Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Everything old is new again.

I heard the historian Sean Wilentz giving an interview on the radio about an article he published in the New Yorker discussing the intellectual roots of the Tea Party movement. As Wilentz makes clear, the ideas behind what appears to be a new movement are far from new.  For example, Glenn Beck is recycling ideas promoted by John Birch Society during the 1950's.  In particular, Beck has been peddling the works of right wing radical Willard Cleon Skousen.   In fairness, I should probably read some of this guy's writings before commenting, but for now I'll just accept Wilentz's summary.  For example, in the book that Glenn Beck apparently was responsible for rocketing back to best sellerdom, Skousen attempted to prove that the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired and based on the Bible, instead of being the product of 18th Century Enlightenment thought.  If you're not buying that, Beck would say you've been too thoroughly brainwashed by generally acceptable historical scholarhip.  But if you are buying that, I would say you probably need to do some more research and check out Skousen's sources.  Skousen's ideas have apparently been pretty thoroughly discredited by other scholars, which is one reason his works have been buried for decades.

In their time, people like William F. Buckley had a lot to do with making conservative thought more respectable, and Buckley did it by helping to de-legitimize Birchers and other fringe elements on the right.  Wilentz says it is a shame there are no powerful conservative intellectuals out there today who are strong enough to keep such wacky ideas out of circulation.  If Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich are the best the Republicans can come up with to keep conservative thought respectable, their movement may be in trouble, even as it appears headed for a measure of electoral success this fall. 

I think it's helpful to put a movement like the Tea Party movement into some historical perspective.  For one reason, that may dampen some of the alarm at the success of this movement, and it may even reduce some of the outrage felt by Tea Partiers themselves.  Once we understand that we are still debating issues that have been around since the Wilson administration, maybe we can stop worrying about the sky's imminent fall.  That goes for a lot of issues we are currently debating.  I just finished reading The American Future by Simon Schama, an optimistic look at the historical context of the Obama campaign, in contrast to the hysterical backlash of Tea Partiers.  In that book, Schama demonstrates that some of the issues that still preoccupy us--such as immigration, the role of the military, civil rights, and resource allocation--have been with us our entire history.  Why not continue the debate over these issues in a civil tone, without all the alarmist and hateful rhetoric, recognizing that we are not about to end these debates anytime soon?  And why not try to avoid being taken in by the latest fads in conspiracy theories and revisionist history, seeing as these new ideas may actually have been trotted out and disproven a half-century ago?

16 comments:

  1. First, lets be sure we understand, there is nothing new about the Progressive agenda -- or what those fighting against it have to offer. Both sides are just louder.

    Second, who is it you are suggesting is unworthy of respect? Is it the 10% of the far right that is as out of touch as the 10% of the far left? Is it the Republicans? The Tea Party? The centrist who are Republicans or who are undecided? The centrist who sympathize with some of the Tea Party ideas, but not all? The centrist who sympathize with parts of the Progressive agenda but not all? Or is it anyone who isn't a Progressive?

    Beck and Newt are not the leaders of the Republicans anymore than Olbermann and Pelosi will lead Progressives to national office. To me, Progressives are beginning to sound as closed minded as the Christian far right. If that doesn't alarm you, it should! Because Progressives hold no greater influence.

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  2. KP, you are certainly correct that the left's agenda is as much rooted in history as the right's. But I'm not sure you can make an exact equivalence. The original Progressive Movement of about 100 years ago achieved a lot of its goals: the income tax, the Federal Reserve, women's suffrage, Prohibition (of course they had second thoughts about that one), the initiative and recall process, modernizing local government, etc. According to Wilentz's article, today's Tea party movement is a rebirth of a movement from the 1950's that failed to achieve most of its goals. Its agenda basically amounts to an attempt to repeal the Progressive movement's agenda.

