Is it just me, or does the Obama presidency already have the flavor of "in the past"?
As to the future, David Brooks has seen it and it's the...tea baggers. In a remarkable column in the New York Times, he cites a raft of anti-Democratic/sour mood polling, then:
The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.
The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.
The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.
A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.
Brooks, you will recall, gained fame for his faux sociology safari into the land of the Bobos -- the bourgeois bohemians, one-time lefties who grew up to live the good life and embrace the free market, while harmlessly holding some of their progressive ideas like teddy bears, blah, blah, blah. Since then, he has worked the side of the street jubilantly chronicling the mood and mores of American suburbia and exurbia, without noticing any of its pathologies or unsustainability. This was capped by his triumphalist column on the Phoenix exurb Verrado as "the future." We see how that's turned out. At his best, Brooks is not original. At his worst, he's so wrong as to skew a compass. But, gosh, he's so nice. He's a nice conservative that needy liberals can like.
Yet two things stand out in this latest look into our future a la Brooks. First is his rhetorical use of "the educated class" as a foil for "the public." Particularly striking is the line about climate change. It's a mere opinion held by the toffs to somehow keep real 'mericans from shoppin' at Wal-Mart, or somethin'. People who accept scientific consensus and mountains of evidence are a marginal "educated class." Second is how Brooks is hedging his bets. He ends the column with a crafty "personally, I’m not a fan of this movement. But I can certainly see its potential to shape the coming decade." Still, he's shown proper respect for our age's arrogantly ignorant and tried to spin some hope for "conservatives" out of a raft of polling data. Perhaps by this he hopes to avoid the purge if "the brigades" come to power.
President Obama seems to be enjoying the perks of the job enormously. But the "poetry" that was celebrated during his ascendancy has fallen mostly silent. And, as the "educated class" knows, in statecraft poetry must work alongside deeds. Churchill did not merely say that Great Britain would fight on alone after the fall of France in 1940 when all looked hopeless.
Beyond the White House stasis, do the president and Democrats realize that this was perhaps the one chance to right the nation and avoid the terrible reckonings that await us? I doubt it. The result will be a cottage industry for historians, at least in educated countries, to assess where the great promise of 2008 went wrong. Here are a few of my nominations.
1. A failure to follow through on the campaign promise to demand accountability of Wall Street and the big banks in exchange for the bailout. Obama should have broken up the big banks that presented a systemic risk to the economy; pushed for investigations that would send the swindlers to jail; passed a 21st century Glass-Steagall that included regulation of all derivatives, and taxed the plutocrats. This alone would have knocked a prop out from under the tea-baggers.
2. No public option in health care -- another broken promise. It's questionable that the Democrats should have taken on this issue at all, but to do it in such an enormous bill is insanity. Obama should have gone after the big insurers and for-profit health leeches -- the country would have been with him. And he could have used the bully pulpit to force through a few immediate and popular changes, e.g. pharmaceutical companies must bid for the Medicare drug business and no ban on preexisting conditions.
3. Failure to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, reorient our foreign policy (and trade policies) and invest in America, especially in the infrastructure, research. education and forward-leaning industries that would create good, permanent jobs here.
I'm skeptical of the conclusions Brooks draws, especially that the young are trending to the tea baggers. Their rallies have been lightly attended; their demographics, particularly on issues of tolerance and the environment, are old and white. But, who knows? Our institutional failures and corruption are everywhere on display. Ignorance is indeed celebrated over knowledge -- in America. Facts, to many, are devilish ploys to "take away our freedom." The nation has embarked on an unprecedented policy of permanent war (helping to convey holy warrior status on those who are mere criminals). Nothing that caused the great recession has been fixed and we're less prepared every day for the Great Disruption to come. Who knows? Being wary of Nazi analogies, allow me to note that "the public" in Weimar Germany was angry with the "educated class." Who, indeed, knows.
As others have noted, too, the feces won't really hit the wind-moving instrument until the vise of debt, higher energy and commodity prices, continued high unemployment, the inability to restart the sprawl machine, the ongoing breakdown of government programs tightens enough. This and when friendly aliens fail to deliver magical electric or hydrogen cars to allow endless and inexpensive single-occupancy driving to and from exurban paradise. How will the arrogantly ignorant react then?
However things turn out, it doesn't look good for the progressives. This is a movement that requires thought, reflection, a sense of history (and empathy) -- in other words, things that come with education. At the moment, the movement looks exhausted and defeated, even in power. A GOP of old could easily take power. Now it must wait in its extremist swamps for 50.1 percent of "the public" to be in a sufficient tantrum to hand them the national government. Could more damage be done than under the watch of Bush and Cheney? Just watch.
And how long before a country so divided decides to split up?