Inspired by an article by James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine
By T.R. Harry
The by-line, “By James Fallows,” has been a familiar sight to readers for a long time. He’s been associated with the prestigious Atlantic Magazine for over twenty-five years. To appreciate the breadth of his activities on the American journalistic scene, just pull-up his name on Wikipedia. His latest endeavor to catch my attention is an article in the January/February 2010 Atlantic titled, “How America Can Rise Again.” I found it a somewhat paralogical discussion of the contemporary American cultural/political scene. I would like to comment on as opposed to review this article here inasmuch as it has implications, aspects and some innuendo that are directly relevant, in my view, to the growing presence of political Independents and what they signify. Without seeming, or meaning, to be condescending, Mr. Fallows, and others, might benefit from my comments and observations as much if not more than I benefited from his essay.
By its very title, “How America Can Rise Again,” one assumes his position is that currently America is, somehow, “down, defeated, broken” or otherwise functioning at some level or in some manner that is beneath where Mr. Fallows believes it either can or should be, relatively or absolutely speaking. At the same time, given his title, one also assumes he is going to tell us how America can rise again. Unfortunately, most readers would probably agree that he offers little of usefulness in this connection; he is not the Messiah. But he does share with us some conclusions; his conviction that America, the society, is in fine shape; but that America, the polity, most certainly is not [p52].
He then proceeds to discuss both issue by themselves, separately; not necessarily as if they are unrelated, but as if one of them isn’t really in need of fixing—our society—so quit worrying about it and the other—our polity—seriously is, but we can’t do anything about it, so quit worrying about it. Yet he follows this up later in the article with the telling comment, “. . . eventually a collapsing public life brings the private sector down with it.” It is here that I find the paralogism of his presentation: he seems to dismiss his own argument of cause and effect. But continuing with his argument that the polity is not in good shape, we ask: Whose fault is this? Mr. Fallows opines that over the past half century, both parties have helped cause this predicament. For many Americans—readers of The Atlantic or otherwise— this revelation would certainly not be “news.” It might more aptly be asked of him, “you just now coming to this conclusion?” It is the same apparent conviction that has probably caused so many Americans to abandon their support for our two principal political parties and declare themselves political Independents, increasingly so over the past twenty years. Might there be more moss growing on Mr. Fallows than on so many of the rest of us in this connection?
No, I don’t believe so. Like the vast majority of the academic, near-academic and professional political strata until recently, it would seem that Mr. Fallows has not seriously considered the magnitude of this growing but to date incoherent politically estranged electoral plurality potentially significant in addressing the (polity) problem his article identifies: An American political establishment most clearly poorly serving American society. Lamentably, the content and conclusion(s) of his article suggest he continues to miss, or dismiss, the potential significance of this growing political phenomenon, which is: The supply of political choice in our political arena no longer satisfies the demand for political options. Following the analogy of free market thinking, when this occurs, markets adjust to bring supply into balance with demand. Why isn’t this happening? Well, protected monopolies don’t easily welcome new competition, and the cost for a new market-entrant isn’t cheap. Still, you have to wonder at what point in the incredible shrinking support for both the Democratic and Republican parties (some recent polling puts the support for Republicans at less than twenty-five percent of voters) someone recognizes that the basis exists to promote the change so many proclaim needed but, according to them and Mr. Fallows here, seems impossible to achieve. That appears to be the conclusion of this article: political change—broadly admitted as needed— is not possible. I find that not only sad, but somewhat contradictory, considering all the “strength, and abilities” he attributes to America on the cultural and societal sides.
Mr. Fallows urges us not to give up on our public sector (our polity); he points out that we have for so many years, in response to and even in spite of a national history of jeremiad (mournful complaint) “muddled through”, thus we should keep on muddling; unfortunately, he sees that as our only real option, backed by the strength in “America’s cycle of crises & renewal” [p38] (That hardly sounds like a “struggle against,” as Editor James Bennet positioned Fallows’ argument in his Editor’s Note [p8] to this edition). I find that counsel both a disappointment and a shame. It says political change (or correction) is not possible. To me, and I assume most Americans, that’s the worst possible approach to our present unsatisfactory political position: do nothing; concede defeat to those we accuse of degrading our political system, and by extension government and eventually (as pointed out above) the American society that Mr. Fallows continues to see as doing fine. I couldn’t disagree more with his position on that and his recommended option: muddle-on.