    Today's progressives, on the other hand, are not really an echo of the original Progressive movement, but only use the label "progressive" because the Republicans succeeded in making the label "liberal" such a dirty word. They are trying to extend and expand New Deal and Great Society reforms like Social Security, Medicare, greater federal involvement in education, etc. Today's Tea Party of course resists that agenda as well. They are trying to return the nation to an imagined ideal of an earlier time when the federal government assumed a much smaller role in American life.

    It's a legitimate debate, but in having that debate, I think it's important to get the history right, and if somebody is going to trot out discredited ideas like claiming that the U.S. Constitution was based on the Bible, it's important to set the historical record straight.

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  3. Thanks for that thoughtful response. My problem with the Progressive characterization of the Tea Party is that it is largely untrue. The Tea Party is much more amorphous that you would have us believe. I could say the same thing about the far right's characterization of the Tea Party who want to claim it. They are both exaggerated.

    There are a few strange birds running for office using terms and campaign promises and the momentum created by the Tea Party. I don't even know what the Tea Party is -- in truth. But I know it isn't far right or far left. Many of the Tea Party complaints resonate with some Progressives -- but they are still blanketly criticized by them.

    I know how/when the Tea Party movement started -- and it was before Obama was elected. It started in response to Bush's policies of big, wasteful spending, the expanding deficit, finacial collapses, loss of jobs and the TARP. That was a long time ago. Two years later we are being told the Tea Party is in response to Obama. That's crazy. Obama has perpetuated many of the policies of Bush, and done little about critical issues like TBTF and jobs creation. So yes, the continued policies of Bush and unaddressed policies are still unpopular with most of the country and make Obama (the politician) unpopular with more Americans then not. As well, the majority of Americans feel that health care reform was not the priority the Congress and the Administration made it out to be. It looked more like a power grab and less than truthful. It did nothing to reduce cost and very little to break up insurance monopolies or create competition.

    You must understand that Progressives are a small minority of Americans. That doesn't make the rest of Americans crazy or racist. I am more a liberal than a conservative -- particularly on social issues like gay marriage, abortion, repealing don't ask don't tell, drug use, etc. But I don't like what the government is doing with our money. More importantly, I am very upset about what our government refuses to do; break up big banks, deal with China's currency, settle property rights issues, handle Fannie and Freddie, disclose political donations, stop pork barrel spending, uncover fraudulant home loans and I could go on and on. These are not party ideals -- they are things neither party will deal with and I believe are the kinds of issues early Tea Party attendees were and still are keen on. You may not want a policy wonk blog and I understand that. But if ignore these things while blasting those who believe they are more important than bad health care reform and wishy washy Wall Street reform and politicians (both sides) owned by banks; then do you really have hope and want change? Seems to me you are bent on exciting the Progressive base with rheteric that ignores why so many of us are reasonably upset. The change I cite is popular change -- left right and center! Why have not Progressives joined us in the middle for Change we all want and need. Why is only the Proigressive agenda worth fighting for? What happened to the unity?

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  4. I suppose you could find the origins of the Tea Party movement in the Ron Paul campaign in 2008 and other reactions to George Bush. But the Tea Party per se did not start until after Obama was elected. That was when you first started seeing groups of people organizing demonstrations using tea party symbols and such.

    As far as the other issues you mention, I think you and I agree that they should be a addressed in a more problem-solving and non-ideological way. I actually think the Obama administration has tried very hard to do that. That is why he is attacked from the left for being so compromising and conciliatory. But to me the real problems have come more from the right, because the Republicans have decided almost as a bloc to just oppose everything the administration does no matter what. I have trouble understanding why moderates and independents seem more sympathetic to the Republicans this election cycle. They made a purely political calculation not to play any part in the solution, but simply to object to everything. They don't have any interest in dealing with the problems you mention. They let them fester for years.

    (I can't imagine, however, why we would want to break up big banks. It seems to me we want US banks to be just as big as the Bank of China or the Bank of Tokyo or the big German or French banks, so that the US can compete in the global economy and the developers of the biggest projects don't have to go abroad for financing.)

