Archive for October, 2011

Tea Party vs. OWS

I found this diagram on politico.com, which linked it to this site, belonging to James Sinclair who writes:

Yeah, I’m oversimplifying, but only a little. The greatest threat to our economy is neither corporations nor the government. The greatest threat to our economy is both of them working together. There are currently two sizable coalitions of angry citizens that are almost on the same page about that, and they’re too busy insulting each other to notice.

Mr. Sinclair has a point — not only are the roots of both movements similar, but neither side really sees the true problem, it’s the nexus of corporate and government interests that create the most problems.    Therein lies the possibility of a true alternative to politics as usual.

This doesn’t mean a new third party or some rising independent candidate.   Rather, the two major parties have gotten into a rut.  When the economy was booming and it appeared the US was doing it right through deregulation and lower taxes, the parties got lazy.   Democrats like Bill Clinton embraced Wall Street and an economics team that was more laissez faire than even Reagan’s cohort.    To keep their ‘base’ the Democrats played interest group politics while pushing for programs like an overhaul of the health care system.   They didn’t get much accomplished on that front, but with the times good it didn’t matter.

The Republican party played similar games with social conservatives.  They gave lip service to issues like abortion and gay rights, but overall it was ineffective and just enough to keep the base in line.   So while the spectacle of intense partisan rancor filled the airwaves, the reality was that the two parties were becoming more alike than different.  Issues dear to social conservatives were not prioritized by the GOP, and the Clinton Administration ended up partially dismantling rather than building up social welfare programs.

Perhaps because of the growing ideological convergence of the two parties politics turned to personal stuff.   Did Clinton (or Bush the Younger) evade service in Vietnam unfairly?   Clinton was impeached for nothing he did as President but for an affair with a younger intern.    The personal trumped the substantive in a politics that was more about illusion and spectacle than substance.

During all that time both government and private citizens fell into the debt trap, driven in part by illusions of wealth thanks to the dot com craze and the real estate bubble.  The hypnosis of consumerism blinded people to the decay right before our eyes.   Day trading, flipping real estate and get rich quick schemes trumped hard work and imagination.   But unemployment was low and the GDP rising.   What me worry?

As more money flowed into campaigns a nexus between big business and big government formed.   As the middle class eroded thanks to the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the service sector, only the bubble economy and cheap goods from China prevented people from grasping how their country was changing into something less democratic with leaders less accountable than before.   Then in 2007 the housing bubble burst, starting a period of economic stagnation which turned into crisis in September 2008.

Now the veil’s been lifted from our eyes.   Now we see the corruption on Wall Street, the scandals in government, the links between big money and the Administration, touching both Obama and Bush.   President Obama’s election came because people thought he represented change.   But fearing a revolt from the elites of Wall Street, he embraced the same advisors that worked for Clinton, and took a very establishment approach.

Campaigns now are more marketing than an exchange of ideas.  Candidates are packaged and speak in bland generalities.  They have to, because if they break from the script they might make a gaffe and have it spread until it destroys their candidacy.    Spectacle over substance; illusion over reality.   Talk radio peddles emotion over reason, demonizing and mocking rather than engaging in real political discourse.   Politics becomes a “contact sport,” where one chooses a team and gets into the game, or one takes the view of Dennis DeYoung in his song “I don’t believe in Anything”:

I hate the bloody liberals and the neo-cons, they’re all so full of shit
Oh the way they talk to us, I think they think we’re idiots
What a bunch of hypocrits! 

Obama’s approval ratings are low, but those of Congress are far lower.    We’re in crisis and our political system is unable to respond.   20th Century thinking doesn’t cut it, the bubble years are over, so now what?

Now we have the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street representing two different movements driven by similar concerns.   The Tea Party has lost some of its luster, and no doubt that will happen to OWS as well.   But the two movements signify a desire of the electorate to change the nature of politics in the US.   It should be closer to the people, less bureaucratic, less in service of big corporate interests, and more respectful to average citizens.   Take away the fringe social conservatives on the right and socialists on the left, and you have a broad range of agreement between the two groups.

The agreement is this: big money and big government have gotten too cozy with each other and have too much power.   The only way to counter this is not to dismantle the corporate world and introduce socialism, nor to dismantle government with faith that markets can work magically.    The answer is to increase accountability at all levels by making both government and business decision making transparent.    We need to decentralize power – both governmental and in the private sector.

There will still be fights about proper tax rates, social welfare programs, abortion, gay marriage and all that.   But the potential for agreement on the need to restructure our socio-economic-political system is real.   The left needs to stop defending governments at every turn, the right needs to stop defending big money.   When power is concentrated it is always dangerous, whether in the form of a private corporation or a state.