In developing his article, Fallows canvassed many and included their interesting and relevant comments and inputs along with his own. All whom he mentions could be described as successful achievers in “establishment” circles. This is not meant to be a criticism of elitism, but rather an attempt to describe the strata from which Fallows draws his information and opinion he presents here. And to that degree, it could be considered informed, but nonetheless circumscribed to some extent, and by necessity somewhat abstract, perhaps even self-serving. He draws, for the most part, from contributors who have little or no reason to “rock the boat.” They are a part of Fallows’ society that “is in fine shape.” At any rate, one must surmise that his conclusion about what we can’t do to correct our problems, to cause America to rise again, are in harmony with those with whom he discussed this issue; there seems no challenge to any of them in the article. Thus it would seem from this, we are doomed, destined to continue our downward national spiral; of an ever-less-acceptable polity which, if it hasn’t already done so, can be expected to drag down our economy, our society and our understanding of just what it is that we so proudly define as American.
Not acceptable! If Fallows from his vantage can’t perceive any avenues of possible—and practical—approach to elevating that which we define as a politically acceptable America again, let’s see if we Independents can’t make some positive contribution here towards this necessary end. Let’s look at some of his specifics and consider them through the vision of political Independents.
As indicated, Fallows spoke with a number of people in writing this article. The consensus: “Overall, the news they gave was heartening—and alarming, too . . . Most of the things that worry Americans aren’t really that serious . . . But there is a deeper problem almost too alarming to worry about, since it is so hard to see a solution.” [p41] Really? That sounds a bit like we spoke with some people with their heads in the sand: their news was heartening . . . but we have a deeper problem almost too alarming to worry about. Didn’t they consider this deeper problem almost too alarming to worry about their problem? Again, I raise this as a point of confusion, at least in my mind. Do we have a problem to confront, or don’t we, according to him/them?
Okay: We want to concentrate here on that point, that “deeper problem,” that apparent elephant in the room no one it seems is willing to acknowledge because it is almost too alarming to worry about. Question: How can you ignore a problem like that? I guess if you have a secure job with a promising future, a nice home you can afford, unused credit on your charge cards you pay off monthly, healthy children with good educational facilities, health insurance, a bit of savings in the bank, perhaps a pension plan, aging parents who are not a burden, and ten to fifteen years out of college you aren’t still paying off student-loans, life in today’s America could seem pretty good; things over-all might not seem too bad. Maybe that’s how you can ignore a problem like that. And, fortunately there are a lot of people who fit that general description. Unfortunately, there are also a lot that do not, and this segment of society appears to be the one on the increase. But, it might be hard for Mr. Fallows to see this from his vantage. No doubt, he does read about those less well-off; surely he is aware of them. In fact, he doffs his hat to them back on page thirty-eight; but they are primarily statistics, and in the aggregate not too much of a problem for (his) America. In the aggregate, that is, and for the moment. Independents see this slice of society and what has been happening to it as a critical indicator of what more and more of us are likely to face, socially and economically, moving ahead, under present political conditions.
We define this as a disturbing trend toward emasculating America’s large and broadly defined social and economic “middle Class.” We see this as the vanguard of fewer Americans being economically (and hence socially) well off and more Americans being economically less well off (and hence socially poorer). This is usually described as growing income inequality, and that is a significant part, but only a part, of the issue. This sounds like an economic problem, but in reality, and as Mr. Fallows agrees, it’s really a political problem, an internal political problem to solve, or resolve. We (America) have the ability, have the capability, if questionably today the political will, to do so.
