The Difference Four Years Can Make

12 November 2008


Today I listened to a CD of the Emerson Quartet performing string quartets of Anton Webern. The CD opens with “Slow Movement for String Quartet” from 1905. The piece is elegiac, almost like a lullaby. The liner notes explain that it was influenced by Schoenberg of his Verklärte Nacht period. There is another work on the same CD, also from 1905, a string quartet with many lush passages such that one would not be surprised to hear in a work of, say, Delius. These works have the feeling of avant garde nineteenth century music, and not the distinctive aesthetic modernism of the twentieth century.

Anton Webern, a master of twentieth century chamber music

Anton Webern, a master of twentieth century chamber music

But the “Slow Movement for String Quartet” is immediately followed by “Five Movements for String Quartet, op. 5” of 1909. What a difference four years makes! Whereas the earlier work sounded like the nineteenth century, these five movements are unmistakably the product of the twentieth century, and in them Webern is clearly the contemporary of the mature Schoenberg and Bartok. The five movements are very short, concise, precise, and dramatic without having any narrative content. There is further, on the same disk, “Three Pieces for String Quartet” of 1913 – the end of Webern’s “second term”, if you will, another four years on. They represent further development of the same modern spirit one immediately recognizes in the “Five Movements”, with some innovations: they are even shorter, and the middle of the three includes a seven-line lyric for mezzo-soprano. Interesting, but not a revolution.

The CD of the Emerson Quartet performing Anton Webern's works for string quartet

The CD of the Emerson Quartet performing Webern

As with so many political administrations, Webern’s “second term” was not a revolutionary departure from the first, though he did grow somewhat as an artist in the interval. Still, four years sometimes makes a tremendous difference. When George W. Bush was elected the first time, he came into office with the burden of being a contemporary president who lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. We are not surprised to read of such things in history books, but in an age in which popular sovereignty is the unquestioned form of political legitimacy, George W. Bush’s first term must be considered something of a miracle. Such things as a president elected on the basis of arcane rules suddenly moved out of the history books and became a vital reality once more. Four years later, he got a second term and won the popular vote. Four more years later, and the record of his administration had become too toxic to touch. As with chamber music, so too with politics: four years can make a dramatic difference.

Pie chart of the 2000 US presidential election

Pie chart of the 2000 US presidential election


Poised now to take control of the country, with the legislative and executive branches of government to call their own, the Democratic Party is demonstrating a remarkable degree of pragmatism, focus, and discipline. Once tainted by its association with the “Looney Left”, it is the Democrats who not only are in control, but who appear in control. Gone are the days of choosing losing battles and proposing pie-in-the-sky legislation doomed to failure. The Democrats are on message, as politicos like to say, and the message is such as not to offend the classes from which they draw their support.

Focus is key.

Focus is key.


On the other side, the Republican Party appears to be in complete disarray, if not meltdown. The names most frequently mentioned as the party’s hopes for the future are Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. In other words, the Republicans seem to have learned the wrong lesson from failure and are throwing in their lot with the right-wing equivalent of the Looney Left. If they continue down this path, they will narrow their appeal at the same time that the Democrats are expanding the appeal of their party, drawing in new voters and making a “Big Tent”. While Palin is still young and could, if she wanted to, create an image less wedded to the crackpot right, the initial impressions of the 2008 campaigning season will be difficult to change.

Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason, a handy guidebook for White House Chiefs-of-Staff-to-be

Kant and his Critique of Pure Reason, a handy guidebook for White House Chiefs-of-Staff-to-be


If the Democrats can retain the discipline they are showing at present, and resist the self-destruction that so often follows from the hubris of being in control, they can look forward to many years as the party in power, while the Republican “big tent” becomes something of a “tent revival” and only those excited by the right wing social agenda remain. How to maintain discipline? One of the most unusual definitions of discipline that I have happened across is to be found in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, in The Method of Transcendentalism, Chapter I, The Discipline of Pure Reason: “The restraint which checks our constant inclination to deviate from certain rules, and at last destroys it, is called discipline.” (F. Max Müller translation) How’s that for Kantian autonomy? While we might not like to practice such discipline in our private lives, and go so far as to destroy our ability to deviate, as a directive for running a White House, it sounds like a sound maxim to me. Only by destroying the inclination to deviate from the administration’s agenda will the discipline to enact a legislative program become a reality. This will be the challenge for the Obama administration.

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