17 October 2012

Is partisan 'virulence' contagious?

As centrist Democrats with neocon leanings in foreign policy, the editors of The New Republic are probably more ambivalent about Barack Obama the leader than are the progressive liberals who run The Nation, but if anything the New Republic's endorsement of President Obama's re-election is less ambivalent than The Nation's. The most obvious difference is the absence from TNR of any rallying call for street activism to pressure or persuade Obama in a more progressive direction. On the domestic front, the editors are quite happy with Obama's technocratic approach, praising him for "us[ing] New Democratic means to achieve Old Democratic ends" toward health-care insurance reform. If anything, they chide Obama, as The Nation might, for not pushing through an even-bigger stimulus to spur recovery. Criticisms aside, TNR affirms that there is "a new foundation to defend" against Republican revanchism. In the face of that revanchism, there seems little more to do than defend a foundation, whether Obama builds on it or not.

"At times, Barack Obama has failed to appreciate the virulence of the modern Republican Party," the editors say. That virulence has corrupted the former "rigorous empiricist" Mitt Romney; "six years of pandering to Republican primary voters and donors will apparently distort even a first-rate mind," leaving Romney with "a libertarian vision filled with substantive and rhetorical hostility to the poor." With that threat looming, while the Democrats may lack "a poetic rallying cry," the editors insist that "there is human suffering to be minimized" by re-electing Obama, having noted that even Obama's tepid stimulus had "prevented untold human suffering."

Should I be surprised to find the philosophical hedonism at the heart of 21st century liberalism expressed more nakedly in the centrist New Republic than in the progressive Nation? The Nation is by no means not hedonist; the attitude is implicit in everything that paper publishes. But somehow it comes across in TNR as some kind of admission of political bankruptcy. Is there no more we can hope to do than defend a foundation and minimize suffering? In the face of Republican "virulence" that would seem to be the case. I can empathize with this sort of hedonism, but "suffering" may be too sweeping a label, if not now then later, should the nation itself (and not just a greedy or selfish faction) need citizens to work harder and make sacrifices. A feeling that no "suffering" is acceptable, on top of the more general skepticism toward anyone asking people to work harder or make sacrifices, isn't necessarily the ideal attitude for a challenging future. Yet Democrats seem forced into a crude hedonism, or else are enabled to resort to it, by their diagnosis of GOP virulence. Because of the state of the Republican party, the Democrats hope to get by on simplistic fearmongering. Bipolarchy lets them get away with it because of the GOP's standing as the official opposition, the only legitimate alternative to Obama. Worse, because they are the official opposition, while Libertarians, Constitutionalists and other "right" alternatives remain prejudicially marginalized, there's no limit to how "virulent" the Republicans can become, in fact or perception, except whatever limit they place upon themselves for self-preservation. Democrats benefit from Republican virulence because it allows them to set the terms of any election. People may want something better -- maybe even something more radical -- but Democrats can always tell us to settle for what they offer or else risk a Republican terror. Does it seem like something is wrong with our political system when one of two major parties is considered unfit ever to take office -- that's the rhetoric on both sides now -- but is always allowed to run? But despite all the laments you see or hear for the collegiality of the past, each major party seems to prefer that the other appear as unacceptable, if not literally intolerable, as possible, because doing so allows each to choose how responsive it wants to be to its base, or to the people as a whole, while offering them the most hopeless choice at election time. Bipolarchy looks increasingly like a Gordian Knot that blocks progress, encouraging the worst tendencies of both parties with no hope of correction in sight. Can it be unraveled in time, or will we wait for someone to slice it apart?

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