Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy in Capitalist Democracyland

Oh, the irony

I spoke to a (the?) reader of yesterday's blog on Ted Kennedy, President Obama and the fate of progressive change. She, the reader, said the post would have been easier to read if I'd been less present in the piece. Her point, I inferred, was that there were too many points in the piece and the further allusions to my current struggles to write diminished the authority with which I spoke about politics and policy.

Ah, well and yes. There were too many points.

First, there was this: if Kennedy had been healthy and functioning in the Senate since Obama's election, we would have passed health care legislation and labor law reform. If that were actually the case, the Republican opposition would still be struggling to regroup and progressives would still feel part of a viable political coalition capable of tackling other, even tougher, challenges, like orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan and the occupation of Palestine by a theocratic Israeli state. Of course, if pigs could fly, we would all keep one at home and use them for quick trips to the grocery store.

Second, there was implicitly this: The idea that a single individual could make so much difference undermines the basic theory of complex, modern democracy. This should not come as a surprise. Ever since humans gathered in tribes, charismatic leaders have made enormous differences, even making a pivotal difference in the survival of cultures and civilizations. Designing a democracy so that it creates as much basic political equality as possible and accommodates the full range of who humans are individually and in groups is a thoroughly incomplete project. Obviously, the attempt has been made before. We ought to try it again.

In my lifetime, Americans have elected 11 presidents--Truman, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama. Gerald Ford was the one unelected president during the period, but in 1974 the U.S. didn't feel particularly less democratic, though Ford did make use of his powers to pardon the paranoid and politically corrupt former president, Richard Nixon. And, as Nixon's own story exemplifies, powerful leaders, of democracies or otherwise, sometimes make profoundly undemocratic choices.

The impact of those choices are also multiplied when the leaders are very charismatic figures, too, as Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan were. The terrible state of U.S. relations with Cuba originated with JFK's Machiavellian encounters with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Though Kennedy was only briefly a president (1,000 days, or so), he managed to set the foundation for 50 years or reactionary policy toward Cuba. Kennedy also opened the door to Johnson, the war in Vietnam and the Great Society, a dubious legacy.

Johnson's war in Vietnam eventually became Nixon's war with its destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it (from the Communists) approach, as well as saturation bombings and the secret war in Cambodia. Johnson's most liberal achievement was the attempt to modernize the New Deal and build the Great Society, but his list of very progressive reforms could not survive both an unwillingness to tax in order to pay for war and social programs and his inclination to threaten Congressional Democrats hesitant to support his agenda.

It would be ahistorical to outright assert that Ronald Reagan was elected president primarily because of the frequently undemocratic failings of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, if only because Reagan himself was the first president to be a celebrity before he was a politician (or a general), was also a supremely charismatic figure campaigning against the uncharismatic Jimmy Carter, and was the beneficiary of a sustained Iran hostage crisis that Carter was unable to resolve.

Reagan pursued arguably the most undemocratic foreign policies during my lifetime. Magically, the Iran hostage crisis, seemingly so untractable during Carter's presidency, was resolved. The Reagan administration supported Latin American military dictatorships with enthusiasm and initiated (despite fervent Congressional and public opposition) a proxy war against Nicaragua's Marxist leadership. The Reagan team also supported Iran in a long, damaging war against Iraq and sold arms to Iran as a way to funnel support to Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries and evade a Congressional ban against using U.S. funds for that purpose.

Given these brief histories of charismatic leaders subverting democracy, what could possibly be the rap against Ted Kennedy?

Though we have not gotten to the "irony of it all," nor to "Ted Kennedy in Capitalist Land, we must needs bring today's post to a conclusion, if only to avoid a possible fate as tomorrow's post. Therefore maƱana.


  1. It's pretty easy for me (your other reader? ;) to believe that Teddy's legacy is problematic, but the Senate is a pretty different institution from the Presidency. I think it's much more fair to hold a President accountable for their foreign policy decisions than it is to hold a Senator accountable for what they were able to persuade 49 other Senators (or 59 in these ridiculous days) to support.

    Of course, you didn't actually get around to making the case against Teddy in this post (teaser for tomorrow?) so I look forward to reading your argument.

  2. Perhaps, a list that focuses only on the legacies of presidents is misleading, but I would say that senators have an enormous ability, in general to influence outcomes. I believe, for example, if Hilary Clinton had possessed the political courage to oppose Bush on the invasion of Iraq, it wouldn't have happened.

    There is no rewrite of history that can hide the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9-11, and that the longing for war was born in the earlier incapacities and/or failures of the Bush administration. I knew these things at the time and so did millions of Americans and billions of earthlings.

    However disingenuous she might have been about these things, Clinton knew them, too. And a filibuster proof minority of the Senate knew them and would have backed her leadership had she decided to oppose Bush. Call it an exercise in leadership (or a profile in courage) that deferred to a cautious political calculation.

    Colin Powell knew those things, as well, but buckled under and went to the United Nations to make the case for war. Very few people believed Powell, either, but Tony Blair pretended to believe and we marched off to a war that more courageous people in power could (and should) have stopped.

    As for Teddy Kennedy, yes, you are right, I will post more on him. Kennedy might have worn his privilege comfortably, and earned it in a post facto sort of way, and though I prefer gracious and liberal elites to the other kinds, I'm not sure how the efforts of Kennedys, both just and otherwise, move a democracy toward more democracy.