We have the technology to decentralize and force greater transparency.   One aspect of both the Tea Party and OWS is their ability to use social media to build their movement and get the message out.   The partnership between big government and big money needs to be derailed.  Now if the activists on each “side” can put aside their differences long enough to focus on what they agree upon, maybe both movements can be a force for positive change.

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A Greek Tragedy

All eyes are on Greece as the fate of Europe’s economy and the European common currency is on the line.    The IMF and G20 states have pledged to prevent an economic collapse in Europe which would, undoubtedly, have severe ramifications for the US.   As one German friend of mine joked “Greece, the cradle and the grave of western civilization.”

The plan looks good on paper.  Greece borrowed an unsustainable amount of money and now must cut spending and raise its taxes to balance the budget.   Meanwhile the EU and IMF will intervene to both help stabilize Greek’s finances and recapitalize banks that may be vulnerable to Greek default.    It should work, in theory.

In practice, though, things are messy.   One problem is Greek domestic politics.  Angered by the corruption and political incompetence that brought them to this point, the Greeks are engaged in a two day general strike that has essentially shut down the country.   125,000 protesters in Athens, Thessaloniki, Patras and Heraklion showed anger at the government and its austerity plan.   People’s incomes are declining in real terms, and the mix of spending cuts and tax increases make the recession even worse.     Calling the cuts “unfair, anti-social and inefficient” they demand the country reject the austerity proposals.  3000 police classed with 70,000 protesters in Athens, mostly peacefully but not always.

The Greek government is in bind.   They need to cut debt; their debt load is unsustainable.   The bond markets still show a 24% interest rate on Greek bonds, meaning that any more debt would be extremely costly, and would drive up bond yields further.   Greece cannot simply go along as it has been.   Moreover, austerity is the price the EU is demanding to help them avoid default and stay in the Eurozone.

The Greek government is thus implementing the austerity measures out of necessity.    However, they could decide not to, and simply accept default.      If Greece defaulted, the pain would shift to the banks of Europe which could fail unless recapitalized with government funds.   The danger would be that the Greek default could lead to a dumping of Spanish, Italian, Portugese and Irish bonds, creating a crisis far greater than the Greek default.  As I noted awhile back, contagion is the real danger.

To be sure, a Greek default would make it a bit easier for the country to dig itself out of its hole.  There would still need to be spending cuts and tax increases to get a balanced budget, but they wouldn’t have the burden of so much debt to repay on top of that.  That is the path favored by many protesters in Greece; bankruptcy is welcome if debt is weighing you down.    Any default, however, almost ensures contagion.     It might help the Greeks, but ignite a global crisis.

To try to minimize the risk of contagion, a Greek default would probably be coupled with a removal of Greece from the Eurozone.   Letting a country default while maintaining the Euro as its currency is something that the Europeans cannot allow.   If Greece leaves the Eurozone, the result would be inflation and devaluation of the Drachma.   Since new Greek bonds would have very high interest rates (especially given the certainty of inflation), Greece would find borrowing money nearly impossible, and still would have to institute austerity programs.   That would push Greece back into crisis, and serve as an example to others the potential cost of leaving the Eurozone.

The EU could then try to prevent contagion by making it clear that defaults by other states are not likely given the cost it would entail to have them leave the zone.     Seeing what happens when set adrift from the Euro, governments in countries at risk would be more motivated than ever to engage in austerity politics.   After all, those in power listen to the moneyed elite more than the people on the street.

For Greece the devalued drachma would lead to increased trade competitiveness and lure in tourism.   Over years they’d stabilize the economy and potentially be able to rejoin the Eurozone in a decade or two.   No doubt the EU would by that time enforce the criteria strictly — Greece never should have been allowed to join in 2001.  Greece could not leave the Eurozone without defaulting.   Otherwise the depreciating drachma would mean that Euro denominated debt would grow dramatically simply do to changing exchange rates.   So leaving the Eurozone must be coupled with default.

For the EU the dilemma now is whether they should continue trying to save Greece, or focus instead on recapitalizing the banks and defending against contagion.   They have already spent so much money to stabilize Greece that switching tactics would be seen as an admission they got it wrong on the tax payers dime.   That money would have simply been thrown into a pit, bringing nothing of value.

That leads them to want to see this through to the end.   Yet it’s like getting your car repaired over and over — at some point you have to eat the loses and just buy a new one, realizing you should have done so at the time of the first repair.   If Greek protests grow and the government becomes unstable, default may be inevitable.   In that case it would again need to be coupled with leaving the Eurozone to avoid contagion.

