs and why. The book suffers, though, from the blinders of ideology in a way that maybe only a book by a zealously pragmatic journalist about a zealously pragmatic technocrat can.

In the Philadelphia of Bissinger’s book, there is no public policy argument for raising taxes to maintain public services – only the weakness of previous politicians who indulge in tax hikes like heroin. Disability rights activists get a dismissive sentence about how they unreasonably expect the city to spend “money that isn’t there” on public services. In Bissinger’s Philadelphia, there’s little grounds for the skepticism Ed Rendell and his crew face from people in the “Black establishment” or “Hispanic interest groups” – you wouldn’t think from the way such folks are described that they really represented anybody, except when Rendell worries if they turn on him they could summon thousands to vote him out of office. The most prolonged, serious engagement with the reality of racism (as supposed to the evils of racial politics) is a discussion of the the devastating legacy of explicitly racist New Deal redlining on the city’s neighborhoods, and it segues back into why urban citizens don’t trust the federal government rather than why racial distrust might still persist. Bissinger’s narrative of the life of an African-American great-grandmother struggling to raise her great-grandkids, like the redlining discussion, is compelling, but essentially divorced from the discussion of racial politics and the book’s scorned “Black leaders.”

And while a good chunk of the book is built around Rendell’s successful campaign to force takeaways in negotiations with the public sector unions, we never get a sympathetic – or even much better than contemptuous – portrayal of anyone who works in one. Bissinger repeatedly mourns, in vividly anthropomorphic terms, the death of middle class manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia (and he talks about service jobs as though they’re inherently undignified and inevitably sub-middle class). But he never gives the reader any reason beyond greed that the city’s employees, some middle class and some aspiring towards it, might zealously defend the standard they’ve won. He gives no reason beyond ambition and self-protection that Union leaders would go to the ramparts in that fight. Bissinger is super sympathetic, on the other hand, in describing a fervently anti-government libertarian who comes to work for Rendell on subcontracting out city jobs and ultimately moves first from downtown to gentrified pricey Chestnut Hill and then out to suburbs because of crime and schools. In Philadelphia, Bissinger states flatly, she had “no choice” but to pay for private school education.

GOTCHA GOTTA GO? NO.

Apparently, Sam Waterston has ended his much-lamented silence in American political discourse and spoken out to urge his adoring fans to heed the call of the “American idealists” at Unity08. They’re the folks who believe that all the scourges of modern American politics – special interest-driven corruption, nasty gotcha politics, the belief that women’s rights is a crucial issue – could be beaten back if only there was a presidential ticket composed not of Democrats or Republicans but of one of each, and chosen not by people who turn out in primaries but by people who turn out in primaries held over the internet by “American idealists.”

For those stubborn folks for whom Sam Waterson having “looked at it closely”, isn’t sufficient evidence that Unity08 “could save this country we love,” some obvious questions present themselves. Well, a lot of obvious questions.

Here’s one: Would a decline in gotcha politics really go hand in hand with a decline in corruption?

The conflation of the two is commonplace in media narratives grasping for any explanation of voter disgust with Congress that doesn’t involve the kinds of laws the Congress is passing or isn’t. But I think the irony here is that one of few functional bulwarks against rampant corruption in Washington is gotcha politics.

If our elected officials were circumspect about not disparaging the character of their counterparts on the other side of the aisle, would the likes of Conrad Burns and Bob Ney have gone down to defeat? Would incoming legislators, new and old, have as much reason to fear following in their footsteps? Quotes from CREW’s Melanie Sloan in and of themselves are simply not enough to grab media and voter attention, let alone overcome all the advantages of incumbency. What helps the charges stick? Relentless criticism from the folks with a chance, at least sometimes, of getting heard: your challenger, and your fellow elected officials. If you don’t have to fear getting gotcha-ed, there’s more cause to do gotcha-worthy things.

Now of course it would be nice to truly venal behavior by elected officials got called out on both sides of the aisle. It’s simply not credible to claim, as the Unity08 folks and much of the media do, that both parties have the same track record on this. Compare the treatment of Bill Jefferson (D-LA) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) by their party leaders. One lost his committee chairmanship. The other was positioned for a good stretch to remain Majority Leader. Unfortunately, opinion leaders who can count more adherents than Sam Waterston delight in the myth that the two parties are bearers of equal and opposite corruption, and that that corruption – the reward of money with power and of power with money – has no relationship to ideology.

