Friday, August 27, 2010

Deniers and Caretakers, Republicans and Democrats

cross-posted at Dagblog

American politics these days doesn't make a lot of sense if you expect people to act with sensible self-interest in mind. The Democrats, who were elected with large majorities after the other party's policies led the country to disaster, are apparently afraid to argue for their own policies. The Republicans, after suffering a resounding defeat because their policies led to disaster, have handed their party over to an angry faction that wants to push those failed policies even further. The Democrats can't win this way, and anything the Republicans win will come with a mandate to follow deeply unrealistic policies that will damage the country and ultimately enrage the electorate. "The best lack all conviction," as Yeats said, "while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."

But American politics makes more sense if you imagine our political establishment as a dysfunctional family: say, the family of a drunk or addict who can no longer work steadily. Like our country, addicts' families are consumed with the hope that the central problem will fix itself. Any day now, Daddy will stop drinking and start holding a job, and then everything will be happy, the way it used to be. Any day now, the economy will turn around, and there will be jobs and growth and profits for everyone. Like addicts' children, we look with pathetic hopefulness for any small sign of the impending miraculous turnaround. Daddy's been sober for two whole days! He even halfway apologized to me for that thing the other day! The stock market's up 200 points this week! Green shoots!

But Daddy (or Mommy) is never going to start coming home from work after just two beers. If s/he ever recovers from addiction, it will be a long and difficult process, and there's nothing anyone but the addict can do to make that recovery start. Neither is our economy going to replace all of the jobs it's lost in the next quarter, or the next eight quarters, through any natural cycle. Nor is victory, in any sense of the word, around any of Iraq and Afghanistan's many, many corners. None of these problems can be fixed quickly or easily, and none will fix themselves.

Of course, from outside, it looks like the addict's family should just get as far from that person as possible. It's true, they'd be better off without him or her. But there usually many reasons, some emotional and some practical, that make breaking away difficult or impossible. If both your parents are addicts who can't keep a job and you're twelve, you don't have a lot of good options. You don't even want the ones you have. Lots of people, for completely understandable reasons, prefer their own dysfunctional parents to foster care (which isn't always terrific). So kids with alcoholic or addicted parents choose two basic approaches to dealing with their unmanageable reality.

Many of the Republicans have chosen the denial strategy. Daddy is not a drunk! Everything is great! We. Are. A. Happy. Family. We just need to get out of the way of Wall Street, and let the free market do its work, and everything will be like old times, except better! Also, if we simply "persevere" in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will win completely. Except, hooray, we've already won! If you weren't so ungrateful, and would just appreciate Daddy a little bit more, there wouldn't be all this unhappiness!

Denial tends to carry with it an enormous amount of scapegoating. Denial is always very fragile, and facts are constantly threatening the illusion of happiness and tranquility that the deniers work so hard to maintain. That's why they tend to lash out in a rage at anyone who (even inadvertently) brings up any of the unbearable truths and thereby forces the denier to think about them. Those people are ruining things for everybody. On the other hand, Daddy or Mommy, who actually are ruining things for everybody, have to be lionized, because the alternative is just too hard to take. That also means Daddy's or Mommy's many failures need to be explained away, by off-loading them onto yet more scapegoats, who are off course merely "out to get" the addicted parent and by extension the family.

And there you have the Tea Party. They don't so much have a plan as they have rage and a need to put it somewhere. Dealing with the actual structural problems of our economy is off limits, and recognizing the actual causes of the crash and the current depression recession is too painful, so somebody else has to be for blame. Wham! Obama caused the recession! Illegal immigrants caused the recession! The stimulus caused the recession! You know how everything was going fine before the stimulus! This is all straightforward denial. Let's take our country back!!!

On the other hand, you have the Democrats, especially Obama and the rest of the party leadership, who take on the role of caretakers. Caretakers are the children (or the spouses, in cases where the spouse can't get the kids away from the addict) who take on responsibility for the family's survival, trying to work around the addict and avert the worst consequences of their addiction. They can't fix the underlying problems, but they can try to keep the house from being taken away and their younger siblings split up in foster homes. So maybe the caretaker kid tries to use his or her pay from bagging groceries to make sure the younger kids are fed. Maybe they lie to their parent's boss when the parent is too hung over to work and lie to the landlord when the rent's past due. Maybe they try to manage the family's food stamps or welfare check. Maybe they hide things to keep the addict from selling them. They almost always do their best to manage the addicted parent, to keep them more functional: making out rent checks to be signed, cleaning up their work clothes, trying to get them to work on time. (The great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth got taken out of school as a boy so he could go on tour with his actor father and keep him sober enough to perform.) In every case, the caretaker learns to work around the addicted parent's intractable and unreasonable moods, which can't be contradicted.

