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

08 July 2015

Presidential Election 2016: The Lessons of 1968


It would be hard to invent a worse system for picking a supreme leader than what passes for “democracy,” these days, in our Yankee presidential elections.

Think about it. Who chooses our president, and how?

With the two parties in rough parity, it’s the “independents,” who are mostly “undecided.” Why are they undecided? Mostly because they aren’t interested enough or well enough informed to have an opinion until a couple of weeks before the election. In short, they don’t know and they don’t care.

When they start to care, just before the election, what moves them? Negative attack ads, the most effective of which have nothing to do with national policy. Instead, these ads push “social-issue” buttons like abortion, same-sex marriage, guns, and religion, or (in foreign policy) paranoid views of the IS and the Russians—ridiculous visions of terrorists or Muscovites breaking into our bedrooms.

These things move real people to vote when they are too busy, too disinterested or too lazy to care about what really matters. I have met some of them. They seem to have absolutely no idea why the super-rich are getting richer and they are getting poorer, more stressed, and more harrassed.

Just for fun, contrast China. Its 80 million New Mandarins (misnamed “Communists”), all join the Party because they love politics. They have no lack of interest in it, and eventually no lack of knowledge. They compete against each other in a lifelong meritocratic struggle. As they rise in leadership, the top dogs get to know each other intimately, from close personal interaction and long observation. They know each other as well and as deeply as members of a family know each other.

None of them, like our average independent voter, learns about a candidate’s history, intellect, character and competence through Internet slanders or TV attack ads. None of them would ever think, as hordes of our “independent” voters still do, that one of their top leaders was disqualified from office for not being a citizen. (John Boeher may be an absolute cretin on everything economic. But he’s a passably smart politician. He never repudiated this lie because he knows it gets his party votes.)

In our good old days, as recently as the sixties, it was not thus. Experienced, savvy party elders picked the short list in smoke-filled rooms. They determined for whom the people got to vote.

Then the campaign season was not an eighteen-month orgy of gossip, trivia and video slander. There were a few months of campaigning and a few serious debates, followed quickly by the national choice. (If you want to know what real debates were like when they focused on policy and substance, not personality and gossip, take a look at the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960. They were as different from today’s sham shows as a play by Shakespeare is from mud-wrestling.)

So I’m not really sanguine that our 2016 elections will chose the best candidate for president, let alone for the right reasons. But it’s the only game in town.

In playing that game, it useful to consider an analogy with 1968. Then, as now, the Dems had been in power for almost eight years. Then, as now, the Dems’ presumed nominee (Lyndon Baines Johnson, or LBJ) had both strong positives and strong negatives. Then, as now, there were serious challengers for the Democratic nomination and party leadership.

There were important differences, too. Everything about Johnson then was bigger than Hillary now.

Before becoming president, on JFK’s assassination, Johnson had served twelve years in the House, twelve years in the Senate (including seven as majority leader), and three years as vice president. That’s 27 years, as compared to Hillary’s twelve—eight years in the Senate and four as Secretary of State.

The gap in achievement, both good and bad, is even more striking. As Senate Majority Leader, Johnson had pushed through the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts that ultimately put President Obama in the White House. Johnson couldn’t have done that, of course, without Dr. King’s courageous moral leadership, but Dr. King couldn’t pass laws by himself.

These feats of Johnson seem even more stupendous in retrospect. We know now, half a century later, how thoroughly racist our nation is and has been. Then it was even more deeply racist, and much more overtly so. Yet Johnson got our voting and civil rights laws passed—with the votes of Southern Democrats!—just a year or two after Democratic Governor George Wallace of Alabama had stood on the statehouse steps and declared: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Like the man himself, Johnson’s bad side was also larger than life. Although JFK had begun escalating our military involvement in Vietnam, he reportedly had been reconsidering when assassinated. With little experience in foreign policy or military affairs (and apparently little interest in them), Johnson let pride and Texas machismo rule him. He kept doubling down on our blunder in Vietnam until it had become our first losing war and our most serious error in foreign policy ever.

Next to LBJ’s huge successes and huge blunder, Hillary’s entire history seems tepid. Her time in the Senate was so unremarkable that I can’t recall any highlights, let alone a significant peice of legislation that she so-authored. Her biggest success was as Secretary of State, getting UN approval for foreign intervention in Libya, just in time to save the rebels and eventually oust Qaddafi. (The ultimate outcome of that tactical success is, of course, still uncertain.)

