Wednesday, August 8, 2018

When America Stopped Believing

Like it or not, Frank Rich is a very good writer. You can read a good writer profitably and not agree with his perspective, but a good writer will have more impact than a self-important hack. Thus, count Frank Rich among those whose writing deserves our attention.

Formerly of the New York Times, Rich now works for New York Magazine. This week he offers a long and detailed analysis of how we have gotten to where we are. That is, how America was broken.

In his terms, we no longer believe in the American dream. Or, that we forgot the immortal message proposed by a band called Journey: Don't Stop Believing.

Between us I find his characterization to be vapid. We can believe what we believe, or not believe what we do not believe. It’s not about belief. And it’s not about hope and change. It's about leadership and management... and it's about policy and executive competence.

For his part Rich dates our current problems to the financial crisis of 2008. He does not like Donald Trump. He idolizes Barack Obama. But he places the blame for America’s current malaise in the hands of Wall Street bankers and their bureaucratic enablers. Sort of.

A good leftist like Rich is happy to blame capitalism, but has nothing to say about, for example, the role of the Federal Reserve, the role of agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in creating or solving the crisis. He certainly has nothing to say about the government directives that forced banks, in the lead up to 2008, to write mortgages for people who did not otherwise qualify for them.

Like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze,” Rich’s analysis falls flat for a simple reason. If the 2008 financial crisis has doomed America, some if not a large part of the blame must be placed with the president who took over in 2009. That’s right. America’s current state, the conditions that caused Americans to elect Donald Trump to the presidency, were produced by the Obama presidency. If Rich is write, we must conclude that Obama did not lead us out of the financial wilderness. He will not admit it, but his analysis points clearly in that direction.

While Rich thrills to the fact that Obama ended foreign wars, he does not consider that Obama's cowardly attitude undermined American national pride. Being a coward on the world state, apologizing for your country... does not do wonders for the national mood. Call it a blind spot... one that characterizes the anti-war left. It never considers the fallout of following its cowardly posturing.

In the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, America, spurred by thinkers like Frank Rich, chose to elect a man who was barely qualified for the office, but whose mere presence, they thought, would cure America’s racist bigotry. Why anyone imagined that the problem with the financial crisis was bigotry is beyond me. If anything, the affirmative action programs that forced banks to write too many subprime mortgages aggravated the problems.

Yet, people like Rich thought that Obama would restore hope and even gossamer dreams. When he failed to do so, Rich and his confreres needed to look elsewhere, to find someone to blame. Most especially, they needed to find a way to absolve Obama of all blame and all responsibility for the state the nation was in after his eight year presidency.

When all is said and done, that is the hidden purpose of the Rich article.

To begin, allow Rich his say. Here, he writes about the current American mood:

The mood in America is arguably as dark as it has ever been in the modern era. The birthrate is at a record low, and the suicide rate is at a 30-year high; mass shootings and opioid overdoses are ubiquitous. In the aftermath of 9/11, the initial shock and horror soon gave way to a semblance of national unity in support of a president whose electoral legitimacy had been bitterly contested only a year earlier. Today’s America is instead marked by fear and despair more akin to what followed the crash of 1929, when unprecedented millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes after the implosion of businesses ranging in scale from big banks to family farms.

The cause, in his eyes, was the Great Recession:

It arrived in September 2008, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers kicked off the Great Recession that proved to be a more lasting existential threat to America than the terrorist attack of seven Septembers earlier. The shadow it would cast is so dark that a decade later, even our current run of ostensible prosperity and peace does not mitigate the one conviction that still unites all Americans: Everything in the country is broken. Not just Washington, which failed to prevent the financial catastrophe and has done little to protect us from the next, but also race relations, health care, education, institutional religion, law enforcement, the physical infrastructure, the news media, the bedrock virtues of civility and community. Nearly everything has turned to crap, it seems, except Peak TV (for those who can afford it).

How bad is it? Glad you asked. It’s so bad, Rich says, that people are no longer mouthing the mindless sentimental credo about a land of milk and honey, where everyone would be provided with everything they want. He imagines that we cannot get out of our current morass because we no longer have common values.

No longer is lip service paid to the credo, however sentimental, that a vast country, for all its racial and sectarian divides, might somewhere in its DNA have a shared core of values that could pull it out of any mess. Dead and buried as well is the companion assumption that over the long term a rising economic tide would lift all Americans in equal measure. When that tide pulled back in 2008 to reveal the ruins underneath, the country got an indelible picture of just how much inequality had been banked by the top one percent over decades, how many false promises to the other 99 percent had been broken, and how many central American institutions, whether governmental, financial, or corporate, had betrayed the trust the public had placed in them. And when we went down, we took much of the West with us. The American Kool-Aid we’d exported since the Marshall Plan, that limitless faith in progress and profits, had been exposed as a cruel illusion.

