Monday, November 1, 2021

The Art of the Impossible

Illustration by William Pène du Bois for his 1947 juvenile novel The Twenty-One Balloons,  via Swann Galleries.

Robert Kuttner, at The American Prospect:

In 1948, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress. Harry Truman’s approval rating was in the 30s. He was universally expected to lose. So Truman sent Congress a Roosevelt-scale program that he knew Republicans would vote down, and he went on the road to remind voters of the difference between Republicans and Democrats.
In 1964, Democrats were in solid control of both houses, but Lyndon Johnson, campaigning for the presidency against a lot of suspicion in his own party, in mourning for our handsome young murdered president from Massachusetts and not sure how we felt about the unelected Texan, did something rather similar. In May he gave a commencement address at the University of Michigan calling for the United States to become a "Great Society"—

“The Great Society,” Johnson declared, “…demands an end to poverty and racial injustice,” but it also had to be “a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talent…where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.”

—and in June, with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights behind him and Democratic whip Senator Hubert Humphrey at his side, he busted ass until he had broken a 54-day filibuster against a somewhat weakened bipartisan version of Kennedy's Civil Rights Act (the real talking filibuster, not today's perfunctory vote to deem that debate hasn't stopped when in fact it has—the last speaker, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, still a segregationist in those days, held the floor for 14 hours and 13 minutes solid), only the second time since 1927 that a filibuster had been defeated, and first time ever on a civil rights measure. It took 67 votes in those days, not 60, and one effort even more heroic than Ted Kennedy's heroic vote for the Affordable Care Act:

The most dramatic moment during the cloture vote came when Senator Clair Engle was wheeled into the chamber. Suffering from terminal brain cancer, unable to speak, he pointed to his left eye, signifying his affirmative "Aye" vote when his name was called. He died seven weeks later. 

As Truman had chosen June 1948 to issue his executive order for the desegregation of the US military. Meanwhile, the Republican nomination was being secured by Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, an opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (not against civil rights, of course, just against the federal government enforcing them because 10th Amendment something something), and a proponent of making Social Security a voluntary program, privatizing the Tennessee Valley Authority, and using tactical nuclear weapons on North Vietnam.

Both of these former senators and vice presidents ideologized their presidential campaigns in a way that had a double historical meaning: they got themselves elected, and they achieved something extraordinary for the country at the same time, though by no means everything. Truman started the process of civil rights reform, and got it done in the armed forces, and introduced the idea of universal medical care to the congressional discourse, among other things, and took control of Congress with 9 Senate seats and 75 in the House; Johnson advanced civil rights legislation in a huge way, and introduced the concept of a war on poverty. These weren't small things; Truman really transformed the US military in a positive way and set an extraordinary example for how desegregation could be made to work, and the legislation Johnson went on to pass after the election (having gotten a filibuster-proof supermajority of 68 in the Senate and 35 more House seats) would fill in the promise of 1964 in dramatic and enduring ways (though the Voting Rights Act seems pretty endangered at the moment and the Fair Housing Act has a long way to go). 

If not for the horrible blot of Vietnam, we would count Johnson as by far one of our greatest presidents, and even with Vietnam Hubert Humphrey might have gone on to be another one if not for the dirty tricks of the Nixon campaign torpedoing the peace process. What we lost in the 1968 election, as a nation, is just incalculable.

Now yet another Democratic former senator and vice president is trying to pull a similar trick, starting what should (in a just universe, which I realize we don't actually live in) add up eventually to an extraordinary series of accomplishments in order to acquire the political capital he needs to carry the plan forward.

In that context, I don't understand the language in which some of us are complaining about the content of the Build Back Better bill as it begins to take shape. The job congressional Democrats have isn't to fix everything in one reconciliation bill (which can't do everything in any event—there's just no room in the process for increasing the minimum wage or ensuring voting rights). It's to push the process forward to that point where it succeeds in ideologizing the 2022 midterm election to the point where Democrats have some real power to achieve the rest of it. You can't judge what we get right now, if anything, except in terms of what we get in 2023.

If politics is the "art of the possible", it's because ideology is the art of the impossible: the mode of thinking where we imagine life as it might be in a just universe, which we use to inform our thinking. But we shouldn't confuse the two. We can't ever get what we want, as Mick and Keith always understood.

It's essential to imagine all that shit. I love all kinds of Utopian imaginings, going back to William Pène du Bois's splendid picture of the imaginary communism of Krakatoa island in The Twenty-One Balloons, where

the island is populated by twenty families sharing the wealth of a secret diamond mine - by far the richest in the world - which they operate as a cartel. Each year, the families sail to the outside world with a small amount of diamonds, to purchase supplies for the hidden and sophisticated civilization they have built on the island (they explain that introducing too many diamonds into the market at once would drive down their value to "a shipload of broken glass"). Each family has been assigned one of the first twenty letters of the alphabet, and lives in its own whimsical and elaborate house that also serves as a restaurant. The Krakatoa society follows a calendar with twenty-day months. On "A" Day of each month, everyone eats in Mr. and Mrs. A's American restaurant; on "B" Day, in Mr. and Mrs. B's British chop house; on "C" Day, in Mr. and Mrs. C's Chinese restaurant; on "D" Day, in Mr. and Mrs. D's Dutch restaurant, and so forth. Sherman's first friend on the island, Mr. F, runs a French restaurant containing a replica of the Hall of Mirrors. The houses are full of incredible items, such as Mr. M's Moroccan house, which has a living room with mobile furniture that operate like bumper cars.

—which prepared me for socialism as I moved on to puberty, many years ago. I loved that book so much.

But it's equally essential to think sometimes within the strictures of the reality we are given, which means understanding that there are extraordinarily powerful forces arrayed to prevent good things from happening, and limits arising from their greed and malice on what can in reality be achieved. We have to try to pass the inadequate thing we've got in order to have any hope of passing something better. The vaunted Canadian healthcare system took 40 years and still doesn't offer dental care. Let's have a little humility, and a tiny bit of hope.

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