The Cycle Repeats

From The New Criterion

Our Argentine Future?

Approximately 24 hours after Barack Obama was re-elected to the Presidency and 5500 miles away from his campaign headquarters in Chicago, the Greek parliament narrowly (153 to 128) approved a new set of “austerity” measures, including raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, in order to qualify for yet another European — which is to say, German — bailout, this one worth about $40 billion. According to The New York Times, the Prime Minister of the moment, Amherst- and Harvard-educated Antonis Samaras, promised that these would be “the last” of the budget cuts and that future “adjustments” would come from rooting out what his American counterparts used to call “waste, fraud and abuse.” Pull the other one, Antonis! The Times reporters Rachel Donadio and Liz Alderman dryly noted that he is “the third prime minister to promise the ‘last cuts’ since Greece asked for a foreign bailout in 2010.” No one outside the shaky Greek coalition government — or inside it either, I’ll bet — believes that these are the last cuts or that this will be the last bailout, but future ones are bound to be similarly advertised as part of the necessary fiction that they can fix what can’t be fixed.

For something else that “few believe,” at least according to the Misses Donadio and Alderman, is “that the measures will help improve the country’s economic health.” Over on the Times’s editorial page, they couldn’t agree more with their reporters’ instant analysis. “The fact is, just about everything in this austerity package has been tried before and failed disastrously.” What the editorialists call “the austerity approach” just isn’t working, it seems. In thinking this they agree with Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Centre for European Reform in London, that “the whole strategy for Greece” — that is the “austerity” strategy — “has failed. It’s led to collapse in the Greek economy and the ballooning of debt so it’s an abject failure.” The paper’s in-house Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman has been saying similar things for months, even as he has made strenuous efforts to pin the ever more discredited “austerity” label on the economic and fiscal policies of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. It might seem that, in this at least, he succeeded, but for the fact that, for strategic reasons, few people knew much about what the Republicans’ fiscal policies were.

To Professor Krugman and others of his persuasion the austerity “strategy” is so obviously the wrong one that they must wonder if those benighted Europeans who perversely persist in it aren’t as much the captives of the dark forces of “extremist” Republican reaction as Messrs. Romney and Ryan. But there is another explanation. It is that “austerity” is not really a strategy but the name we give to reality in order to avoid calling it — or thinking about it as — reality. When reality appears to us a long way off in the form of mere “austerity,” it still looks like a strategy, still looks optional. Uh oh! This strategy doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s try another! And so we turn to intellectuals like Professors Krugman and Tilford who are the perpetual motion men of our era, people who have a system figured out to turn reality into an infinite number of strategies, or maybe just one killer strategy guaranteed to turn the hard reality easy again. Count on them if you need someone to persuade you, or re-persuade you, that reality is optional.

Close up, however, when you have arrived at the point where reality becomes, as it now is for the Greeks, unmistakably non-optional and you need some way of coping with it and not just the threat of it, the intellectuals are not much use to you. Reality has a way of catching up with those who seek to strategize their way around it, and when it does it doesn’t look much like a “strategy” anymore unless you’re a long way away, in London or New York, and clucking your tongue about it. In France on the same day that Mr Obama was rolling up his big electoral college majority over Mr Romney and one after another Republican challenger for supposedly vulnerable Democratic Senate seats was going down to defeat by an even larger margin, reality came to France in the form of a humiliating U-turn by the new president, François Hollande. Like his predecessor François Mitterand in 1983 but even earlier in his presidency, M. Hollande had to reverse new taxes imposed on businesses only weeks ago in the face of overwhelming opposition and continued French economic decline.

For us, although our per capita indebtedness is already greater than Greece’s, reality remains farther off in time than it is for the Greeks, which was why Mr Obama could be re-elected with an implicit promise to keep entitlements, including the ones he has added to the ever-growing list, just as they are indefinitely, without anyone’s having to pay any more for them except “the rich.” And when our own Greek moment of truth comes there will be no German fairy-godmother to make it go away if we do what she tells us to do. But for now we can afford not to care. No one can be sure quite how far off reality is, but it is still far enough that the Democrats and their media allies were able to close their eyes to it while the Romney-Ryan team couldn’t or wouldn’t raise the alarm about its near approach.

