Wednesday, June 13, 2012

“The Pendulum of Politics”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“The Pendulum of Politics”
June 13, 2012

Should Mitt Romney win the White House in November, he will have a massive job restoring order to a dysfunctional government and confidence to a disheartened nation. In fact, Mr. Romney will have to be transformative – not to be a transcendentalist, as Mr. Obama promised to be in 2008, for Mr. Romney is only human. But he must change the fiscal direction of the country and attempt to unify millions of people with myriad opinions.

Looking back fifty or sixty years, people my age often yearn for what seems, with the distance of time, to have been a calmer and more cohesive 1950s. Time has a way of rounding the sharper edges of history. We forget that the ‘50s were a period in which segregation was rampant and most graduates of Wellesley and Smith College could find jobs only as secretaries. Intolerance and prejudice were so common that frequently they were not recognized as such.

Beneath the surface, though, the earth was beginning to tremble. The end of the decade brought with it the Civil Rights movement, which in turn brought needed change to a nation grown too comfortable in its biases. Three television networks – all spewing the same editorial content – replaced innumerable newspapers, as people’s primary news source. As a result, and despite protest marches, a false sense of serenity evolved. Even the anti-war protests of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s did not divide the nation to the extent it is divided today, again in part due to the limited sources of news and the non-confrontational opinions they expressed.

That began to change with the advent of cable television and talk radio, which allowed dissidents to more easily express themselves. Today, the internet allows anyone to express any opinion he or she chooses. As a result, despite the noise level and a perceived lack of quality we are better informed than ever before. Traditional sources of information, like newspapers, magazines and network telelvision, in order to remain relevant, have had to become as biased as their more recent competitors, talk radio and cable news. The New York Times still carries the message “All the News That’s Fit to Print” on its banner, but in reality it is nothing more than an organ for leftist politics. One can say the same thing about the Wall Street Journal and Investor’s Business Daily, on the right. The only difference being that they don’t pretend to be something they are not. Network television has become increasingly apologists for the Left, as have CNN and MSNBC, while Fox News provides the same service for the Right. If one chooses, one can be very well informed. On the other hand, such biased reporting can also serve to solidify the biases of the less curious.

For most of our history, political dissonance has been fanned by the press, initially by pamphleteers and later by myriad newspapers representing every conceivable opinion, and printed in hundreds of languages. The placidity of the 1950s was never the norm. It was a rare interlude made possible by early television and the decline of daily papers.

Earlier, World War I had changed the world from one built on social strata to one of far greater equality and democracy. The end of the war brought with it a period of difficult adjustment – hyperinflation in Germany, the rise of dictators in Spain, Italy and Germany, a period of wanton spending in the U.S. that became known as the “Roaring ‘20s.” A stock market crash and ensuing global Depression brought that period to an end in 1929. Following the angst of the Great Depression and a devastating World War, people were ready for a time of calm and the 1950s, fortuitously, provided it. As mentioned above, many people of my generation think of that time as the norm. It wasn’t. It only represented a small segment in the arc of the political pendulum.

We are now in another time of great turmoil. Our financial system came close to collapse in the fall of 2008. While it has become unpopular to say so, the system was saved by the extraordinary efforts of three men – Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and NY Fed President Timothy Geithner. Those three, along with a handful of bankers, prevented what could have been a catastrophe, not just for the U.S., but for the world. All three have been criticized for doing too much, or doing too little. But the fact is the credit crisis was largely resolved by the end of 2008. The problem has been the subsequent failure of economic policy. Nobody, American, European or Asian has shown leadership in galvanizing global markets with the goal of improving world economies. Instead, the cause of this first meltdown four years ago – at its essence, too much debt – has been allowed to continue to expand, until today we sit perilously close to where we sat four years ago, and Europe close to where it was eighty years ago.

David Brooks’ column yesterday in the New York Times speaks to the waning respect of people for institutions and leaders. He writes that it is due to a rising cynicism and that people “like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them.” Personally, I am unsure as to which came first, poor leaders or poor followers. Mr. Brooks concludes that to “have good leaders you have to have good followers – able to recognize just authority, admire it and emulate it.” I am not so certain. Leadership, in my opinion, means taking a position and adhering to it, but above all it means having moral principles. One of Mr. Obama’s problems is that he campaigned as a uniter – remember the “purple” states, no more red and blue? – that he would mend a nation divided by an unpopular war; but instead he has governed as a divider, and seems devoid of moral principle. His signature piece of legislation was a healthcare bill that was passed without one Republican vote. A risk to the world is that into this leadership void might arrive an unprincipled, charismatic, populist, power-hungry leader to seize control.

No matter what side of the political aisle one sits, there is a general agreement that government has become dysfunctional. I suspect that the problem is not so much reflective of stridently different opinions, as it has to do with politicians who are too closely aligned with special interest groups, what we usually call crony capitalism. We can wish that money and politics will no longer mix, but we cannot legislate or regulate their separation. Campaign finance reform has been an abysmal failure because it fails to account for human behavior. The only thing we could legislatively change to reduce the overt influence of money in politics would be to impose term limits, thereby diminishing the relative importance of legislators to special interests.

Regardless, the pendulum that is politics will continue to swing, from left to right and from right to left. But, as stated earlier, it is unlikely that politically we will ever again revert to what we remember as the calmness of the ‘50s and early ‘60s when the bulk of our news was determined by three anchormen, all of whom were politically cast from the same mold.

In many respects Mitt Romney faces the reverse problem of Mr. Obama who promised unity. To secure the nomination Mr. Romney had to cater to some extreme elements within the Republican Party, especially, in my opinion, regarding immigration and other social issues. However, given his past history, his tenure at the helm of Bain Capital and as Governor of Massachusetts, I strongly suspect he is more principled than his opponent, and his beliefs more moderate and more inclusive. Primary races tend to bring out the worst in candidates. The general election will provide a better platform to judge both men. In attempts to win primaries, candidates tend to campaign from the fringes, and then tack toward the center for the general election. Gravity, if nothing else, will ultimately pull the political pendulum back toward the center.

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