Obviously, this kind of caretaking lies firmly on the spectrum of behaviors called "enabling," because it allows the addict to continue being an addict. But it's unfair to ignore crucial distinctions and judge people, often minors, who are trying to protect young siblings and themselves. The shibboleth is that you need to let the addict bear the full weight of her or his own actions, but that weight doesn't just fall on the addict. A teenaged kid with a drunk father, three younger siblings, and an eviction notice on the door can't afford to get thrown on the street so Dad can have another chance at achieving clarity. She's going to keep her dysfunctional parent going as best he can for as long as he can, because she needs to.

So it is with Obama and many of the Congressional Democrats. The economy melted down two years ago and a number of influential people didn't want to do anything about it. So Obama accepted the caretaker's role, trying to fix what he could given his circumstances. He couldn't get a stimulus bill that would have fixed the economy through Congress, but if he didn't get any through Congress that was going to mean people out on the streets. So he accepted the smaller stimulus. The economy is still dysfunctional, and there's no way to fix its underlying problems, and it will still cause lots more misery. (That's one of the downsides of being a caretaker: even after you nearly kill yourself to fix one problem, your addict parent goes and creates another one a few weeks later. You lie to help them keep a job, or scrape to get their work car back from the tow yard, and next month they get fired anyway and total the car.) But at least Obama tried to limit the damage when he could.

"I did my best to limit the damage," isn't a winning slogan, and never will be. But the Democrats' failures are, by and large, the failures of basically responsible people trying to avert concrete and imminent bad results. It's easy to say that the Democrats should have gone bigger, staked everything on a large-scale economic recovery plan and forced the Republicans to vote it down. But saying that ignores that the Republicans and Blue Dogs almost stopped the stimulus that actually did pass, and proposing a larger, more sensible program would have meant no stimulus at all and an even deeper mess. It's easy to talk about what would be better in the long run, but no decent person finds it easy to make that kind of human sacrifice for a strictly hypothetical "long run."

It's easier still to simply scapegoat the caretaker for everything that goes wrong. If he's got all the answers, why aren't things better? Almost every dysfunctional family has its share of deniers who scapegoat the caretaker most of all. Because after all, the caretaker's incessant labors are also an incessant reminder that everything isn't right. Everything else aside, Obama will earn the wrath of the deniers simply by trying to help the economy. Because as long as he tries to fix it, he will be reminding people that it's broken.

None of this is to excuse Obama from his choices, or to take those choices out of context. He has always had a choice, legislative possibilities aside, in the economic advisers to whom he chose to listen. If he could never have gotten a larger stimulus package passed, he could still be taking advice from the economists who understand the true scale and scope of the problem, and who would argue for more bottom-up solutions designed to help middle Americans. Instead, he has consistently given ear to the Geithners and Bernankes and Summers, who recognize that things have gone drastically wrong but prescribe a series of smaller-bore solutions focused on preserving large firms and major investors. Some of their suggestions, such as using TARP to rescue General Motors, have worked admirably while others, such as HAMP, seem to have done very poorly. Obama has clearly chosen the advisers who urged him to save enough of Wall Street to keep it from taking all of Main Street with it, rather than those who urged him to save Main Street for Wall Street's long-term health.

Even this choice, though, seems largely an attempt to deal responsibly with the hand Obama has been dealt. The truth is, elected during an economic crisis he did not foresee even when he was accepting the nomination, and having little previous interest or knowledge of economic policy, Obama was forced to choose between two sets of experts. One set told him that things were bad, but that they could fix things and that they could fix them using the resources that Congress would be willing to appropriate or had already appropriated. The other set told him that things were far worse than that and there would need to be a massive series of interventions, starting with a massive stimulus that Congress would never be willing to approve. Obama chose the team that told him things could be fixed with the tools at hand; if the other team turned out to be right, there was nothing to be done about it. In the same way, if you give a fifteen-year-old kid who's the caretaker in a dysfunctional family a choice between a plan that relies on short-term fixes and a plan that involves getting her addict parent to quit drinking or drugging, she's going to go with the short-term plan. There's no way to make the other plan work anyway. And to be honest, from a policy maker's perspective attempting a fundamental fix on the economy is much, much scarier than listening to plans for tweaking it. The big interventions might seriously lead to dangerous places. Like kids in an abusive drunk's home, the Democrats aren't going to do anything drastic unless circumstances force them to.

But in the end, certain problems have to be dealt with. After we run out of all of the safe, reasonable fixes, it's drastic steps or failure. Denying the problems won't change that.

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