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  5. << I have trouble understanding why moderates and independents seem more sympathetic to the Republicans this election cycle. >>

    They aren’t necessarily more sympathetic to Republicans. That's one of the reasons there is a Tea Party. This is something Progressives fail to unbderstand. Moderates and Independents attempt to explain it but it fall on deaf ears. Many moderates and independents are even less happy with Republicans than they are Democrates. But one party is in power.

    Recall, there were years (2006 and 2008) when self proclaimed Catholic Conservative, decorated veteran, West Point grad and author of "The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism", Andrew Bacevich, appeared on Bill Moyers and said he went in to vote in those elections with the promise to himself that anyone with a "D" in front of his name would get his vote.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Bacevich

    He wasn't a Dem, he was pissed off. Well, that's where some citizens are right now. They played fair all their lives only to be wiped out by career politicians like Frank and Dodd (and many Repubs) who backed Wall Street.
    If you have an "R" in front of your name you may get a vote Nov 2nd. And if you have an "R" or a "D" in front of your name and are a professional politician in Washington for 30 years, we may see voters say "the hell with you" no matter who else is running (think Reid). It’s important to remember that voting is the ultimate expression of dissatisfaction, not just a way to show support. Obama, Pelosi and Reid exacerbated the opposition to them (Dems) by their actions and inactions.

    After 30 years career politicians tend lose their principles in bending to campaign contributors, heeding opinion polls, and following their political party's line. These legislators (both parties) can arrogantly oppose sitting Presidents of the United States, knowing they will be in office when his term ends. Career Congressional members have stolen much of the sovereignty of the electorate. We have become a government of the people, by the politicians, and for the special interests, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln.

    << (I can't imagine, however, why we would want to break up big banks. It seems to me we want US banks to be just as big as the Bank of China or the Bank of Tokyo or the big German or French banks, so that the US can compete in the global economy and the developers of the biggest projects don't have to go abroad for financing.) >>

    Let me rephrase that – we don’t need to break up big banks – we do need to make them act like banks again. That means they invest and loan – they should earn their money; not gamble with ours with impunity.

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  6. I get that voters are angry (remember I did a three part series of posts on that topic). But it's a bit frustrating to me this year that voters may be taking their anger out on incumbents, when the evidence should be right in front of everyone's faces that we had the most spectacular failure of the private sector in more than a generation, and it was the government that had to clean it up. And all in all, the government did a pretty good job of cleaning up the mess, even with all of the partisanship, and the sell-outs to lobbyists, and the pandering to the public, and the political grandstanding. Without TARP, for example, General Motors would no longer be in business, we would have had a series of large bank failures, and the insurance industry could have collapsed. All of which could have caused the entire world economy to grind to a halt. Without the stimulus, the economy might still be contracting or would be growing more slowly than it is. And without financial regulation, we would not have the tools to prevent future market failures. None of these solutions is perfect by any means, but it seems to me that a lot of anger has been directed at some well-meaning people who have been making heroic efforts to solve problems, when it might be more appropriate to thank those people, including Chris Dodd and Barney Frank and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama, who saved us from the abyss.

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  7. << But it's a bit frustrating to me this year that voters may be taking their anger out on incumbents, when the evidence should be right in front of everyone's faces that we had the most spectacular failure of the private sector in more than a generation, and it was the government that had to clean it up. >>

    You are focusing on what the kids did. I am focusing on what the parents let the kids do -- in fact encouraged them -- to do. The kids are the banks and speculators run amuck. The parents are Chris Dodd and Barney Frank and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama and Bush and Clinton and Summers and Rubin and others. The parents gave over Fannie and Freddie to the kids. They gave them our life savings. They allowed the kids to play with the very foundation of capitalism; that being property rights. And it’s not even close to being cleaned up. It hasn’t even started. We are still in discovery. I fear the worst is still to come in the mortgage fraud area and property rights battle.

