Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A letter to London.

My childhood friend Nick wrote from London last week about the apparent energy surrounding the American election. Here are pieces of my letter in response.

Election evening was an amazing experience really, as there were two very different visions of our nation on display. Bill O'Reilly, a pundit on the right, bemoaned the direction of the country as being dominated by an electorate that wants "stuff," but that was a shallow and ultimately puerile assessment. What we have seen is a steady transformation of the American electorate, from the black and white country of our youth to a far more complex place. 

The image of Chicago's McCormack Center was nothing less than stunning. Forty years after Dick Daley stood on the floor of the Democratic National Convention and yelled to Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff, speaking from the dais, "get out of my town you dirty Jew," the face of the American electorate has changed. The crowd this week was the defining image of what makes America exceptional. France has never integrated Algerians and other Africans that live in the ring suburbs around Paris into the French mainstream, but rather has forced upon them a meaning of what it is to be French. So too, Germany never embraced the presence of the Slav or myriad other migrants in their midst, and that cultural stress is one of the deep roots of the European crisis--to give up one's national identity is to lose one's bearings as a nation. 

Unless your national story is defined by the integration of immigrants, with the resulting social, political and and cultural change. 

And the challenges we face today are not the black and white challenges of our youth, but similarly richer and more complex. A second cast on what makes American exceptional is the gift of open trade and access to America's markets that has ultimately lifted up much of the world over the past fifty years. That is not the way colonial powers and hegemons are supposed to behave, they are supposed to plunder the periphery to the benefit of the homeland. But of course American capitalism prioritizes the return on equity over the return to the American homeland. As such, Democrats and Republicans alike could support a half-decade or more of free trade policies that uplifted the world, raised much of Asia out of destitute poverty, even as it eviscerated the American industrial heartland. Such is what it means to be an American. The world's gain was our loss, but at the same time the world's gain was also our gain.

If the sixties were a time of wrenching cultural change, we are now traversing a change in the face of the nation that is more profound. It is not about young white Americans breaking free of the morays of prior generations, while the civil rights and women's rights movements expanded the boundaries of freedom. It is instead about the steady integration of new Americans into the mainstream of society. As Asian Americans approach six percent of the population and Hispanic Americans seventeen percent, that growing immigrant citizenry brought the non-white share of the electorate up to thirty-five percent. In California, that percentage is now more than fifty percent, and as in many things, we are the harbinger of the nation's future.  

Our politics are overlaid across this evolving landscape. New York Times columnist David Brooks offered an interesting insight to Republicans this week. While the new emerging minorities--Hispanics and Asians--share many values that Republicans hold dear, including close family ties and a work ethic, they do not embrace the instinctive distrust of government that is so elemental to the modern Republican Party. The fact that these two groups voted over 70% for President Obama was not reflective of a desire for "stuff," but rather an embrace of an open society in which hard work is supported by a government that works to break down barriers to upward mobility, rather than one that protects entrenched interests and economic elites. 

And language matters. The Republican Party of our youth would have been a natural political home for many new Americans. That Party supported family values, economic opportunity, entrepreneurship and  celebrated America's unique role in the world. But since the Reagan Revolution, much of the rhetoric of the modern GOP has been openly hostile to non-white, non-male Americans. Reagan's imagery of the welfare queen became an icon of hostility to black America, and the paternalism of this year's campaign marked a significant regression from W.'s compassionate conservatism or Jack Kemp's big tent Republicanism.

This year, the rhetoric included self-deportation, an incredible slander that said to an entire community, "just leave." The preference of Republicans to castigate undocumented Americans ignores the intentional history of quiet, loosely patrolled borders that dates back at least to the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform that reflected a tacit compromise with an American business community starved for low cost labor wherein the federal government agreed to simply look the other way. 

And the Republican rhetoric of makers vs. takers divided society into false categories. The ultimate irony of Rick Santelli's famous rant about the bailout of American homeowners was that he stood on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade and asked traders rhetorically if they want to pay someone else's mortgage. Santelli's rant was credited with marking the birth of the Tea Party movement, yet it ignored the fact that the entire financial industry had just received a bailout, estimated to cost the American public as much as $4 trillion. 

This is the same irony of seeing a parcel of hedge fund managers gathered at a fundraiser in Palm Beach as Mitt Romney preached about the unworthiness of 47% of Americans. Those hedge fund managers feed off of the balance sheets of the commercial banking sector as derivative counterparties and were every bit the beneficiaries of the bailout of the banks. Yet they preen themselves as masters of the universe, the makers of the new lexicon, and disdain the great unwashed whom they imagine would take what by devine right is theirs. 

For a ticket running on Paul Ryan's plan to eviscerate social programs, the makers vs. takers language was particularly ironic. As Charles Koch--one of the infamous Koch brothers--noted in his famous March 2011 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, the federal budget has become a trough at which corporate America feeds, and in so doing they corrupt both our politics and themselves. The bank bailout and carried interest exemptions are just the beginning of what the finance industry  purchased for its $5 billion in contributions and lobbying spend over a decade or more, there are the special protections in the Dodd-Frank reforms, and those things that never took place. We did not break up the banks. We did not affect real derivatives reform. And yet despite the bailouts and the special protections, the largest banks show nothing but contempt.

Simply stated--and affirmed by Charles Koch--our largest American businesses have become a taker class. And that is the ultimate irony of John Boehner and other Congressional leaders with the maker vs. taker rubric. Those that Boehner hears from, like those in the dinner in Palm Beach, are those that give the money that lubricates the nation's capital. And what they get in return is a multiple of what they give, because as a class, Washington donors are keenly aware of the cost-benefit analysis of political contributions. There are few areas of investment that offer a better return than a well honed "government relations" strategy. 

The image of America on display last week was remarkable. Living in California, I have enormous optimism for the future of the country. The energy in the creative economies here is unbounded, as is the belief that we have only begun to imagine what is possible. The challenges here are enormous, beginning with how we continue to adapt our education systems to the multi-language environments of schools today. 

But this was a week that reminded the world about what makes America unique. The recognition that we continue to grow and and be renewed as a nation from the energy of those who arrive here. There is no condition to the participation of new citizens. They do not have to remove their head scarves or give up their own heritage. Instead, they participate in the manner of their choosing, and will contribute as co-equals to the shaping of our national future.

That is not necessarily easy for everyone to accept, but election night was a wake up call to many that it is a central reality of our country. Our country is a different place than it was forty years ago, and as difficult as the economic and other challenges might be, it was a reminder of how far we have come.