Mr. Fallows highlights several areas of real concern, and one of them is jobs. He positions this issue as one of relative decline that could actually prove threatening, and asks, “will the rise of other economies mean the decline of opportunities within America, especially for the middle-class jobs that have been the country’s social glue?” [p46]. He asks, “will it?” Many might ask “hasn’t it already?” He states a telling point: “ . . . in principle, the United States itself has the power to correct what is wrong . . .” He continues that textbooks teach that job structure and income distribution are determined more by a country’s own domestic policies than by anything its competitors do. His point is valid, and Independents, or at least this Independent, would put the majority blame for our lower and middle-class job losses to overseas suppliers (who in many instances may not be competitors in a traditional sense) directly to our domestic political policies.
While Fallows speaks above about traditional economic theory—textbook teaching—the situation today with the job-drain abroad is questionably in line with or explainable by such economic theory. As a recent review in The Economist put it, “The definition of exports has also become less clear-cut over the years.” [Special report, p9, 4/03/10] It’s not always competitive factors driving jobs out of America; it’s as much America’s tax, social-welfare and foreign trade policies that are responsible for fostering it; it’s an iconoclastic belief by some in the religion of “free trade,” at any cost. That’s a false idol. It’s promoted by smoke & mirror arguments from our business sector, in their own self interest. I believe most politicians recognize this, but do little to resolve it for reasons mentioned below.
An agreement by an American company to engage a foreign sub-contractor, partner or even a subsidiary to produce or assemble and return goods to the United States for sale represents a subsidy to both the US principal and the overseas partner at the expense of the US domestic workforce, and eventually to all domestic taxpayers through the economic and social costs of such shifting of economic activity. Too often it is not “competitive pressures” that encourages such shifting, it is profit motives. And that motivation is not to be dismissed out of hand. It’s a valid business one if a questionably acceptable national one. But under present conditions only one participant gains from such ill-conceived policies domestically, and that is the firm and its senior managers and shareholders who take advantage of this policy disconnect. Politically America has, and has had all along, the ability to consider more sensible longer term pro-business, pro-economic and pro-social policies. Unfortunately, this has not always been considered in their best interests by some of our politically influential members of America’s business community. This has resulted in the perpetuation of policies that tend to benefit the few at the expense of the many. This is openly contrary of the Independent philosophy that it is government’s responsibility to govern in the interest of the greatest good for the greatest number. I specifically cover this problem area—and how to deal with it—in my 1999 book, The Delicate Illusion.
Other areas our author highlights as aspects of relative decline that could prove threatening are debt, military strength and overall independence. He marries the issue of debt and overall independence with the observation that we are today highly dependent upon borrowed money from abroad to finance our over spending. Independents agree this is a major issue. Again, I side with him that this is a domestic issue/policy that must be addressed by our political leaders. Admittedly today this is not a simple matter but it is one that must sooner rather than later be addressed. Most politicians would probably agree. They would, however, prefer that it not be addressed while they are personally subject to voter approval for their job security. Hence, keep “muddling through.”
Jobs, debt, military strength, independence are the focus, or perhaps the evidence of the almost too alarming to worry about political problem with America in this article, according to its author. There are others unmentioned. Independents would cite the tax system, the handling of social security, economic dependence policies, immigration, trade, unionism, the decrepit state of our physical infrastructure—which Fallows also high-lights—the level and direction of government spending, and especially military spending, the cost-value relationship of education and the growing skewed income distribution picture. Fallows sums up his picture of a fallen America with the conclusion that the tragedy of America in the early 21st century is this: a vital and (in his opinion) self-renewing American culture with a governing system that increasingly looks like a joke! [p48] This Independent would go further and say that the reality of America’s governing system is such that it is year-by-year reducing our society’s ability for vital self-renewal that he sees as our possible salvation.
I highlight Fallows’ quote from Mancur Olson’s 1982 book, The Rise and Decline of Nations: “Year by year, he said, special-interest groups inevitable take bite after tiny bite out of the total national wealth . . . No single nibble is that dramatic or burdensome, but over the decades they threaten to convert any stable democracy into a big, inefficient, favor-ridden state.” Today, who and how many can stand up and declare that America has not now become such an inefficient favor-ridden state? That is the real tragedy. The non-recognition that In the end, all matters are political. I highlight this in Chapter Four of my latest polemic effort—The Gathering of the Clan:
“The political system is that segment of society that draws together or integrates all the others. Within the political system, decisions are made that are binding upon the whole of society. . . . Thus, the political arena holds the key to any understanding of the overall ideological and social systems.”
