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The Dismantling of Civil Society
How stupid are you?
I mean, let’s just face it, shall we? That is precisely the question the right has been asking the American public for thirty years (and more) now. And that is the question the American public has been enthusiastically answering for the same period of time.
Like a crack junkie, in fact.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan presented America with a set of economic lies so transparent that even a monster like George H. W. Bush called them “voodoo economics”. When he was contesting Reagan for the Republican nomination, that is. Once Bush had lost it, and when he wanted to be added to the ticket as the Vice Presidential nominee, everything became hunky dory, and no more voodoo critiques were uttered. That was one of the greatest acts of treason (I choose my words carefully) in American history.
But back to Reagan. “Watch this”, he said. “I’m gonna slash taxes, especially for the rich, spend huge sums on ‘defense’, and balance the budget at the same time”.
Okay, so he wasn’t a math major in college. Two out of three ain’t bad, though, eh? Well, it is if you have to pay for his ‘mistakes’, plus interest, as so many of us continue to do to this day. Prolly not a big problem, though. Even though Americans hate taxes with the passion of the truly infantile, I’m sure they don’t mind working extra hours flipping burgers each week to pay for the enrichment of the previous generation of plutocrats and defense contractors. Right?
Or maybe it’s just that their answer to the “How stupid” question is: “Very”.
You might think that, because Reagan and Bush actually managed to quadruple the national debt with their little exercise in national folly. Or you might especially think that because Lil’ Bush came along with the exact same snake oil a decade later. You had to be stupid to buy it the first time, but you had to have been really stupid to buy it the second time. We, of course, were.
And not just in terms of federal debt, either. A generation of Reaganomics has now succeeded in suspending ninety-eight percent of the country in standard-of-living formaldehyde, so that they felt zero effect whatsoever from the substantial growth in GDP over the last thirty years, and now those policies are cutting off their legs from underneath them altogether. All while the people of Reagan’s class, of course, just piled on the riches. How stupid do you have to be to not notice who’s diddling you?
Very, of course, but not necessarily as stupid as is maximally possible. ‘Cause, guess what? Here they come again. This week Republicans once again have issued a manifesto calling for slashing taxes on billionaires and cutting deficits, all at the same time. And once again they will win big electoral landslide victories in November despite that patent idiocy. Or perhaps because of it.
Why don’t they just come out and do magic tricks, instead? Oh wait. That’s their Jesus bit. Never mind.
On the one hand, I don’t blame Americans for voting for the party that isn’t the Democratic Party this fall. Obama and crew are miserable failures, as completely unable to provide meaningful solutions to the problems facing Americans today as they are inept at winning political fights against manifest criminals. Looking at the landscape in front of them as it appears to voters’ blinkered vision, it makes perfect sense to desperately swing to the party not in government when the house is on fire and the party in government is showing up with squirt guns. What could be more logical? This is, indeed, the fundamental notion of ‘responsible government’ itself, and it is at the core of democratic theory.
On the other hand, of course, there are two very excellent reasons why such a vote is completely idiotic. First, because there actually are more than two alternatives to choose from. I wish we had viable third parties in America but I don’t normally advocate for them, given the massive systemic improbability of their success. That said, if there was ever a moment for which a third party vote was called for, this is it.
And second, because ‘the alternative’ to the Democrats are the very folks who put us in these crises to start with, and they are now explicitly devoted to making conditions even worse for ordinary Americans. That’s exactly what will happen, of course, and if you think the present moment is grim, wait until you see how much fun the next two years are gonna be. They’re gonna look like the mangled and ferocious spawn of a tainted marriage between the Depression politics of the Hoover era, the sick depravity of McCarthyism, the relentless scandal-mongering of the Gingrich era, and the completely unmitigated greed of the Cheney years. Welcome to the dismantling of civilized society in America. Yes, yes, I know – it’s quite arguable whether such a beast ever existed. Well, at least that’s one debate we’re about to put to rest definitively.
And we also know for sure of yet one more thing Ol’ W was wrong about. Remember when he said: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – You can’t get fooled again!”
He shoulda checked with Karl Rove and the rest of his party of predatory shucksters, who seem quite incapable of not constantly trying to fool the public. And he shoulda considered the ridiculous improbability of his own presidency before attempting to quote Pete Townshend. Not to mention the current moment. We know why the GOP has to lie, and does so compulsively. Even in contemporary America, surely the stupidest country on the planet, the homo sapiens are still sentient enough to opt out of the most overt cases of self-immolation. If kleptocratic Republicans told the truth, who in the world would ever vote for them, other than the richest two percent of Americans?
