[Political Asylum ]The Withdrawal of the American Establishment | Harper's Magazine

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An election-eve elegy for the country’s former guardians of sanity

Regardless of what happens in the presidential election tomorrow, the one undeniable fact to come out of this campaign is that the American establishment has punted.

Since before the Second World War, the establishment—the powerful, the affluent, the leading opinion-makers in the national press, clustered disproportionately but not exclusively along the Northeast Corridor—has claimed the right to shape the acceptable parameters of our national debate, and to define what our national priorities should be.

No more. What this election has made clear is that our elite has seceded so far from the rest of the United States—a process that has been underway for decades—that they are now concerned almost exclusively with their own most narrow self-interest.

The establishment has not always won, and it has not always been right. During the Cold War, it was responsible for debacles like Vietnam, as well as the most heinous crimes America has committed in the greater world, such as the campaigns of assassination, terrorism, and torture we aided and abetted in Latin America.

Yet while the establishment was capable of such calamitous missteps, it was also able to steer the country away from disaster and extremism. When Midwestern isolationists in the Republican Party seemed on the verge of nominating their champion, Ohio senator Robert Taft, in the midst of World War II, for example, the Atlanticists in the East quickly manufactured an internationalist alternative in Wendell Willkie.

In 1964, when a far-right stealth movement toppled the Republican hierarchy and nominated Barry Goldwater—in what was more a logistical coup than a genuine grassroots uprising—the establishment struck back with a vengeance. Leading party figures such as Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, Charles Percy, and yes, George Romney, balked or dragged their feet at supporting the top of the ticket. Ike stayed on his farm at Gettysburg.

And for only the second time since the Civil War, the vast majority of the nation’s magazines and newspapers endorsed the Democratic candidate. Such staunchly Republican outlets as the Hearst syndicate, the New York Herald Tribune, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the Rocky Mountain News, the Detroit Free Press, the Philadelphia Bulletin—papers that had not endorsed a Democrat for president since the 1930s, or the nineteenth century, or ever—turned away from Goldwater.

The result was a landslide for Johnson, and the lesson was clear: Goldwater’s right-wing radicalism, and the sheer, unbridgeable contradictions of his campaign, would not be tolerated. Thus, even during the slow emergence of Reaganism over the next thirty years or so, the establishment helped keep in place what was still basically the New Deal/Great Society/Cold War consensus.

This all began to come a cropper during the 1990s, as the G.O.P. started to change into a hardline ideological party. Just how far this change had progressed, and how radical (and nonsensical) the party had become grew into full, horrifying perspective during the 2012 primary season, as the Traveling Klown Kollege of Republican candidates paraded around the country, offering paeans to Ayn Rand, promising to dissolve what remains of the social-safety net, telling parents not to send their kids to college, falling all over themselves to promise vast new wars and confrontations with leading foreign powers, scornfully mocking our allies in Europe, and promising enormous, budget-dissolving tax cuts for the wealthiest among us. Fifty—or even twenty-five—years ago, the establishment would have taken one look at this menagerie and reached for the power switch. But this time, they didn’t.

Most disappointing of all was the response of the mainstream media, which seemed more intent on protecting their tattered brands than on protecting the country from dangerous ideologies. The coverage of the campaign by the New York Times this weekend, for instance, seemed intended mostly as a requiem for the president’s career. A front-page article on Saturday contained two different pictures of an exhausted Barack Obama, around a story stressing how much grayer and careworn he looked than four years ago, and how much smaller and less excited his crowds were.

False equivalencies between the candidates have abounded in the media. Both the Times’s leading European correspondent, Steven Erlanger, and columnist Frank Bruni chastised the president for daring to dismiss Governor Romney’s suggestion that our current navy might be weaker than it was in 1916, and our air force weaker than the one we had in 1947. Old establishmentarians would have been appalled that a major-party candidate would dare spout such nonsense. Not today’s national media, which exists largely in the relative world that the American right prefers. Similarly, both Nicholas Kristof of the Times and Bruni blamed Obama and Romney equally for having ignored climate change in their three debates,” as though the candidate who has at least made some effort at slowing climate change and the candidate who has openly ridiculed the very idea of it are one and the same.