Independents today, as diverse and dissimilar as they are portrayed, and even if only unconsciously or abstractly, must realize this. It may well be why they are abandoning our two parties because between them Americans’ experience is that neither is capable of—or perhaps even interested in—drawing together or integrating all the others. Independents would not blame the political system; they would blame the participating parties that individually and collectively are unwilling, even incapable, of working as the system demands. Independents have, or at least this Independent has, a concrete and, I believe, pragmatic recommendation on how to approach fixing this problem Fallows sees as too alarming to worry about. But first, let’s look at those options Fallows comes up with, and rejects. ”What are our choices?” he asks. Logically, Fallows believes they come down to these, starting with the most fanciful [p54]:
1) “We could hope for an enlightened military coup, or some other dues ex machine by the right kind of tyrants.” [I can’t believe he said that!] He concludes that, “Tempting as the thought is” . . . we can’t really hope for a coup.”
2) “We could hope to change the basic nature of our democracy . . . call for a new constitutional convention to reconsider all the rules.” He dismisses this as virtually impossible given the complete lack of what he calls “a coherent political culture.”
3) A parliamentary system? Not having started from there, he doubts we could change now.
4) A viable third party? Attractive in theory, according to our author, but 150 years of unsuccessful attempts suggests how “unlikely this is too.”
5) Hope for another Sputnik moment, some event frightening enough to stimulate national action without posing a real threat. Odd suggestion, but he concludes that kind of “hope” hardly constitutes a plan.
And, that’s it! There appears nothing we can do to correct or solve our political problem, except “hope.” [Shit!] We appear, in his view, doomed forever to what we have; remain how we are. Change or correction is not there for us to expect; not even to try for. Alas, not only is he not the Messiah, he appears more the messenger of national doom and damnation, relatively or absolutely.
Shame on him! He’s violating a cardinal rule, one that I keep a sign of in my office to remind myself of it: You Never Fail Until You Stop Trying! Come on, Mr. Fallows; rethink those options; reconsider your alternatives. At least keep trying, not just advising us to stay the course, to keep muddling, “hope” for the best and maybe we’ll get lucky. Your end-of-article cheerleading, “what was and what worked in the past will see us through,” contradicts the very thesis of the introduction to this exposition: ” . . . our governing system is old and broken and dysfunctional. . . Fixing it . . . is the key to securing the nation’s future.” You trivialize the “alarming problem” you raise: We are not now speaking of designing a city park, establishing a national park system or of founding a technological research agency! We are considering how to correct a government that by your own description is ”a joke!” I can almost hear the existing political establishment cheering your recommendation (or lack thereof): work within the system’s flaws and limits as the bravest and best choice for us now. If that doesn’t sound like business as usual for them, I don’t know what does.
You bemoan the fact that Americans shirk long range planning. It’s hard to think about investing now with the 75 year time-frame you suggest if all the confidence in your future is to try and muddle through the present. That seems a sure recipe for a count of ten, and you’re out. Let’s try and solve the underlying problem that will make such an investment time-frame acceptable. In the final chapter of The Gathering of the Clan I reiterate that government counts and therefore politics matters. This parallels your conviction that we should not give up on our public sector. We are clearly of a mind here. Let’s clean up our politics so that it produces governments that govern for (at least) most of the people all of the time, and all of the people at least most of the time. If this is possible, and we must see that it is, America will rise again of its own accord for exactly those reasons and strengths you discuss. So how do we go about it? You’ve indicated the primary issue and direction we need to take back on page forty-one where you shared your conversation with Ralph Nader:
“First he elaborated the ways that Congress, the media and regulators and both political parties were more in thrall to corporate power than ever before in his memory [my emphasis added].” Then, he added, “But you have to be very careful about thinking things can’t rebound. . . We don’t want to be Pollyhannas, but we really should believe that we can turn things around.”
