Political Asylum — November 5, 2012, 9:42 pm

The Withdrawal of the American Establishment

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.

Share
Single Page
undefined

More from Kevin Baker:

Commentary November 15, 2018, 11:51 am

Certain Certainties

What Amazon HQ2 means for New York City

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Gatekeepers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
Article
The Vanishing·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Article
Investigating Hate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Article
Preservation Acts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

10

French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today