The Elephant in America’s Room
The second most astonishing thing about American politics is that John McCain and Sarah Palin have a respectable chance of winning the White House in 2008. (Or, for that matter, that any Republican could have a shot at any office for which the Democratic candidate hasn’t suddenly died on the stump.)
Yeah, yeah, I know. Barack Obama has a funny name. He’s relatively young and inexperienced. Oh, and – have you heard? – he’s also black. But, just the same, I mean, c’mon. A Republican could win the presidency in 2008? You gotta be kidding, right?
All of this is deeply related, in multiple ways, to what is without a doubt absolutely the first most astonishing fact of American politics. And that is that conservatism (I prefer to call them ‘regressives’) isn’t the most repudiated ideology this side of cannibalism. And that regressive practitioners of this hateful disease masquerading as a political philosophy haven’t been tarred-and-feathered, hung, drawn and quartered, then run out of town on an electrified rail. And that any red-blooded American wouldn’t infinitely prefer in this day and age to be called a pedophile, a terrorist or a European – heck, or all of the above combined – rather than a conservative.
I mean, seriously, people. Now that Wall Street has imploded, potentially taking down with it the entire global economy in a fun reprise of the 1930s, what more could possibly be necessary to repudiate a set of ideas for which a good day is when thousands of people don’t die (again) as a result of anyone, let alone the world’s sole superpower, subscribing to something so astonishingly stupid? Really, is there anything that the regressive agenda has touched so far that hasn’t completely turned into a pillar of salt? Not only do these nice pious Christians show every evidence of actually being the antichrist, they’ve also managed to be the anti-Midas as well.
The scope of the destruction is breathtaking to gaze upon. The rapidity with which American affluence and power and respect and responsibility were converted into their opposite numbers is mind-boggling. But the most astonishing thing of all is the absence of repudiation. Not from subscribers, of course. That army of clones was so existentially terrorized in their impressionable years by some toxic stew of religion, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-communism and/or some other forms of anti-otherism – along with a sinking economic status – that their cold, stiff fingers will never be pried from the politics of guns, gays and god. Especially now, when they can also add to their fears the blame for being so spectacularly wrong about everything imaginable these last decades. Who would want to own that?
But what about the rest of us? What, indeed. We still live in an America where almost nobody dares call themselves a liberal. But what’s even more bizarre – and I mean like watching-a-Twilight-Zone-marathon-in-Wonderland-sitting-there-with-Alice-and-frying-on-acid-while-listening-to-In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-(“here-comes-the-drum-solo-man!”)-backwards-and-at-half-speed kinda bizarre – is the degree to which conservatism has not become a dirty word and a rejected ideology. For my money, this is the single most absolutely anomalous political curiosity currently to be found in what is surely one of the most curiously anomalous polities that ever existed. Oh, and, for the record, it turns out that that bit about ‘my money’ is quite literally true – a whole bunch of it has already been spent on the various insanities of this backwards ideology, and probably a lot of yours too.
But I digress. What is conservatism, and how should it be regarded? Like any ideology, it has lots of flavors and sub-cults, many of which don’t necessarily get along with each other, and certainly don’t agree on which conservative projects should be given priority at any given time. All the same, I think we can boil the ideology down to a few key concepts – indeed, ones that even our regressive friends would agree accurately represent the ideological program.
Traditionally, well… tradition has been key, as a matter of fact. One key tenet of conservatism is to avoid change. Reactionaries go even further, preferring the (typically heavily mythologized) world that grandpa inhabited. Economically, conservatism is all about low taxes, low government spending (except when it comes to cops and bombs), balanced budgets, low regulation of the private sector and privatization of any service which might otherwise be provided by the government.
