A vote for steady incremental decline

Tom Friedman’s Sunday column is largely devoted to the idea of a third party rescuing America from the “stagnating two-party duopoly that has been presiding over our nation’s steady incremental decline.”  In response the very reliably leftwing Steve Benen attacks Friedman’s work as “lazy”.  In Benen’s view, Friedman effectively “endorse[s] the entirety of President Obama’s agenda,” but, instead of calling for “more and better” Democrats, turns to amorphous fantasy.  “It just gets so tiresome when this crowd argues, for the umpteenth time, that a magical entity can emerge that will agree with Democrats but not really, establish a ‘consensus’ among people with sincere disagreements, and govern successfully without all the messiness that comes with a massive democratic system.”

What neither Benen nor Friedman considers is that there may be no answer to the problems they identify. In a passage that Benen quotes, Friedman walks right up to the edge of just such an impermissible thought – but turns around at the last moment:

Obama probably did the best he could do, and that’s the point. The best our current two parties can produce today — in the wake of the worst existential crisis in our economy and environment in a century — is suboptimal, even when one party had a huge majority. Suboptimal is O.K. for ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. We need to stop waiting for Superman and start building a superconsensus to do the superhard stuff we must do now. Pretty good is not even close to good enough today.

Benen and Friedman refuse to confront the clear import of this observation:  There is at least the distinct possibility that “pretty good” or more likely “suboptimal” may be all that we are going to get, and all that we can expect.  Friedman indulges in familiar references to the fall of the Roman Empire, as simplistically summarized by 2oth Century historian Lewis Mumford, and is thus able to displace one trite notion with another, but the familiarity of the idea does not make it false:  America’s period of world political and economic primacy, with all that accompanies it, may simply, inevitably, be passing.

If this proposition is correct, then the phenomenon ought to permeate every aspect of American life –  including a political system whose dysfunctions will tend to exacerbate and be exacerbated by parallel cultural and economic dysfunctions.  The party that best exploits this situation may prosper for a time, but will sooner or later become identified with its major elements, and in turn be associated, quite rightly if also unfairly, with fundamental threats to a vanishing “way of life.”  It was the Republicans’ turn in ’07-’08.  It’s been the Democrats’ turn since, and so Republicans can campaign under the slogan “restoring American greatness” – a phrase that is as empty as “hope and change,” and that becomes laughable when associated with certain rather less than “great” candidates and activists.

Yet, if conservatives are wrong about everything else, they may be right about this one underlying fact:  A certain idea of American greatness may be slipping into the past.  From that perspective, “steady incremental decline” may even begin to look like one of the better open paths.  Unfortunately, that something is true does not necessarily imply that it is something to run on, or even much worth running on Sunday.

12 comments on “A vote for steady incremental decline

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  1. Everything is cyclical, Colin, now doing things like a poorly designed stimulus, and health care plan, is not the best there is, and Friedman and Benen’s attempt to represent such an outcome is pitiful. Now mind you, Your’s was Mead’s attitude, twenty years ago, when he wrote
    “Mortal Splendor”

  2. miguel cervantes wrote:

    now doing things like a poorly designed stimulus, and health care plan, is not the best there is, and Friedman and Benen’s attempt to represent such an outcome is pitiful.

    Have no idea where you got that. Each believes that something much, much better should have been done and in his own way believes that it is still doable. I don’t even disagree with that .

    Mortal Splendor would be just one of probably hundreds of books on American decline just since the ’70s. There was another big run on declinist books last year. That’s what I meant when I said the idea was familiar. It’s part of having a major publishing industry in a majorly declining country. ;)

    The cyclical view, incidentally, is essentially a declinist one, since the more rapid cultural cycles would occur within longer, inexorable cycles that all end in the same place.

  3. Thre’s nothing new under the sun, CK, Henry Adams was certainly a proof of that, now the mid 80s with Running Man, and a whole host of thr dystopic visions, was typical of the brand.

  4. @ miguel cervantes:
    Who said anything about dystopia? I don’t think the choice is ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK vs. EXACTLY WHAT TOM FRIEDMAN SEZ. I don’t think it’s AMERICAN GREATNESS vs HELL ON EARTH either.

  5. More likely a drab grey existence like out of Soylent Green, or THX–1138. The difference is before we were a world power, we believed in something special, this is possibly the greatest offense
    of his associates, to make specially, the next generation we are nothing special. After this place, there is no other refuge

  6. miguel cervantes wrote:

    More likely a drab grey existence like out of Soylent Green, or THX–1138.

    Every alternative other than the dreams of the far right of the conservative movement does not equate with THX-1138 or Soylent Green.

    It could be that the part of the American idea that has been lost never could have survived a fundamental contradiction between freedom and (neo-)empire, and was never entirely real either. Furthermore, the notion that, after all this time on the world scene and after two or three generations of world leadership, we’re still a “last refuge” would imply that we’ve done a very poor job of things indeed. If that’s the case, then what exactly is or was so “great” about us – at least for anyone other than us?

  7. I’m speaking of the Holdren/Susstein vision of technocracy, whch is redolent of Logan’s Run, embodied in the health care bill and other instruments of the obamatariat. Neo empire, you’ve really assimilated the jargon, actually the Paul clan actually agrees with you on that last point, but most candidates this time around don’t. I came through the Freedom Tower, call it Ellis Island South,

  8. miguel cervantes

    I assume you’re joking with all of the sci-fi stuff. Either that, or you have a bizarre notion of the world, or maybe watch too much Glenn Beck, if you think that ideas Holdren discussed 30-40 years ago and Susstein’s ideas about public policy are “redolent of Logan’s Run.”

    Neo empire, you’ve really assimilated the jargon,

    I haven’t noticed what terminology the “Paul clan” uses. I do use “neo-empire” from time to time, though in the above comment I put the “neo-” in parentheses partly because I don’t think it’s critical. The contradiction between freedom/democracy and the requirements of empire may destroy either or both projects before either has been completed. In any event, it’s a perfectly serviceable term for the system that the U.S. self-consciously set out to establish and defend, and for the “thing” that U.S. as “world leader” or “leader of the Free World” actually “leads,” widely acknowledged as successor, with differences to the British Empire. The formulation also recognizes that political, economic, and ideological hegemony need not be exercised through the forms and customs of prior empires, but can and must instead be structured according to uniquely American and modern notions.

    The Soviet Union didn’t believe that it had an “empire” either. On the other hand, the Founders already thought of themselves as constructing one: The “homeland” is already an inland empire, long before you consider our 700 military bases worldwide, the role of our military, the international economic institutions, etc., all designed to propagate and defend our preferences and privileges. Whatever you call the “new world order,” the problems of effectively managing a vast, in our age global system are similar.

  9. Forced sterilization, certainly seems Huxleyan, dedevelopment is another delusional all together, more akin to the Khmer Rouge frankly.
    Frankly the Europeans have long since passed the point of carrrying their own freight, but I’m sure they have atrophied that skill set. Re purposed pidgen dependency theory that Cardoso wouldn’t recognize

  10. miguel cervantes wrote:

    Forced sterilization, certainly seems Huxleyan, dedevelopment is another delusional all together, more akin to the Khmer Rouge frankly.

    No, frankly the Democrats are Boskone, but Holdren is from Eddore. Obama is a cross between Tamur and The Mule.

    OK, frankly Obama is Flash Gordon and Rupert Murdoch is Ming the Merciless.

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