Watching this play itself out is fascinating, even though I think most people are oblivious to the implications this drama has for the rest of the world.     Where once the fate of Europe was decided in war rooms by generals with maps spread out tracking troop movements and supply lines, now it’s in board rooms with business and political leaders looking  at spread sheets and bond yields.

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Oh Life, There Must Be More!

Listening to Alan Parsons Project during my morning workout, I contemplated the song “Oh Life (There Must be More),” about a woman who has lost hope, whose life is empty and meaningless.   I tell students that we live in a psychologically difficult era in history.  In the past people didn’t doubt the meaning of life or feel the need to prove their self worth.  These things were defined communally and peoples’ identities, values and sense of purpose were part of something greater than themselves.

I wouldn’t want to go back to that more “natural” state — I’m too much a product of the modern world, prizing my individuality and freedom, concepts that emerged as dominant during the enlightenment.   Having tasted that fruit, I can’t go back to paradise.   The knowledge of the possibilities freedom entails makes it impossible to return to life tied to tradition, custom and community.   Pandora’s box has been opened.

Yet this new freedom also creates a sense of despair and uncertainty.  What is the meaning of life?  Is there a meaning?   How do I fit in?  Am I lost in the middle of a hopeless world (another APP lyric)?  Look at the stress, anxiety and depression rampant in a society with material prosperity beyond what anyone could have imagined just a few generations ago.  With no clear answers and with the responsibility to define ones’ own life, people lack the bonds and traditions that gave life clear purpose and meaning.   Lacking the deep community and extended family bonds that were a psychological and social support system, it’s easy for people to feel untethered, adrift and without purpose.  How do people handle this?

Ideology.  One solution is to throw oneself into an ideology, to find a belief about how the world should be and dedicate oneself to living that life and promoting their cause.   It could be socialism, anarcho-capitalism, or religious extremism (though religion itself is a separate category).   This is an especially appealing solution for those who hate uncertainty and want a clear answer to a question of what life is all about.  It gives one a sense of self-esteem (“I have figured out the right way, yet I am surrounded by people either too ignorant or unprincipled to understand or accept the truth) and purpose.

Ideology as a purpose tends to appeal to intelligent folk; they are the true believers.  Those who follow along often don’t care so much about the ideology, they’re attracted to the sense of belonging with like minded folk.   Ideology creates false certainty, a false sense of superiority, a belief one is more moral and principled than others, and allows one to push uncomfortable questions and dilemmas under the carpet.  It’s an illusion (or delusion), but it can be effective.

Religion.  Religious extremists tend to be ideological, but most religious folk are not.  Rather, they look to their faith for the answer of what life means and how they should live.   Yes, they understand that the enlightenment and modern science casts doubt on their beliefs, but they’ve chosen faith.   It seems right to them in their heart, it is reinforced by community (people in their church, other believers) and they are able to shut off that part of their brain that might doubt and question their beliefs.   This harkens back to pre-enlightenment thought and can give people a profound sense of purpose and meaning.   Some who have had a crisis and then “convert” to a religion are so relieved by its capacity to banish doubt about self-worth and personal crises that they are convinced they have found truth.

Throw Oneself Into the World.  Some people respond to uncertainty by dashing headlong into life, throwing themselves into the world to experience all they can.  Their response to doubts about meaning or self worth is to enhance experience.   It might be adventures, traveling, competition in ones’ career, or hedonism.    This category includes such diverse folk as those in the business world who compete on Wall Street to try to earn as much money as they can and those social activists to do all they can to help the disadvantaged and alleviate suffering.   Whether it’s competition for status or constant efforts to help others, experience in the world defines life for these folk.   It can be successful, but also can lead to a kind of hyperactivity syndrome if more experience is constantly needed to quell uncertainty and doubt.

This solution also creates the possibility of crisis.  If one defines life by career competition then a career setback or disaster can create personal crisis.   Attractive people might define their self-worth by beauty and how others treat them, meaning that as they age they might find themselves unprepared to deal with lifes’ dilemmas.   Social activists might end up overwhelmed by the slow pace at which the world changes.    People in this category are the movers and shakers, those who change the world.   They are not always the most satisfied and content, however.

Friends and family (Community).  Other people focus on the more immediate world around them, their circle of friends and family.  This is not a mutually exclusive set of “strategies” to deal with modern life.   A religious person who also has strong connections with their community can be very resilient against modern psychological ills.   Someone who throws himself into the world will be less prone to crisis if that is complemented by a strong sense of community.   Like religion this harkens back to the pre-modern support systems that people naturally had; to the extent one can identify with a group greater than oneself, one avoids loneliness and has reassurance of ones’ self-worth and meaning.