On the bad side, Hillary has nothing to match Johnson’s War in Vietnam. But she did support Dubya’s needless (and seemingly endless) War in Iraq. She supported it too unthinkingly—without even reading the National Intelligence Estimate—and for far too long. Another of her errors in foreign-policy judgment may have been partly responsible for the untimely death of Benazir Bhutto, who, if not assassinated, might have been Pakistan’s first-ever female leader.

Of course no historical analogy can ever be complete. But we are not yet done with the similarities between 1968 and 2016.

For very different reasons—a needless, losing war in one case and economic mismanagement and inequality in the other—the Dems’ putative front runner enjoyed less than universal support. No one thinks that Hillary will be the relentless champion for the middle class that Bernie Sanders would be or that Elizabeth Warren can be when she is ready. Despite all the racism, no one (least of all I) believes that Hillary is the grandmaster strategist that President Obama is, who can get something, including Obamacare, out of nothing but mindless opposition.

In the end, President Johnson acknowledged the opposition to his blundering in Vietnam by stepping down. He declined to run. Hillary will do no such thing; nor should she. Her errors of judgment were mostly harmless, as she was never in a position to carry them through. And she’s learned a lot about foreign affairs since then, both in evaluating her own candidacy and as Secretary of State.

In a sense, everything about 2016 is more tepid than 1968. Yet the strongest aspect of analogy remains valid. In each case, the Democratic front-runner was wrong, or not strong enough, for many Dems on a key issue of the times: the War in LBJ’s time and economic inequality and injustice in Hillary’s.

So what’s a poor Democratic voter to do? The answer is simple but requires some discipline. Understand that primary contests are the time to vote your heart and, if you wish, to “send a message.” General elections are the time for Dems to close ranks and stand with their party and its choice of leader, lest the generational extremism of today’s GOP get yet another chance at bat.

That’s exactly what I did in 1968. In the primary, I voted for Gene McCarthy, the earliest and most vehement opponent of continuing our needless War in Vietnam. Yet in the general election, I voted for Hubert Humphrey, despite his vacillation on the war and his appearance of wimpiness. If more people had done the same, we never would have had Dick Nixon to kick around. Nor would we have had his “Enemies List,” his Watergate Scandal, his vile and racist “Southern Strategy,” or his ignominious resignation under threat of impeachment.

The very same approach is appropriate today. Just as the War in Vietnam was the predominant issue in 1968, economic equality and justice are today. In fact, economic equality is much more important today. In less than a generation, we managed to heal the scars of our first losing war, although our military took longer. If we let our inequality reach a tipping point, to which it’s very close, we could lose our social cohesion and our American Dream forever.

Then we could become another country entirely. We could end up like China, with an elite aristocracy defined by wealth, education, family connections and corporate power taking the place of China’s New Mandarins, aka “Communists.” If that happens, we might take generations, if ever, to recover. We could replay the fate of ancient Rome.

This is not an idle fear. My recent post on the dramatic rise of corporate power globally was descriptive, not prescriptive. That rise is a fait accompli, a fact of life in our twenty-first century. Now that the TPP seems greased for passage, perhaps even with the abomination of “pay for rules,” that power can only grow faster.

Yet whether we allow corporate power to subvert democratic government, dissolve our safety nets, and subvert rules that protect our health, safety, environment and planet is still, to some extent, up for grabs. The hour is late, but the tide is still turning.

There may be time to turn it back. Pope Francis evidently thinks so.

I understand and sympathize with the yearning of women for a supreme leader of their own gender. I also understand what that means at the polls, where many people, especially the perennial “undecideds,” vote on impressions and emotions, not analysis. So if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, as now seems likely, I will vote for her, support her and maybe even contribute to her campaigns.

But philosophically I’m an engineer. My analytical brain knows that our Yankee society now has potentially fatal design flaws.

They are many. But perhaps the most corrosive include: (1) Citizens United, (2) filibusters and the so-called “Hastert Rule” in the House that effect minority rule in Congress, (3) banks that are “too big to fail,” (4) bailouts and the promise of bailouts that even our rich society cannot afford, (5) a health-insurance system that works well for the rich, comfortably for the comfortable, and abysmally for the rest of us, (6) police that kill unarmed kids repeatedly, expect to get off on “self defense,” and too often do, (7) so-called “mainstream media” that are celebrity-struck, gossipy, scatterbrained and largely irrelevant, (8) a laser-focused private propaganda machine called “Fox” that is more effective in perpetuating these design flaws than ever was Josef Goebbels in perpetuating the Third Reich, and (9) economic and social inequality to match that of our Gilded Age, that is growing rapidly and shows no sign of abating.

