walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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Another One Bites The Dust

The news that Herman Cain is suspending his presidential campaign was no surprise by the time it was made; it had been clear for sometime that his presidential bid had been hit below the waterline.  One hopes that he and his family will have some peace and quiet in which to come to terms with the events of the last few weeks, and Via Meadia wishes them the best.

The restlessness in the Republican electorate has been remarkable this cycle.  One after another, the voters have looked at some flashy political figures, toyed with them, and set them back down on the shelf.  It is just as well; the American primary process is too expensive, too long, too full of malarky — but it does allow voters to size up the candidates, and their verdicts seem generally sound.  Donald Trump and Sarah Palin tested the waters and decided not to jump in; Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain all intrigued voters for a while, but none of them strike Via Meadia as ready for the big job.  In Donald Trump’s case, it is difficult to think what job he is ready for, but de mortuis nil nisi bonum, and politically at least Mr. Trump has passed on.

Given the breadth and depth of the opposition to President Obama, and the number of people who have served or currently serve in state and federal posts, it is surprising that a stronger field of opponents has not appeared.  A much smaller republic was able to field candidates like Daniel Webster and Henry Clay; the three way contest between William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1912 would be hard to replicate today: Gingrich, Obama and Bloomberg?

The problem is not a decline in our gene pool.  It is that our economy and our society have outrun our political ideas.  The Democrats stand mostly for defense of an order that is passing away.  They seem to have no idea how to do anything other than try to slow the decline of the blue social model; this is a party that has been out of ideas since the 1970s.  Republicans seem mostly divided between those who hearken back to the pre-progressive 19th century past and others who know change is needed but are less sure about what to do.  How much of the progressive state must, can or should we carry into the future?  What if anything do we put in its place?  How do we deal with an entitlement crisis that will burst upon us sooner than we had hoped? How do we rethink our educational, health and legal/governmental systems so that we can get more done with less friction and less economic cost?

The Great Recession has exposed the strains in many of our systems — including the systems that regulate and organize the financial markets — and we are having to address complicated and difficult issues on an accelerated timetable at a time of economic hardship and straitened budgets.  In the current version of the GOP race, Newt Gingrich, a font of often interesting but sometimes inconsistent or rash ideas, confronts Mitt Romney, a man who offers skilled management but seems to have little idea about where he wants to steer the ship of state.  What many voters and perhaps the country long for is a single candidate who synthesizes the two: a coherent and innovative approach to the big questions of the day combined with a steady pair of experienced hands.

The reason no such candidate has appeared is that our national discussion about life after blue remains thin.  The transition from an economy based on industrial mass production and mass consumption and fueled by credit and debt (before the Depression, Americans rarely went into debt except to buy a house or start a business) raises a range of complicated questions.  The financial stress of the demographic transition, in which entitlement programs that assumed relatively short lives past 65 combined with continued rapid population growth from generation to generation must adjust to very different conditions, makes things harder.  The cost squeeze as poor productivity and perverse incentives drive costs up in key sectors like medicine, education and government even as society’s need for these services increases adds a yet another dimension to our woes.  The ideological hegemony of 20th century progressive thought among so many intellectuals and professionals (not to mention their economic and political interest in arrangements that support their power, income and prestige) make too many intellectual and professional people knee-jerk defenders of the status quo rather than innovators and experimenters, slowing down the process of social reflection and change.

Finally, rapid changes in the real economy (rise of Asia, commoditization of manufacturing) combine with the enormous expansion in the complexity, volume and global integration of financial markets to create new economic forces that are difficult for both regulators and market participants to understand.

None of these problems are purely American; the global system is being stressed and reshaped as these problems and others roil the waters worldwide.  Global problems like the European financial crisis reflect the power of these forces overseas; they also exacerbate America’s problems.

Put all this together and it is less than surprising that so many ambitious presidential wannabes seem smaller than the job.

The problems facing the world and the country are by no means insoluble, and the United States is actually far better situated than other leading societies to find its way forward.  Historically, the capacity for social innovation and adjustment is America’s greatest strength and there are plenty of signs that we have not lost this capacity today.

But for now, an old way of living doesn’t work any longer, and we don’t yet know what the new system will look like.  It is not surprising under the circumstances that our politics are polarized and our leaders seem small.

Interesting times…

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  • http://www.theatreofthedamned.com Tom Richards

    Actually, I would say that this Republican campaign includes by far the best presidential candidate of my lifetime. Unfortunately, almost nobody has heard of Gary Johnson, and most Americans probably wouldn’t vote for him if they had. Their loss, and the world’s.

  • Toni

    Has anybody here actually investigated where Romney wants to take the ship of state? Or does he just seem unexciting and old hat because he’s been around so long?

    I don’t view the politics of a century ago through some idealized lens. They were nasty, and so were what we now call the media. Teddy and Woodrow wanted to help the poor, but explicitly by taking choices out of the hands of individuals, and of course, money from “the rich.” Spread the wealth around — sound familiar?

    They started what became the entitlement state and the nightmare we call the IRS, birthed by Teddy and his successor. Motives matter, but so do effects.

  • RichLeC

    The problem the more mainstream candidates (Romney and to a lesser extent Gingrich) face is that they cannot address any of the issues Professor Mead lists in the GOP primaries. The GOP constituency that can be swayed at this point is basically made up of older Caucasian Americans who have no clear understanding of the world beyond their community, take their ideological cues from the right-wing mass media and vote mainly based on anger. Any GOP voter who doesn’t fit that caricature is probably voting for Romney regardless.

