American Politics: There’s No Success Like Failure
May 30, 2015
I have been reading a book entitled, The Selling of ‘Free Trade’ by John MacArthur, about the passing of NAFTA during the Clinton administration. And this book is one of the best I have read for understanding how the American political order actually works. Or, to put this another way, it is an excellent book for understanding how our oligarchy governs us.
At least two phenomena of our political order become clear in MacArthur’s telling of the passage of NAFTA. The first phenomenon is how little the distinction between Republicans and Democrats means when it comes to political activity in the United States. For example, MacArthur points out that Clinton followed “a political calculus” of “scrounging for votes” to pass NAFTA despite having Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. And, as MacArthur says, this kind of thing is “far from unusual.” “Collusion between the parties is routine . . . , “ as MacArthur points out.
Yet what happens isn’t exactly “between the parties,” except superficially. That is, “Republicans” and “Democrats” are not labels that explain how our politicians actually behave, as MacArthur’s account makes clear. So, when MacArthur writes that Clinton’s “push for NAFTA” went to “extraordinary lengths . . . to collude with [his] putative enemies, the Republicans and the Fortune 500,” he is only partly right because those Clinton “colluded” with were not his enemies, putative or otherwise. They only pretended to be such in order to disguise their alliance, an alliance meant to serve the interests of the ruling elite rather than the popular will.
And why is this disguise necessary? To convince us, “the people,” that our “parties,” the “Republicans” and the “Democrats,” are in fact parties in that they seek to adopt and pass policies that serve “we the people.” But as Clinton’s “push for NAFTA” illustrates so well, being a “Republican” or a “Democrat” has little bearing on how most of our politicians behave or act. Nor does the popular will.
Sometimes, this disguise is revealed by those using it. For example, consider the following from JFK:
“Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political point of view – Republican of Democrat, liberal or conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most problems . . . that we now face are technical problems, administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of ‘passionate movements’ which have stirred this country so often in the past. Now they deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.” [JFK, May 21, 1962, cited in Free Trade]
In a revealing or candid way, JFK pronounces that both the Republican and the Democratic points of view are irrelevant for politics now. While we have been “conditioned” to think being a Republican or a Democrat matters, it doesn’t when it comes to governing because we face – and here comes the obfuscation – “technical problems” and/or “administrative problems” that require “very sophisticated judgments . . . which are beyond the comprehension of most men,” i.e., those conditioned to think that being a Republican or a Democrat matters.
So, being a Republican or a Democrat is, according to JFK, essentially meaningless. And he is correct but not because those in power want to “solve problems” that are “technical” or “administrative.” Rather, this is correct because when it comes to preserving the power of the prevailing political elite, to preserve “the regime” as Aristotle would say, being a Republican or a Democrat doesn’t matter. NAFTA served the interests of the prevailing elite, both political and social, and hence “Republicans” and “Democrats” colluded to get it done.
This dynamic may be illustrated as follows. Ask yourself, “Why Vietnam?” An answer that is quite common and seems persuasive is: The Democrats didn’t want to “lose” Vietnam like they “lost” China because that would cost them their power. But the “they” here should be seen for what it is, viz., not only the Democrats but the prevailing political elite, as evidence by the fact that the Republicans also embraced the war. And both embraced the war despite knowing that it could not, in all likelihood, be won. To “succeed” the war did not have to be won; it merely had to be fought.
And this brings up the second phenomenon quite common to our political order, viz., the usefulness of “failure.” In this example, even “failure” in Vietnam could help maintain the prevailing political elite, especially if this “failure” were the result of a particularly bloody or expensive commitment. Such an effort, such a policy, even though it “failed,” could be made to seem “noble,” as Ronald Reagan and many others portrayed the war in Vietnam. Did our politicians fail in Vietnam? Yes, but it was a noble failure as evidenced by all those deaths, the atrocities committed under duress, and the environmental destruction made necessary by the tenacity of our enemies. Even in failure, perhaps even especially in failure, our politicians were “successful” when success is understood as preserving the regime.
If you think this line of thought strange, ask why the Bay of Pigs fiasco led to higher approval ratings for President Kennedy. Or ask why even though Nixon “failed” in Vietnam, pulled out, and Vietnam “fell,” this did little to undermine his power or disempower the prevailing political elite. And, of course, the event that makes this phenomenon crystal clear is 9/11, a failure of immense and deadly proportions but one that led to the empowerment, not the disempowerment, of President Bush and the established or embedded political elite.
The connection between these two phenomena is as follows: “Republican” and “Democrat,” as understood conventionally as the most important of determinants of political behavior, are misleading insofar as they imply that our politicians seek to “solve problems,” to be “successful problem solvers” at all costs. Republicans have their solutions, and the Democrats have their solutions. And it is adherence to these different solutions that make one Republican or Democratic.
But, in fact, our politicians are, for the most part, more interested in preserving the status quo, that is, their own power and authority, and so this becomes the standard by which policies are assessed. And because this is their goal, “success” in terms of policy is not necessary or, in some circumstances, even desirable. “Failure” in terms of policy often works just as well in preserving the status quo, the prevailing regime. As Bob Dylan put it: “there is no success like failure. And . . . failure’s no success at all.” [“Love Minus Zero. No Limit.”]