Thinking About Things: Annual, Decennial, and Other Observations

By John DeQ. Briggs

As we begin the ‘20’s, I find myself reflecting on the last year, the last decade, the last quarter century and even the last century. This column curates a selection of writings of interest on these things and offers some of my views as well.

The last year was dominated by impeachment fever and fractious fighting within the Democratic Party over the 2020 presidential nomination. These things almost make us forget so much else, such as the Mueller Report, which fizzled; the IG Report (Executive Summary and entire report here), which did not fizzle and may foretell criminal proceedings against various high ranking members of the intelligence and law enforcement communities; the revelation that rich Hollywood celebrities and others bribed their way into brand-name colleges for their underachieving children; the “black face” scandals of Virginia democratic officials; Jussie Smollett’s strange escape from responsibility for his faked claims of racial torment in Chicago. These events and much more are remembered in the annual and always hilarious Dave Barry reminiscence about the year just past. For those of you who may not have seen his 2019 Year in Review, it is right here . It is a surefire way to get you thinking about the year in a healthy state of mind.

Other Chesapeake Observer issues and articles have commented on various aspects of the year. Suffice it here to say that the Administration has confronted China in a more serious way than China has ever been confronted before, especially with respect to the theft of intellectual property and other serious trade and non-trade issues. There has been a rare and refreshing sense of near bipartisanship about the confrontation with the PRC over issues of unusual importance to the proper functioning of a competitive, market-based, economy. The same cannot be said of any other aspect of foreign policy. Once upon a time, partisanship ended at the water’s edge. Partisanship is now worldwide and knows no bounds. Both parties have involved foreign countries and political parties within countries in their own partisanship, which cannot help but degrade international relations and make it difficult for the nation to sustain coherent long-term policies.

One of the most important events of the last several years might have been the revelation last month regarding the false reports on the Afghanistan war provided to the American public by every administration going back to the beginning of the century. The erroneous reports came from every organ of government, but most notably the State Department, the Defense Department, the intelligence community, and of course, the White House. Congressional oversight committees did their part to suppress much of what they knew. This was bipartisan obfuscation undertaken to avoid admitting that our policies in Afghanistan have been a failure from the day that Osama bin Laden escaped the country. The full reports (in six parts) may be found at this link.

But almost as shocking as what they detailed is that the whole issue disappeared from the front page the day after it dominated the front page. What came back to the front page was the impeachment circus. The implications of our nation being unable to confront or address matters of great seriousness to focus instead on pure and fractious partisanship is surely a sign of a nation in steep decline.

Right here is a link to a podcast called “The Argument” put out by three columnists from the NYT. A few minutes into it you get to the remarks by Ross Douthat linking the Afghanistan papers, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and the general loss of massive credibility by the establishment elite of both parties, including those who testified for the Democrats during the House impeachment proceedings. He has also written about these things. See the Afghanistan papersAmericans’ distrust in the experts who testified against Trump and the political establishment’s loss of credibility. These are valuable insights into the undergirding reasons why a majority of the Democrats and a majority of the Republicans both reject their parties’ “values” of the near past. All of this explains Trump, Sanders and Warren as much as anything.

Then there was the incessant frothing about income and wealth inequality in America. The left seems ready to throw out the baby with the bath water (get rid of capitalism) to address the issue. The right tends to deny that there is much of a problem. But there really is a problem, if not of economics then at least of optics and politics. Many Republicans (Trump supporters) and a majority of the Democrats (Sanders and Warren supporters) are politically motivated to address in some way the matter of income or wealth disparity. In this toxic political environment, it does not matter that virtually all Americans are in the top 1% worldwide. What seems to matter is that the top 1% in America have an outsized influence in politics (of both parties) and elsewhere. We are becoming a nation of people motivated more by jealousy and envy than by aspirational values.

