Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Political Terms (2)

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I was raised as a yellow dog Democrat in the old New York City way. The first time I voted, at age twenty-one, as was then the rule, I used a classic New York City voting machine. This was a cubical about the size of a restroom stall, set up in the basement of a local public school. You entered it, and yanked a large red lever, which closed a curtain, sealing you off from prying eyes. You then faced a steel wall upon which the names of the candidates were arranged in rows, according to party: Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, and Socialists. No Conservative party then, of course, not in the City. There was a lever by the side of each name and to vote you pressed it so that it locked down, revealing a tiny colored window. Or you could pull the larger lever that stood at the head of each party’s ticket and automatically vote the party line, which, of course, is what I did. I didn’t need to read the names of the obscure party hacks who were running for the lesser offices because I was actually voting for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dead then twenty years, and most of my fellow New Yorkers did the same at the time.

After voting, which took twelve seconds, you thrust the big red lever to the side, opening the curtain and recording the vote; at the same time the mechanism pushed up the small levers, ready for the next Democrat to do the same. It was a simpler time, corrupt as the devil, but ensuring a party discipline that is now but a memory.

Many years later, I went to work for government in Miami, Florida, a city that has retained the charming corruptibility of ancient New York. One of the things my mentor, an old pol of charming corruption, taught me was that you should never tell a politician he needed anything you could supply, because every politician only needs one thing—fifty-one per cent of the vote. Another thing he taught was that when you got that vote, all the people who didn’t vote for you became your constituents too, and you had to take their concerns into account. Nobody gets everything, and nobody gets nothing was the rubric, a lesson much forgotten in this era of insane partisanship.

A few years after that I went to Washington somewhat later to work in the Carter White House, and learned first-hand how crazy the Democratic party had become. I still believe it was a harmless nuttiness, based on the desire to do good, but undone by the odd congeries of interest groups (with different definitions of good) that this party had morphed into since the days of FDR. It was a circus barely able to govern.

After a series of strange transactions, including Reagan’s election, I found myself at a federal regulatory agency, working for its chief, who was a classic moderate Republican. I don’t believe I had actually ever spoken with a Republican before, so it was real interesting. He would come into the office after shooting down workers in the streets and tearing the bread from the mouths of little children and we would talk about political ideas, for I was his speech writer. I rather think that he liked having me (whom he always referred to as an anarcho-syndicalist) as his speech writer. Perhaps it was a sumptuary taste, like a lord of the Baroque age having a trained ape on a golden chain.

For my part, I liked him very much. This guy was America incarnate to me, as un-New Yorkish as you could get. His Midwestern family had helped found the Republican party back in the 1850s and he was on a first-name basis with all the GOP grandees. His personal integrity was unquestioned and he had distinguished himself by an act of remarkable political courage during the Watergate scandal. He thought that federal regulation was the salvation of the capitalist system, not a view characteristic of the people who now run the GOP, to put it mildly. He thought the Republican party was all about fiscal probity, a strong military, a cautious foreign policy, environmental conservation, squeaky-clean government, and investment in the future via public works and educational opportunity. He’d given up a colossal amount of money to come work for the government, simply because he felt it was the right thing to do.

Yes, nothing but an establishment conservative, much denigrated in the 60s and thereafter, one of the grown-ups who used to run the United States of America, and who, together with like-minded gentlemen from across the aisle, built virtually all the great institutions of our nation, from the transcontinental railroad, to the national parks, to Social Security, the interstate highways, the regulatory system, the GI Bill, Medicare, winning World War II--the list goes on.

Later on, I worked at the state level, writing speeches and doing policy work for another of the same sort of Republican, this one an up-and-comer, spoken of as a possible US senator or governor. It didn’t happen, because while he might have won an election, there was no way someone with this kind of politics could get nominated on the Republican ticket in our state. During my time in Washington DC the GOP had changed from being a conservative party to a reactionary one.

This is a bad thing for the liberals, and not for the obvious reason—the famous rightward shift. Productive American politics has always been a liberal-conservative dance. Liberals and conservatives understand each other, and at some level they know they need each other. But reactionaries have no interest in the dance. They are only interested in maintaining the purity of their dream, and their most vehement ire is directed not against liberals or radicals, as you might expect, but against conservatives, which is one reason for the near extinction of that political stance in American politics. Lacking a dance partner, liberals have tended to drift. In the past few decades they have drifted rightwards, attempting to be their own conservative partners. But if reactionaries come to power and attempt to impose a reactionary program, I suspect they will drift left again. This will surprise everyone, because no one has seen a strong left in the US for very many years. (Nancy Pelosi is not what I mean here.) Then the same thing could happen on the left as happened on the right, because the radicals hate the liberals more than the reactionaries do. The center will be hollowed out on the left side the way it has been on the right. Then you have the makings of a cold war, civil style: America in 1855 say, or Germany in 1930: irreconcilable divisions, the end of civil discourse, the stockpiling of weapons and the rest of that awful process.

I guess I don’t really believe this will happen. I guess I still think that at some point, the grownups will come back from wherever they’ve been hiding, sweep the squabbling children out of the control room and get back to running a 21st century nation. But I also recall how stunned I was when Reagan won. How could someone so right-wing be the president! Fortunately, it turned out that Reagan was a fraud as a reactionary. Just a good old country club Republican after all, was Ron: squash the unions, loot the state, help the rich, business as usual. Bush 2 was similar, but significantly departed from conservative orthodoxy by breaking the bank and starting wars. Romney is actually running as a fraud, which makes a nice change.

So one thing I have not seen is a projection of what life would be like in the US if the reactionary program—the current GOP platform, for example—were actually to be implemented in the United States, and if an actual, non-fraudulent reactionary party controlled the White House and the Congress. This is not surprising, since the press won’t even use the term reactionary.

That, however, is for another post.

1 comment:

Steve Bodio said...

We need working partners like you & Ruckleshaus (spelling?). His type still exists (Huntsman, sigh). And "we" need YOUR kind of Dems. I would vote for either, and neither dominate the current ballot.

(I cast my first vote for Frank Sargent in Mass-- earliest seventies. Look him up).