Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Jackson, Nostalgia, and the 1980s

Journalists are not usually in the habit of looking back. They are charged to deliver "breaking news" to us. Novelty is the coinage of the newsroom, not history. Yet this week, the media's preponderant coverage of the life and death of Michael Jackson has been stridently nostalgic. It reveals a culture needing and ready to sing an ode to the 1980s.

We cannot turn back time, but we can mark its passing. Up till last week, popular culture hadn't had the chance to address the passing of an 80s superstar and with that, the 1980s. We were given occasion to mourn and contemplate the passing of the 1950s with Elvis Presley's untimely death, and the passing of the 1960s with John Lennon's death. So we have sung an ode to the post-war consensus, as we have sung an ode to the cultural revolution.

But enough of the 80s has remained with us - MTV, Nintendo, Reaganomics - not defunct but writhing for relevance, that we have not dared sing its eulogy. Michael Jackson's and Farrah Fawcett's death has served us a dramatic notice that it may be time.

After all, it is unlikely that we will see another Michael Jackson. In our era where songs are downloaded one at a time, no one is likely to sell a 100 million records (of "Thriller" or any other album) again. The 80s are over, but it has taken us three decades to find a moment to collectively mark and mourn its passage.

Tragic deaths are compelling not only for human interest reasons, but for the decisive statement about our mortality they make. For if even iconic characters who once defined their age can be so suddenly ejected from the remorseless flow of history, then there is surely no stopping the march of time.

It is no surprise that Michael Jackson is more beloved post-humously than he was all of this decade. Elvis Presley too, had become more and more of a has-been as the 60s progressed. Time is never forgiving - our only feeble antidote is nostalgia. So wrote Joseph Conrad, "Only a moment; a moment of strength, of romance, of glamour--of youth! ... A flick of sunshine upon a strange shore, the time to remember, the time for a sigh, and--good-bye!--Night--Good-bye...!"

If the 1980s and whatever the decade represented are indeed over, then businessmen, journalists, and especially politicians - take note! Nostalgia can only occur when the past has been rendered past.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why Obama Must Treat DOMA with Care

Presidents array themselves along a continuum with two extremes: either they are crusaders for their cause or merely defenders of the faith. Either they attempt to transform the landscape of America politics, or they attempt to modify it in incremental steps. To cite the titles of the autobiographies of the current and last presidents: either presidents declare the "audacity of hope" or they affirm a "charge to keep." If President Obama is the liberal crusader, President George Bush was the conservative defender.

The strategies of presidential leadershp differ for the crusader and the defender, but President Obama appears to be misreading the nature of his mandate. Conciliation works for the defender; it can be ruinous to the would-be crusader.

The crusader must have his base with him, all fired up and ready to go. For to go to places unseen, the crusader must have the visionaries, even the crazy ones, on his side. The defender, conversely, must pay homage to partisans on the other side of the aisle because incremental change requires assistance from people, including political rivals, invested in the status quo. Moderate politics require moderate friends.

The irony is that President George Bush, a self-proclaimed defender - spent too much time pandering to his right-wing base, and Barack Obama - a self-proclaimed crusader, is spending a lot of time appeasing his political rivals. Their political strategies were out of sync, and perhaps even inconsistent with their political goals.

Take the issue of gay rights for President Obama. The President is trying so hard to prove to his socially conservative political rivals that he is no liberal wacko that he has reversed his previous support for a full repeal of The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). What he may not have realized is that it may be politically efficacious for a defender to ignore his base, but the costs to the crusader for alienating his base are far graver. Bipartisanship is not symmetrically rewarding in all leadership contexts.

Consider the example of President Bill Clinton, a "third-way" Democrat. He ended welfare as we knew it, and on affirmative action he said "mend it, don't end it." Much to Labor's chagrin, he even passed NAFTA. Bill Clinton was no crusader. And if the Democratic base wanted a deal-making, favor-swapping politico, they would have nominated a second Clinton last year.

The crusader rides on a cloud of ideological purity. Without the zealotry and idolatry of the base, the crusader is nothing; his magic extinguished. And this is happening right now to Barack Obama. The people who gave the man his luster are also uniquely enpowered to take it away. (It is a mistake to think that Sean Hannity or Michael Steele have this power.) Obama campaigned on changing the world, and his base can and will crush him for failing to deliver on his audacity. The Justice Department's clumsy defense of DOMA via the case law recourse of incest and pedophilia may be a small matter in the administration's scheme of things, but it is a big and repugnant deal to the base - the people who matter for a crusading president.

This is a pattern in the Obama administration: for the promise to pull troops out of Iraq there was the concomitant promise of more in Afghanistan, for the release of the OLC "torture memos," operatives of harsh interrogation techniques were also offered immunity, in return for the administration's defense of DOMA, Obama promised to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees. This is incremental, transactional, and defensive leadership. Defenders balance; but crusaders are mandated to press on. Incremental leadership works for presidents mandated to keep a charge, but not for one who flaunted his audacity. There are distinct and higher expectations for a crusader-to-be; and if President Obama is to live up to his hype, then bear the crusader's cross he must.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Was the Iranian "Election" Rigged or Not?

