“We’re Americans First”

The first job for the next President is not Iraq and not the economy. I don’t really hear any of the candidates talking to the key priority as forthrightly as I might like, but this is very much how I understand some of Obama’s emphasis on bipartisanship. Not as centrism, but as a desire to reconstruct processes of consultation, to remove politics as much as possible from those aspects of governance that need to at least strive for neutrality, to firewall off partisan calculation from ordinary administrative work. The key priority is to rebuild the way the federal government actually functions in both its everyday and extraordinary business.

Look around at the mounting evidence of relentless and reckless misuse of executive power in the last eight years. The next eight years need to be a kind of truth-and-reconciliation commission where we study openly just how disastrously we went wrong. Not went wrong in Iraq, or with subprime mortgages, or anything else, though those failures are a good demonstration of what happens when you fail to lead the nation and choose instead to lead on behalf of your narrowest if most passionate political base.

It really needs to be “we” went wrong, not “them”. This is the whole point of the U.S. Constitution, that it is an uncommitted, non-partisan prior constraint on the uses of governmental authority. If it turns out that its guarantees rest not so much on its formal provisions, but just on men and women of good will and honest commitment agreeing to live up to their responsibilities under the law and the social contract, then that’s what we need to work to rebuild and restore. The last eight years have been a test, and a lot of people, some of them surprising, failed it. Equally, many people in all parties and factions passed, which is also worth a lot of attention. A lot of the downward momentum has been arrested by people with whom I strongly disagree on political positions, but whose dedication to their office and responsibilities I appreciate. Much of what we know about what has gone wrong in the last eight years is due to Republicans inside and outside the Administration drawing some lines in the sand.

There was a good example of this in 60 Minutes‘ piece that aired this Sunday on the case of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman, who very much appears to have been the target of a Karl Rove operation. Scott Horton has a good summary of the piece and some of the new information in it. I was really struck by the on-camera comments of former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who is one of 52 former AGs calling for a Congressional investigation. Asked how he reconciles being a Republican appointee with his clear opposition to how this case was handled, he replies, “We’re Americans first”.

In a wider sense, this goes well beyond the Bush Administration. I think that we’re looking at an unusually raw and exposed example of the general and global crisis of liberal democracy that began in the 1970s, a crisis that extends to the institutional aspects of civil society as well. Modernity has created large social institutions, including the state, that have capacities and powers that really are unprecedented in human experience. Prior to the 1970s, most people fully expected that the state would grow beyond some of its internal contradictions, that its failures and problems and weaknesses were but growing pains, and that we could eventually hope to benefit from the manifest and obvious advantages of modern institutions without their dangers.

We thought that the state as well as civic institutions could be secured by structural reforms of some kind, by making states more responsive or self-reforming. We thought transparency could help, and it does somewhat. Transparency only helps, however, if there are strongly internalized professional and social ethical commitments that are widely distributed both in the general population and among the people who do the business of government, or education, or medicine, or any other major institution. If you don’t have enough people like Grant Woods, the liberal state will fail. So much as I might look to something like the U.S. Constitution as foundational bedrock, it tells you very little about what kind of building gets built on top of it, except that it has the possibility of being sturdy.

This is the crisis that is still unfolding, to which I see no easy resolution. Everything that works about institutional life rests on the habitus of professionals, bureaucrats, experts, on whether they are stewards or parasites, whether they recognize the fragile possibility of a better world or are just looting the till, whether they are humble in the face of wider and more distributed experience and knowledge or whether they are contemptuous of anything besides their own immediate power. We all know it: this is Arendt’s banality of evil. We do not need to fear the person at the top, but instead the mass force of institutional action. The libertarian answer, to sweep away all institutions (save those of private capital: a blind spot that I still find baffling), is no answer at all, any more than jumping off a cliff is a way to prevent being in an automobile accident.

Once the world all knew that this was the danger we faced, after 1945 (and have had it demonstrated repeatedly since), there has been no way to trust that some day the state or other institutions could be continually perfected until the danger would pass for all time. It will never pass, it can never pass. For the last eight years in the United States, we’ve gotten a reminder of just how close and ominously it lurks.

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10 Responses to “We’re Americans First”

  1. dmerkow says:

    I think you are nearly all correct, but I think you put the thumb too heavily on the last eight years. The Clintons specialized in this as well, which is part of the reason every time Bill gets really active, Hillary’s numbers drop. My sense is that this wasn’t the case with Bush I. Before that I’ll yield as my memory doesn’t stretch that far.