This is why conservatives love to describe themselves as the ideology which maximizes freedom, but this turns out – shockingly, I know – to be a lie. Indeed, it first turns out to be a lie because in practice supposedly conservative governments break most of their own economic rules catalogued above. Saint Ronald The Reagan quadrupled the national debt by irresponsibly slashing tax revenue (especially for the rich) and massively increasing spending. Before he sold out the country for his own career aspirations, George H. W. Bush described that formula as “voodoo economics”. He ought to know. His voodoo spawn was not to be outdone by any White House predecessor. Or even all of them. Lil’ Bush has followed an irradiated version of the same formula as Uncle Ron and has now doubled all the national debt which was incurred by his 42 predecessors. Combined. Very ‘conservative’, eh?
But the even bigger lie is that the supposed ideology of freedom from government doesn’t even pretend to extend outside of the economic sphere. Ladies, would you like to control your own bodies? Better try another ideology. Real conservatives don’t even want you to have access to birth control or divorce, let alone abortion. Want the freedom to decide who you can sleep with, what you can do in bed (even if you’re a married hetero couple), and who you can marry? Oops, you stumbled into the wrong philosophy, brother. And don’t even get me started on substances of various sorts one might choose to imbibe, even to stay alive while undergoing chemotherapy. Freedom? Guess again. Unless of course you mean the freedom to live the life prescribed for you (but not themselves) by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Mark Foley, Larry Craig or Newt Gingrich, based on their selective misinterpretations of some obscure text written by hermit politicians 4,000 years ago in the Palestinian desert. (Where people are still fighting over ownership of the sand to this very day – hey, let’s follow that model!)
Lastly, conservatism means hawkish aggression in the face of potential threat, real or imagined. Abroad, that translates into sending in the Marines or small nuclear devices to deal with pesky former clients who’ve now gotten a little uppity in their ambitions. Domestically, that means lots of cops, lots of judges, lots of jails and lots of electric chairs (but only for little people, of course, who can’t afford good lawyers).
So that’s the formula – and, again, I doubt even conservatives would dispute this rendering: traditionalism, the pretense of small government in the economic sphere, big government in the social domain, big stick abroad and on the streets.
But here’s the part that they won’t admit to, despite the fact that it is inescapably true. Indeed, precisely because it is true, and because of where it leads. And that’s this: This is an ideology that has been tested. Nobody can say that George W. Bush, or his cronies in Congress or his enablers on the Supreme Court have pulled any punches these last eight miserable years. But the truth is, it runs a lot deeper than even that. With the exception of Bill Clinton’s moderately and sporadically progressive social policies, it’s actually been a solid thirty years of conservative politics in America, including Clinton’s economic policies, which were indistinguishable from anything you’d get out of Wall Street or off the GOP convention platform of any given year. Ever since Reagan, and in some ways even back to Carter, Washington has been all about implementing a conservative agenda of tax cuts, deregulation and privatization, unraveling feminism, gay rights, civil rights and the Constitution, along with interventions abroad and mass incarcerations at home. In short, it would take an obscene distortion of truth – of which regressives have so often shown themselves singularly capable – to argue other than that we’ve had a very thorough and robust test of the ideology these last decades, and especially under George W. Bush.
So, hey, how’s it all turned out? Can you say “unmitigated disaster”? Not even John McCain, who nowadays will say anything, argues that we’re better off than we were four years ago. He, of course, neglects to mention the degree to which he’s been part of the problem, and now even seeks to extend it another four or eight years.
Let’s start with national security. The “grown-ups” who were supposed to come to town and show Clinton Democrats how to do government right were so obsessed with their little pet Iraqi project that they were asleep at the switch (if not behind the wheel) during America’s worst national security crisis ever. Then they went to war against the supposed perpetrator of that crime in Afghanistan, until they got bored with it all and sent the troops to Iraq instead. The upshot has been two endless wars completely un-won seven years later (at least one of which was also completely unnecessary), a broken American military, global hatred toward the US, massive ‘defense’ spending equal to more than that of every other country in the entire world combined, and a polarized and deceived public at home. Quite a score-card, eh?
