The Shape of Politics to Come I: the potential energy of a voiceless bloc

May 4, 2007

The recent events surrounding the presidential campaign of Mike Gravel, though not of earth-shattering importance in and of themselves, encapsulate three trends that, though at the moment still subterranean, promise to burst out into the open in the next few years. All three involve in various ways the diminishing ability of the elite and elite opinion to steer the course of the political process. The elite has primarily its own neglectful or malign actions to blame for each of these trends, for reasons I will point out specifically in each case. On the surface one might expect, because each of these trends are to a large extent initiated by the young and the open-minded, that the leading edge of the Left should have no reason to do anything but rejoice. However, each of these trends also opens up a “Pandora’s Box” that could cut any of several ways in the end, especially if its significance is not appreciated early on.

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The most timely and self evident trend: the final realization on the part of the activists and voters and donors who worked to bring about the 2006 Democratic Congressional victory they’ve been played.

The representatives in DC will take no concerted action to ending the US War in Iraq–and no “top tier” candidates feel any urgency to end it either. This directly ties in to the appeal of the last person to filibuster against a major war, and the use that Gravel is making of his Senatorial history as a draft-ender in his campaign. This augurs a more amorphous, but potentially much more significant trend: the growing consciousness (even, “class consciousness”), on the part of a large, young group that lies well to the “left” of the elite consensus of national security policy, that no one within the “acceptable” range of political opinion (Edwards to Giuliani, say) represents their viewpoint. Gravel taps into this with his head-on rhetorical assault on the military-industrial complex and making the direct linkage (which hasn’t been heard of in at least 20 years) of the amount of money spent on “defense” and poor funding for education and other domestic programs. The elite largely brought this state of affairs about by first raising, then dashing, the prospect of a “peace dividend” (remember that from ’92?) at the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The “threats” of Saddam and China filled in for the Soviet Union as justification of the outsized military for a little while (precariously!) until the “War on Terror” and the US-manufactured Iraq-Afghani choas (and now the “gathering threat of a resurgent Russia”–also manufactured) definitively removed any thought of a peace dividend. The potential for mischief here is, objectively speaking, very slight. It is almost inconceivable that anyone would be elected to high office without knowing the difference between protecting the vital interests of the US abroad–namely, the consistent flow of energy–and peripheral concerns of interest only to special pleaders. If there is a danger, it is that a well-intentioned reformer will move too quickly, and without fostering sufficient understanding from the public, to cancel defense porkbarrel projects, disregarding the great extent to which the current US economy depends on strategically pointless military projects. Such failure to lay the groundwork may induce a putsch by formerly coddled contractors, probably disguised in some legal form such as impeachment on trumped-up charges.

Parts 2) and 3) to appear soon…

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7 Responses to “The Shape of Politics to Come I: the potential energy of a voiceless bloc”

  1. akap said

    I’ll say it again: I think we’ll hear more and more about Gravel. (Provided he doesn’t croak,ha! Actually, I don’t think he looks 77. More like 75. No seriously, I think he looks great for his age and his age didn’t even come into mind when I saw all the candidates together on stage.)

    I agree with you about the obvious trend…

    “How could they have been so poorly prepared for the aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein?” (Hillary)
    It’s called a power vacuum, sweetheart;you should have done your homework before you voted. I have a very difficult to time believing that she couldn’t and/or didn’t imagine what the aftermath would be. Ditto for the other major candidates who seem to take variations on the same basic stance regarding Iraq.

    The thing, to my mind, that Gravel has going for him is that he is a forgotten hero that put into the public record the Pentagon Papers and, alone, filibustered and helped defeat draft renewal in the Vietnam War era. Along with his ability to undercut the other candidates and their general b.s., he carries immense historical weight. I hope this will resonate with lots of people.

    I don’t see sudden cuts in defense spending by a president as a potential danger; I can’t think of how such cuts are possible at the push of a button. Rather, _proposed_ cuts/legislation by a reformer would be a great threat to the defense industry/contractors.

  2. heatkernel said

    akap said:
    I don’t see sudden cuts in defense spending by a president as a potential danger; I can’t think of how such cuts are possible at the push of a button. Rather, _proposed_ cuts/legislation by a reformer would be a great threat to the defense industry/contractors.

    heatkernel says:
    I agree. But even if they are gradual they could bring about a lot of economic dislocation to people who are not retrainable. Any administration that made such cuts would have to do considerable groundwork in two areas: 1) PR, in order to prepare the American people to resist the inevitable PR counter-attack by the threatened interests. 2) Economic in order to find new work, e.g., in building up public transportation infrastructure and small off-grid energy projects, for the laid-off technical workers.

    Perhaps, the last time such an opportunity presented itself, 1992-4, Bill Clinton’s neglect of doing either of these things prevented the peace dividend from coming into being.

  3. J.p. said

    I agree that none of the “major” candidates seems to represent the opinion of the left (which is weird, given how far the republican candidates are running to the right). I don’t see a lot of evidence that this will translate to electoral success, though. Look at Howard Dean (and John Kerry) in 2006. The fact is that young people just don’t vote. Now, if Dean as party chair can figure out a way to make that happen, maybe 2008 will be different.

    On the peace dividend, my understanding is that defense spending is at a historic low as a percentage of GDP. The size of the military _was_ drastically cut in the Clinton era (at least in terms of in-service personnel… I’m not sure about other things). Of course, Reagan/GHWB military spending was done at a deficit, so deficit and debt reduction were bound to soak up most of the savings.

    On the other hand, there is clearly a lot that can be cut. We have a chart at work of all the Navy ships currently in service. The number of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines is simply crazy in a world in which our potential opponents just don’t have those kinds of weapons systems. Of course, just as you say, the aging cold warriors claim we need them to contain the Chinese menace.

