Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What’s looming, America? A crack-up or a boom?

These are anxious times for history spotters in the US and in Canada, looking on. There’s little time left for those bored by gridlock, sick to death of incrementalism, or those who have spiced up their careers warning that America, finally, is about to explode.

According to the IMF updated economic outlook, as well as stock prices, government and corporate revenues, hiring rates, commodity, and housing prices, the US economy is finally approaching healthy growth — similar to the pace of growth that’s dampened apocalyptic political temptations in the past.

In the 60s, at about the time I experienced my first serious adult migraine, I worried about nuclear bombs. I kept the company of spectacular worriers and read worrisome books. Influential voices in my generation are still worrying. However, today, most opine on more manageable concerns: on the possibility, for instance, that professional politicians, egged on by their talking points, will blow up America’s economy, if not its less-than-perfect union.

Meanwhile, I still worry about the bomb.

My crazy hope is that our leaders will secure their precious legacies by dismantling the world’s stockpiles of nuclear warheads and melting down those devilish red buttons on their portable triggers. Then they could give former presidents and their most senior bomb executives shiney red lapel pins boasting: “We didn’t kill you.”

The chances, of course, of a survivable catastrophe in American governance are higher. Actually, its prospect is as likely to cause delight as well as alarm in global audiences hooked on the American melodrama. So, we are focused on the debt ceiling and the ever-present chance that the insane other side of American politics will “go nuclear” in Congress.

CNN generates audiences for this bloodless drama, and partisan historians add gravitas.

Last week, Sean Wilentz in Rolling Stone and Jim Laxer in the Toronto Globe and Mail took maximum advantage of silence on the front in Washington to remind us that flirting with disaster and mayhem is built into the architecture of America’s democracy.

Wilentz recalls that ever since the 1870s, Southern extremists have been threatening fiscal catastrophe to try to emasculate liberal tendencies in Washington. For over 140 years, radicals and their “subversive fury” have enjoyed the power to smash “the rules of normal consensus-building politics” that are so necessary to the proper function of America’s divided system of government.

Jim Laxer is an affable, intelligent Canadian. He offers qualifiers such as: “dysfunctional features”, “government shutdowns at least for a time…”, and measures that “could well provoke large-scale violence.” Nevertheless, his vision is dark: “Post-shutdown America is on the verge of outright civil conflict.” Two quite “distinct societies” are approaching each other’s throats — one is “Old America” and one is “New America.” Jim doesn’t explicitly pick sides; he can’t. He’s a contentious Canadian nationalist.

Laxer does believe, however, that Canadian federalism can handle two distinct societies — but America’s can’t. He doesn’t suggest the Americans would still be better governed today as British colonies. But he offers this fabulously irrefutable proposition:

“A century and a half ago, the outbreak of the Civil War had a great deal to do with the U.S. system of government. Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States on November 6, 1860, with a minority of the vote in a four-way contest. By the time he was inaugurated four months later on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states had seceded from the American Union to form the Confederate States of America. With a parliamentary system, the 1860 election could have resulted in a minority government and some kind of compromise.”

During the century and a half since Lincoln used his Executive powers, and Southern reactionaries found ways to block the use of Executive powers, ordinary American politicians, with the backing of ordinary Americans, have been able to hold together a federation of not two, but numerous societies. Furthermore, as one republic, it won two hot and one cold global war — and successfully fostered the creation of a peaceful, decentralized world market place. Not bad for rebellious amateurs.

Sorry, Laxer. Next year, America will be further away from extreme trouble, not closer. “Old” and “new” Americans will be more prosperous and more secure. They will share an ever-growing stake in peacefully managing their differences. Today’s peacemakers, not today’s troublemakers, will re-assert themselves or be replaced by new peacemakers.

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