Rich does not consider the possibility that the Obama presidency, with its relentless attacks on bigotry, divided the nation into oppressors and the oppressed. As in, identity politics. He sees the mission as messianic, because he seems to accept the notion that Barack Obama was the Messiah who would lead us out of the wilderness into the Heavenly City. Rich’s terms are religious, not political and not economic. He is a storyteller and a disillusioned prophet, not a political analyst:

Unlike 9/11, which prompted an orgy of recriminations and investigations, the Great Recession never yielded a reckoning that might have helped restore that faith. The Wall Street bandits escaped punishment, as did most of the banking houses where they thrived. Everyone else was stuck with the bill. Millennials, crippled by debt and bereft of Horatio Alger paths out of it, mock the traditional American tenet that each generation will be better off than the one before. At the other end of the actuarial spectrum, boomers have little confidence that they can scrape together the wherewithal needed to negotiate old age. The American workers in the middle have seen their wages remain stagnant as necessities like health care become unaffordable.

Rich disdains Donald Trump’s appeal because it rejects the world of Biblical prophecy for the cold, cruel world of competitive striving:

He did so in part by discarding the bedrock axiom of post–World War II American politics that anyone running for president must sparkle with the FDR-patented, chin-jutting optimism that helped propel John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to the White House. Trump ran instead on the idea that America was, as his lingo would have it, a shithole country in desperate need of being made great again. “Sadly, the American Dream is dead,” he declared, glowering, on that fateful day in 2015 when he came down the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy.

As I mentioned, Rich imagined that Obama would save the nation from its sins. Because, it’s not about hard work and achievement; it’s all about hope. In truth, it had to be about hope. Facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, we elected a political neophyte.

The worst financial crisis since 1929 notwithstanding, the election of Barack Obama offered genuine hope, not just the branded version on his campaign poster. He would hire smart people to dig us out of the Wall Street greed and criminality that had victimized so many Americans.

By the terms of the Rich narrative, the fault for Obama’s failure lay with the forces of systemic racism that did not want him to succeed. They did not want him to succeed because they wanted to retain their white privilege.

Yet, Rich show his idolatry by giving Obama credit for having engineered the most anemic economic recovery in the post war period. He does not consider how much the Federal Reserve contributed and does not point out that after two years of Obama the American people soundly rejected him in the Congressional elections of 2010. For Rich it’s all about racism:

The opposition party, once again pandering to the racist base it has cultivated ever since Barry Goldwater ran against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, vowed to defeat the new president’s governance no matter what he did. Even so — and despite being thwarted by that partisan resistance, by the stubbornness of the downturn he had to reverse, and by his own unforced errors — Obama did succeed at leading America out of its economic crisis and largely extricating it from war. But he had to scale back his other aspirations, including immigration and financial reform. History will surely bless him for preventing a second Great Depression, among other achievements, including presiding over the most scandal-free White House in memory. But in real time, his presidency was still fairly young when some contemporaneous voters started moving on from Yes, We Can to No, We Can’t and/or No, We Won’t.

It would have been better for Rich to point out that after the Great Recession American did not fully recover… because it’s president was not interested in promoting prosperity as much as he was interested in fighting bigotry.

But it took the Great Recession’s destruction “of what had been the markers of citizenship for more than half a century” — a secure job and home ownership — to make unmistakable to all “the end of the era of widespread prosperity that had characterized the United States in the early years of the Cold War."


trigger warning said...

Interesting Narrative. Excellent example of inductive reasoning. Trouble is, you had to believe it before you read it to believe it after you read it.

Sam L. said...

I see you are saying, about Rich, "He can't diss The Lightbringer." "Rich’s terms are religious, not political and not economic." Which is WHY he can't diss the Lightbringer.

"The worst financial crisis since 1929 notwithstanding, the election of Barack Obama offered genuine hope, not just the branded version on his campaign poster." That "hope" was a shuck. Imaginary. Not real.

Sam L. said...

tw, I think it was more the Indiana Jones method of "making it up as you go." Which was poorly done.

Bizzy Brain said...

Was never interested in the thoughts of liberal morons. Their progressive ideology is like believing Greek mythology is real. But instead of creating an elaborate, mythology on such things as Zeus ruling the Olympian gods and overthrowing Cronus with the help of his siblings, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah, their mythology is progressivism, Obama is their Zeus, and they make up stupid shit like the American Dream is dead, the country is over, etc., and list fake reasons why.

Anonymous said...

It's currently a skilled employee's market.

Couldn't say that from 2008 to 2016.
Somehow I doubt "My Turn" would have produced anything remotely similar.

It's not "all about the Benjamin's", but as a friend likes to say..."money is like air...try living without it".
- shoe

Adele said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Can't agree or disagree. It is simply too complex. The 'left' vs 'right' thing will always be a detriment to understanding it. I have a left foot and a right foot. As it is, we are monkeys on a rock bickering over who gets the best banana while catapulting through an endless void of space.