It gets better. At home, the highest national surplus ever was rapidly turned into the greatest national deficit ever, adding and compounding now to nearly $10 trillion in debt (and rapidly rising), twice what it was (then falling) when the Little Bush came to Warshington. That’s $66,666 (hey, don’t all those sixes mean the devil is nearby?) per taxpayer, for those of you keeping score at home. If Bush’s massive tax transfers (commonly but erroneously referred to as cuts) are continued, as McCain vows to do, that number will explode even more than it will still be mushrooming anyway without them. Meanwhile, the dollar is lower in value than ever, the trade deficit is astronomical, inflation is rising behind gas and food prices climbing off the charts, and a steady diet of regressive deregulation has jeopardized the entire global economy, requiring taxpayers to ante up another trillion bucks to rescue us from the depredations of the robber baron elites, whose vision of capitalism – abetted by their cronies in government – is that all profits go to them and all risks go to stupid regular people.
What a great economic record, eh? Since the 1970s, when the right side came to bat, polarization of wealth in America has increased to banana republic proportions. The rich now account for half of the income in this country – up from one-third during the liberal period of the 1930s through the 1960s – and the middle class has actually lost ground, despite an economy that has been fairly steadily growing over the last decades. It ain’t rocket science, folks. Cut the legs off of unions, apply pressure to workers to keep them too frightened to organize, globalize jobs abroad and reward their export with tax incentives, change the structure of the tax system to favor the rich – guess what’s going to happen? Guess what has happened? Of course, it hasn’t hurt to also throw in a few scary foreign boogeyman monsters, racism, homophobia and some other nifty tricks to keep voters distracted long enough to loot their wallets.
The record outside of foreign and economic policy is hardly any better. Healthcare in America is a disaster, made worse by another eight years of standing by watching conditions deteriorate, and letting a sexually-obsessed American Taliban dictate policy on stem-cell research and anything else even remotely related to genitalia and other evil things. That whole idea of using government to reward cronies and political stormtroopers turns out to have worked just about as well as it did back in the nineteenth century – before we abandoned it the first time – as Heckuvajob Brownie so well demonstrated during Katrina. And won’t history be kind to the regressive right for denying that global warming was a massive threat to humanity, and then blocking solutions once it became undeniable that it was? Or attempting to destroy the International Criminal Court (hmm, wonder why?). And so on, and so on…
These are the reasons, altogether, that Bush is the most widely reviled president ever seen in polling data, and that many notable historians have abandoned their traditional reluctance to weigh in on any subject that isn’t half a century old and have gone ahead and declared the Bush presidency the worst in over 200 years of American history. But we need to remember that Bush, of course, is only the most visible manifestation of an entire regressive movement, which is as completely predatory as it is patently a failure.
So the real question is, how come ‘conservative’ isn’t a dirty word today, a label that any politician outside of Mississippi would run from as if it were the Ebola virus? The answer, I think, has principally to do with marketing, and also with the will and motives of the so-called opposition party. I remember George Bush the Elder, carrier of the demon seed, mercilessly hammering the hapless Mike Dukakis across the 1988 campaign as “a liberal”, spitting the word out as if it was the worst epithet imaginable. Week after week, Dukakis said nothing, as his poll number slid into the basement, missing the obvious retort of “If you mean someone who favors Social Security, Medicare, school loans, the GI Bill, civil rights, equality for women, protection of free speech and the Constitution – then, yeah, hell yes I’m a liberal!” Week after week he was silent, that is, until finally I saw him do it live, with my very own eyes. He copped to being a liberal. On the very last day of the campaign. In San Francisco, no less. Brilliant.
What’s happened is that the regressive right has been wildly successful at one of the only two things they’re good at (the other being theft), which is marketing lies. The Atwater/Rove/Schmidt machine is fairly brilliant at using fear, smear and queer to turn night into day, black into white, Palin into Truman. Nowhere does this show up so clearly as in the contrast between policy preferences and the ideological self-definition of voters. On issue after issue – yes, even including guns, gays and taxes – Americans definitively line up in favor of liberal positions, often by huge gaps. They want national healthcare, they want regulation of guns, they support equality for women and gays, they oppose ‘free trade’, they favor government steps to ameliorate the polarization of wealth in America, they want to protect the environment, they approve ‘big government’ providing more services, they want the minimum wage raised, they support stem-cell research and massively oppose Terri Schiavo-type government interventions into personal morality, they strongly support abortion rights and oppose repealing Roe by a two-to-one ratio. Nowadays, they’re even giving up on the death penalty.