  • Anthony

    WRM, you infer need to fashion a new political philosophy/model; in view of the general American tradition of anti-theoretical, anti-cultural, pro materialistic pragmatism and instrumentalism, are we capable in these accelerated times of assessing trends/currents/zeitgeist without intense polarization? Our times/country does not require a great man/candidate but a more engaged populace/citizenry prepared to honestly examine the national cultural ethos (for whom, and in whose interest does the cultural ethos exist in America?)

    The schematic value of this ethos/tradition is deeply entwined with the roots of the political, economic, and social foundations of our national structure – thereby crucial via examination as we engage these interesting national and global times while addressing complicated and difficult issues.

  • ms

    It is difficult for candidates to embrace bold plans because any plan they embrace alienates some of the electorate. This is not exactly a new problem. We can hope, however, that once elected they will be willing to do what needs to be done and have the skill to work with congress in doing this in a bipartisan way. It is pretty obvious to me that Romney is the best man for the job. He’s turned around failing companies and the Olympics and he listens to people like Paul Ryan who understand how to fix things. He appears to be driven by a larger vision in his work instead of a huge ego. It is hard for me to understand why this is not obvious to more people.

  • MJB

    My bet is that RichLeC is not an older Caucasian, and I wouldn’t be surprised if 9 out of 10 Americans have, “…no clear understanding of the World beyond their communities …”

    Nevertheless, and strange as it may seem, if the right mix votes the result will likely be the best available one.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    “What price [Petraeus]?”

  • http://knownofold.blogspot.com J R Yankovic

    “The problems facing the world and the country are by no means insoluble, and the United States is actually far better situated than other leading societies to find its way forward. Historically, the capacity for social innovation and adjustment is America’s greatest strength and there are plenty of signs that we have not lost this capacity today.”

    Thanks for a sorely needed reminder. There are many reasons – and gee, why do I keep sensing not ALL of them are merely opportunistic or bread-and-butter? – why a growing number of Asian countries are looking to the US for leadership, firmness and commitment well into the 21st century. As opposed to falling all over themselves in the frantic effort not to offend China (rather different from the expectations, as I recall a little over 10 years ago, of a certain Zbigniew Brzezinski).

    I wonder if there isn’t also the possibility of something I want to call a Problem within a Problem. One reason, it may be, why we seem to have reached an impasse is that not only do the solutions of the past 100 years no longer work: a peculiar subset of ideas, on offer as solutions over the past roughly 40 years, so far seem to be working out very badly. Or at least very badly for large numbers of hardworking HUMAN persons (believe me, I know lots of them), as distinct from certain other kinds we have either created or been in process of creating. Just some possibilities. But in any case, I’d expect this possible failure of the past 40 years – in addition to the certain collapse of the previous 60 – to be something far more demonstrably evident to historians, say, a decade or two down the road, than to any of us right now.

    IMO, as good a US political overview as Via Meadia has come up with (or anybody else, for that matter) in quite a long time.

  • Akshay Kanoria

    Actually, there is such a person. His name is Jon Huntsman, and he sort of screwed up his first few months, but has fixed his campaign and is set for a healthy showing in New Hampshire.

  • http://www.brain-scape.com/ Brainscape

    Very good analysis of the presidential candidates, their qualifications and were they’re heading. Another interesting factor that many know little about is their actual experience. This infographic takes a closer look http://bit.ly/tl6D3m

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    People forget what pygmies the Presidents all were before they became Presidents. The Republican nominee will gain stature the moment he is nominated, and when elected President will join the company of America’s greatest, and become the most powerful man on Earth.
    I think the American Culture’s response to today’s problems namely the TEA Party, is very healthy, a going back to the basics that built this country, of limited government and a rejection of the socialist Blue Model in favor of free market solutions. The extortionate monopoly privileges of the labor gangs, the crony capitalism, and the unsustainable spending and entitlements must end or be changed beyond recognition. I think America can do it, and I look forward with interest and excitement to watching it happen. “May you live in interesting times” is not a curse to Americans, it is just a challenge, and we live for and thrive on challenges.

  • Toni

    RichLeC, you’ll find that what works here is facts and fact-based arguments, not bigotry. Demeaning opinions about people you’ve never met is bigotry.

  • Toni

    Another thought: communications technology has and is continuing to make this a more truly democratic country, with quickly evolving new means to exercise our rights to free speech and free assembly.

    Yet all of us, leaders and voters alike, have to wing it as we go. Interesting times indeed.

  • a nissen

    WRM:
    1. “The Democrats stand mostly for defense of an order that is passing away. They seem to have no idea how to do anything other than try to slow the decline of the blue social model”
    vs
    2. “The ideological hegemony of 20th century progressive thought among so many intellectuals and professionals (not to mention their economic and political interest in arrangements that support their power, income and prestige) make too many intellectual and professional people knee-jerk defenders of the status quo rather than innovators and experimenters, slowing down the process of social reflection and change.”

    Those are two rather different perspectives on the liberal class that some say has passed from the scene. The former, long the front or buy off that conserves the latter. Whether WRM sees it that way or not, he does manage to juxtapose them on the same page for further contemplation. I call that progress.

  • Randy

    What Bart Hall wrote.

  • Don

    “The ideological hegemony of 20th century progressive thought among so many intellectuals and professionals (not to mention their economic and political interest in arrangements that support their power, income and prestige)”

    used to provide such basics as fire protection,
    ” Home burns while firefighters watch, again

    OBION COUNTY, Tenn. — A local family watches their home burn to the ground and just a few feet behind them, firefighters watch, too.

    It’s happened multiple times before in one local community: firefighters refuse to respond because the homeowner didn’t pay a fire subscription fee.”

    This sad state of affairs is clearly a result of “progressive thought.”

    http://www.wpsdlocal6.com/news/local/Home-burns-while-firefighters-watch-again-135069773.html

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