More on the Quagmire of American Politics
June 22, 2014
Presently, I am reading a book by Benjamin Ginsberg entitled, “Downsizing Democracy,” in which Ginsburg argues that our democracy has been “personalized” when once it was “politicized.” Ginsberg describes himself as a cynic and, indeed, he is and a thoughtful one at that. His argument that our government has been built in such a way since the rise of the Progressives that it no longer needs to rely on mobilizing the people to govern makes a lot of sense.
Especially telling is his noticing that although our political elites pretend to be deeply divided and although there are a lot of people who don’t vote, neither of the two major parties shows any interest in increasing the size of the active electorate. “Divided government and political stalemate seem more acceptable to party elites than an effort to shift the balance by activating the politically inert.” [p. 49-50] And he goes on: “Only occasional political outsiders like Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura makes any real effort to bring non-voters into the electorate. Neither of the major parties supports electoral reforms such as the elimination of voter registration requirements or a shift from weekday to weekend voting….The parties’ apparent indifference to this enormous reservoir of potential voters is especially curious in light of the bitter conflicts that divide them….and the inconclusive outcomes of recent electoral contests.” [p. 49]
This is all well and good. Yet at times, Ginsberg is just too conventional in his analysis. For example, he sees LBJ’s “gradual escalation” of the war in Vietnam as an “effort to sustain consensus among Democrats” and cites Joseph Califano as his source. LBJ’s strategy, by this view, allegedly backfired because as “escalation followed escalation…federal funds flowed away from the War on Poverty to the war in Vietnam.” [p. 70] This strengthened the “resurgent conservative forces in Congress [whose] support for…Vietnam was a federal retreat from social engineering at home.” [Ibid.]
Now this implies that LBJ had no choice: He had to satisfy these conservatives if he was to continue the Vietnam War. But why did he have to continue that war? Why not go with those who wanted out of Vietnam, some of whom were even members of Johnson’s cabinet? Ginsberg doesn’t answer this question directly but he points us toward an answer.
As Ginsberg notes in passing, some of those opposed to the war were “student radicals.” That is, they represented a brand of politics LBJ rejected, a brand that his “Great Society” was meant to co-opt. Surprisingly because he is a cynic, Ginsberg does not entertain the possibility that the Great Society was intended to co-opt or avoid more radical possibilities, such as Black Power and “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” to use a shorthand.
LBJ had to stay in Vietnam not for Vietnam’s sake but to maintain the prevailing and predominant political class and its brand of politics, both of which were threatened by the unrest evident in society in the 60s. And this was a brand of politics and a class of politicians that included the Mayor Daley’s of Chicago. Thus, it could be said that LBJ’s “gradual escalation” did not backfire but succeeded. It led, ultimately, to the election of Richard Nixon and who better to turn to in order to continue and reinforce the ruling political class and its brand of politics?
Of course, later it became necessary to get rid of Nixon, of “Tricky Dick,” and to do so without upsetting the established too much. This was a “trick” that outdid anything that “Tricky Dick” ever did, at least up to that time. But then, still later, it was useful, and especially useful as it was done under President Clinton, the baby boomer president and former draft dodger, to “resurrect” or “rehabilitate” Richard Nixon as a “statesman.” And with that magic trick, the existing political order seemed to come full circle.
Now, this is cynicism, is it not? But that doesn’t make it wrong.