America is doomed! (And other thoughts on our gloomy historical moment.)
The second half of 2014 is shaping up to be a veritable springtime for political pessimism.
You know the old line about pessimism — that it's the best option because its adherents invariably end up either vindicated or pleasantly surprised by events? Well, that's as true as ever. But this political season has given us something more: a series of personalities and events perfectly suited to confirm the outlook of those inclined to expect very little from American democracy.
Where to begin?
Well, there's Ted Cruz. Now that he's furthered his political ambitions by attacking beleaguered victims of genocidal violence, maybe he'll take to the road for a national tour devoted to piling on drug addicts, battered wives, and patients in cancer wards.
Broadening our scope to Cruz's party as a whole, there's the prospect of the GOP taking control of the Senate after spending the entirety of the past six years doing its obstructionist best to keep the federal government from accomplishing much of anything at all.
Then there's America's seeming inability to avoid waging war in Iraq for much more than a couple of years at a time, as well as the right's response to Barack Obama's latter-day embrace of hawkishness, which amounts to a coordinated cry of "That's not good enough, Mr. President! We expect you to sound excited when you talk about sending the American military to bomb people 6,000 miles away!"
But here's my own personal nominee for Pessimism Inducing Fact of the Month: According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg poll, 62 percent of the American people support President Obama's plans to start a new war in Iraq and Syria — while only 28 percent have a "great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence that the effort against ISIS is likely to succeed. (Thirty-seven percent said they have "just some" confidence in success, while 31 percent had very little.)
Now maybe this astonishing gap between faith in acting and faith in success is partially a product of the unfortunate way the president hyped the goal of our intervention against ISIS. As my old friend Michael Tomasky has pointed out at The Daily Beast, Obama foolishly parroted John Wayne in declaring that our aim was to "destroy" ISIS, when that's almost certainly impossible. Maybe if Obama had been honest and stated that the U.S. would merely seek to contain the terrorist group, the American people would be more hopeful about the prospects for success.
But frankly, I think that gives the American people a little too much credit for fine-grained policy analysis. What the poll more likely shows is that a large chunk of the country wants to do something, anything to strike out at ISIS, even though a substantial portion of those people also recognize that the action will most likely prove to be futile.
This is a profoundly irrational position to take — it amounts to willing the end while conceding that there is no available means to achieve that end — and I find it deeply distressing.
I'm certainly not alone in feeling gloomy about the state of American democracy. In my malaise I'm joined by none other than Francis Fukuyama, whose 1992 book pronouncing "the end of history" once defined the most triumphantly optimistic pole in our politics. But it's been a long, hard couple of decades. Nine books later, Fukuyama is having much darker thoughts, writing about the process of political decay and drawing sobering lessons about the United States in a new book and an extraordinary essay for Foreign Affairs.
Up through the end of the 19th century, Fukuyama points out, the federal government was weak and corrupt. But then thanks to Progressive and New Deal reforms, it became stronger, more efficient, and bureaucratically rationalized — all of which was made possible by a massive wave of industrialization and economic growth, which was then extended for decades, in part by the work of the newly effective government.
But over the last few decades, the process has begun to reverse itself, due to a combination of factors: an explosion of factional special-interest groups in Washington, a decline in the prestige of civil-service jobs, the rise of anti-government ideology on the political right, growing social and economic inequality, and the gutting of campaign-finance regulations by the courts. They have conspired to make the government weaker, more corrupt, and less efficient. That leads to poorer performance by the government, which inspires increased distrust of the public sector, which inspires further rounds of tax cuts and regulatory reversals, which makes things even worse. And on we go through a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of decay.
It's a cogent and chilling account of life in the United States in the early years of the 21st century — one rendered even more alarming by Fukuyama's conclusion that there's no reasonable hope for improvement from within the decaying system itself. Instead, we must wait "until some external shock comes along to catalyze a true reform coalition and galvanize it into action."
I wonder, though, if Fukuyama's welcome emphasis on structural, institutional factors in America's political decline may actually slight the role of the American people themselves in contributing to the process. Critics of democracy as a form of government from the time of the ancient Greeks down to today have cautioned that rule by the many will tend to be characterized by a combination of impetuousness and irresolution, recklessness and vacillation.
One cause of this curious mixture is the people's susceptibility to manipulation by demagogues. We certainly have plenty of those in our politics. Critics of democracy from Plato to Alexander Hamilton would instantly recognize these ambitious politicians and their willingness to stir up trouble to advance their own careers.
But what would they make of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the rest of right-wing rabble-rousing machine? And their equally irresponsible (but somewhat less influential) counterparts on the left? If the mainstream press — striving for (and frequently failing to achieve) objectivity — is sometimes described as the fourth branch of government, our multimedia demagogues have come to serve as the self-subversive fifth branch, actively chasing ratings and profits by whipping the people into a frenzy of factional, partisan indignation that accomplishes nothing beyond stymieing any and all efforts to tackle our gravest problems.
We see the consequences in the combination of enthusiasm for and fatalism about military action against ISIS. And in simultaneous support for cuts in government spending in general and opposition to cuts in particular. And in the popularity of uniting tax cuts with lavish spending on Medicare and other benefits — a cluster of positions that assures significant federal budget deficits and growing national debt in perpetuity.
In theory, politics in a democracy is supposed to add reason, through deliberation, to the inchoate interests and ideals contained within public opinion. But what if public opinion is such a morass of self-contradictory opinions that it defies rationalization?
That, my fellow Americans, may be where we've ended up.
And that, in turn, may be why pessimism has never seemed so smart.