This is not simply poor reporting, I fear, but a vital moral obliviousness. Bruni’s Sunday column—again equating the tone and substance of the two candidates’ campaigns—called for a truce on acrimony after the election; for “granting that person [the winner] an initial degree and grace period of trust.”

It’s a nice thought. But one of the proposals Romney has backed is a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage—thereby enshrining millions of Americans, including Bruni himself, as second-class citizens. Should Democrats really allow President Romney a “grace period” to carry out such policies? Or to limit women’s access to birth control? Or to strip Medicare away from seniors, or Social Security benefits from those under age fifty-five, or to pack the Supreme Court with more right-wing extremists . . .

I don’t mean to pick on Bruni, or to suppose that he would seriously countenance any of the above. But to pledge oneself to tolerance and patience in the face of opponents who vow to pursue fanatical and immoral policies—and who have granted absolutely no such tolerance and patience to the president now laboring through the end of his term—is to adopt a chilling moral neutrality.

Many in the media elite have even made the pernicious argument that the very radicalism of the Republicans—and the very opportunism of Mitt Romney—are the best reasons to give them power. Here is the Times’s Grand Exalted Mufti of Silly, David Brooks—in an article titled “The Upside of Opportunism”—arguing that while it’s true President Obama, in a second term, would push “a moderate and sensible agenda,” it’s best to elect Romney, with his proven, “shape-shifting nature . . .”

Brooks’s reasoning is that a Democratic Senate would force Romney to abandon the far-right budget plan that his running mate came up with, and that his entire party signed on to. Then, despite an “uproar” from the Republican base, “Republicans in Congress would probably go along.” In the end, “Romney is more of a flexible flip-flopper than Obama” and is “more likely to get big stuff done.” Brooks offers no hint as to what will happen if, say, Romney’s right-wing friends in the House don’t go along, or if there’s no operative Democratic majority in the Senate.

But believe it or not, this argument has actually caught on. The Des Moines Register, for instance, in its much-ballyhooed endorsement of a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since it backed Richard Nixon in 1972, admits that “The president’s prescription upon entering office was a government stimulus, which was the right call”—and, though the paper’s editorial doesn’t mention it, one that Romney didn’t support. Nonetheless, it buys into Romney’s magical thinking that simply electing him will imbue consumers and corporate heads alike with “a new sense of confidence.”

Ah, yes. “Vote for the man who was wrong before if you want confidence!”

It may seem difficult to believe that adults who manage to dress themselves and go to work every morning can write—and believe—such dreck. But look closely enough at their arguments, and there’s a simple enough explanation for it—one of the oldest and most understandable ones in the book: They don’t want to admit they were wrong.

In fact, the Times’s Thomas Friedman, reigning grand doyen of conventional wisdom, was arguing on Sunday that he and his fellow believers in a “grand bargain” could not be wrong. No matter who wins this election, a “civil war” will start within both parties, eventually, driving them back into “the center-right/center-left.”

“Had Obama, though, embraced the Simpson–Bowles deficit-reduction plan and run from the center from the start, Romney would have been locked out on the fringes long ago and never been able to pull off his ‘born again’ move to moderation,” Friedman insisted.

Friedman and his friends in the DLC have been pushing this center-left/center-right idea for more than twenty years, and it has as little traction now as it did in the beginning. A “grand bargain” that makes older Americans retire later on less money, in exchange for the rich paying a slightly higher tax rate and maybe fixing a few bridges is not shared sacrifice, and not a bargain.

A health care plan that still doesn’t insure everyone, doesn’t control costs, but forces millions to buy a product from a corrupt cartel; a re-regulation of Wall Street that still leaves us with banks too large to fail and no real penalties for financial skullduggery; a set of fiscal policies that don’t address and never have addressed the fundamental flaws in our Ponzi-scheme economy—all this and so many more items from the “center-left/center-right” come straight from the Island of Misfit Policy Toys.

Yet this is the agenda that today’s American establishment preferred, and this is the agenda that Barack Obama loyally followed. It’s too late now to try to pass the blame off on his salesmanship, or to pretend that it won’t really matter if he’s replaced by some cipher of a candidate and his wingnut party. One after another, these individuals have agreed that Obama did what they consider to be the right thing.

The old establishment would at least have stood by their man, because they believed it meant standing by their country. Those who would lead and direct us today are washing their hands, concerned first and foremost with preserving their own brands.

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