Cynical Self-reliance.   Many people recognize the inability of the world to provide meaning, reject religion as mythology, and face reality with a kind of cynical “this world sucks, but it’s the only one I have” approach.   Such people are honest and critical thinking, meaning they can’t shut down the questioning part of the brain that religious folk silence, aren’t susceptible to ideological dogma, have been disappointed by the world and are too individualistic to lose themselves in community or family/friends.   The world has suffering, pain, and despair, yet with a wry sense of humor and resignation to reality — the world won’t change any time soon — they make it through life with their self honesty protecting them from psychological despair.

Uncertain Spirituality.   Others believe that there is “something more” to life, and put their faith in a vague undefined spirituality.   They are too critical to accept religious dogma or ideology, have decided that the world is transient and offers no deep sense of meaning, tend not to be as connected with community, and yet see the world as beautiful and meaningful.   Such people accept uncertainty easily; they may seek an ‘answer key,’ but recognize that it’s OK if they never find it.   They are individually resilient, relying on their spiritual faith for their sense of purpose and meaning.   Unlike religious folk they don’t claim to have the right belief — if it works for them, that’s all that matters.   This includes a lot of so called “new age” thinking.   These people tend to be introspective and see life as a way to work on their own emotional (or spiritual) development more than fixing problems in the world.

So my question to my readers:  Does this list make sense?   Do you fit into any of these categories?   What other categories might be added to the list?  (I can think of a few, but when a post hits 1200 I try to wrap it up).

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Obama/Clinton in 2012?

If you believe Jonathan Alter, there is a good chance this could happen next year if Obama’s re-election prospects look questionable.   His argument is simple.  Obama, Biden and Clinton all get along well and like each other.    Obama doesn’t want to make a change, but they all agree that the threat of a total conservative take over all three branches is unacceptable.  They will “do what it takes” to win, even if that means what Alter calls a “switcheroo.”

Back in 2008 Joe Biden seriously lobbied to become Secretary of State.  He’s always had a strong interest in foreign policy, and probably had the inside track for the job before Obama offered him the VP slot.   To move from VP to Secretary of State would be something Biden could honestly embrace as a positive career move.   Rather than presiding over the Senate and making speeches at ceremonial events, he’d be in the rough and tumble world of foreign policy.   The Secretary of State position is substantively more important than the Vice Presidency.

Biden's passion has always been foreign policy

Hillary Clinton has already said she plans to retire after the end of Obama’s first term.   The Secretary of State position is especially demanding, and she has been an active and effective top diplomat.    Moving to Vice President would be the one way she’d stay active in the Administration.   First, it puts her a step closer to the Presidency and makes her the odds on favorite in 2016 should Obama win or lose.   In 2012 she turns 65 meaning she’d be 69 if she ran in 2016.    It would probably be her last shot.

Second, it keeps her close to the action without the kind of pace and demands her current job has.  This would allow her more freedom to expand her pursuits yet still be in the center of big decisions.   If Obama loses no one could blame her or the Clintons for any lack of loyalty.  If Obama wins, the odds of her becoming the first woman President increase.

What would it do to the campaign dynamic?   For Obama it could shore up his liberal base and his appeal with women voters.   Women put Obama over the top in 2008 and recent polls show his support in that demographic group is slipping.  If the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney he’ll probably draw a lot of female voters from Obama (Rick Perry or Herman Cain not so many).    Hillary’s supporters, some of whom remain lukewarm to Obama, would be energized even if they remain a bit bitter.

That’s really what Vice Presidential choices are usually about – you try to keep a party united and avoid the kind of collapse that Jimmy Carter suffered late in his campaign.   Carter looked in position to eek out a victory against Reagan in 1980 but a bad debate performance coupled with news that the Iranian hostage situation had no end in sight coming days before the election pushed tepid Democrats to Reagan.  Clinton as VP might be a firewall against that.  Even if Obama loses, the Democrats need to avoid the Senate and House loses that gave the GOP de facto control of all branches of government in the early eighties.    The Democrats lost 33 House seats that year and held a majority — but the conservative southern Democrats sided with Reagan and gave him a working majority.   Hillary as VP candidate might be the best bet at keeping the Senate in Democratic hands.

Beyond keeping the base faithful, the choice of a VP candidate usually doesn’t matter much.   Arguably choosing Sarah Palin hurt John McCain, however, and when McGovern dumped Eagleton in 1972 that hurt him.    This suggests that a candidate can be hurt by a VP choice if it reflects poorly on the candidate’s judgment.    When Roosevelt dumped Wallace in favor of Truman in 1944 that didn’t hurt; Ford was probably helped by replacing Rockefeller with Dole in 1976 (though he narrowly lost the election).

