Monday 19 October, 2020

The High Road to France

Once upon a time…

Quote of the Day

”The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong”.

  • Carl Justav Jung

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Joseph Haydn Piano Sonata nº 59 in E flat, Hob. XVI:49


A more optimistic perspective?

While gloomily pondering the state of the world with a good friend (and reader of this blog) this morning, I was struck by the motto by which she is currently trying to live at the moment — Nietzsche’s dictum: Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the Will.

In that spirit, given that the previous two editions of this blog have been relatively pessimistic (theories of incompetent systems and all that), I thought of looking for alternative visions of the near future and came on some interesting stuff.

The first was an essay, ”Joe Biden Has Changed” by Franklin Foer in The Atlantic arguing that Joe is preparing for a transformative presidency.

Here’s how the essay begins…

If Joe Biden prevails, his basement will rest alongside William McKinley’s front porch in the annals. In his subterranean retreat, Biden not only sat still while his opponent spectacularly self-destructed, but also underwent a metamorphosis. He entered it a cautious pragmatist, yearning for a reversion to the time before Donald Trump; he left convinced of his chance to become a latter-day Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Over the spring and summer, Biden inverted the historic template of the Democratic nominee. According to time-honored political logic, a candidate poses as a bleeding heart in the primary, only to retrace his or her steps back to the center in the general. During his time in his basement, by contrast, Biden’s ambitions for the presidency began to acquire a grandiosity that his intramural battle with Bernie Sanders hardly anticipated.

Following two consecutive presidents who professed to disdain politics, Biden is a politician to the core—attuned to the limits of the possible, always finding his way to the epicenter of the zeitgeist. As he cocooned in Delaware, the pandemic, the ensuing economic fallout, and the protests against racial inequality reset the context for the next presidency. Biden grasped that.

Biden came to understand that the necessity of public investment presented a singular opportunity to transform American life. In August, he promised $2 trillion to combat climate change, to be spent, in part, on 1 million unionized jobs and 1.5 million affordable-housing units. This wasn’t a pure transposition of the Green New Deal, but it was spiritually aligned. As David Wallace-Wells has noted, Biden’s proposed spending is more than 20 times the size of Barack Obama’s expenditure on green energy. And having endured the primary derided as a collaborator of Strom Thurmond’s, he started describing systemic racism in far blunter language than any previous nominee, and elevating police reform to the center of his plans.

On paper, Biden has proposed the most progressive administration in American history. According to a Columbia University study, if the totality of the Biden agenda were implemented, it would lift 20 million Americans out of poverty.

One of the things that really irritates me at the moment is the way liberals who detest Trump as much as I do nevertheless cavil about Biden’s alleged deficiencies. He’s elderly, not very smart, loses the thread when speaking, etc., etc. To which the only sensible response, it seems to me, is that Biden has one overwhelming recommendation: He’s not Trump. He doesn’t have to be Einstein to qualify for a vote. He just has to be what he is, a relatively normal, fallible, decent human being.

But aside from that, the other reason for optimism is that this non-Einsteinian candidate for President seems to have a rather good team of advisers, not to mention a smart Vice Presidential running mate.

His most impressive adviser, it seems to me, is Jake Sullivan.

Jake Sullivan, a stalwart of Biden’s inner circle, exemplifies the shift. Everything in his résumé—his Rhodes Scholarship, his years as a Hillary Clinton aide-de-camp—suggests that he would advise his boss to govern in the technocratic mold of Barack Obama. But Sullivan has vocally championed the Democrat’s rediscovery of populist economics. In 2018, he wrote a long essay in the journal Democracy urging robust public investment and the waging of war on monopoly, a return to the spirit of liberalism that more or less preceded Bill Clinton’s arrival on the scene. “The bottom line is that Democrats should not blush too much, or pay too much heed, when political commentators arch their eyebrows about the party moving left. The center of gravity itself is moving, and this is a good thing.”

Much of Biden’s inner circle has adopted a variation on this attitude. One of his former chiefs of staff, Bruce Reed, a veteran of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has become a tough critic of Big Tech; he helped write California’s new privacy regulations, curbing Silicon Valley’s power to surveil. Another of Biden’s counselors, Ron Klain, a contender for White House chief of staff, is a ubiquitous presence on Twitter, and has spent the past four years steeped in the resistance to the Trump presidency. Klain has also been a pugilistic critic of what the Republican Party has become.

I’ve just read Sullivan’s long essay in the journal Democracy. It’s good.

His basic message is that Reaganism and neoliberalism have had their day. It’s not the 1990s anymore. People want the government to help solve big problems. The disastrous legacy of neoliberal governance (perhaps aided by the pandemic) has — finally — moved the country’s political centre of gravity to the left.

“When political commentators aren’t talking about Donald Trump”, he writes,

they are often talking about how the Democratic Party has “moved to the left.” This is often phrased as a lament, the notion being that the party has been hijacked by its progressive wing. But what if that is missing the point? What if, when it comes to economic policy at least, it’s the country’s political center of gravity that is actually shifting? That is, what if not just one party, but the American electorate as a whole is moving to embrace a more energized form of government—one that tackles the excesses of the free market and takes on big, serious challenges through big, serious legislation instead of the more restrained measures to which we’ve grown accustomed? What would that mean for Democrats?

The essay first runs through two analogous ‘centre of gravity shifts’ in recent American history — first by FDR in the 1930s, and then by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

This essay proceeds from the premise that we have reached another turning point. Just as the Great Depression discredited the ideas of the pre-New Deal conservatives who fought for total laissez-faire outcomes in both the political branches and the courts, so the Great Recession once again laid bare the failure of our government to protect its citizens from unchecked market excess. There has been a delayed reaction this time around, but people have begun to see more clearly not only the flaws of our public and private institutions that contributed to the financial crisis, but also the decades of rising inequality and income stagnation that came before—and the uneven recovery that followed. Our politics are in the process of adjusting to this new reality. The tide is running in the other direction, and, with history serving as our guide, it could easily be a decades-long tide.

It’s a long read, but worth it.

Other possibly interesting links

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