Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 October 2010

Our New Long, Twilight Struggle


Our midterm election is still three days away. Many of us voted early, including my family. Now we await the verdict of the great “undecided” and mostly unthinking masses.

Among those who are well-informed and still care enough to vote, there is great despair, an instinctual turning away from politics. We are like spectators at a boxing match, in the old days when the number of rounds was unlimited. We watch exhausted, bloody, sweaty, punch-drunk fighters batter each other senseless, hoping the referee calls the fight. Even the most rabid among us are already turning for home.

What we have been watching is neither edifying nor pleasant. It tests the limits of human patience and endurance. It exposes us as soft, weak, and ungainly creatures, driven by instinct and unable to think. It makes us despair for our species. Already our national Court Jester, Gail Collins, has written two columns on how eager we are to move on: a semi-serious reprise and a quiz on this year’s campaign absurdities.

Once Wednesday comes and we know the results, we can assess the damage. In the best of all possible worlds, a good and indefatigable president’s already failing legislative majority will be weaker still. In the worst, demagogues will have taken over the House. They will have a solitary, overriding goal, as already declared: to make the President look bad and remove him from office in 2012.

So if the GOP gains control, the next presidential campaign will begin immediately. The House will provoke government shutdowns. It will start needless and pointless “investigations” and perhaps even groundless impeachment proceedings. No real legislation will move for two years, except perhaps when self-evidently needed to avoid imminent national collapse. We can look forward to two more years of what we are now suffering.

One result of this deepening legislative paralysis will be further entrenchment of executive power. A bickering, do-nothing legislature invites the Executive to step in and usurp its unused prerogatives. Does anyone even remember that Congress alone has the power to declare war? That’s the one (perhaps the only) clear thing that Dubya’s last two years and Obama’s first two have in common: a slow but steady creep toward Empire.

And why not? While our paralyzed legislature dithers, the people expect to be protected from terrorism and the ravages of economic ruin. The President and all the many thousands who work for him are sworn to do so. They will strive to the limits of their ability, and they will stretch the boundaries of their legal authority, just as did Dubya and his minions. No one will look back to see the Constitution and the foundations of our Republic steadily eroding. No one will think too long about how the other party, once back in power, will continue the same process, as Congress subsides into complete irrelevance.

That was what happened to the Senate in ancient Rome, and that is how it may be with us. China and Russia will continue to converge with us as authoritarian states leavened with limited democracy, as China and Russia loosen their reins while we tighten ours to compete and survive. India—for all its caste intolerance, poverty and chaos—likely will remain the world’s biggest democracy. Godspeed.

JFK once called the Cold War a “long, twilight struggle.” That struggle worked out pretty well, at least for most of the world. There was no nuclear Armageddon, with its threat of species extinction. There wasn’t even a large conventional war. There were only petty conflicts, ruinous weapon building, and lots of not-so-diplomatic trash talk, followed by the Soviet Union’s collapse and the War’s end.

Because the Soviet Union dissolved, we thought we “won.” But no one won. Both sides lost.

Both sides were punch-drunk with ideological simplicity, jingoism and massive overinvestment in strategic weapons. For decades, both sides stopped thinking seriously about economic and social advancement in favor of cartoon ideologies and Metternichian power politics. Both sides held much of the rest of the world in thrall and economic paralysis as vassal states, by military, diplomatic or economic force.

The real winners at the Cold War’s end were the rest of the world. Freed from economic or military bondage to one side or the other, former vassal states could go their own ways. The impressive rise of Brazil, China, India, Southeast Asia, much of Latin America, and even parts of Africa is a direct result of the Cold War’s end. No longer are nations with little stake in the Manichean ideological conflict required to sign loyalty oaths to one cartoon belief or the other. They can seek their own solution to life’s problems, as foreign investment in real growth replaces foreign subsidies for weapons sold by the subsidizer and foreign insistence on toeing an ideological line.

As between the two principal contenders, the one that “lost” may emerge the short-term winner. The Soviet Union’s former vassals states are enjoying various degrees of economic independence from Russia. Slowly, painfully, they are reverting to their own unique cultures and stumbling on their own ways. Meanwhile, freed from the need to contain, control and administer its vassal states, Russia itself is healing from its ideological insanity, with the help of two of the smartest and best-educated leaders in its history (Putin and Medvedev).

The most important things to know about Putin is that, early in his presidency, he repudiated Communism decisively, as he framed his primary goal: alleviating poverty in Russia. He thus acknowledged that the foremost duties of every twenty-first-century leader are improving the lives of ordinary people and advancing our species step by step.

We, too, have a smart, dedicated, well-educated leader. But we have decided disadvantages that Russia lacks. We have a governmental structure, only part of which our Constitution requires, that leaves us all in thrall to our smallest, most backward and least educated states. Russia would have to contend with the same nonsense only if the Soviet Union had never dissolved and places like Kyrgyzstan, Tadzhikistan, and Uzbekistan controlled its legislature.

Can you imagine a Tadzhik leader, in his native headdress, standing up in the Duma and telling Russia—all eleven times zones of it—how to run its economy? Then compare Senator Shelby or Sessions from Alabama, or DeMint from South Carolina, standing up in our Senate, watering down our banking reforms and stopping any forward motion on climate change. These three men represent states whose relative economic clout is about the same as the “Stans” in the old Soviet Union. But their legislative power―due to the Senate’s structure, rules and filibusters― is infinitely greater. Maybe we should let our dictatorial little states go as Russia did its “Stans.”

For us, the long, twilight struggle is no longer with the Soviet Union. That rival is gone. Our struggle is among ourselves.

We must free the productive, innovative and well-educated parts of our nation from control by our least productive and most backward parts. We must abandon the cartoon ideology that has brought us, in less than two generations, from undisputed world leader to global worry and laughing-stock. We must restore our hollowed-out industrial base and failing educational system before the rest of the world passes us by.

To do all this, we must fight the awesome power of right-wing propaganda more clever and insidious than anything ever devised by Goebbels, Hitler, Stalin or Mao in their days. And we must cull and replace the most selfish, short-sighted and least enlightened ruling class that our continent has ever seen, including Native Americans.

To do this will take a twilight struggle of epic proportions as long, intense and wearying as the Cold War. It will be a struggle here at home, which the rest of the world will watch with alternating amusement, smugness and horror.

That struggle is just beginning in earnest. This twisted election is just one of the opening battles, with more than a bit of comic relief. But make no mistake: the struggle is a deadly serious one. The alternatives to a successful but peaceful civil struggle are violent revolution, a national break-up like the Soviet Union’s, or gradual, simmering decline into the third world.


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