Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Withering of Institutions

… notably, of American political parties.

We have, over the past two decades, witnessed the dissolution of the Republican Party, as it was taken over by a radical faction – “movement conservatism” – which has used the GOP as a vehicle through which to attempt a bureaucratic coup.

Now we’re witnessing something fairly similar happening to the Democratic Party. Thanks to the DNC’s incompetence, the Dems are being taken over by another movement – the Obama children’s crusade.

The first was ideological, the second a cult of personality. And both are severely altering and damaging their hosts.

The GOP has become an anti-institution. It is increasingly unable to get its act together to raise money, shape platforms, organize troops, imagine or pass legislation, or any of the other typical manifestations of a structured organization. Karl Rove’s and Tom Delay’s vaunted machine is devolving into a marketing vehicle – a blank billboard on which to paste slogans, a Potemkin Village political party.

However, it does retain, in its buried reptilian brain, traces of its former state. It hasn’t lost its affection for power. It may no longer have control over its arms and legs… its central nervous system may be shot… but it has no ambivalence about winning. For reasons I described a couple of days ago, the Democrats still have a ways to go to become competitive on that front.

Clearly, the Democratic Party isn’t dissolving to the extent of Republican Party. But being taken over by this cult isn’t exactly good for its health. Not only has its alleged expansion of the party base not materialized, but it’s turning the Democrats into a half-party – a legislative party. The rise of the netroots, the triumph of the Millennials, the legacy of the Dean campaign and his own 50-state strategy as DNC chairman – all of that has come together to form a party that is adept at winning Congressional seats. This happened in 2006, and it will happen again in 2008.

But in terms of wielding actual power – in terms of winning the presidency – the Democratic Party is pretty much moribund. The chaos and embarrassment of this cycle’s primaries are proof: the absurd caucuses with their undemocratic essence and their bizarro delegate-allocation rules… the open primaries (allowing Republicans and Independents to choose our candidate)… proportional voting for delegates… the jaw-dropping craziness of the Florida and Michigan snafu.

All of that is something that Obama and his campaign have seized upon, and which they are using to game the system and take over the party. They aren’t Democrats, they’re “movement” zealots – but their movement is, as Obama himself likes to say, themselves… with him as its focus object. Indeed, they’re hell-bent on driving much of the core Democratic base out of the party.

And it’s not over ideological differences. Obama and his followers are not even “progressives” – i.e., lefties. Their core is a cadre of narcissistic young things who are getting off on the self-experience of their first time behind the wheel… only they’re about to crash the family car, and the family doesn’t have insurance. McCain is likely to trounce Obama, in which case, the kids and the DNC have managed something that will hardly be credited in history books – losing the presidential election after W.

The GOP has been taken over by the Taliban, and the Democratic Party has been taken over by the Maharishi. The American Taliban gets its rocks off on destroying institutions, and these modern-day TM worshippers get theirs by opposing institutions. Neither movement is composed of grown-ups – i.e., of people who recognize the responsibility of exercising power, of using their time on the planet to shepherd it to a better place, and to make decisions with consequences. Whatever one thought of its policies, that was what the Republican Party did in the decades before Dubya – and the Democratic Party for the generation before that. But we don’t have either of those parties anymore. We have dueling movements.

Unsurprisingly, both of these movements execrate Bill and Hillary. Within the Artist Formerly Known as the Democratic Party, the Clintons are condemned as people who will do anything to win… by people who will do anything to lose.

At one level, this is what one might expect – that is, the destruction of institutions by the Net, by globalization, by the radical democratization that both bring. Half-assed “analyses” of the Obama campaign’s Net-savvy (such as this one by Roger Cohen in the Times) have led some to think that this movement is the wave of the connected future. And long-term, I fervently believe in that future. But I am not persuaded that this guy or his campaign are really ushering it in. In fact, I find it heartbreaking that we had a chance to elect somebody who could actually have wielded power intelligently, could have given us a shot at a soft landing into that future… somebody, by the way, whose symbolic resonance matches her opponent’s. She might have given hope to the women and girls of the world. And maybe she still will, in 2012. But not now, it seems.

Quel dommage.

1 comment:

Erick L. said...

It's easy to blame the Republican legislators and the Democratic legislators. Too easy.

As corrupt or incompetent as they might be, they are all ultimately at the mercy of the American consumers/voters who: 1.) Love getting expensive benefits but want other people to pay for them; 2.) Want other people to respect their own personal definition of morality, while they happily shun or ridicule moralities that are different from theirs; 3.) Get bored very very quickly.

Before this current Media age, politics could be handled with more deliberation. Now there's a spotlight on every move, and the distraction of a thousand outside voices offering guidance and passing judgement at every turn.

Sadly, although the "internet" can provide many tools that will help Democracy, it also offers many opportunities that allow problems to get much worse.

I think we can blame the Media, and blame the Republicans, and blame the Democrats all we want. But the People are also to blame. And I think that the "Internet" is long overdue for an honest appraisal of its less-than-stellar progress so far.