    We can argue –- and we will for decades -– about if the world economy would have ground to a halt without GM, TARP and the Stimulus. I am not as sure as you seem to be. That’s a separate issue. But I don’t give the politicians you name any credit for those programs. EVERYBODY, when faced with crisis would do SOMETHING! The KEY would have been to avoid the crisis. Both parties failed us. I blame the career politicians in both parties.

    If parents on your block encouraged their children to borrow from you even though they had no ability to repay you; or allowed them to steal from your business and your home and then turned and looked away when you lost your life savings, would you give the parents credit for bailing the kids out of jail and finding ways to maintain their status quo? Or would you ask that the parents be removed for not policing their home? And that the kids be appropriately punished and restricted?

    << it seems to me that a lot of anger has been directed at some well-meaning people who have been making heroic efforts to solve problems, when it might be more appropriate to thank those people , including Chris Dodd and Barney Frank and Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and Barack Obama, who saved us from the abyss. >>

    Not so. Property values have fallen 30%. This loss is not based on a new interest in the outdoors and an urge to live in tents. It’s because Fannie and Freddie urged the issuance of bad debt to insolvent borrowers who are now in debt crisis when the bubble burst. Thanks Frank. Thanks Dodd. These are the very people who help create the bubble -- and should have prevented the mess we are in. You name insider Wall Street types and crony Congressmen as the saviors. We see it very differently. In my view they are the parents scrambling to save themselves and their kids. We cannot afford to look the other way after so many in America have been robbed. In my view, I am okay with sending less experienced or even naive politicians to Congress in place of the likes of Frank and Reid. They cannot be any worse -- and if they are worse -- those districts can vote them out of office too.

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  8. Speaking as a parent, I'd like to think that not everything my kids do is my fault. In any case I don't see why we should view Wall Street bankers and investors pulling down millions in compensation as kids. Supposedly they are responsible adults performing a service that justifies their high pay. But the most ironic part of your analogy is that the politicians who stand to benefit the most from voter anger believe that the government should totally abdicate responsibility for regulating financial markets.

    It's just not true that anybody in power would have done something to alleviate the crisis. The Republicans en masse voted against every single attempt to do something. They think the biggest problem we face is that the people pulling down the million dollar bonuses are paying too much in taxes!

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  9. Joe, I respect you. I enjoy the give and take. If that were not the case I wouldn’t proceed.

    << Speaking as a parent, I'd like to think that not everything my kids do is my fault. >>

    Of course; and we do not deserve all the credit when they do extraordinary things.

    << It's just not true that anybody in power would have done something to alleviate the crisis. >>

    Are you sure? I’ll try to refresh your memory in a moment. But first, I’m not advocating for Republicans. I am unhappy with both parties; and I said so in my post.

    Now, to your observation that nobody in power would have done something to alleviate the crisis. Some tried, before it was popular to do so. They were thwarted by the Dems. What you may be forgetting is that Bush wanted to tighten oversight with a new regulatory board for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and other government recipients for the express purpose of addressing bad loan practices -- and Democrats blocked it.

    The New York Times reported this five years ago:

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E06E3D6123BF932A2575AC0A9659C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print

    Looking back, the Bush administration had accurately diagnosed the problem in the lending market and had a least some plan to address it. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac reluctantly supported the plan. However, Democrats objected.

    Frank: "These two entities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- are not facing any kind of financial crisis." "The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing."

    Representative Melvin L. Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, agreed.

    "I don’t see much other than a shell game going on here, moving something from one agency to another and in the process weakening the bargaining power of poorer families and their ability to get affordable housing" Mr. Watt said.

    Two years later John McCain partnered with three other Senate Republicans to reform the government’s involvement in lending. On May 25th of 2006 he spoke on behalf of the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act.