Here and there, it’s true, in odd corners of the media imperium a still small voice of alarm could be heard. In The Washington Post, Robert Samuelson wrote that, “As America votes, what can be said about this nasty campaign is that it was dangerously disconnected from the actual problems the victor will face.” Now how, I wonder, does he suppose that happened? It’s the mystery of the dog that didn’t bark. Hmm, for once it wasn’t “the economy, stupid.” Why should that be? Sean Collins at the libertarian site “Spiked Online” suggested a reason when he wrote after the election that “Barack Obama has returned to the White House following one of the most nasty, acrimonious, negative and ideas-free campaigns in living memory.” But it worked, didn’t it? If we voted for the acrimonious, negative and ideas-free campaign, maybe it was just because doing so distracted us from having to think about, let alone vote about, “the actual problems the victor will face.”

“A lot of what we’re voting on today are measures we should have taken a long time ago,” said Antonis Samaras mournfully when his bill passed — this even though he himself had voted against the 2010 EU-IMF austerity-bailout package. At least now he has to pretend to recognize reality when he sees it. It’s not certain that he will have to go on doing so. Two days after the Greek vote, 300,000 people gathered in the streets of Buenos Aires to protest against high inflation, crime and power cuts in Argentina. They seemed unlikely to do much to change the populist policies of President Christina Fernández de Kirchner which had done so much to create these problems. There, as perhaps in Greece as well, the recognition of reality as reality may have come too late for anything much to be done about it. At any rate we can see that, under the right circumstances, a determined polity, permanently in the hands of its intellectuals, can go on avoiding reality indefinitely.

Here, for example, is how Walter Russell Mead describes Argentina’s long history of reality-avoidance.

This is just another turn in the cycle of failure that Argentina watchers have seen again and again: Populist leaders proclaim an unrealistic economic plan (they’re usually members of the Peronist party, which continues to attract votes despite regularly bringing Argentineans into poverty and ruin). At first, these reforms go well, but then problems creep in: budget deficits, inflation, the flight of smart foreign and domestic capital. To stop the bleeding, leaders try ever cruder and crazier methods: confiscating assets, nationalizing companies, repudiating debts, implementing wage and price controls, and so forth. But the problems keep getting worse until, finally, a popular outcry brings a merciful end to the regime. Unfortunately, savage depression usually sets in, as all the bad decisions taken by the departed rulers come to fruition and foreign and domestic investors shun a country that has made itself a pariah. Then new leaders step in to make promises based on yet another set of crackpot ideas, and the cycle repeats.

That should put into some perspective the American electorate’s choice to go on, for at least another four years, regarding reality as an unpleasant and unwished-for option on a menu still very much including Professor Krugman’s more palatable choices. What, we may ask, do those poor “austerity”-plagued Europeans and South Americans have to do with us? For now, we still have the luxury of regarding it as a failing strategy rather than a grim necessity — which is why, in all fairness to Mr Romney, even if he had sounded the tocsin of fiscal crisis, he probably could not have expected his fellow-countrymen to heed it any more than the Greeks did, back when they had a choice in the matter.

I confess that, in the immediate aftermath of the election, I was one of those who felt as Philip Larkin did on an earlier occasion when reality cruelly thwarted, as it so regularly does, Britain’s social democratic dream.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

Only, as it turned out, the money they were left was in a currency so debased that it was gone in no time. Something similar now seems inevitable here in America. Hurricane Sandy, which some blame for having reversed “Mittmentum” and led to the President’s re-election, gave us a foretaste of what we can expect as a result of that election. Next year, or the year after, we may find that we have become like the Argentinians, fighting in the streets because the power has been turned off. We are no longer a land of the free but a land of the aggrieved, the envious, the bitter and mistrustful, a land of “us” and “them” where people expect ever greater benefits from government and riot when, as invariably happens, they don’t get them. As the President himself foretold early in his first term, we are not exceptional after all, or no more so than the Greeks or the Brits who go on believing that they can vote themselves rich even after it has been demonstrated to them over and over again that they cannot, and that nothing but economic ruin comes from the attempt.

This view of the matter now seems to me unduly pessimistic. The Obama divide-and-conquer strategy worked not only because of Mr Romney’s timidity but because the campaign had the full cooperation of media in ensuring that it would be an election not about fiscal policy — or about any policy for that matter — but about identity. That’s why the “not one of us” ad of the closing phase of the campaign in Ohio with its weird echoes of old-fashioned racial code was not an aberration but the essence of the Obama message. That’s why exit polls showed people had voted not for the candidate who shared their values, was a strong leader and had a vision for the future, all of which categories Mr Romney led in, but for the one who “cares about people like me” — which the President won by 81 to 18. It was a proleptic assertion of the proposition that was to be heard from all sides as soon as the votes had been counted that “demography is destiny.” And, once it was clear that Mr Romney had lost, Republicans were as loud as anyone in saying so — which suggested they were victims of a kind of political Stockholm syndrome and had decided that Democratic-style identity politics was now as unavoidable a reality as fiscal restraint had become to the Greeks.