But then these same people have, over the last thirty years or so, self-identified as conservatives to the tune of about 30 percent of the population, versus liberal on the order of about 20 percent. And while there are decent arguments to be made that the public doesn’t understand ideological labels as well as they might, or that the other 25 percent or so calling themselves moderates are really liberals, the more important point has to do with marketing success. Who in America wants to be labeled a ‘liberal’ today? It’s still a dirty word, even though all its policy prescriptions are widely held, and even though conservatism has been monstrously and emphatically disastrous. This is the product of a marketing coup of first proportions, a stunning Madison Avenue success at, well, putting lipstick on a pig. You could see it, most recently, at the Republican Convention last month, where neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney nor even the word Republican were anywhere to be found, and yet people bought into loads of the claptrap about Sarah Palin. Democrats would have been hopeless and morose with a hand like the one Republicans have dealt themselves in 2008. The GOP, on the other hand – them boys know how to peddle soap, man.
Meanwhile, the Dukakis tradition, well preserved by the likes of Gore in 2000 and John Kerry and still somewhat by Barack Obama today, continues to illustrate one of the few things a conservative ever got right – namely, Edmund Burke’s oft-quoted observation that all that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing. But there’s good and then there’s good. As another famous old quip notes, many progressives during the New Deal era came to Washington to do good and stayed to do well. One reason that regressivism has been so miraculously successful as a set of politics while being simultaneously so disastrous as policy is surely because of Democratic cowardice. But, just as surely, another is because far too many donkeys are nearly as bought into the corporate predatory nexus as are the elephants (and I don’t mean Babar).
Why does this all matter? Well, for the same reason that eight years of Bush/Cheney matters, and that the very real prospect of a McCain presidency followed by a Palin presidency matters. Political battles are half-won or lost, in advance, by the framing and labeling which precede the actual contests. The right understands this so well, which is why, among other of their successes, liberal is a dirty word, and the press has been successfully labeled with a liberal bias. Progressives – or at least Democrats – are clueless about this stuff. They’ve never worked on Madison Avenue. They’ve never been driven by a rapacious ambition toward infantile self-aggrandizement. They’ve never had to sell gold-plated cappuccino machines or Hummers to idiot consumers just itching to depart with their own money in order to salve their raging insecurities. No wonder they can’t win elections.
It’s astonishing, if you think about it – how much can be sold on the basis of so little substance. Put it this way: I’d be willing to bet there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by in which Karl Rove doesn’t salivate all over his Dockers, dreaming of the kind of empire he could build if he had the material progressives have to work with. An angry public, policy agreement on virtually every issue in the public sphere, a hated government powerfully representing the opposing ideology. What more could you want? It’s true, conservative voters are incredibly susceptible to fear-based political appeals, and tend to have the critical analytical faculties of a pile of rocks. Still, it’s been a very long time since the cards were stacked so heavily in favor of a progressive tsunami in America, and the right knows it. And they alternate between sheer astonishment and giddy joy as they contemplate the utter inability of progressives to pick up that ball and run with it.
Those, like Rove, in the regressive controlling class cannot believe their good fortune in not being completely chased from the field of play, as if they were transsexual Nazi pedophiles advocating for the national agenda a confiscation of all private property and America being annexed as a province of Bolivia. “Goddam, I’m good” Rove tells the guy in the mirror each morning as he shaves, I can assure you. And he’s (very) right, I can also assure you, provided you take the talented meaning of the word ‘good’, not the moral one.
But imagine if progressives were half as good, especially with all the material they now have to work with.
They could be the chemotherapy for the country’s conservative cancer we’ve so badly needed for so long now. Instead of an America on life support, we could once again be a healthy polity, growing and thriving.
And the regressive disease could be banished from the body politic forever.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.