A Wider Broom

It's hard to say which is more depressing. The leading paragraphs of recent opinion pieces or what follows. Peter Beinart says President Obama's foreign policy is failing.  Then he ascribes it to an unwillingness to deal with Hamas and an inability to find a credible local partner in Afghanistan. "It is hard to see how [a troop withdrawal] will be more thinkable next summer, assuming the military still vociferously objects, which it almost certainly will." Richard Cohen says President Obama is facing a "shrinking presidency" and then attributes the development to bad speechwriters.

The president needs better speechwriters. The president needs a staff to tell him not to give an Oval Office address unless he has something worthy of the Oval Office to say. The president needs someone to look into the camera so that, when the light goes on and he says, "Good evening," he looks commander-in-chiefish: big.

Anne Applebaum looks at the "new North and South" divide in Europe (is it really that new?) and observes that this may be caused by a lag in public institutions. "In the North, private wealth has grown more or less in tandem with the public sector. Private wealth and public squalor are more typical of the South." John Judis at the New Republic aruges that the world is heading for a depression, not a second recession, which is true enough. Then he goes on to characterize it as the failure of public institutions to pull the private sector out of the morass.

The administration’s hesitancy to move forward in spurring domestic demand, subsidizing new industries, and reforming the international financial system has had much to do with politics. The depressions of the 1890s and the 1930s spawned left-wing movements that demanded stronger government action. This depression has fuelled a right-wing populist movement that opposes government spending. The Democrats and the Obama administration have not been able to counter this movement. As a result, the country has been caught in a dangerous political-economic spiral, as the failure of spending to halt the rise in unemployment has fueled right-wing arguments against any spending, which, if heeded, will result in even sharper increases in unemployment.

He could not see it the other way around: government dragging the private sector into quicksand by holding on to its belt as it tried to cling to the shore. It is a problem not just of analysis, but of point of view. These story leads, coming largely from liberal opinion, are admissions that Western institutions are facing huge challenges. After much premature partying, we regret to say that The End of History has not come; that the European Union, far from sweeping the world, is fighting for its financial existence. It is our sad duty to inform you that Hope and Change has given way to a fatalistic acceptance that most people will have to keep working till they drop. Richard Trumka writing in AOL says, "this Labor Day, more of our grandparents may be working a cashier's line, waiting tables or preparing lessons for the first day of school."

But the consciousness of crisis has not been matched by a willingness to consider liberal solutions as part of the problem. That would be blasphemy. The Associated Press reports widespread strikes in France and Britain as the unions protest plans to raise the retirement age and other cutbacks to benefits that undergird the welfare state. Bankruptcy will be met by more spending. More spending will be sustained by higher taxes. And if doesn't work then rinse and repeat. No other solution is possible because -- for some at least -- no other solution is conceivable.

The belief in statist solutions -- Faith in the King and his court -- is so great among Western elites that no amount of argument is likely to shake it. They will have to discover the limits of this system for themselves. Until then they will continue down the path of high social spending, burgeoning bureaucracy and politically correct abjection toward foreign aggression until the sheer ruin of their efforts forces them to reconsider the problem.  But by then the elites may have lost something more than their agenda. Depression and catastrophe, if carried far enough, can strip them of their status as elites. In the wrack of the catastrophes will lie the ruin of fortunes, industries, careers and prestige. History is replete with accounts of the fall of ancien regimes in upheavals. Periodically, in a process which historians afterward struggled to understand, civilizations would purge themselves of their dominant ideas, and indeed their leading stratum and reboot.

The process was often painful and tragic. One preventative was supposed to be democracy.

The democratic process was intended to prevent nations from sharing the rise and fall of ancien regimes by creating an orderly process of destruction through the electoral turnover. Through the ballot, elites and their ideas could be gently dissolved and given the opportunity to rebuild themselves while a new one was tried. But with time a permanent elite found it could establish itself in institutions that were untouched by electoral cycles -- the press, academe, unions and industry councils. They became a virtual aristocracy beyond the power of ordinary elections to clean out. And with them returned all the glories and disadvantages of nobility. Their collective obsessions have come to resemble the court fixations of former centuries and their effects the same.

The challenge facing Western Europe and America in the coming years is to develop an orderly process wider in scope than the regular electoral process yet short of violent revolution, through which one world view, based on a  current aristocracy, can be replaced with another. Until then the solutions to the current economic and political crisis cannot be separated from their underlying causes. Policy will remain as conflicted as the speeches of Richard Cohen's hypothetical speechwriters. It remains to be seen whether the new communications technologies, of which the Internet is but one example, can provide the basis with which to supplement the formal political debate with a wider one. To the political wars that occur every two years we may now a have a permanent culture war. It is a development which the current elite should not fear.  It is better to go ride the tumbril in Second Life than in Real Life.

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