Podcast • August 29, 2008

As Others See Us: Godfrey Hodgson on the Democrats

Godfrey Hodgson: now When you’ve had enough of the dugout chatter from Denver on the cable networks, try Godfrey Hodgson from Oxford, 5000 miles from the convention scene. I wonder if anybody sees American politics ...

Godfrey Hodgson: now

When you’ve had enough of the dugout chatter from Denver on the cable networks, try Godfrey Hodgson from Oxford, 5000 miles from the convention scene. I wonder if anybody sees American politics more essentially than the co-author of a reporters’ masterpiece (up there with Norman Mailer’s) on the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama, and many other rapt studies of us. (Forthcoming: The Myth of American Exceptionalism.) Hodgson volunteers in conversation that what he missed forty years ago was the length and depth of the conservative cycle the US was entering with Richard Nixon’s election. Today, forty years later, Hodgson’s keynote is that the conservative ascendancy, having fomented the Iraq War and a Gilded Age of inequality, sounds far from broken. The “change” chord rings to Hodgson more of therapy than political reconstruction. The tune from America these days, he says, still sounds something like the Russophobic ditty sung in England in the 1870s — the song that gave “Jingo” to the lexicon of chip-on-the-shoulder patriotism.

We don’t want to fight,

But by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships,

We’ve got the men,

And we’ve got the money, too.

From a popular music-hall song by G. W. Hunt, around 1877.

Godfrey Hodgson: then

The grandest thematic links between ’68 and ’08 — race and the American imperium — are oddly same and different, constant and transformed. Race in the Sixties meant riotous rebellion and a rights revolution; the race “issue” today refers to the apparently unpollable question whether Americans will vote a black family into their iconic White House. The debacle in Iraq would seem to cry out for some open straight talk about the limits of American power in the world, but this campaign shies from the general question. In 1968, Robert Kennedy, running against Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam, wanted us to lay claim nonetheless to “the moral leadership of this planet.” Eugene McCarthy mocked “the idea that somehow we had a great moral mission to control the entire world.” He was bolder and steadier than any of the major candidates for 2008 in opposing permanent counterinsurgency as our fighting posture in the world — this American assumption for itself of “the role of the world’s judge and the world’s policeman.” It is the relatively shy silence on that point that tells Godfrey Hodgson that the 2008 campaign is veiled in the premises of the conservative ascendancy.

Meantime Geoffrey Hodgson wonders who could answer the question that drove John Gunther‘s “Inside USA” books:

John Gunther would send a researcher ahead, book a suite in the big hotel in town, invite all the movers and shakers, give them a cocktail or two and then say, “Who runs this place?”

We can tick off the established powers of 40 years ago that aren’t there anymore. Sure, the city machines have gone. In 1972, I made film about the Democratic Convention and there, there were still residual smoke-filled rooms, residual bosses, I remember doing an interview with Pete Camille of Philadelphia, for example –a city boss, but that’s gone. Detroit is gone. The big three auto makers have just gone cap-in-hand to the administration asking them for, I think it’s, 25 billion bucks, because they’re broke. The banks are sliding around on the floor. Wall Street; the old foreign policy establishment. I wrote a biography of Colonel Henry L. Stimson; he and his friends, the Bundy brothers, have disappeared… If I may say so, the New York Times and the Washington Post are not the powers in the world that they were in 1968 …

To my mind, Franklin Roosevelt… really was the person who figured out how to make the presidency work and I learned from a political scientist called Aaron Wildavsky one thing about how he did it. He had basically four levers or connections that he used. One of which was the Congress, one of which was the Democratic Party, one of which was the bureaucracy or the permanent government, and one of which was the media. I don’t think any of those connections are still in good working order… The political party has really been utterly transformed by the process that began with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in which the old traditional Democratic party was destroyed and the Republican party became a conservative party. For the first time really you have a European style politics where you have a party of the left and a party of the right. The French say the party of movement and the party of order. It may be that the old political parties just can’t work that way.

It certainly seems that the media cannot be managed in that way if only because of the internet, and the bloggers, and the multiplicity of people who have access to the bullhorn, as it were… Max Weber, who invented the concept of the charismatic leader, always assumed that the destined fate of the charismatic leader was to create a bureaucratic leadership, that there was an almost inevitable progression that you go from the charismatic leader to the organization. This was his example: you go from Jesus Christ to the Apostle Paul, the man who organized the church as a powerful, enduring and efficient institution.

I think the Democratic Party is an intensely interesting organization, and if Barack Obama can really reshape, retool the Democratic Party as an instrument of benign political change, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt created the Roosevelt Coalition, which is now completely crumbled, then I think he will be a very great political leader, but it’s going to be tough. I don’t know whether it’s possible to imagine a President Obama recreating a presidency that is as effective as the Roosevelt presidency was.

Godfrey Hodgson in conversation with Chris Lydon, August 27, 2008