    On the other hand, is Bush that different from Nixon or FDR (in his lesser moments) or Wilson? I’m not convinced.

    As you say, up through the mid-70s, people still had the general sense that things could get fixed, (my specialty – American cities) is a prime example. However, by the mid-70s, the broad swathe of the electorate gave up on trying to really fix them. Furthermore, once the narrative of crisis set in, the discourse is mostly about how bad things are at the moment rather than the sense that a corner can really be turned. Philadelphia is a prime example of this and while there is a lot of hope placed in Nutter, there was a lot placed in Rendell as well.

    In fact, I’d argue that increased politicization of government activity grew (in the US at least) out of the failures of so many cities all at once. Cities were the homes of America’s great and progressive bureaucracies and it turned out that they failed. This provided an opening for arguments rooted in Hayekian critiques. The levers of power (especially the bureaucratic, technocratic) were placed in opposition to the people and their will. One could argue that the unionization of gov’t workers exacerbated the growing partisan divide over these issues.

    Then throw in the triangulation of the Clinton years, followed by the low heat war between the United States and Islamic terrorists and then Saddam Hussein and Bush’s inability to get past a 50 +1 electorate all pushed this further down the road you describe.

    How do we move forward toward a better place?

    A couple thoughts:
    1. De-centralization of nearly all politics, both gov’tal and NGO. As an example, many organizations that were once predominantly local and based on a mass membership have become increasingly nationalized and dominated by a small elite, I’m thinking here of human relations organizations of various stripes, but also the precursors to the modern political action committee. More attention to subsidiarity would be beneficial.
    2. Reduce the power of government employees to be an identifiable constituency through the removal of unions and similar actions on behalf of groups like the NEA and AFSCME.
    3. On the issue of the national security state, the country as a whole needs to start a process of finding a way to be both a primary world power (which isn’t changing) and re-engage with more traditional American attitudes about defense that were suppressed by various parties from TR onward.

  2. Julian Long says:

    Thanks for this essay, Tim. I have the same hope for Obama’s new politics. It seems to me that these concerns are related to some conversations I remember we’ve had in the past, about the public sphere and the whole idea of the public good.

  3. hestal says:

    The most efficient legislative period in my memory is the LBJ period of 1964-1965. Using that as a mark of what is possible, I will call it the LBJ-Unit. I estimate that we are faced with about 40 LBJ-Units before we get our house in order and ready to deal with the long-term future – 40 LBJ-Units is 80 years, we will all be dead.

    If a Democrat takes office then the earnest work can begin, if and only if Democrats win decisive majorities in Congress. The first two years will result in the equivalent of only .5 LBJ-Units of accomplishment. The next two years will result in only 1.0.

    The first term will go like this.

    Celebration, speechifying, and organizing: throughout the entire first year.

    Slow troop withdrawal from Iraq starting in the first year.

    Fights over global warming and healthcare legislation with no significant legislation in the first two years.

    Passing healthcare legislation written by the health insurance industry in the third year.

    Two global warming bills, one to reduce emissions the other to fund a NASA-like program to pursue solar energy and biofuels in the fourth year.

    At the end of the first Democratic term we will have accomplished 1.5 LBJ-Units of work and will have 38.5 to go. We will have spent 4 calendar years. At this rate we will have 103 calendar years before we catch up with events that we can see in front of us today.

    LBJ was a LEGISLATOR. We have no one like him in government today. Our legislative leaders are weak and indecisive.

    “New politics” will not to get us anywhere.

    “De-centralization” will not get us anywhere, in fact the fights it will produce will slow us down.

    We have been arguing the theoretical aspects of the “public sphere” and the “public good” for two centuries now and look where we are.

    If those historians among us would just jot down a list of the successes we have had in the sphere of the public good since the end of WWII, I think they will find several until the Carter Administration. Since then we have had only one, and that is the end of the Cold War. But even that success was begun 60 years ago by Truman and Eisenhower. So it is safe to say that all of the presidents since JFK/LBJ have not given us any success in the area of the public good, particularly any lasting ones.

    So, it is asking much of Senator Obama to be the savior of our nation, but that is what his fans seem to be asking. I don’t think he is up to it. We need grownups in charge, and we don’t have any.

  4. My impression is that the problem isn’t the bureaucrats who were already there when Bush took office, but those he appointed, either at the top (e.g. the EPA) or in all-new bureaucracies (e.g. in Iraq). Of course, there’ve been political hacks in all administrations, but I can’t think of any twentieth-century administration which valued professionalism, or even competence, so little.

