An American Melodrama
December 9, 2013
Of late, I have been reading the book, An American Melodrama, written by three Brits on the 1968 presidential election shortly after it was over. Below are some passages therefrom, followed by some comments by yours truly which I think help illuminate the character of American politics.
“The Great Society was not the most daring, but is was perhaps the most bellicose program of social reform in history. It was to be a war on poverty. Federal funds were to be ‘fired in’ to pockets of poverty in what was known…as ‘the rifle-shot approach’….On…occasion, [LBJ] actually spoke of ‘throttling want.’ It was as if the President and the comfortable middle class…who supported…his program were intolerably affronted by the impudent persistence of poverty, rather than concerned at the condition of the poor.
“The same initial burst of aggressive confidence characterized the 1963 and 1964 efforts of the Administration and…the great foundations to destroy segregation and ‘achieve integration.’ The Congress did pass a long schedule of reform legislation, pieces of which…are probably of historic importance. But it is fair to say that this program was sold more energetically than it was carried out and that is was, from the start, more aggressive than radical. The Administration’s approach seemed curiously industrial. A problem was identified: in this case, there are too many poor people in the United States. Right. Let the problem be bulldozed out of existence. Experts were consulted and [they] suggested ‘solutions.’ These suggestions were priced and a carefully graduated ‘mix’ of ‘programs’ applied. Elaborate public-relations antics were directed where persuasion was thought necessary – to Congress; to the press, of course; even in certain instances to the proposed recipients, if they proved recalcitrant. Finally, quantitative estimates of success…were proudly produced.
“But the point of social reform…ought not to be to push x million people above some notional ‘poverty line.’ As poverty is relative, so there can be no useful ‘attack’ on it that does not involve the effective redistribution of goods, services, and wealth. But redistribution hurts. It demands hard decisions. And these the Johnson Administration did not seem willing to make. Indeed, it is very doubtful whether the classes that exercise power in the United States really want to abolish poverty, or any other major social problem if it is going to mean paying a price that will hurt. And it is hubristic to think you can conquer problems that have never been conquered before, however rich you are, if you are not prepared to pay a price to do so.” [Pp. 41-41]
A few comments:
(1) The war on poverty was “conservative” in that it was an alternative to more radical options such as “the redistribution of goods, services, and wealth.” The authors write, though, as if the politicians and others involved here did not know this, while it seems just as likely that they, the politicians, did know that their approach was “curiously industrial,” and deliberately so. After all, had they adopted other, more radical approaches, they would have been admitting that poverty was not an unintentional result of their way of governing, their brand of politics, but was endemic to their “political system.” The notion of “pockets of poverty,” which allegedly could be “throttled” with some extra effort, reflects the self-satisfying view that poverty in the United States can be explained without indicting the social and political system itself.
(2) The authors also say that “redistribution hurts,” that it “demands hard decisions” and involves “paying a price that will hurt.” And they also suggest that even though Americans are rich, they “are not prepared to pay [the] price” needed to conquer poverty. No doubt they are correct about the price that needs to be paid. But “the price” would not only be expensive monetarily; it would also be “expensive” to some politically as it would require political “realignment,” to say the least. That is, once the phenomenon of poverty is seen as systemic, then different experts would need to be consulted, different “solutions” suggested, to be implemented by politicians and bureaucrats with very different opinions than those currently entrusted with power. But by recommending “bellicose” policies aimed at “throttling” poverty, the predominant players present themselves as serious social reformers and not, as it actually the case, as supporters of the status quo. Waging war is, as every politician knows even without reading Machiavelli, one way of maintaining the status quo.
(3) Most of this status quo approach to politics is facilitated by the “curiously industrial” approach as described by these authors. Once poverty is identified as “a problem,” and especially as a problem that exists in “pockets,” into which “programs” can “fired” and therefore “attacked,” the focus is on poverty, and not on its systemic roots. And, moreover, by this mindset, the current elites just need sufficient power to successfully attack and throttle poverty. That is, there is no need to redistribute, rearrange, or redirect power; it is only necessary to grant more of it. And any connection between the current elites and their brand of politics and the phenomenon of poverty is severed.
(4) This is the same mindset that was evident with regard to the Vietnam War. That is, it was said, and is still being said, over and over and over, that the then predominant players just needed more power to solve the problem of Communist aggression in South Vietnam. That describing Vietnam as a “problem” was less than useful; that what was called “Communist aggression” was something else altogether; that the place Americans called “South Vietnam” was merely an illusion; all of this does not matter or went unrecognized given our predominant mindset, as laid out here in this book.
(5) And, of course, by merely “pulling out” of the war on poverty or other wars does nothing to change this predominant mindset. The questions that need to be raised are not raised, a fact that might not escape the notice of politicians committed to maintaining the status quo, politicians like Bill Clinton who has won acclaim as a politician for making the Democratic Party “relevant” again by being a “new Democrat.” And, not surprisingly, Clinton is followed by an allegedly “conservative” president who gives us “No Child Left Behind,” built on the same reasoning that underlay LBJ’s Great Society, which is then followed on by a “Race to the Top” by an allegedly “liberal” Democrat president. Under these circumstances, it is exceedingly difficult to take what passes for political debate in the United States seriously. And it should be said that the bellicose rhetoric that characterizes that debate currently serves the same purpose as was served by the bellicose character of the war on poverty or the war on crime – it serves to preserve the status quo.