The day after the 1960 election, my American philosophy professor, a man who paced back and forth during his lectures, entered the classroom and sat down. Stunned by this unprecedented act, we fell silent in wonder at what it meant. Lifting his head from his hands, which had covered his face, he explained that he had been up all night, with every radio in the house on, so that he could follow the returns of the very close race between Kennedy and Nixon (the result would not be known for a few hours). Before he resumed his lecture with his customary pacing—I think that man had to walk in order to talk—he made a remark which has haunted me since. He said that, though it mattered who won the election, the job of future American presidents would be to manage a country in decline.
Fifty years later, we are there now. We have avoided the inevitability of America’s declining strength—of its economy, of its place in the world, even of its place in the hearts of some. We indulged our good fortune after World War II; imagined that victory and the vitality of recovery guaranteed us perpetual supremacy (or required us to try to maintain it); ignored the likelihood that recovery in other countries would create economic and political, if not also military, changes and challenges to that supremacy; squandered moral, political, and military assets in unwise wars unwisely fought, showed ourselves to be poor stewards of our human and natural resources; and borrowed recklessly to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle.
America is downsizing, and the failure of American presidents and other elected leaders to prepare for this eventuality—indeed, their success in pretending that it could not happen here and in persuading us that it could not happen here—is magnifying the strains which now jeopardize American democracy. The country’s weakening political commitment to its principles and procedures in these difficult economic times suggests that its allegiance was always contingent and superficial. Patriotism was lip-service for pay-off. What has democracy done for us lately?
Ironically, Obama is a man fit for these times; he deserves credit for being conflict-averse, easily cowed into caving on everything for which he says he stands. His weakness makes him a hollow man, filled with vain hope, emptied of vigorous audacity. He has failed to exert the leadership necessary to lead America to adjust to the reality of the modern world by managing and thereby mitigating America’s decline. He has failed to adjust Democratic principles and policies to this reality. By “leading from the rear,” he has defaulted on leadership.
So he is getting out of the way of the future and turning it over to Republicans. For, although their distributional principles are unfair and, in the long run, will inflict even greater harm on the country’s economy and democracy, Republicans, including Tea Partiers, will unwittingly lead the downsizing of the country. Their policies, if implemented, will be self-inflicted wounds on their interests and the country’s. Unrestrained capitalism has always undermined itself. As the saying goes, nothing fails like success. So they vehemently inveigh against government generally, and debts, deficits, and taxes specifically. They are determinedly deluded in thinking that the implementation of their ideology to shrink government and unleash capitalism will return America to an imagined Golden Age and thereby restore its economic, political, and moral/religious health. For what has failed in the past, is not working in the present, and cannot succeed in the future will, willy-nilly, bring American down, and down to earth.
The dream is over; the nightmare begins.
Unless. Unless it is too late, Democrats need to do the equivalent of what staunch anti-communist Nixon did in visiting communist China. They need to be the ones to accept that to achieve national and popular objectives, they can no longer be grandiose, but must be pragmatic, as guardians of the public weal. Michael Dukakis might have been America’s most hapless presidential candidate of a major party in recent history, but he might also have been its only candidate running before his time, with his emphasis on competence in government. The idea of the president as Manager-in-Chief ensuring competent government does not produce vapors of inspiration, but I think that Americans today realize that stewardship is absolutely necessary if the country is to recover the sense and the strength to adjust to the reality of declining expectations—the second American Revolution.