To such Republicans, the election has shown that they have to change themselves so as to appeal more to women and minorities who must always vote as women and minorities rather than as the sort of rational creatures to whom such identities are politically trivial or irrelevant. Perhaps they will, too, though history shows that they have not always done so in the past, while economic and fiscal exigency suggests that they may again have strong reasons not to do so in the future. Moreover, it is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that the young people who make up the other leg of the Obama coalition will eventually wake up to the fact that, in every conceivable way — from the piling of huge mountains of debt upon their shoulders to requiring them to incur lifelong debt themselves in order to acquire unnecessary and irrelevant educational qualifications to taxing them in order to lighten the burden of health care costs on their relatively better-off parents and grand-parents — they are the chief victims of the Democrats’ utopian social programs. That they have not done so yet must be because they just can’t believe they have been treated so by those who have hitherto pampered and petted them and claimed to represent their wish for “change.” If so, well, hiding from reality is in fashion.

That none of this now-deferred bad news was mentioned during the campaign was of course no surprise. The media could only see the bitter, divisive, identity-based election in front of them and proclaim it as the herald of a bright new dawn for America. Thus the Los Angeles Times began its summary: “Even more than the election that made Barack Obama the first black president, the one that returned him to office sent an unmistakable signal that the hegemony of the straight white male in America is over.” That favorite word of the intellectuals, “hegemony,” helps to disguise the dubious logic behind the proposition that, because people voted according to social identity, people must always vote according to social identity. This is not true, though it may well be true that it will take a crisis or other extraordinary circumstance for them to concentrate more on what binds them together than what keeps them apart.

It is also true about the shortages of minorities, including gays, single women, young people, Hispanics, blacks and Asians in the Republican camp, but there is probably not much the poor old GOP can do about that, any more than they can about the media — except, perhaps, in the case of the young people. But their problem isn’t that the party is too full of older white guys so much as that the older white guys haven’t figured out how to persuade the minorities that it makes sense for them to vote not on the basis of their sense of ethnic, racial, sexual or age identifications and grievances but on that of their real economic interest, which happens to coincide with that of the older white guys. The achievement of the Obama campaign was to persuade people that their greater interest lay with affirming a minority identity than where it actually did lie: with the party of (relative) fiscal responsibility and pro-growth policies.

It was probably inevitable that identity politics would play a major role in any election involving the country’s first black president — as it was that the Obama campaign would exploit the potential of such politics for all it was worth, making it clear in every possible way that people were going to want to belong with the theoretically oppressed racial, ethnic and sexual minorities, together with the broad-minded, tolerant sorts who voted their way and not with those who stood for constraint, rather than liberty. Not to mention that the latter also stood for whatever sorts of extremism the media might hint were involved in attempting to postpone our national bankruptcy. One of the “lessons” of the election was that no actual wrong-doing was required for the media to put its scandal-machine in gear. A man who was perhaps the least likely candidate in U.S. political history to become “scandal-plagued” — to use the media’s own hackneyed metaphor for their favorite kind of politician — became effectively scandal-plagued anyway, not on account of any wrong doing but simply for being too white, too old, too rich, too goody-goody, too weirdly religious, too — well — not-one-of-us.

All this was only possible, however, because the media pitched in from the start. People are said by pollsters now to mistrust the media in record numbers. Gallup found in September that 60 per cent of Americans “have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” Yet they still allow themselves to be led by the nose by the media. The real “lesson” of the election for Republicans is that it’s all identity until people can be made to feel that crisis really does loom — and maybe not even then, if it’s true that the land that elected Ronald Reagan 30 years ago has now transformed itself into Greece or Argentina. But in any case, there is nothing to be gained by playing the identity game. The Democrats have too much of a head start and will never lack for help from their propaganda arm in the mainstream media. Republicans can only possess their souls in patience as they wait for reality to teach their fellow-countrymen that they have more to gain by voting as Americans than by clinging to the hatreds fostered by identity politics — if it ever does.

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