Amen to Mr. Nader, but how? He is far from alone in his view and, in this Independent’s analysis, nothing is going to happen to turn this country’s political (and by implication its economic and social) environment around until this critical first priority issue of both political parties being in thrall to corporate power is addressed; until the political rights and responsibilities of citizenship is clarified and resolved in favor of the voting public. By resolved I most clearly mean recognizing that corporations and their kin are not citizens in the same sense of the term as individuals for political/electoral purposes as outlined in our Constitution. Lacking such status, they must not be permitted, directly or indirectly, to influence our electoral system, as is the case today. They are far from irrelevant in society, but as a single-purpose (profits) special interest group far too one sided to be allowed into or even alongside the voting booth.
I recognize that this is a contentious and on-going battle being waged by the US corporate world—and of late they appear to be winning it. I devote an entire chapter, two chapters actually, in The Gathering of the Clan to this all-important issue. Not only do I highlight it, I make specific recommendations how to resolve it! Muddling through is not one of them.
I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Fallows that we cannot give up on our public institutions. The simple fact is that we, all Americans and all sectors of our society, need government; but not just government, per se. We need government that while recognizing our individual and institutional variety, be it of a regional, a demographic, a conservative, liberal, secular, sectarian or other nature, can and will govern to produce the greatest good for the greatest number, lutilitarian concept at base, but one that correctly describes the proper objective of government: represent “the people”, not some of the people, but all of the people. My Independent creed is for a government that (at least) represents most of the people all of the time and all of the people at least most of the time. Neither political party in its ideological approach to governing can, and perhaps not even wishes to, accomplish this. This isn’t theory; this is plain and simple observation and experience. America simply must get off of its ideological merry-go-round.
Fallows speculates here on the significance of Barak Obama’s win. We have reiterated here, almost ad-nausea, that we have a polity that is almost a joke; that we have both political parties in thrall to primarily one sector of our society, corporate power. Obama campaigned on a promise of change—change you could believe in; to “challenge the broken system in Washington” and to “fundamentally change the way Washington works.” Many read this as “fix the joke.” That did seem to be his message: “If we’re not willing to take up that fight, then real change—change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.” He did seem, to many, to be different; to be cut from a different fabric from his long-time political rivals (and he had one hellova efficient campaign organization). His message of change resonated with Americans—Independents and others—who in him voted “for change.” The unfortunate circumstance seems to be that the change Mr. Obama had in mind was not, in fact, the kind of basic change his rhetoric suggested. Not the kind so many Americans had in mind: His was but an ideological shift, not a systemic correction. Talk of change, the kind of change he alluded to during the campaign, seems to have been for campaign purposes only—as are all overtures of a centrist or reform nature by an ideological candidate—but it was enough of a “tease” to bring him victory. Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig, writing in the February 22nd issue of The Nation, laments another lost opportunity for real change here: “A year into the presidency . . . it is already clear that this administration is an opportunity missed. Not because it is too conservative. Not because it is too liberal. But because it is too conventional. This seems a striking example that change, according to our two-parties, means from conservative to liberal, and vice-versa. Not change in politics, its practices or ethics. I reiterate, America must get off of its ideological merry-go-round.
And so, Mr. Fallows, in reviewing your four (or five, if you could call the last an alternative) alternatives for change, none of which you think is going to happen, I would say the following. I, for one, don’t like or wish for a political coup. I’m not in favor of any solution that would not give the governed a final word on its acceptability (in a majority rule manner). In other words, tired and old as you may think our democracy may be, I’m for keeping it on life-support via the ballot box.
