Thursday, July 21, 2011

New Respect for Old Politics

I was really impressed by a post by Digby yesterday. In addition to her usual wonderful writing, she quoted a terrific (and amazingly timely) speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from 1936. And like her, I am impressed with FDR's rhetoric:
It's a great speech, filled with all the rhetoric a lot of us would love to hear today.I particularly enjoyed the explanatory pieces, which speak to the people like adults and doesn't use improper metaphors.
 It's well worth clicking through to the text of the FDR speech, posted on Michael Moore's site. It's almost incomprehensible that a politician would make such a detailed, comprehensive speech nowadays.

Digby also had a great piece up the previous day, demonstrating how dramatically President Obama's rhetoric today has changed from that of Candidate Obama, circa 2008:
What's wrong with his commentary is his telling those young people that they should see his argument as a template for their own role as engaged citizens. I can't think of anything more antithetical to his message in 2008 than "don't set up a situation where you're guaranteed to be disappointed." It's actually rather stunning.

And it's completely wrong in terms of the role of average citizens (and especially young activists) in the political process. They are supposed to push for what they believe in with passion and single minded commitment. They shouldn't worry about "what can pass" congress or the limits of the political process. That's the job of politicians and political hacks. 
 As a former political hack, I certainly understand the need to formulate a policy that can actually be adopted and accomplish something, and I understand that incrementalism is sometimes a necessary approach to long-term problem solving.

But now as an outsider, an average citizen, I also understand the importance of differing and even extreme positions. After all, if only one side in a debate takes an extreme position, that moves the "center," or the range of possible compromises, in that side's directions.

It's been really interesting (in an abstract sense) to watch what used to be extremist, far-out positions espoused by the likes of Newt Gingrich in the 1980s become a consensus position within his party, while simultaneously decrying anything other than the mainstream, corporatist pablum as extremist, socialist, communist, and so on. By deligitimizing positions that were until recently quite commonplace, they continue to move the center of the debate farther to the right.

As a former congressional staffer and Washingtonian, I read with interest an article by Congress scholar Norman Ornstein today called "Worst. Congress. Ever.":
When I came to Washington in 1969, for example, the city was riven with division and antagonism over the Vietnam War, which segued into the impeachment of a president, followed by many other difficult and contentious moments. In this case, though, Carvey's old man would be right: The hard reality is that for all their rancor, those times were more functional, or at least considerably less dysfunctional, than what we face with Congress today. 
Ornstein contends that both major political parties have become more homogeneous and that their ideologies no longer overlap: they are more partisan. Although I agree to an extent, and certainly concur that on the whole, the Republicans today sit far to the right of the party of 40 years ago, I find it arguable at best to say that the Democrats as a whole, even minus the "Boll Weevils" and "Blue Dogs" who have largely crossed the aisle and fit solidly into the mainstream of the new Republican party, have become more liberal. Indeed, despite the defection of the more conservative members, the stances represented by the current crop of Democrats largely fall to the right of the mainstream of the mid-late 20th century.

Although I agree that the environment is more partisan, it is also quite clear that the center of the debate has moved considerably to the right. It's harder to get anything done, but what gets done is very, very different than it used to be.

Maybe if we had politicians willing to talk sense to us, that would be different.


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