Curing even a single one of these design flaws—let alone all of them together—will take an electoral revolution and perhaps a constitutional amendment or two. It will take new and bold thinking. It will take people as self-confident, as unafraid of the future, as our Founders.

For all her good intentions and (mostly vicarious) experience, Hillary is not such a person. She’s a go-along-to-get-along leader, a “triangulator.” She charts her course among known political islands, but she cannot lead in a new direction. She simply doesn’t know how.

That’s why I supported the President over her as early as March 2007. And that’s why I’m looking for someone better now.

For all his age and his regional New-England patina, Bernie Sanders may be that person. He speaks the truth that we all know but are afraid to say. He understands how far we have fallen, as a society, from the justice, reason, egalitarianism and social cohesion that prevailed in our immediate post-war period, our so-called “Golden Age.” He has called for breaking up the big banks—the only solution to “to big to fail” that might actually do some durable good. Like Barack Obama in 2008, he is beholden to nothing and no one; so he will be as uncorrupt and incorruptible as our current President.

When your society has nine major design flaws, you don’t need a tune-up. You need an overhaul or a redesign. You need radical, fundamental, comprehensive change.

I’ve had a good run and live in comfortable retirement. I want to leave the nation I was born into closer to the intelligent system it was, with the wonderful promise it had, when I was born in 1945.

So I’m voting for and supporting Bernie in the primaries.

Maybe he can’t win. Maybe the game is rigged too far already. But I support him because he’s far closer than Hillary to what I think we need to fix our society’s potentially fatal design flaws. I also want to send Hillary herself a big, bold message.

We’ve got to nudge her in the right direction, which today means to the left. We’ve got to convince her she doesn’t have it in the bag. We’ve got to get her to pick Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman—both Nobel laureates—as her chief economic advisors. We’ve got to push her to recruit and announce early foreign policy and economic advisers as capable as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger in their primes—people whose stratospheric intelligence and strategic ability are self-evident the minute they open their mouths. We do that by voting for Bernie in the primaries.

Bernie ought to have a far better chance of winning the Democratic nomination than did Gene McCarthy in 1968. Then the antiwar movement was at most four years old. It consisted mostly of kids. Unlike most others, they had the leisure to contemplate the wrongness of an American colonial war and a strong motivation to do so: avoiding being drafted to fight in it. The rest of the nation was just beginning to focus on the issue when the chaotic 1968 Democratic Convention and the fall election came.

This time, things are different. By election time 2016 it will have been over eight years since the Crash of 2008 revealed our current societal design flaws. Those flaws have touched the vast majority of our people directly and personally.

Today almost everyone knows how badly things have gone wrong. And today there’s nothing comparable to the lure of false patriotism in wartime to prevent them from seeing that. Not even the GOP really has great enthusiasm for escalating of own Yankee roles in the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or against IS.

In a strange way, even our extended and largely inane campaign season helps us. It gives us Dems longer to coalesce around a truly revolutionary leader, to grit our collective teeth and square our collective shoulders, and to resolve to do what must be done.

We live, or ought to live, in revolutionary times. The people are ready for a revolutionary leader who can take us back to the fair, cohesive, rational, practical society we once knew. We all owe it to ourselves and our progeny to make revolutionary change now, peacefully, before things get so bad that another French Revolution becomes possible.

I will support and vote for Bernie because I think he could lead that change. I will contribute to his campaigns, as I’ve already started to do.

But if Hillary wins, I will do again what I did in 1968. I will close ranks with others behind our party leader, despite my misgivings, and support her fully. For better or for worse, she will then be our champion.

We Dems simply cannot abide a GOP president today, let alone another Bush. Nor can our nation. Such a president would not be a Richard Nixon who, for all his faults, opened us up to trade and economic relations with China and signed the EPA and OSHA into law.

Today’s GOP president would come from a party so extreme that it would consider Nixon a radical left-winger, which he most certainly was not. At his best, he was the type of pragmatic leader the that GOP will never see again until it manages to reform itself thoroughly. Doing that will push the clock way past 2016.

Footnote. The biggest and truest rap against Hillary, in my view, is that she has a good heart but just isn’t that smart. She’s not as smart as her husband, and she’s not as smart as the President. She might beat that rap by picking for her team people who are smarter than she and letting us know who they are or will be before we vote. I hope she does so; she would improve her campaign prospects and, if she wins, her governance.

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