Advance Democracy

Courtesy Matt Yglesias, we’re told that America is, owing to recent farces of democracy like the “tea party protests,” inherently “ungovernable.”

This is an unfairly inflammatory way of stating a basic (and acknowledged) truth: Republicans are better than us at exploiting inherent flaws in democratic theory, to the ruin of all. Democracy demands a degree of selflessness, a willingness to see the other side, a decent respect for our opponents, and an appreciation of history. Unfortunately, we’re lucky to get one out of four on a good day. Tax cuts are billed as a good in their own right (to hell with the greater good); nuance is the enemy of rhetoric (“death panels”); progressives are either socialists, unpatriotic, or both; and Reagan, of course, saved the economy despite all evidence to the contrary.

Republicans almost depend on an ignorance of history for their very existence: show me a Republican President who cut taxes and decreased the deficit, and I’ll show you a script for a mirror universe West Wing. For a particularly egregious slap in the face, look no further than a recent poll, finding that a full 44% would prefer Bush to Obama. It took us ten months to forget, ten short months for a near-plurality to throw causality to the wind. The human brain is a fascinating, terrifying thing.

Truly, we are a flawed people. But the trap into which Yglesias falls is equating “flawed’ with “hopeless.” We’ve faced these problems before: it’s taken a generation each time, but we’ve almost solved institutionalized racism, terminated “states’ rights” as an excuse for bigotry, and built a great nation from a swarm of dissimilar colonies. All in the face of a stubborn, staid populace. What we had then — and what we don’t now — is strong moral leadership, and strong clash.

President Obama is capable of being a moral leader, because we’ve seen it before, as recently as last week. But he’s largely lost the spark that animated his day to day campaign presence, perhaps tempered by the responsibilities of office, perhaps because such charisma is simply incapable of routinization. Pray it’s not the latter, and hope he finds it again soon.

The second value will be tough to realize. We’ve become complacent, comfortable with a mode of political speech that permits each citizen to find his own peer group, and never leave. Ever. This is unacceptable. Our politicians should lead by example. We shouldn’t balk at serious, meaningful debates, and we shouldn’t make excuses for democracy. If we’re confident in our ideas, we should seek a fair method of clash, embrace openness, and spurn talking points.

We need a dialogue to define the era, something more than MSNBC and more than Beck, and while it’ll take opinion leaders to make it happen, we each can do our part. In discussions with your friends and family, don’t apologize for your politics — explain it, and defend it, kindly, politely, and legitimately seeking understanding. If you run a blog, turn off moderation, or moderate honestly, without editing for content. If you’re an educator, make your students comfortable with discussing politics by organizing clubs (and strive for rigorous neutrality yourself).

Ultimately, if we as a nation are “ungovernable,” it’s our duty to fix it. Break’s over.

Ahem. Unrelatedly, I realize that the Britten song, from which this post takes its title, is probably meant ironically, and taken as such by modern audiences, a jab at the unabashed enthusiasm of the original poet, and his often campy word choice. Fine, but it’s not terrible, and remember — nuance! Judge for yourself:

Across the darkened city
The frosty searchlights creep
Alert for the first marauder
To steal upon our sleep.

We see the sudden headlines
Float on the muttering tide
We hear them warn and threaten
And wonder what they hide.

There are whispers across tables,
Talks in a shutter’d room.
The price on which they bargain
Will be a people’s doom.

There’s a roar of war in the factories
And idle hands on the street
And Europe held in nightmare
By the thud of marching feet.

Now sinks the sun of surety,
The shadows growing tall
Of the big bosses plotting
Their biggest coup of all.

Is there no strength to save us?
No power we can trust
Before our lives and liberties
Are powder’d into dust?

Time to arise Democracy!
Time to rise up and cry:
That what our fathers fought for
We’ll not allow to die.

Time to resolve divisions,
Time to renew our pride,
Time to decide…
Time to burst our house of glass.

Rise as a single being
In one resolve arrayed:
Life shall be for the people
That’s by the people made!



  1. Republicans almost depend on an ignorance of history for their very existence…

    If that is the case, then isn’t liberalism equally dependent on a complete disregard for the future (i.e. cause and effect)?

  2. I’ll take “Presidents Who’ve Started Recessions,” for $200.

    1. Do Presidents start recessions?

  3. “These Presidents pushed through divisive, irresponsible tax cuts, and then either hiked or refused to slash spending, aggravating an already untenable situation.”

    1. So I guess you’re trying to say, yes, they can. Then of course Bush gets credit for ending the recession started by Clinton, right?

  4. Mike:

    While your weird American definition of the term “liberalism” or your party allegiances do not bother me much anyway, I have to point out that there is a big difference between saying, whether any of it is true or not, that liberalism as such relies on a disregard for the future on the one hand and that republican politicians (currently, it is implied) rely on a disregard for past experiences. One is merely a system of moral and political values, the other are people who can and do make mistakes. If you claim that the specific politics or propaganda of the democrats today are only possible because of this or that blindness to reality, that might be a starting point for discussion. But saying that the political philosophy valuing personal liberty as the highest goal is, in its entirety, irresponsible, is a bit much.

    1. Noted:

      Aren’t Democrats equally dependent on a complete disregard for the future (i.e. cause and effect)?

  5. Parse the difference between slowdown and recession. Clinton ended Reagan/Bush’s recession, closed the deficit, and bankrolled half a trillion. By the end of his term, the tech boom was fading, so things were going to be less rosy. But keeping the economy on track, or arresting a fall that would’ve been inevitable post-9/11, wasn’t rocket science, given the country Clinton handed him.

