In a lot of ways, the new year begins now. With a McCain / Palin presidency, the general atmosphere right now would be panic, horror, fleeing – a draft, total loss of faith in America and possibly in democracy (it would have taken massive fraud, for starters) and so on. Right now, the people feel they have spoken, and that somebody they believe in is in charge.
There’s two sets of problems we face, however. The first are the real, serious and non-partisan problems of America. The country is going broke because of the actions of generations, not just a few rich assholes with banks. The historical trend away from manufacturing, towards virtual wealth, towards mortgaging the future, the ecological situation, the need for sweeping updates in the basic institutions of the society… all that stuff is very real and presents massive challenges. We can all agree that much of the current crisis was caused by pointing the boat the wrong way in a storm, but the storm is real and ongoing.
The second set of problems are Bush-II-era damage. To the constitution. To faith in the goodness of America. To society itself. The absolute botches in financial deregulation and massive government spending on, frankly, all the wrong things. You know the story here as well as I do.
What America has is better leadership in an historic crisis. To say this crisis was created by the outgoing administration is a mistake: they mishandled the ongoing crisis, but they did not create the patterns of shifting economic activity which are making American-style borrow-and-spend economies untenable. They did not make the housing bubble. Invading Iraq may well have been madness, but 9/11 still happened, and the long and slow encounter between western secularism and Islam has been getting increasingly complicated and fraught for generations.
The President cannot make it all better. I’m going to repeat that.
The President cannot make it all better. And it’s not all the fault of the admittedly-incompetent outgoing regime.
There is no amount of government action or intervention which is going to fix all of this. There is no plan from the top down which will balance the books while simultaneously giving every American everything they (feel they) are entitled to. The dreamworld of a continually richer tomorrow, of maintaining the wealth disparity which was created in the 1950s when the US has the lion’s share of global manufacturing and was the only industrial power who’s territory was not ravaged by war… that time is gone now.
Obama cannot return us to 1998, before the chickens came home to roost. To expect him to do so is to set him up for failure.
What the new Democratic administration can do is controlled descent. They can, hopefully, get the plane on to the runway on the last dregs of fuel with one engine shot off, rather than the McCain/Palin team, which would likely have “landed” the plane into a sheer cliff face. But when stuff has been so far out of alignment, built on cooked books for generations, when expectations and reality have been divergent for untold decades… the Democratic party cannot make the American dream work again.
No one can.
I’ve talked elsewhere about the need to replace the American Dream with a Global Reality. Here’s what I mean by that.
1> No more screwing around burning planetary resources on futile wars while tens of millions of people lack food, toilets and other basic essentials. It’s obscene for the “civilized” nations of the developed world to keep up this farce. The cold war is over, get over it.
2> Environment. NOW! Or we’re going to face a scenario which makes the financial crisis look like the very least of our unpaid debts coming due. Nanosolar, Konarka and algal turf scrubbers are top rank national security type activities, not hippies. We need to wise up on this in a hurry.
3> International relations. Fifty years, maybe four or five Bad Presidents. Who’s on the list, that’s a matter of choice. But US democracy is too fragile, to unstable, and too prone to put whack jobs in the white house for us to globally consider the US as a Sole Superpower a reasonable or safe option. Fortunately the synchronicity of a need for hedging political bets globally coinciding with the US’s inability to maintain that Sole Superpower status has offered a simple and clear path to the future: multilateral alliances, including nations like China and Russia, to maintain the global equilibrium of the future. If the US continue s to go it alone, the next Cowboy President (Palin 2012) could well destroy the world, and we need to have everybody get oriented to that reality: a bad president in the US should not wreck the planet, and it’s in the US’s interests to enter into the agreements which would balance US power internationally now, because that’s also what relieves the enormous global security load the US is currently carrying.
It is a multi-lateral future. It cannot be otherwise.
Does this reflect flaws in democracy? No, not really. It’s an artifact of the precise implementation of US democracy – first past the post in an age of extremely split, factionalized and mutually-counterbalancing political interests. Plus the resurgence of an almost medieval theology.
But it does mean that building a multilateral global order as a hedge against President Palin or a similar debacle in 2012 or 2016 is a critical order of business for the current US administration. To re-tie the hands of future presidents, away from the Imperial Power Switch cannot be done only from within America. Regional security alliances, treaties, pushing of security to the edges, to networks of smaller players, even (god forbid) to the UN in some cases is a necessary hedge. We have seen the danger of the unitary executive, and it is not clear that anybody knows how to harden US democracy against it (ban signing statements? remake the supreme court with people with spines?)
The challenge is how to hedge against American political instability while at the same time preserving America’s leadership in setting the moral tone at an international level in individual human rights. We need that vision, of the Founding Fathers, and of some previous administrations as a light to the world. But it can no longer be accompanied by an unchallenged Big Stick at a military level without endangering both the US and the rest of the world. The temptation is simply too much to be left in one pair of hands, and we do not know how far the next swing to the right will be in the States.
This is, without a doubt, a hell of a thing to say, but I’ve said it: the US needs to build international alliances to counterbalance US power, to restrain the actions of future presidents who may abuse the unitary executive power established by Bush and supported by the Supreme Court and various other spineless US political entities that have been failing into provide an effective internal counterbalance.
A sad day, but Palin 2012 is no joke.