    @akap: Major defense cuts are indeed possible at the stroke of a pen. Witness Rumsfeld’s cancellation of the Army’s Crusader artillery system. The man may have been a fool wrt/ Iraq, but his “transformation” agenda had some good ideas. Of course, it didn’t address what the military really needs as an instrument of neoconservative foreign policy, which is “nation building”.

    I agree with heatkernel that they can be accomplished with a sufficient PR campaign, and if a good percentage of the money is reinvested places like NASA and the NSF, it can be a great benefit to society as well. I’m painfully aware of the percentage of engineering jobs that are traceable directly to defense dollars, especially the high quality ones. A lot of commercial jobs tend to be dismal things like manufacturing and test engineering.

  4. J.p. said

    @akap:
    As John Kerry proved, having anti-Vietnam credentials is more of a liability in a general election than a benefit. On the left (and probably most of the center) I think its widely held that Vietnam was a disaster we ought never have gotten in to. On the right, though, the received wisdom is that the peace movement (and the liberal media) caused us to lose the war through their opposition. Just as we see now with Iraq, there is a powerful need for veterans, and their families and friends, to believe that they fought/died for a good cause.

    As an example, see a recent NPR story (I’ve tried to include it in the link portion of the comment) about the debate in one town over whether to support a U.S. department of peace. In the audio version of the story (not in the transcript) a guy makes a comment about the terrible things the peace sign stood for in the vietnam era. That people in this world really believe that shows how big a disconnect there still is over it (and what we’re in for over Iraq in years to come).

  5. heatkernel said

    @J.p.
    A few crucial differences I see between Gravel and Kerry vis-a-vis Vietnam. The most salient for the purposes of what akap was saying is that Gravel is running in a Democratic primary, not a general election. The attitude of the average voter in a Dem primary, esp. young ones, towards the Vietnam war, is apt to be very different from that of the average voter. Also, Kerry’s opposition to the war, IIRC, to a large extent took the form of testifying as part of the Winter Soldier project that his fellow soldiers had committed war crimes, and many of the right-wing attacks focused on that ‘betrayal’. I don’t think that filibustering against the draft, Gravel’s contribution, would be so considered so divisive an act, in hindsight. I’d love to see the Republicans try to villify someone for ending the draft! Further, Kerry’s simultaneous claims to be a war hero, justified though they almost certainly were based on his record, clashed heavily with this later anti-war stance, and may have led to a lot of the suspicion of him as undependable in general. Gravel’s service, by contrast, came way before the Vietnam war and wasn’t in combat, so doesn’t carry the same charge in relation to his later stances against the M.I.C.

    Overall, many thanks for your comments, though J.p. It’s always good to hear directly from our mole inside the M.I.C.!

  6. J.p. said

    I totally agree with you that anti-Vietnam credentials are an asset in the democratic primaries. How else could a cold fish like John Kerry have gotten the nomination? Then again, I guess he was the tallest one…

    My point is that the democratic nominee needs to be capable of winning the general election, or else we may well end up with 4 more years of disastrous policies. Although to be fair, someone like Giuliani wouldn’t be so bad.

    As for attacking Gravel, it’s all about framing. Instead of saying he tried to stop the draft, they’d say he undermined America’s war effort, and tried to usurp the role of commander in chief. Just like those bums in congress are doing right now!

  7. heatkernel said

    @JP
    “Although to be fair, someone like Giuliani wouldn’t be so bad.”

    Please tell me you’re joking. Please…? Could you be meaning that someone else who “like Giuliani” has a surname beginning with “G” ought be elected? Hmmm.

    If you weren’t joking, do go to the blog archives of Glenn Greenwald and Matt Yglesias and do a search for “Giuliani” and educate yourself. If, after sampling some of their material on him, you haven’t come around to my view that Giuliani would be the worst possible choice at this point in our history, come back for more discussion. I’d be perfectly willing to talk about this at length, but there’s no reason for me simply retype the evidence that the above two bloggers have amassed.

    @JP
    “As for attacking Gravel, it’s all about framing. Instead of saying he tried to stop the draft, they’d say he undermined America’s war effort, and tried to usurp the role of commander in chief. Just like those bums in congress are doing right now!”

    On that narrow point, I would say, again, I’d welcome it if they tried that line of argument. This isn’t 2002 anymore, and usurping the role of CIC (which it’s not, BTW–Congress voted for the peacetime draft at the beginning of the Cold War, so also had the authority to revoke it), when seen in the context of this unpopular CIC, would have widespread popularity. The reason for avoiding a usurpation of Presidential authority with regards to warmaking is not to avoid a public backlash (the public by a large margin wants to see him reigned in), but to prevent the Admins. lawyers for successfully arging their case before the Supreme Court. Gravel’s plan, to be announced in detail Monday (but already explained on his website in outline) is tailored to do just that.

    In a larger sense, I’m baffled by the implication, which I see innumerable times, not just here, that right-wingers will be successful in whatever “framing” they choose to make, and that left-wingers can never counter it effectively with framing or counter-arguments of their own. It really makes me think that this whole “framing” diagnosis of the right-wing dominance in this country is off-base (or at least, diagnosing a trivial symptom as the cause of the disease).

    But I think maybe the most clearcut disagreement we have is when you say
    “My point is that the democratic nominee needs to be capable of winning the general election, or else we may well end up with 4 more years of disastrous policies.”
    That democratic nominee could well wind up being Hillary. What evidence at all do you have that her policies would be any less disastrous for the long-term health of this country than Bush’s? Don’t forget that the Iraq Regime Change Act of 1998 was signed by her husband and she voted for the war.

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