During the last few years of the Bush administration there was general agreement that the level of partisanship and partisan vitriol was beyond anything seen since the days of the Vietnam War. If anything, the level of partisanship under Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid has further escalated. Major legislation is pushed through despite the lack of even a fig leaf of bipartisanship, and against the wishes of a large majority of American voters. The Left is disappointed in the healthcare bill because it appears to reward some of the very corporate "villains" they detest the most (insurance companies, Big Pharma) while the right is angry and worried that the healthcare bill represents an attempt to fundamentally change the nature of the country. Mickey Kaus summarizes: [HT: Glenn Reynolds]
Today's left and right anti-Reid activists have a common enemy in corporatism, the easy alliance between Big Government and entrenched, favored too-big-to-fail businesses (Aetna, AIG .... ) that threatens to give us all the inequality of capitalism with all the dynamic innovation and accountability of socialism.
For those who are currently running the government, even the risk of electoral disaster in November 2010 does not impact their decision to force through major legislation that will disappoint friend and foe alike. Since the First Rule of Politics is to get elected and the Second Rule is to get re-elected, how can we understand the seeming suicidal behavior of the Democrats?
[For those who correctly opine that the Republicans did much the same thing when they were in office, ie they attempted to enlarge the size of government and the power of the bureaucracy, too, just with a different partisan valence and less assiduously. I would suggest that this increases the likelihood that my assessment, to follow, is credible.]
First a slight digression. I have written quite a bit on Societal Regression, the tendency for a society to retreat from the messy dynamic instability of democratic governance to more primitive, zero-sum governance (authoritarianism, totalitarianism) in the desire for security or in response to dangerous threats to the system. Many sophisticated commentators have written persuasively that al Qaeda and other manifestations of radical Islam are a result of the dislocations caused by modernity for relatively primitive, tribal cultures. The recourse to violence and power plays in response to marginalization is a very old story.
With that as preamble, I offer a possible diagnosis of the paradoxical present: Just as people are becoming exponentially more empowered by the acceleration of our technology, we have a response from the ruling classes in Washington (Democrat and Republican alike, though with some signs that parts of the Republican establishment are becoming aware of their contradictions) seeking to increase the centralization and concentration of power into the Washington establishment.
In other words, the Bush administration attempted to impose its vision of centralization upon a globalizing world via the use of military force. They did not succeed. Now the Obama administration is repeating their underlying dynamic, using government power over the American people in an analogous manner. They are attempting to centralize decision making under their aegis; this is noxious to the American people who will respond electorally. Beyond any electoral response, Obama will fail in the long run because the trend is away from centralized power and control just as Bush failed for much the same reason, though in a different neighborhood using different means.
[For those who believe that technology will be used by the state to enslave its people, I would suggest that this cannot work for long. Any government that imposed the requisite totalitarian regime in order to maintain its power would soon find itself going bankrupt. (North Korea would be exhibit A.) The Chinese have discovered that an open economy is necessary to create the excess wealth necessary to support a modern state. A closed economy would be one which would not generate enough wealth to bribe the people adequately to maintain control. A slow descent into poverty would be assured. At the same time, empowering and liberating technology developed elsewhere would eventually come to the enslaved country via increased connectivity, the power could never be maintained in the center for long.]
Many people who study the impact of modernity/globalization on society have noted that decentralization is a certainty as we continue down our path. There may be detours along the way but the inevitable loss of power and authority that is a part of the current technology enabled progression is unmistakable. We see this in Climategate, where those who were the "authorities" have been seen to be subverting science in order to preserve and enlarge their authority even as the Internet undermines them by the day. We see this as well in the current polling that places the Tea Party movement more favorably than either the Democrat or Republican Party.
We are living in in a time of near constant churn. Disruptive technology, which used to appear once in a generation, now affects each of us in very personal ways on an accelerating basis; it often feels as if there is no predictability from one day to the next for many people. Our jobs are insecure; at any moment we could become victims of the changing economic environment, and the jobs that are lost are probably never coming back. More and more of us are becoming "augmented humans" with more and more of our mental capacity externally enhanced; most of us already have external auxiliary memories (Google, et al) and auxiliary cognitive functions (iPhone apps, computer programs).
Americans have always been a people whose political philosophy might best be summed up as a struggle for the right to be left alone; at the same time that our technology is giving us all a greater degree of control over many of the details of our lives (with much more control to come) those who have made it their life's ambition to control the levers of power, ie government, are reacting as if they had better seize control of as much as they can while they still can.
John Robb talks about Resilient Communities emerging as a response to the negative effects of globalization (international crime, terrorism) . Resilient Communities could also arise as a response to the negative effects of government and the inevitable failures of essentially bankrupt governments.
Power and control are atomizing. In reality the illusion of Pax Americana that prevailed from the 1980s until its collision with reality in the "oughts" depended on the existence of effective nation states; now it is increasingly clear that starting from the international sphere but devolving to smaller and smaller units of measurement, central control cannot succeed. It is no surprise then, that those who have attached their lives, their fortunes, and their secular honor (with apologies to our founders) to international and national central control would desperately attempt to enhance that control; the tide of technological man is running against them. It is now all about power; they must either crush their opponents or face ruin.