    As for broader factors, I think the main problem is that various groups and institutions — Congress, the media, and the Washington “establishment,” for starters — which should have raised the alarm at the Bush administration’s abuses of power, didn’t. (Blogs aren’t enough.) That’s the crucial distinction between the Nixon era and today, IMO.

  5. Bruce Wilder says:

    Taking a broad perspective, I expect we are looking at the progress of political and institutional senescence. Like any essentially organic production, a political institutional regime has a natural lifetime. The natural lifespan of a set of political institutions is tied to human lifespans and, more particularly, the span of political careers, which, because of the historical punctuation of crisis events, have more concurrence than overlap amidst their multitude.

    The American constitution (sic: small ‘c’) has not been one thing, from the first formation of American federal government in May 1775, to today — it has had distinct phases, as it has fallen into near fatal dysfunction, and been renewed and reorganized, at intervals — surprisingly regular intervals, when you look back, which reflect I suppose the American immunity to outside intervention combined with the inevitable passing of generations. The Revolutionary War generation had a long run, but petered out just as the generation of young leaders thrown up by the War of 1812 came into their own; they lasted down to about 1850, and were followed by Civil War, which set in motion momentus changes in the political alignment of the country and profound alterations to the Constitution. The Great Depression of 1893 and the election of 1896 initiated a political realignment, which was followed by the wholesale reinvigoration of national institutions by the Progressive Movement.

    This renewal of generations is nothing unique to the American circumstance. These intervals are clearly visible in the history any country, enjoying immunity to the trauma of outside interventions. From 1917 to 1989 is 72 years; from 1832 to 1906 is 74 years; just as 1860 to 1932 is 72 years.

    The present institutions of American government and political culture, and to a large extent, of World government, were founded in the New Deal and World War II. 1932 was 76 years ago — the New Deal is an old man, past his allotted four score and ten.

    The disease, the cancer, the entropy, which afflicts the American body politic has always been there, a Jungian shadow, growing as the vigor of youthful idealism has faded away and the challenges, which called forth strength are forgotten, and the strength dissipates and is misused. The libertarian political critique, which arose to exploit failing memories for why the New Deal built the institutions it did, is also old, though. Its prophets — men like Milton Friedman and William F Buckley have passed.

    The lack of alarm is a symptom of institutional failure. But, let’s notice that the proponents of authoritarianism took care to eliminate or weaken institutions, which were designed to channel response. Impeachment of Clinton was an inoculation, which wiped out the Independent Prosecutor, created in the Nixon debacle. Media consolidation — the folding up broadcast media into corporate conglomerate ownership — eliminated the independent Media voices. The Democratic Party was triangulated and castrated by a hostile Media, controlled by a hostile class of Corporate Executives, committed to the other Party in a K-street project of systematic corruption. The compensation of hedge fund managers and CEOs skyrocketed, creating a new Gilded Age. The institutional changes, the deregulation, which incubated the present banking crisis blends with the institutional changes, which subtly transformed the news media into an right-wing, entertainment machine.

    These changes, which take the institutional structure toward decrepitude, are not unlike the aging of a natural body. If they call forth a new generation, in idealism, to create new structures and new purposes, to renew the constitution of the United States, the country will go on. The decay, which followed the coming to power of the generation of Gingrich, Clinton and Bush II, is no greater in magnitude than the decay of the 1850’s, or the crises of the Great Depression of 1893-5 or the Great Depression of 1929-39.

    This present renewal of American political instituions has wider implications, because American institutions — and particularly the present generation of institutions — are tied so intimately in conception to the present generation of world government. A similar renewal of world governmental institutions is due within a decade or so, probably after the inevitable upheaval in China, just now getting underway.

    If the U.S. manages a sensible renewal of its political institutions, including a responsible response to the emerging realities of peak oil and global warming, it will smooth the way to a renewal of the international institutions, created after World War II. If the U.S. fails, and continues to decay into a rogue, I would expect the renewal of global institutions to be shaped in the crucible of the world having to come together in a cooperative effort to put the U.S. down.

  6. Doug says:

    I’m glad this is up and drawing such serious replies.

  7. ikl says:

    Time for you to register as a Democrat, don’t you think?

  8. AndrewSshi says:

    Gah, I’m late on this, but…

    Hestal, “Only one” public good? I seem to recall that in the late 1980’s, a lot of America’s urban areas looked like western Baghdad, with New York city clocking close to 1400 homicides a year. You may find the solution (incarcerating 1% of the population) sub-optimal, but it’s pretty much the case that there was a bleeding ulcer of a problem that various governments looked at, addressed, and solved.

