Thursday, January 24, 2008

On Things Getting Worse Before They Get Better

I watched the very good documentary "Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man" last night, and among all the very interesting history of Mr. Nader and the regulatory movement he largely inspired, there was a bit that one of the talking heads in the film said that really stood out for me. If I remember correctly, the particular talking head was a columnist from The Nation magazine who said something to the effect of  "Ralph Nader is like a Leninist, he thinks things have to get worse before they get better". The comment was meant to be derisive, but I thought that it actually brought up a good point. Do things need to get worse before they get better? 

I think the best way to approach this questions would be with a quick little jaunt through recent history to examine whether politics - we are interested in politics here if you haven't noticed - actually works like that. Lets rewind to the end of the Carter administration. Now I am not an expert on how Carter's refreshingly new liberalism eventually tanked, but from what I have gathered it was from a mixture of economic hardship and bad policing by the Carter camp. Conversely, on the Reagan side, there was extraordinary political savviness, and a desire, by Reagan's backers, to hit the liberals hard and keep them in a servile place for years to come. This backlash, as the Nader film also points out, was due mostly to the drumming that corporate power took during the sixties and seventies. 
To digress for just a sec, I think I can make clear how drastically corporate powers changed their tactics by a short anecdote. A few months ago I met the former CEO of a large American conglomerate, that among other things, was a major weapons manufacturer. This man was the CEO of this company - I can't remember the name - in the sixties and seventies, when, as he made clear, things were very different in Washington. Things were so different, that when I asked him about lobbying back in those days, he had a hard time remembering his companies lobbyist - lobbyist; singular. Yes, back in those days this major weapons manufacturer had 1 lobbyist. Things have changed. 
To come back to the main issue of this write-up, did things get worse before they got Reagan? Most definitely they did. The seventies was a time of immense economic turmoil, but it would be ridiculous to blame it on the relative economic equality and hefty social safety net that were still intact from FDR and Johnson's Great Society. The issue, from my understanding, was energy - think oil crisis - monetary policy, and shifting fortunes of American manufacturing that resulted at the convergence of the two problems. So Carter was walloped, and Reagan, the man who knew how to blow smoke up America's ass just so, was in. This is when things began to get worse. 
It is good to remember that Reagan was unloved by large swaths of the country. His approval rating was average - around Bill Clinton's. It has been recently, after the Republican's set about creating a cult of Reagan, that people's perception of his presidency has rebounded. During the dark Reagan years things were quite bad, not only for the poor, who suffered the most under his regime, but also the middle classes. The two legacies that Reaganites claim as his was the dismantling of the Soviet Union and Economic recovery. Any serious scholar will tell you that Reagan really had nothing to do with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Reagan's economic policy, more than boosting productivity in the U.S. markets, caused or correlated with a huge market bubble - i.e. illusionary wealth. See Paul Krugman's article "Debunking the Reagan Myth" for more on this. So things got bad, and they got worse, economically, with Bush Sr. When Clinton finally came to power, with 43% of the vote mind you, he won on the implicit slogan "It's the economy stupid". Things get worse, they promise to make them better. 
But by the 90's the Democrats had turned into Republican-lites, and the liberals had nowhere to go. We reluctantly voted for Democrats, because they were the only option. The Republicans continued their assault on all things that the old Democrats used to stand for, and things went on like this until 2000, when many people were unenthusiastic about the two mediocre candidates and Gore lost because he ran a shitty campaign on shitty issues. 
Fast forward to today. Now we are faced with a presidential contest that is quite possibly going to be fought during an economic recession, while people are grappling with a grossly ineffective healthcare system, while we are pitched in a horrible war, while corporate profits are high and economic inequality is high as well, and while the specter of global warming - world wide catastrophe - is front and center, figuring into policy choices for energy security and environmental regulation. To me, most of these problems are the result of our weak democracy, where Republicans and Democrats are on the same page on everything from Welfare Reform to NAFTA, and people have no other choice but to grudgingly support one of the two candidates. 
Out of this milieu of problems we are blessed with a presidential contest that addresses the issues. But wait, is that the presidential race we are witnessing? I surely don't think so. Even at this early stage in the primaries we are still faced with few choices. The Democratic field, aside from Kucinich, parrots each other on every issue. They talk change, but give the electorate very little on what that change will be. Their foreign policy is basically Republican, they talk about a slight trimming of the economic mess through more regulation but don't address the problem of a fundamentally imbalanced economic situation, and their plans on domestic policy are not bold or forward thinking. This is the presidential field after 8 years of one of the worst presidents in U.S. history? Things got real bad, but I'm not seeing that illicit the response that would be expected. Now the question is, why not? I have my theories, which I don't think I will get into here being that I've been writing this for an hour straight now. Maybe things need to get even worse to get society to demand real change in the institutions that are today holding us down. All I know is that I hope Ralph Nader runs again. 

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