So the big question for Obama is whether or not pulling a switcheroo would make him appear weak or be exercising poor judgment?   The latter would have to be no; very few people would think that Hillary would be a bad Vice President and the fact that Biden would be given his dream job means he won’t be seen as throwing Joe “under the bus.”   But the Republicans would paint that as an “act of desperation” due to Obama’s “failed Presidency.”     He needs Hillary because he’s “in over his head.”

That would be a political problem for Obama, but the people most likely to believe that rhetoric are those who won’t vote for Obama anyway — many of whom still don’t like the Clintons.    Obama could, of course, turn the argument around.  “Given the depth of this crisis, I feel we need to make sure we have the best personnel where they are needed.  The politically easy thing to do would be to avoid criticism and keep things as they are.   I am not afraid to be criticized for doing what is best for the country.”

Praising Hillary profusely, he could argue that her work as Secretary of State has helped guide the US through a dangerous period of draw downs in Iraq, a policy to turn Afghanistan into a success, and on going counter terrorism efforts which netted many top al qaeda targets including Osama Bin Laden.   Now her talents need to be harnessed to address on going economic difficulties.   Biden’s been good in that regard, but his passion is foreign policy.    The subtext would be clear: Bill Clinton’s hand would be present, and we all remember the budget surpluses and low unemployment during his term.

The more I think of it, the more the move makes sense.   If Obama’s team is reasonably confident about the election, they might fear this would muck things up.   President Obama clearly would rather not be seen as being ‘rescued’ by the Clintons, but he’s not the type to let pride get in the way of making a smart decision.    It would certainly bring excitement to the Democratic campaign, especially if this were announced in mid-summer.

At the very least it would bring the bitter 2008 primary feud full circle.   Next year should be entertaining in any event.

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Tweedlemitt vs. Tweedlebarack?

It is a match up that the tea party and Occupy Wall Street will abhor.  An inside the beltway Republican whose Massachusetts health care plan was the blue print for President Obama’s health care reform vs. an establishment Democrat who choose Wall Street insiders as his economic team rather than more radical economic mavericks.   President Obama is among the 1% the OWS oppose.

It’s too early to know for sure that Mitt Romney will be the GOP candidate, but it certainly looks that way as he lines up endorsements.   At this point in 2008 Hillary Clinton looked like a shoe in for the Democratic nomination so there still could be surprises.   Yet none of Romney’s rivals have anything like the campaign juggernaut Obama already had in place in 2007 and in modern politics that’s what matters.

Mitt Romney is everything the tea party supposedly opposed.   He is Mormon (not Christian in the eyes of some fundamentalists), he’s been pro-choice in the past, and he governed liberal Massachusetts in a markedly moderate manner.   Like former President Clinton he seems adept at saying what an audience wants to hear, but once in power his pragmatism will mean he’s unlikely to push for tea party ideas that don’t play well with the majority.  In short, he won’t fight for the right wing, he’ll govern to try to solve problems.   A Romney Presidency may not be that much different than an Obama Presidency!

To both the tea party and OWS it leaves little choice.  Most will vote for the guy on their side out of a desire to prevent the other guy from winning.   But many true believers may sit this out or vote for a third party out of protest.

For the GOP the focus will be negative advertising against Obama, mostly by special interest groups not directly associated with Romney.  That way he’s not tied to the tactics and can even criticize them while they push the tea party to vote Romney out of fear/hatred of Obama.   It would be winning ugly, but a win is a win.

For Obama the goal is to infiltrate the OWS movement and try to direct its energy into participation in the 2012 election, recapturing the fervor of 2008.   The idea is that motivated students and young people, as well as others caught up in the protest, will be more likely to vote than otherwise would be the case.    If they aren’t excited for Obama, they can be lured to vote against Romney through negative advertising, or brought to the voting both for ballot issues or lower ballot races reflecting the movement’s ideals.

Obama looks vulnerable, but given the economy he could be in much worse shape.  His third quarter haul for fund raising was $70 million, down from $80 million in Q2, but above expectations.   This means he already has raised about $200 million overall, and the heaviest fundraising hasn’t even started yet.   He’s likely to top $1 billion, and money matters in modern campaigns.   Moreover, with no primary opponent this time he can focus entirely on defeating the eventual Republican nominee.