    1. Ames – the ‘tech boom’ did not fade. It was a speculative bubble that burst. Clinton’s economy was built on smoke and mirrors.

    2. At the very least Clinton was fiscally responsible enough to give Bush a surplus when he faced a recession…as opposed to running the country in the red prior to a recession.

      1. That whole ‘surplus’ was a bit of a slight of hand. While the budget may have had a surplus due to military cuts, etc – the national debt rose during the Clinton administration. Debt is still debt.

        1. You’re confusing the budget and the national debt. Yes – he had extra money in the budget when he left office. But we were also trillions in debt. If I die and leave my kids $5000 in my bank account and debts of $5 million – believe me, they aren’t going to say, “Thanks for the surplus Dad!”

        2. I didn’t confuse anything. I think that article mentioned both…

          “The debt the government owes to the public decreased for a while under Clinton, but the debt was by no means erased.”

          Maybe I’m misunderstanding something, but these numbers through wikipedia (take that source as you will) even list it lowering:

          So, I’m sorry he didn’t make up a way to completely pay off the trillions in debt.

          But how does Clinton running a surplus, and not completely paying off the debt, give Bush license to not even try and do the opposite, during economic prosperity?

          1. Just noticed, I did that wrong, and was looking at the Increase debt/GDP, which was lower.

            My apologies, but my last question still stands.

            1. Speaking of smokes and mirrors, wars not included in the budget. Ones he championed himself. A medicare spending program. Bank bailout. And tax cuts (again, when the economy was looking rosy).

              I’m sorry, Bush is not some helpless victim.

            2. Right. History does not act upon the American President. It’s at least mutual.

          2. Clinton had no real wars, a fake dot com bubble and was in-between recessions (even though he left office with one).

            Bush had an inherited recession, 9/11, two wars, etc. It’s apples and oranges.

            1. Did anybody force him to invade two countries, one of them mostly, the other completely innocent, in order to capture a few criminals? Maybe Clinton did not have any real wars because he was not dumb enough to start them.

              1. Clinton had 4 wars. He just fought them on the cheap.

  6. Part of the tech bubble was illusory. Massive P/E rates for Webvan and similar companies, e.g. But part of it was real growth that endures to this day. Our standard for a healthy Dow is >$10k, which wasn’t on the table before

    1. *cough* tell that to my mututal fund circa 2000.

  7. Well, clearly the answer is tax cuts.

    1. YOu DO know how jobs are created, don’t you?

  8. And here, you see, is the problem.

    1. Talking in cryptic one-sentence answers much?

  9. If your answer was going to be “tax cuts create jobs,” that’s a simplistic blow-off argument, and deserved nothing more :-/.

    Also — false. He increased debt, but slashed it as a proportion of GDP, which is something that no Republican since Nixon (and Eisenhower before him) has managed to do.

    1. Debt is still debt…. ‘Surplus’ remains a myth. If you want to say, “Less debt than his predecessor left him with as a % of GDP”…sure, knock yourself out.

  10. (Aggregating responses to Mike)

    That’s an incredibly facetious way to look at it. The U.S. has had continuing public debt essentially since day 1. Indeed, equating public debt with personal debt is really good demonstration of the point of this post.

    Granting that debt is a historical fact, it’s still an accomplishment worth noting that Clinton ran a HUGE annual surplus, at least partially arresting massive contributions the debt. Coordinately, it’s a failure worth remembering that no Republican has done that since Eisenhower. Republicans campaign on the empty promise that somehow this time won’t be like last time — we’ll be responsible this time, I swear! I’m not buying it, and it’s shocking that people still do.

    1. I just think it’s disingenious to brag about reducing spending when the debt continues to grow.

  11. “Presidents Who’ve Started Recessions,” for $200:

    Although inspired by his previous experience in the natural resource industry, this President’s unrealistic laissez-faire policies greatly worsened a serious financial crisis, causing an economic and social chaos which eventually allowed the Democrats to regain control of the White House.

    (Yeah, perhaps a bit long for the on-screen version.)

  12. To this:


    Contrary to popular belief, Bush’s term did NOT begin on 9/11. Without opening the question of who had the last best chance to avoid it — guess what I think — Bush had eight months before 9/11. His tax cut proposal was substantially underway when the Towers fell. Iraq was emphatically not a necessary war, so you don’t get to claim that as an expense of governing. It’s an expense of failure. Further, the March-November 2001 economic dip wasn’t a recession: GDP didn’t fall for two consecutive quarters. And, you never gave an adequate explanation of why the tech boom was illusory. Some of it was, sure, but not all.

    1. “The dot-com bubble crash wiped out $5 trillion in market value of technology companies from March 2000 to October 2002”

      That’s basically $5 trillion in inflated value. We know this because half or more of the companies survived the bust.

    2. Your last two comments have managed to hilariously answer none of the points raised. “DUDE IT WAS HUGE” is not “DUDE IT WAS A RECESSION,” and CERTAINLY not “dude it was Clinton’s fault!!!”

      1. I ignored the part about it not being a recession because the experts disagree with you on that. It WAS a recesssion, the only debate is over the start date.

        I never said it was Clinton’s fault. Check my first question to you in this comment thread. If you want to go back and give a straight answer now, that might be helpful. I’ll even ask again, “DO PRESIDENTS START RECESSSION?”

  13. The answer has to be “depends.”

    1. I assume you mean it ‘depends’ on whether or not it’s a Democrat or a Republican president we’re talking about.

    2. Kind of like “depends” on if you can offer blanket forgiveness for a Republican if they “inherited” a recession and are in two wars but not a Democrat?

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