Thursday, May 12, 2005

Confidence and Voice

In his July 15, 1979 speech on the energy crisis then beginning to engulf the American economy President Jimmy Carter spoke of a "Crisis of Confidence" among the American people. It was not the first time that a President had noticed a flagging of the national will, a persistent and nagging feeling that things were terribly wrong, that perhaps the game was no longer winnable under the current rules.

The crisis President Carter referred to was in many ways more insidious than that spoken about by Franklin Roosevelt forty-six years earlier. The 1979 crisis was like the earlier one in that it affected nearly everyone, but unlike the Great Depression the energy crisis did not make a deep and lasting impression—perhaps it should have. The modern crisis of confidence has a nameless quality, a sense of defeat mixed with a sense of loss, something like a dream gone withering off into a fog of images purporting to be reality, but unfamiliar and alien.

A political analyst recently characterized our times as a period in which the essential victories of the eighteenth century Enlightenment including the principles upon which this nation was founded seem to have been lost, forgotten, destroyed, and that generally we feel like we are adrift in a sea of troubles—most of our own making—which threaten the security of our very civilization. This gnawing uncertainty seems to separate us from our founding fathers, the framers of the Constitution.

Picking up on the general despair, yet another reporter recently wrote that the twentieth century just may have been "too much" for the average American. The wars won and especially the wars lost, the failure of space shuttles, the 9/11 terrorism, the ruinous business cycles, the Great Depression and then the modern bankruptcies and scams, the crime and cheating, the toppling of social behavior norms, the search for social and political identity and strength among women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities, the shallow lowness of politics, the rancor, the deep intolerance, and especially the rapid pace of change seem to have worn away Americans' natural optimism. We have retreated from a feeling of confidence and robust enterprise to a much less expansive posture of frugal, even miserly, compassionless, self-interest and survivalism. There is plainly a sense abroad in the land that with society's flood of problems the poor and weak and needy can fend for themselves—and damn those who take advantage of the charity of hard-working people!

Among Progressives and Liberals the problems of the Democratic Party are a matter for serious concern. Corporate interests have bought and paid for elected officials everywhere regardless of political affiliation even those whose direct constituents are the cannon fodder of corporate greed and rapaciousness. The old Roosevelt coalition is long gone. Carter and Clinton assembled coalitions of moral and compassionate people from among the highly educated and the highly enterprising and run-of-the-mill working people who all believed that government can manage social programs to help the afflicted, the downtrodden, the poor. They believed that government can manage programs to stimulate science and technology, health research, and foster democracy across the planet. But these people have fallen into bickering over wars and machismo. They mock George Bush and his base, but they do not remember who their base is.

Their base is the people, of course, not corporations and the wealthy. It is proud working people, whether they work in office cubicles or factories making automobiles. But organized labor is weaker fifty-five years after the Taft-Hartley Labor Relations Act than anyone then fearing (communism and) disruption of the economy could have imagined. There is no voice for work in America.

Campaign financing legislation rots in the cellars of senior legislators of both parties whose ties to big money from big business is ignored and then broadly condoned when the largess is spread around.

There is a feeling that leadership is at an all-time low in America, especially with President Bush sitting on the narrowest of election margins produced by the least convincing electoral processes and with an approval rating lower than any president in memory. Yet, the Progressives and Liberals seem unable to put aside personal ambitions to produce a clear and honest spokesman for Progressive and Liberal issues. There needs to be a voice!

Hillary Clinton, a centrist, is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2008, but many see her as unelectable. John Kerry, despite an unspeakably awkward and inept campaign in 2004, continues his hopes for the future and chases potential votes on the internet. John Edwards, out of office, speaks here and there and could be gathering a campaign chest ... or paying off old debts. Dennis Kucinich has the most appealing moral position of the standing candidates, but he has a meager following partly for not ceding the last race gracefully.

Howard Dean, the least sold-out candidate of the 2004 primaries, was ambushed by a corrupt and partisan press and his own sold-out fellow Democrats. He stands, against most odds at the head of the Party now, but the House and Senate leaders have asked him not to speak for Democrats on policy. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are good people, but they are not "Presidential" nor are they fountains of policy genius. They are good caucus people and Reid, especially, has risen quickly to the enormous task presented to him. Senator Barbara Boxer is the unexpected voice of dissent and loyal opposition, Senators Biden and Kennedy are active against the most egregious ploys of the rightwing radicals opposing them, while Evan Bayh and the DLC toadies of centrist Republican Lite politics clog the aisles like so much vascular plaque. Dr. Dean will refashion the Party, but he cannot do it by himself, and he cannot build the necessary coalition without a voice.

The Enlightenment gave birth to the first generation of Liberals in Europe and in America. Its precepts and lessons were heady brew for the three American generations of 1776. For the Franklins the Enlightenment meant that issues could be discussed rationally in terms of themselves without reference to dogma, but he was very much the skeptical realist and politician too. For Washington, Adams, and the generation that would lead, the Enlightenment meant a solid rational basis upon which to attempt governance. He was humble in that exercise of power and took his cues from the principles of social compact and natural law. For the younger generation of Jefferson and Madison, the Enlightenment was liberty and justice founded on mutual consent among men of good will. They were much closer to the rationale of the Enlightenment, but these ideas are not lost or destroyed. They are merely obscured by the unpleasant business of cleaning up the corruption that has seeped into our politics.

The pace of change in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries cannot be altered. The pace is dictated by population, communication, ambition, the enormous growth of real knowledge, among many other things. The failure of Americans to deal with the facts and foibles of their recent past is attributable to a striking failure of education to produce critical thinking skills at every level and in every theater of human achievement. Instead, Americans are daily seduced by entertainments and frivolous enterprises totally bereft of moral or rational benefit. The word "academic" has come to mean "pointless and useless." Americans will be able to handle the pace and texture of events when minds everywhere are valued above appetites, when opportunities for the one improve and for the other recede, when leaders in every walk of life take a stand for real education and against ignorance.

The crisis of confidence that we all now feel will—with work—abate. It will succumb to education and thoughtful political leadership. It will become obvious that political selfishness leads only to weakness and corruption; it will become obvious that a rule of law under democracy is the only way to assure freedom and liberty for all men and women.

But, there is hard and burdensome work to be done. We have to cleanse ourselves of the corruption into which we have allowed our nation to slide. We must learn once again to be always vigilant against corruption by insisting on a rule of law applicable to everyone regardless of wealth or station in life. We must resolve to be better and to seek a higher plane of existence for not only our own, but the peoples of all nations. Without such goals, who now will we decide to leave out?

Democrats are coming together for the election of 2006. It is important that they understand now what all the Democratic constituencies need—and what they want. It is important that they produce a platform and build good coalitions now in 2005 upon which all progressives and liberals can stand, a set of truths unbent, not cowering in the fear of voter disapproval, but proud of the heritage they represent. Someone among them will give it voice, and then we will know!