The GOP, meanwhile, has been suffering the same kind of let down that the Democrats experienced after 2008.   They took the House, but the tea party’s allure has faded and Obama’s numbers remain just under 50% approval.    Obama’s foreign policy also has turned out to be a strong point.  Besides being generally liked and respected abroad, he’s mixed a tough counter-terrorism policy (killing many top al qaeda leaders including Osama Bin Laden) with a reasonably effective draw down of forces in Iraq.   Even Afghanistan appears more stable than it used to be, and the GOP will have trouble making the argument that Obama is soft or ineffective on foreign policy.

It all comes down to the economy, but Republican success in 2010 gives Obama a tool in 2012.   He can blame the GOP for not passing a jobs bill and standing in the way of compromises that could have moved the economy forward.   This is already being said, Vice President Biden claimed recently that the Republicans want to “sabotage the economy.”  In a close election if doubt can be cast on which party really should be blamed for economic conditions, that helps Obama.

All that said, Romney is a consummate politician who unlike the rest of the GOP field is making no unforced errors and doing nothing that will come back to haunt him in the general election (unlike Rick Perry, whose social security stance will cost him elderly voters if he’s the nominee).    He’s managed to play the tea party favorites off against each other and appeal to the average Republican — those more concerned about competence and beating Obama.   He’s not totally ignoring Iowa this time and has an operation in New Hampshire that is almost sure to bring him a big victory there.    He’s got a better than even chance of avoiding a long, bloody primary battle.

While he seems slick, he also appears calm and competent.   Independents disappointed with Obama won’t be scared away from Romney the way they might be from Cain or Perry (let alone Bachmann or Palin!)   If the economy is still in the dumps, it will be relatively easy for people to say, “well, let’s try Romney, let’s see what he can do.”

The question is whether Romney can inspire support, something I noted awhile back when I compared him to Mondale.  Here is where the left and right “movements” become interesting.   Romney’s capacity to appeal to the center is clear, but can he keep the loyalty and enthusiasm of the activists, people who until now have been very cool to a Romney candidacy?   Assuming no third party candidacy, many tea party folk may decide they can’t stomach Mitt as the GOP standard barrier and wait for 2016 and a chance to nominate a “true Christian conservative.”

OWS has two dangers for Obama.  First, just as the tea party scared off moderates from the GOP, OWS arouses skepticism as well.   Just as Nixon used the 1968 protests in his favor, Romney could argue that the country needs to return to a more stable and predictable government.  Second, OWS could turn on Obama and urge people to sit out the election.   Despite Republican rhetoric, Obama’s policies have been very friendly to Wall Street and the business community.   To OWS he’s shown that he’s not a true progressive, they may feel compelled to sit out and try to nominate someone fresh in 2016.  Romney won’t cause fear based Obama voting in the way that a Perry might.

It’s still very early and things could change rapidly.  But right now the 2012 campaign looks to be fascinating.  In a country that appears divided with rival left and right movements, the probable candidates are centrist and more alike then most people realize.     Comparisons with past elections are of little help — the Obama campaign machine and the nature of this crisis will assure 2012 will be a unique, perhaps historic election.   Let the fun begin!

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Fight the Establishment!

I was too young to be a hippy, but old enough to watch and somewhat understand what was going on back in the early seventies as phrases like “don’t trust anyone over 30″ and “fight the establishment” were brandied about.   By the time I was in college the hippies were morphing into yuppies and their movement gave way to consumerism.

That movement was driven by a number of factors.  First, it was the coming of age of a post-war generation that was experiencing the biggest economic boom in history.   Used to and expecting material comfort they were able to expand their horizons to environmental concerns (earth day and the environmental movement got started in the late sixties), human/civil rights, and of course opposition to the Vietnam War.    They embraced the time tested ideals of love, peace, and community but were unable to translate them into a sustainable movement.   Yet even as they became bankers and board members they radically transformed the culture to one more open, tolerant and questioning of old traditions.   Even conservatives embrace most of the changes that came in the wake of the 1960s counter-culture movement.

They had one enemy: the establishment.   The establishment meant the moneyed elite, materialists who played the game on the inside, cared little about ethics and principles, and made sure that those with power ran the show.   The establishment covered both political parties, the media, and of course corporate America.   In their view (before they joined the establishment) the establishment had seduced their parents generation into servitude, working meaningless 40 hour weeks in order to simply have a house, bills and responsibilities – a rat race grind that pushed aside deeper values of love, spirituality and human connections.  Instead you work hard in a routine and distractions such as television and various material pursuits allow you to avoid really thinking about the meaning of life.   Then you die.   “What’s the point,” they asked.

So instead they offered Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a bird who broke with conventions to pursue his higher self, and look down at the mindless gulls seeking only food and survival.   They offered communes, a sexual revolution, new musical expressiveness, and values that countered those of ‘the establishment.’   Then they went and got jobs, settled into routines, but brought some of that rebelliousness into the new post-hippy world, changing society, even if not in a way that reflected their ideals in pure form.