    "Mr. President, this week Fannie Mae’s regulator reported that the company’s quarterly reports of profit growth over the past few years were “illusions deliberately and systematically created” by the company’s senior management, which resulted in a $10.6 billion accounting scandal."

    “I join as a cosponsor of the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005, S. 190, to underscore my support for quick passage of GSE regulatory reform legislation. If Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole. I urge my colleagues to support swift action on this GSE reform legislation.”

    None of McCain’s action ever made it out of committee. Chris Dodd, then the ranking member of the Banking Committee and now its chair, was in the middle of receiving preferential loan treatment from Countrywide Mortgage, one of the companies gaming the system in the credit crisis.

    This is not a party issue. It is systemic.

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  10. When you try to put all the blame on Fannie and Freddie for the housing bubble, I think you may be buying into right wing propaganda. Check out this article by Paul Krugman in the New York Review: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/sep/30/slump-goes-why/?page=2

    As he points out, private banks were contributing more to the bubble than anything the government was doing.

    My theory is that almost everyone is to blame for the bubble, including banks, securitizers, the government, and people like me. I should have sold my house at the peak of the market. I knew my house was overpriced, and we were headed for a correction. Lots of people knew that prices were getting unsustainably high. But greed and stupidity and denial got the better of all of us. Banks could not resist the ability to keep financing mortgages as long as they could keep packaging and selling them. And buyers just kept believing that prices were going to keep going up. If more of us had sold, and fewer of us had bought, we would not have had as dramatic a run-up in prices, and the crash would not have been as severe.

    But I also think it is somewhat pointless to try to figure out who is most to blame. What is important is to fix the problem, and try to prevent it from happening again. I don't see the Republicans doing much to be part of the solution. Their main ideas of reducing taxes and reducing government regulation would only make another bubble and bust more likely.

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  11. You make good points. It is incredibly complicated. I am discussing real change that _may_ save our country. I don't give a lick if we call elected office holders, progressive, moderate, left, right, centrist, black, white, hispanic, gay, asian, tea party or independaent. I am a pragmatist. I want Change that provides Hope. I want you are on board. Our country needs you. If you think you are, more power to you.

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  12. Excellent article buy Krugman. Thanks.

    << When you try to put all the blame on Fannie and Freddie for the housing bubble, I think you may be buying into right wing propaganda. >>

    Right wing propaganda! Ha ha ... if only they would just go away :-) Then we would all be well.

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  13. Scheer tends to lend credence to my view that Fannie and Freddie are at or near the center of the economic meltdown. Not a right wing consiracy guy at all. Very troubling appointment by Obama. The kind that no longer surprises me (unfortunately):

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-scheer/obama-hires-a-hustler_b_769266.html

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  14. I did some reviewing of Bob's book "The Great American Stickup". Bright guy.

    When it comes to this kind of theft from the country it fully crosses all party lines. The meltdown was the beginning of the Tea Party back when Bush was still president. But what happened to that movement? Karl Denninger has made the point that the Tea Party started out as a people who thought fraud was wrong, theft was wrong, that our country's accounting should be public and that we should remove bad debts. Those are progressive ideals as much as conservative ideals. But then something funny happened on the way to the forum. The money interest came in and f*cked up the message. Einstein once said "you can't solve a problem at the same level it was created". Damn, that guy was smart!

    It's the same old same old that Bob Willis sang about:

    "The little guy picks the cotton // The big guy gets the money"

    "The little guy picks the blossom // The big guy gets the honey"

    A Scheer says in the article: "We are drowning in a bipartisan cesspool of corruption, and the sooner we grasp that fact the better."

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  15. We've been drowning in a bipartisan cesspool of corruption since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before that. And we grasped that fact a long time ago. As for Bob Scheer, you're right he's not a right wing conspiracy guy. He's a left wing conspiracy guy. All he does is rant and rave.

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  16. At least he is a left winger from UC Berkley :-)

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