The Decade’s Strange Silver Lining

When the first decade of the third millennium (the “decade from hell”; h/t N.P.) closes next week, few will miss it. The “aughts” opened with a controversial election that raised serious questions of democratic integrity, many of which linger to this day, and continued into the first serious attack on American soil… ever. If this attack constituted a test of our moral character, we failed it, horribly, rushing to abandon our values and those unique qualities that make us, as Americans, justifiably proud of what we’ve built here. Realization and redemption came, but rather late, and true recovery finds itself complicated by another crisis of responsibility, this time financial.

Have we learned something in the process? Maybe. But how many times must we be tricked into thinking “conservatives” are actually capable of balancing a budget? And how many times do we have to learn not to go overboard in wartime, before the lesson finally sticks? So far, the answer to both is “at least four.”

Amidst this chaos, it’s somewhat difficult to find a story that is, at a national level, worth celebrating. Here’s one: the experience of the last ten years flatly rebuts the theory, popular in 1999, that politics doesn’t matter. The 2000 election was viewed by most of America as inconsequential, and the candidates were roundly satirized for it. This was the natural consequence of a more secure time. Life was good, and unlikely to deviate from that course; if the pace of growth was slackening, this was inevitable, but not concerning. In the space of a few months, President Bush showed us just how divisive and nasty politics could be, just how little campaign messaging matters, and just how carelessly the country could be ripped apart. President Obama passionately inverted the message, winning a somewhat cathartic campaign premised on the idea that politicians can build, and not just destroy. Whether he’s delivered on the promise is another question: he’s made us believe in something. And his opponents have done the same, for better or worse.

The result is a more active electorate. Turnout in presidential elections has steadily increased since 1996, as voters realize that voting does, in fact, make a difference. Some of the attendant consequences are negative, reflecting poor voter education, and a toxic environment of disinformation. And there’s real concern for a backslide in next year’s midterm elections. But believing in something is better than believing in nothing. An interested electorate is the first step to an informed electorate.

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25 comments

  1. I’ve noticed a trend in your writing. You are very good at pointing out flaws in conservatism (or at least Republicanism) but I never hear you specifically state the likley corollary which is that you think liberalism is the cure to our woes. Is it? Or do you instead advocate some sort of mushy centrism that wins votes and accomplishes a little.

  2. Thanks (partially)! In cases like this, there is no easy solution. The problem is that Republicans successfully exploit weaknesses in the process, and the only solution is a smarter, more educated electorate, or a liberalism more willing to play dirty itself. But that’s not a solution at all. Honestly, short of mandatory ConLaw for high school juniors, there may not be a solution, short of exposing Republicans for the frauds they are at every turn.

    1. but that doesn’t answer my question – if Republicans are so bad, are you saying Democrats / liberals are so good? Is liberalism what is best for this country?

    2. I’m not really sure what the question is. Republican issue framing is dishonest and exploitative. To date, Obama’s framing has not — in fact, it’s been largely non-existent, which is part of the problem. But poor messaging is better than misleading but powerful messaging. So, yes?

      1. I’m talking bigger than that. If there is a central ‘theme’ to this blog it’s that Republicans/conservatives are bad. In that way it’s much more of an anti-Republican blog than a pro-Democrat/liberalism blog. So I think it bears asking: we all know you think Republicans are terrible, but does that mean you think Democrats/liberals are just what the country needs?

      2. I think that question needs context to be answered. Obama’s policies thus far have been objectively better than the alternatives, but they’re not perfect, no. I believe I’ve pointed that out before, too…

        1. Ever the lawyer…think BIGGER Ames, like beyond the current administration or the last administration…you seem unwilling to say that liberalsim is what this country needs, regardless of who is in power. If I understand your inartful dodges, liberalism / Democrats are only what we need insofar as they are better than the other side? That’s not much of a ringing endorsement for your chosen ideological bent.

        2. It’s hard to make an existential conclusion like that without sounding vapid. So I refuse to do it :).

          1. Politics is not existentialism. If so – why subscribe to one side or the other?

          2. You’re not a Supreme Court nominee. Please, please, please, don’t give non-answers like one. Please????? :)

  3. I think you’re forgetting the War of 1812, guy. I’d call the burning of Washington a serious attack on American soil, wouldn’t you?

    1. Haha, I’m aware. I parse 1812 into a pre-hegemonic period, so while it happened, it’s not really analogous.

    2. Still, I should’ve expressed that better…

  4. Re above, I’m happy to defend the left on individual issues, where there’s context, and I will say that modern conservatism is so far fallen that it’d be hard to identify an issue where I think we shouldn’t win. But I’m not going to make a more sweeping generalization.

    1. My assesment is that you are willing tosay conservatiasm in practice i.e. Republicanism is bad, bad, bad and the Democrats are a good, good, good alternative by comparison, however you aren’t willing to go out on a limb and endorse liberalsim as a superior political ideology to conservatism.

  5. What IS conservatism? In practice, at least in America, it’s a failed ideology. Like communism. The idea of low taxes and balanced budgets is nice, but it doesn’t jive with the rest of the movement’s goals — war, war, war unending and social control.

    And in theory, who the hell knows? It’s essentially broken.

    1. Again Ames – you’re REALLY good at pointing out why you think the other side is bad. Not willing to say why liberalism is good. Maybe time to admit you really aren’t convinced your chosen side isn’t so great either?

  6. I would like to take this time to remind Ames, TIME magazine and apparently almost everyone else in the world that the decade does not actually end until December 31, 2010.

    1. Haha I’m aware too of those niceties — I was on the front lines of the “don’t get excited about the millennium until 2001” battle. But on such matters, with the benefit of hindsight, it strikes me that substance might cave to style :)

    2. I’m usually firmly in the ‘usage determines definition’ camp. This particular battle, however, is one I intend to fight to the very end.

  7. Guys, this isn’t a thing. He’s either trying to get me to make a sweeping over-generalization, to open me to relentless “mocking,” or to say something I’ve already said. America would be way better if Obama had a free hand. I think I’ve made it perfectly clear that I’m not a complete left-winger in the blogosphere sense, but I tend to agree with Obama.

    1. Good enough for me. No SCOTUS nominee would ever be that forthright… damn them all.

  8. HAH. That I blame on the confirmation process… which is as much our fault on the left as theirs. Poooor Robert Bork.

    1. I’ve asked elsewhere and never been answered, and my efforts to look it up myself have been unsuccessful. Was “inkblot” before or after his nomination? ‘Cause if it was before, I’d call that a sufficient basis to have rejected him regardless of anything else. The propensity for atextualism by judges is bad enough (balancing tests, “no law” doesn’t really mean “no law”, “must” doesn’t really mean “must”, etc.) but there’s no way around it because law school indoctrinates all potential judges to think such atextualism is valid; open anti-textualism, though, doesn’t have that inevitability.

  9. […] a further challenge to their powers of self-reflection I also recently asked ACG to go out on a limb and declare liberalism as the cure for society’s ills. He was […]

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