Now we have two counter-establishment movements.    Will they change society?   One is reactionary, the tea party.   The tea party looks back at an America they believe is lost.   They romanticize the world of the early sixties (such as that depicted in my post yesterday), when America had a clear vision, and life seemed more normal.   They want to take back America, looking at the decay they perceive.  In a sense they believe that the country was changed for the worse by the cultural shift after the early 70s, blaming “liberals” and “government” for destroying the America they grew up with or (for younger ones) imagine it to have been.

At their peak, the tea party launched a "million man" march on Washington.

The left was playing defense at that point, defending the changes of the last forty years, even as the President promised to decrease domestic spending to levels lower than any time since the Eisenhower Administration.   Yet as the two establishment parties moved towards a grand bargain that reflected a shift to the right, Speaker John Boehner of the GOP found that he could not control his party, especially freshman “tea party” members.   They weren’t looking for compromise, the “establishment” solution being proposed, they were anti-establishment, demanding Boehner change.   Now tea party darlings are risking primary challenges if they sided with the establishment GOP on some of these votes.   They want the status quo to change.

Then in September 2011, responding to Republican power, efforts to limit voter participation, and the way in which President Obama seemed impotent in the face of Republican maneuvering, groups on the left decided to launch their own movement, inspired by the pro-democracy movements in the Mideast.   “Occupy Wall Street” started small but grew to the point that almost every city now has a protest taking place, and it’s even gone global.   Republican Representative Eric Cantor worries about “mobs” threatening democracy, and GOP Rep. Peter King openly suggests that unless this movement is stopped it will grow in power to that of the late 60s/early 70s counter culture movement, which he believes dangerous to the ideas he and the tea party stand for.

The spirit of 1968 lives on

This movement is both a reaction to the conservative tilt of US politics, and intense disappointment with President Obama.   One poster seen read “Obama Eats With Wall Street,” and if the tea party is the anti-establishment view from the right, Occupy Wall Street is the same thing from the left.    Reviving the ideals of the past, the focus is on corporate power and the view that greed and inequality breed a system that is not capitalist or democratic, but one by the moneyed elite, for the moneyed elite.

While the left cherry picked tea party racist moments, the right cherry picks wild demands from Occupy, but in reality the two reflect separate anti-establishment movements built on frustration with where the country is going.    Right now Occupy Wall Street beats the Tea Party in the polls (33% approval vs. 26%).   Neither are very popular, but taken together over half the country is sympathetic to at least one.

And though they may seem polar opposites, their motives are often driven by the same core belief: the elites running the country don’t care about the people and have sold out to corporate greed and bureaucratic control.   So what to make of it?  First, this is not completely new, it is a reflection of past movements — just as we had the hippies in the sixties we also had the John Birch society, and many tea party organizers cut their teeth in that right wing organization.

Yet they’re also new, using social media and launching less organized, more diffuse movements, driven by what they sense is wrong with the country rather than a clear view of what is needed to set things right.   In that these movements represent a new kind of politics, one less likely to be easily coopted by the political parties.   Moreover there is no “Vietnam war” driving this; the hippy movement died as President Nixon rapidly withdrew troops from Vietnam.   That movement was built on less solid ground than the movements today are, the problems the US faced then were less foundational.

These movements could pull the country apart becoming radicalized and making compromise more difficult — future Democrats may not be able to offer Republicans the deal they rejected earlier this year.   Or, given the centrism of most Americans, a common element may emerge, a need to expand democracy and weaken the power elite of both big government and big money.    In any event, these movements are real and reflect a new kind of politics — though rooted in a tradition of anti-establishment sentiment dating back from the frustration of the colonies against the British crown.    We don’t know where this is going, but something tells me American politics is going to be anything but boring in coming years.

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Pan Am: Surreal yet Compelling

This post contains spoilers from the first three episodes of Pan Am (ABC – Sunday 10:00 PM EST)

I’ve broken from my usual writing about politics and world affairs to comment on music, today I’ll wade into the territory of network television.

Set in the early 1960s, the new ABC series Pan Am follows the lives of a group of stewardesses (not flight attendants yet) traveling the globe on one of Pan Am’s top of the line international jets.   But the story gets complicated, one stewardess, Kate, works for the CIA.  She’s not a full blown agent, but recruited to run errands — make deliveries, exchange messages and the like.   Yet she is a vehicle for a lot of cold war intrigue, bringing politics and the Cold War at its height back into American living rooms.