That this concern arises in a setting of unprecedented full employment, economic growth, and stock market wealth is perhaps not surprising. My favorite economist, Robert Samuelson, has recently pointed out that important updated data show that a massive portion of all of these economic gains have found their way to the rich and the near-rich. See Our Lopsided Prosperity. As Samuelson observes, the great and real danger here is social and political. The rich and the near-rich feel stigmatized unfairly for their successes, while many Americans below the top tier resent that their hard work has not given them the security and stability to which they feel entitled. This whole family of issues, along with those surrounding the impeachment theater, are likely to dominate the presidential campaign of 2020, which at the moment looks as if it will end up presenting all but the oldest of us with the first brokered convention during our lifetime.

The past decade and longer is especially interesting and there have been a number of thoughtful columns from across the political spectrum providing insights. A refreshing reminder of important events occurring during the early years of the last decade is recorded in a WaPo column by David Zak, entitled The Decade has Ended but it will Never be Over. Among other things, it is a reminder of just how immature and undeveloped the social media platforms were just a decade ago.

Worthy of note too are six short columns providing their own characterization of the last decade, described variously as the decade of: unraveling; sharing; dissonance; anxiety; ouroboros; and retreat. Some of these observations are humorous, others serious. All are less than 200 words and can be found right here. The final column, and in my view the best, is Robert Samuelson’s column characterizing the last decade as really the end of the “American Century.” In a sense, the American Century began at the end of World War I in 1919, and it seems now to be the dawn of the Chinese Century. The spirit of nationalism that in part animates Trumpism will fight this, but just as the British Empire finally gave way to the American domination of the world stage after World War II (as evidenced most starkly by Eisenhower’s refusal to support the British, the French and the Israelis over Suez in 1956) so it seems likely that China, with help from Russia, Iran and others will dilute substantially American influence in the Western Hemisphere over the next few decades.

There is a further noteworthy Douthat column entitled “The Decade of Disillusionment,” looking at the last 30 years as a triptych: the decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11; the decade thereafter; and then the decade just concluded. There is much in the column with which one might disagree, but probably more that sounds quite right. The ‘90’s brought American dominance worldwide, and as Francis Fukuyama famously predicted, “the end of history.” The aughts brought this notion to an end with 9/11 and follow-on events, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. And with those wars begun, and still in many ways going on, that decade pointed to a far different direction than the ‘90’s. And the election of Barrack Obama towards the end of the decade, for very complex reasons, brought us the beginning of unprecedented partisanship (birthing the Tea Party, among other things) that has gotten much worse in the intervening four years. It began the era of “no compromise”, ending up with the stunning rejection by the 2016 electorate of the professional political class whether Republican or Democrat. Since then it has been impeachment talk and, eventually, actual impeachment by the House focused on a phone call. An inappropriate phone call, yes, but unlikely ever to be found a hanging offense by the Senate. Indeed, as I write this on January 3, 100% of the Democratic party presidential candidates have condemned the administration’s termination of Iran’s General Soleimani, in part on the ground that the President failed his constitutional duty to inform the Congress of his intended action. One senses that even this action may end up as a new article of impeachment in some fashion. Quite a distasteful spectacle that the termination of a man as dangerous as Bin Laden should become a faux issue in the Democratic primary.

Finally, on the decennial front, here is a whole decade worth of Dave Barry annual reviews that should keep everyone in a good spirits for a while. Dave Barry 1009-18.

And so, as we enter the fourth decade after the collapse of the USSR, our national direction is up for grabs. But what is certain is that about half of the citizenry will be angry. It has been said that our democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For at least the last few election cycles that consent has been denied and it will probably be denied after November 2020. So, despite the highest economic growth and lowest unemployment in a half-century, the road ahead is full of potholes and fraught with danger. Even more important than addressing the green planetary issues is the matter of addressing our broken political system. My next column will address this both with brevity and with a couple of specific proposals that might work. Without repairing the political system, even the most sensible and well-intended policies, whatever they might be, cannot be agreed, pursued, or advanced.