Let me be the first to admit that I don't know if the recent Iranian "election" was fraudulent, but the faith some pundits have placed on the "evidence" for their conviction that it was gives me pause. If electoral upsets - unpredictable wins - can happen in US elections, they can happen anywhere.

The Iranian elections certainly weren't free and fair, not least because the regime had hand-picked the slate of candidates, but we are unlikely to ever know that straight-up fraud was involved or if voting irregularities were of a higher frequency than those we have routinely taken for granted even in this country. Our failure to contemplate even the possibility that many a dictator has been democratically elected is a dangerous democratic hubris that has shaped and sometimes thwarted our foreign policy.

I am not asserting that the Iranian election was definitely legitimate, only that it is at least remotely possible that it was. At least two independent pollsters agree, and have offered the illuminating factoid from their poll that the only demographic group that found Hossein Mousavi leading Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were graduates and the highly-incomed. (That is to say, they are people most likely to resemble western spectators still staring at the final vote tally in disbelief.) And it is worth noting that Ahmadinejad’s 62.6 percent of the vote in this year’s election is essentially the same as the 61.69 percent he received in 2005. Indeed the burden of proof should be on those who have argued that this year's result was a surprise.

Yet Christopher Hitchens would have none of it and Steve Clemons has decided that there will be blood. But is the blood that Clemons not implausibly predicts will ensue the result of the subversion of democracy in the Iranian electoral process or its success?

Shutting down the media may be egregiously non-democratic, but it is different than creating ballots out of thin air. The reason why this distincton matters is that we must learn to contemplate why millions of people around the world would want to rally behind fanatical leaders who hold such spectacularly repugnant positions as denying the holocaust. This has happened so many times before that it makes our failure to accept its possibility even more revealing of the depth and scope of our mind-block: consider the cases of Gamal Nasser (Egypt), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Jerry Rawlings (Ghana), Slobodan Milošević (Serbia), and now, possibly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Democracy is messy, and it is not naturally or dialectically inclined towards human rights, western liberal ideals, or the best candidate according to our standards. Neo-conservatives in America positing that the Iraqi people would welcome our troops as liberators back in 2003 have had to learn the hard way the costs of believing what they wanted to believe. In an analagous way, today's pundits have been so quick to assert that the Iranian people in their post-election riots have exposed the charade of their recent "elections," but maybe it is democracy itself that has outwitted the pundits. To understand the unpredictable and poigant path of democracy and democratization in the world, those of us who believe in democracy must urgently and honestly contemplate the number of times we have been hoisted by our own petard.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Health-care Reform: A Litmus Test for a President and his Proposed Epoch

Everything President Barack Obama has achieved legislatively up to this moment - even the much touted $800 billion economic stimulus bill - has been relatively easy; mostly expedited and achieved in the name of economic emergency. And the president has been upfront all along that these early accomplishments were but prologue to the health-care battle to come. Pundits have been saying for a long time that this president chooses his battles and knows well the importance of preserving his political capital. Well, the moment Obama has been saving up for is here, and the stakes are as high as the president is ambitious.

To put things more starkly - if President Obama's proposed health-care reform fails, then his presidential honeymoon is decidedly over. For all the euphoric talk of the era of Obama, if he fails to deliver on health-care, then he would have proven himself to be just another Bill Clinton. Obama would not be a reconstructive leader in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt, and the era of big government will still be over.

Conversely, successful health-care reform will be legacy-making. Generations of Americans will remember Barack Obama for what he did for them, and they will remain as loyal Democratic party constituents for decades to come. Successful health-care reform will be tangible proof that the era of ("better") government is back, and it would have been Obama (like FDR 80 years ago) who took us there.

The stakes then, could not be higher, and the task no more enormous. Overhauling our health-care system runs up against almost every institutional and structural pathology of American democracy: multifarious and over-zealous interest group politics, power struggles between Congress and the presidency, and the ideological chasm between the two major parties about the role of government. Health-care policy is one of those policies in which the public and indeed pundits know relatively little about. Very few people are going to peruse the hundreds of pages of bill(s) under consideration. So watch for it - this means reform will invariably be sold and criticized with generalizing slogans. The Obama administration will have to play a delicate balancing act of negotiating details with the experts on Capitol Hill and captains of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries (who are probably going to be the only groups who will be incentivized to keep track of the facts and figures), persuading lay persons with a clear and yet truthful account of what is at stake, while also deflecting the simplistic slogans dissenting organized interests will disseminate in media blitzkriegs.

Elections are just regularized signposts on the American calendar. The media focusses on it because viewers and voters like to keep up with a horse-race. But history is marked not by these regularly scheduled events, but by the passage of landmark legislation that durably alters the relationship (for better or for worse) between government and its wards. How historians will remember our era will turn on what happens in the next crucial months. As President Obama's audacity is about to be tested, so is America at the precipice of an epochal test.