As for changing the basic nature of our democracy so it fits the times: I’m open to this (possible new constitutional convention), as difficult as you insist—and I agree— it would be. You point to the lack of a coherent political structure as the basic road-block here. May I respectfully suggest you review American history? The convention that led to our present constitution was probably as unlikely and for its day as messy as you believe one today would be. By no stretch of the imagination was it a slam-dunk, and while clearly not a historian, I question whether or not, relatively speaking, there existed a greater coherent political culture than today. Some delegates refused to participate; it needed to be done in strict secrecy; when presented, the Union was deeply divided and in the end after a months-long propaganda effort on the parts of both pro and anti-Federalists, it was ultimately adopted by only the minimum number of states required (nine of the thirteen) and only by severely threatening the last needed state to sign-on, New York. So, while I agree with your concerns here, I do not concur it is, or even should be, off the table for consideration. But, yeah, I agree: it could sure as hell be messy!
Were it possible, I might seriously consider voting for a parliamentary system of government. But, like you, I believe having not started there, it would be very difficult to make the change now. I don’t think our existing political establishment would go for it, and I don’t think there is sufficient understanding of it by the electorate to push it. Too subtle a change to make much difference (in the political parties) would likely be the feeling.
This process of elimination leaves us with your final (practical) alternative, “a viable third party,” defined as “attractive in theory.” I define it as the only one of these, or others I am aware of, with a reasonable probability of success. By reasonable I mean acceptance and support by enough Americans. By success I mean bringing about necessary change, politically as opposed to ideologically, such that it produces government that can do exactly what you indicate needs doing: Addressing the big issues facing us, not merely the trivial. Just because it hasn’t happened doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t. Times and circumstances change, and I believe the presence of a plurality of Independents today is representative of changed circumstances. All things considered, it’s a relatively simple fix. But one needs to clearly understand that “simple” does not mean “easy.”
One also needs to understand that a viable third-party does not mean a three party political system in America. Our electoral system—which I assume won’t change—by its nature of single district representation and first-past-the post voting won’t for long support three major parties, if you accept the historical evidence of Duverger’s law. What will happen, and which has not happened since the 1860’s is that the third-party will either be absorbed by or absorb one of the other two, much as the Republican party emerged out of the Whig party. An article by Henry Olsen in the Feb.22 issue of National Review discusses such a scenario. That’s fine. What we are after is change/correction. How we get it is less important than getting it! No, that was poorly stated. The end does not necessarily justify the means. What I meant was that it matters not if a new party doesn’t become “king of the political hill.” What matters is that the effort produces the necessary change, permanently. It’s up to the voters to make a final choice. On that note, I feel confident that a third-party, appealing in the first instance to Independents but to all voters as well, if given the proper opportunity, could put an agenda and platform in front of enough voters that would make a difference.
“Hope” is a term that appears numerous times in Mr. Fallows’ article. This concept of hope runs broad and deep in our American psychic and culture. In a separate but not altogether different vein, Harold bloom makes this point in his book, The American Religion: “We are,” he says,” a republic of hope.”[P288]. Hope is an ingrained American characteristic; we are a hopeful and in this sense a religious people. While hope alone may be sufficient to sustain us in the long term religiously, hope alone is much less supportive, or effective, in the shorter political term. I ‘m reminded by a fellow parishioner’s exhortation: “If you’re going to pray (hope) for a good corn crop, you better do so with a hoe in your hand.” The point, I believe, makes itself here: Mr. Fallows’ recommendation may in fact be a good one, but it is not a sufficient one in and of itself.
Americans have had more than enough essays, articles, books and talk-shows telling them what’s wrong, what’s broken and how bad things are becoming, or have become (jeremiad). Most know this; it’s an open national secret. Unfortunately, Mr. Fallows’ article follows in these footsteps. It’s a good and in many ways a positive article, even if his title appears somewhat misleading. But it stops well short of even suggesting what might (as opposed to what can’t) be done to fix—as he himself indicates is necessary— our political problem; and that is what we really need. In his case, one must assume he has considered our situation carefully, and decided there is nothing positive we can do except hope for the best; to muddle through. But, if our present political situation is as unacceptable as he indicates, and if you accept Mancur Olson’s prophesy regarding the eventual consequences of special interests on a democracy, where is “muddling through” going to end us up in five, ten or seventy-five years from now?
You never fail until you stop trying. It sounds like Mr. Fallows has stopped trying. That’s a pity. Anyone for tennis?
Thomas Richard Harry