So you have gorgeous women (each with their own personality quirks), hot shot pilots, jealousy, romance, rivalry and espionage set in the early sixties.  Isn’t that enough to get you to check it out!?   But it’s more than that.   The series does something that is very difficult to pull off — it uses a kind of soft surrealism to blend together an unlikely mix of characters and situations into a compelling and very entertaining show.

Two of the women, Kate and Laura, are sisters.  Laura left her would be husband at the alter to ultimately join Kate in her career, with her drop dead beauty earning her a cover of Life magazine.    Their mom, who has already appeared (bringing the would be groom to Paris to try to win Laura back) finds this life style dangerous and strange.    Done wrong, that kind of story line would be corny — oh yeah, she leaves the groom at the alter, becomes a stewardess with her sister and gets on Time?   But within the surreal framework of the show it’s perfect.   It works.

Collette, from France, is an intriguing and very likable woman seems to have a kind of ‘old world’ wisdom and perspective that plays off the brimming optimism and idealism of the Americans.    She already was confronted by the wife of a man she had slept with (without knowing he was married), in episode three we learn of her past.    Set in Berlin Germany as the crew took reporters to see John F. Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech, it’s revealed her parents were killed in the war and she can’t get over her hatred of the Germans.    In a surreal scene at an embassy party for the President (who had left by then) she starts making accusatory statements to Germans she meets.   She then apologizes, says she’ll make up for it and asks to the pianist to play the German national anthem and sings in perfect German “Deutschland, Deutschland ueber alles.”    She isn’t trying to honor the Germans by doing this!

Maggie and Kate

It’s surreal because a pianist would not have played it, especially once the words of the “forbidden” first verse were sung.  She would have been stopped and kicked out.   Yet somehow they pull it off; in the context of this show, it works.   Another stewardess, Maggie (a free thinking woman with drive and courage), has a crush on the President and spends the whole show trying to get to meet him.  She finally sees Air Force One and tells Laura that she can’t make the return flight and to tell the crew she’s sick.    She gets to the tarmac and when stopped she pleads for a chance to shake the President’s hand.   When that doesn’t work she informs the Secret Service that she has a box of Cuban cigars as a gift for Kennedy.

Impressed by the cigars the agent tells her to wait, and heads to the plane.   The President appears atop the plane’s entrance, somewhat in the distance (it’s dark we can’t see features) and waves at her — close to what she wanted, and she’s enthralled.

Gender issues of the early 60s (before ‘women’s lib’) will clearly be covered by this show.  Maggie’s already gotten in trouble for mocking the “weigh ins” required of stewardesses  (can’t have any chubby unattractive women serving Pan Am!) and even stabbing with a fork a first class passenger who tried to assault her.   He backs off, but it’s clear that if he complains Maggie will lose her job (while he risked nothing for what would now be considered a crime).    The pilot settles him down with some expensive scotch and an apology, but instead of being thankful that her job is not in danger, Maggie steams over the injustice of it all.

Dean (the captain of the airplane) and Collette as he notices she's not herself at the embassy party.

The show is only three episodes old.  So far more emphasis is placed on the women — who are the stars — but the Captain (Dean) and first officer (Ted) are integral parts of the story lines as well.   We’ll see how it develops, but at this point it’s got me hooked.

Pan Am started regular transatlantic flights in 1958, and the show is set in that golden era of flight when service was a premium, especially on international flights.   Given the historical allusions — we’ve already had the Bay of Pigs and JFK’s Berlin speech — those of us who enjoy Cold War history will find that part of the show interesting.   This week Maggie helped an East German spy defect, though it got her in some trouble.   It also clearly shows the Machiavellian nature of Cold War intrigue — the key is to combat the Soviets without risking a ‘hot’ war.  One reviewer suggests that this is “TV for old people,” and being 50 it might well be that there is a nostalgic allure to it.   I’m OK with that!  Anyway, I’ve always liked airline movies (I keep waiting for George Kennedy to show up to do mechanical work).

Another complaint is that it’s “too happy.”  So far the dramas are not the kind of tragedies that hit shows like “Desperate Housewives” (another rather surreal hit that preceeds it on ABC), but that’s OK.  It’s a fun show, and it captures the optimism of the era just before Kennedy’s assassination and the subsequent horrors of Vietnam.    So for the first time in a long time I’ve found an hour long network drama that I plan to watch regularly!

Pan Am suffered financial collapse in early December, 1991 — the same month that the Cold War would end with Mikhail Gorbachev’s announcement that the Soviet Union was breaking up.   In that sense the subject matter is doubly fitting: the Cold War era was Pan Am’s era.

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