That said, when elected officials do speak in one voice across party lines, it’s as often to unite across party lines in defense of questionable congressional practices as in condemnation of them. Nancy Pelosi and Dennis Hastert stood together in a show of bipartisanship to condemn the FBI search of Jefferson’s office. Senators and congressmen of both parties stand together to raise their salaries swiftly and quietly. They stand firm in bipartisan defense of gerrymandering congressional districts. That’s because no matter how otherwise representative your member of congress is of you, she will always be fundamentally unrepresentative in that she is herself a member of congress. Dave Barry once said the best way to get great Nielson ratings would be to make a sitcom about a Nielson family. Similarly, if you’re looking to find policies that members of Congress acorss the political spectrum will support, the right place to start is with policies that make it easier, more enjoyable, and more permanent to be a member of Congress. If you want to see those policies stop, bemoaning gotcha politics is not the place to start.

This NY Times piece – “Mr. Inside Embraces Mr. Outside, and What a Surprise” is one of many analyses that will no doubt proliferate over the next few days trying to explain Gore’s endorsement.

I think Purdum is on the right track in noting Gore’s drastic shift to the left since the 2000 election, as well as his series of strident condemnations of Bush policy over the past months. These have been, by turns, gratifying and maddening, I think it’s safe to say, to those of us who were exasperated with Gore for leaving so little ideological distinction between himself and Bush during the actual campaign. Gore’s piece in the Times after the Enron scandal tying corporate malfeseance to Bush’s corporate politics made the right case – but it’s a case that, contrary to what that piece also said – Gore never made on the campaign trail. Those conservatives who think (occasionally rightly) that they can convince American voters that the main fault line in their politics is between civil and uncivil politicians have tried to use Gore’s move to the left as evidence that he’s bitter and angry at his personal loss. I think it’s much more that Gore, like Clinton and other New Democrats, recognize the appeal of Old Democrat values and so fall back on them once out of office both to bring nobility to their legacy and to convince themselves that they at least lost because they stood for something and not because they didn’t. Dean’s aggressive condemnations of the failings of this administration fit the message that Gore has claimed for himself since 2000. So it’s shouldn’t be surprising to see him endorsing someone who’s ready to carry that message forward – and to see him endorsing the candidate who’s running the kind of campaign now that many wanted him to run four years ago.

What Purdum’s analysis for the Times fails to mention, however, is what may really be the most compelling reason for Gore to endorse Dean now: he’s winning. Gore, in the same way as, say SEIU, gains power from picking late enough to choose the one who’ll win and early enough to be as formative in that victory as possible. Gore specifically, however, has the chance by endorsing Dean to merge their narratives – one populist fighter has the election narrowly stolen but four years later another arises to take it back – and drown out the alternative – the New Democrat establishment fouls up an election and it’s left to a populist outsider to ride in four years later to fix it.

Purdum asks whether this will hurt Gore’s credibility, and I think the answer is no more than Gore’s already hurt his credibility by governing and campaigning from the center and then moving to the left since. More importantly, he asks whether this will hurt Dean’s candidacy, and I don’t think it will measurably. Dean has successfully enough framed himself as an outside-the-beltway candidate, and campaigned that way long enough, that I think this will come off more as the beltway coming around to the Governor of Vermont than the other way around. More fundamentally, I think candidates can be effectively criticized, in extreme cases, for not repudiating deeply objectionable folks who endorse them, but that otherwise criticizing them for who endorses them is difficult to pull off. I think that Al Gore’s endorsement will give Dean’s critics on the left about as much ammunition as Jesse Jackson Jr.’s, Ted Rall’s, Molly Ivins’, William Greider’s, et al gave his critics on the right: not a whole lot, in the long term. Speaking as one of those critics on the left, that Dean got Gore’s endorsement says to me just that he’s an effective organizer. Gore endorsing Dean may give some added momentum and visibility to Sharpton and Kucinich’s campaigns, which could only be good for the Democratic party, but I don’t see any of the other candidates positioned at this point to use it to frame themselves as the independent choice.

What this endorsement does, as I see it, is move a slew of voters to consider Dean – or to consider him seriously – who hadn’t before, and deflate much of the criticism from DLCers and others of Dean as unelectable or out of the mainstream. Much as Jackson’s hashkachah (certification, roughly translated) marks Dean kosher for some to his left, Gore’s will mark him kosher for some to his right. And it may mean that the Democratic establishment is learning not only the lesson of 2002 – what happens when you offer no viable alternative – but also the lesson of 1972 – what happens when the party leadership abandons the party’s candidate.