    The issue of deficit spending was briefly solved until the current #$%# regime took power, and there are probably other issues I could think of if I weren’t just going off the top of my head.

  9. hestal says:


    Reducing crime is a good thing, but it took place at the state and local level. And reductions have happened before in NYC, only to rise again when the administration changes. But even though such a change is good, it is does not compare to the ones I listed that happened before Ronald Reagan.

    Another way of stating my argument that our national government, controlled by our two-party system, is a failure, is to look at the bad things that have happened and that could have been stopped or mitigated by a national government that had the interests of the People in mind.

    I start with the Surgeon General’s report in 1964 about the dangers of tobacco. The national government did nothing but provide cover for the evil scheme, and it was exactly that, to falsely claim that the science on the dangers of tobacco was open to honest disagreement and needed more research. In the meantime the tobacco interests, inlcuding many national government officials, continued to pocket money and cause the early deaths of millions of our citizens.

    Health insurance for those who are without. For the past eight years Gallup had conducted a poll asking if the People wanted the national government to take steps to cover all citizens. The average response in the affirmative during that period was 62.2%, extremely high, don’t you think? Yet nothing has happened except to help the bad guys with the addition of the Medicare Part D, Medicare HMO’s, and failing to renew SCHIP. Each of these recent actions has served to increase profits for the friends of the government and led to overall reductions in the total people covered. So our government has continued to shorten the lives of innocent, and powerless, citizens.

    Global warming is just a larger and far more dangerous twin of the tobacco plot. Again the captains of industry and their governmental lackeys have trotted out the old strategy of claiming falsely that the science on global warming and greenhouse gases is doubtful and more research is needed for what is most likely a “natural event.” This heinous act by our leaders places our nation at the head of the line of those who are following destructive policies that could well lead to the early deaths of billions of people. Remember, just because you (maybe, I am guessing) and I take global warming seriously it is of no consequence because we are powerless to do anything about it, and so far, nothing is being done.

    We have the decay of the barriers protecting New Orleans from the sea. This decay took place over years and under many administrations. Then, as science predicted, disaster struck. Our national government caused this disaster.

    Then there is our dependence on fossil fuels and on those who supply us oil. Our government has done nothing except coddle the energy industry while they lined their own pockets.

    The Iraq War, and the torture of prisonsers, is surely a public evil, not a public good.

    The disappearance of the middle class, and, as you mentioned, our great debt for which we get no benefit, are still more public evils.

    Contrast this record with the accomplishments of the the generation that fought WWII.

    The fought and won WWII, and rebuilt much of the world that WWII had destroyed.

    They passed Civil Rights acts in 1957, and again under LBJ including the voting rights acts.

    Ike finished what Truman had barely started and he integrated D.C., the military, and schools in the South. His acts encouraged MLK and others to continue to apply pressure to the racists in the South and in Congress.

    Ike also carried out what Truman started when he made the policies of mutual deterrence stonger which led to the winning of the Cold War, for which Reagan gets the credit. What a shame.

    Ike started the Interstate Highway System.

    The trips to the moon and the benefits that flowed from them.

    Medicare and Medicaid, which have been under abuse and assault from the moment they were enacted, have proven to provide genuinely humanitarian services to millions upon millions of our citizens, extending lives — not shortening them.

    There is more, but you get the idea. Our national government has been transformed from doing public good to doing public evil. On the whole our two-party system is a tyrant, which rules in the interests of its controlling members. Our national government has become a world class killing machine.

    Reducing crime in NYC a point or two, while important, is not quite on the same scale. And I daresay that if crime in NYC were under the jurisdiction of our national government then the success you report would never have happened.

  10. Doug says:

    Since I can’t seem to find the time for to a longer take, my very short take is that anything like “truth and reconciliation” would require a substantial number of Republicans to think, and to say publicly, that they have done something wrong. I don’t see any evidence for that.

    Maybe a serious dose of electoral therapy will convince Republicans to approach things differently, and to mend their ways. At present, the reaction seems to be more about intensifying the contradictions.

    As a happily partisan Democrat, I ask what should I repent of? Not rioting in Florida in 2000? Not mau-mauing the national media after the “Dean scream”? Believing that some things (like war and national security) would be too important for even the Bush people to lie about? There are a lot of shortcomings that I see among Democratic leaders since 2001, but none I can think of right now that stem from an excess of partisanship or thatwould be addressed by a truth and reconciliation process. Frankly, the thing I would most like to apologize to posterity for is not winning more elections, and not resisting the other party more forcefully.

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