The bigger mystery is why people continue to fall for this crap over and over. This is the “shame on me” concept that Dauphin George was reaching for but couldn’t quite grasp (too bad he didn’t actually, er, study, when he was at Yale). How many times can fools be told the same foolish line and be fooled into foolishly falling for it, like a pack of so many fools?
It would appear that for Americans, at least, there is no limit, based on the contents of the Republicans’ just released “Pledge to America” manifesto, which I could have drafted for them, so predictable is its contents. There is of course, loads of debauchery and rampant destruction in there, dressed up as piety and patriotism. But the fiscal insanity is the most egregious. Can they really pledge the old voodoo economics once again – slashing tax revenue while simultaneously cutting deficits – and get away with it? Yes they can, and yes they have.
Perhaps their lies are more plausible because they have promised to cut spending. It’s just that there are two little caveats they hope you won’t notice. First, that they somehow miraculously fail to specify in advance of the election what they intend to cut. Gee, I wonder why that is? Could it be that if people knew what those cuts would be they would be aghast? Or could it be – and this brings us to the other small footnote – that what they are proposing is to mathematics what a dropped object falling upward would be to physics?
As Paul Krugman notes, the Republican Pledge claims that “everything must be cut, in ways not specified – ‘except for common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops.’ In other words, Social Security, Medicare and the defense budget are off-limits. [Krugman should have also mentioned service to the existing debt, which is one of the biggest single items in the federal budget today, and absolutely cannot be touched.] So what’s left? Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has done the math. As he points out, the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won’t cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: ‘No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H. No more Medicaid (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress.’”
And yet – of course – poll data shows that the folks purveying this heap of garbage are about to be swept into office. Meanwhile, city governments are folding their tents across America, slashing all their services entirely, and the GOP is nominating former witches, anti-masturbators, racists, wrestling promoters and every other form of personal screw-up and jive con-artist to be found everywhere killers and thieves congregate.
I’m sorry, but surveying the landscape, it just feels so over now in America. We seem like little more than a popped balloon, with only the faux blustering fart noises of rapid deflation remaining where once there was an empire and once there were truly revolutionary and truly valuable ideas.
It’s no accident, either, that the near-complete obsession of the tea party right and their followers is taxes. It’s naked greed, it’s more infantile than the politics of a kindergarten sandbox, and it’s as corrosive as can be. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society”. He meant it, too. When he died, he donated his estate to the US government.
What is happening to America today is nothing short of the dismantling of such civilized society. Does anyone think the country is economically better off today than in the 1950s or 1960s? Does anyone seriously think that the Millennial Generation will be better off than their parents? Would anyone seriously bet on America today, as an economic comer? Does anyone think that the next hundred years will be the American century?
There is so much tragedy to this story that it is hard to know where to start. Perhaps the greatest ugliness of the whole affair is the self-inflicted nature of our demise, and, therefore, the complete lack of necessity for all the pain and suffering already endured and the vastly greater amounts still to come. It never had to be this way, which just makes it all the more pathetic.
If there is any silver lining here it is that the hooligans of the right will manifestly fail at governing, which at least opens up the potential for them to be rejected once again.
I will be interested – as a political scientist, not as a citizen – to see what sort of budget proposal Republicans will pass out of the House once they control it. Like Reagan and Bush before them, their numbers cannot possibly jibe. Unlike Reagan and Bush, however, they will have far less luxury to resort to the shell game of grossly irresponsible deficits as a way out of their own lies, having made deficit reduction so overtly the centerpiece of their campaign this year. The freaks of the tea party right don’t seem so likely to let them off the hook for another round of campaign lies as they were the last two times out. How’s that for an irony? The only prospect of real accountability for these monsters would be coming from the monsters of their own constituency.
But, assuming the GOP can find a way around that problem (perhaps by proposing a draconian pretend budget that they know could never be accepted by congressional Democrats or Obama?), I would expect them to prevail again in 2012. Unless the jobs picture changes radically in 2011 – and no economist that I know of is predicting that – Obama is complete toast. Indeed, he is probably so wounded that we might expect a Democrat or two to challenge him in the primaries for the nomination. Doesn’t matter, though. Either way, whoever the Republicans nominate will be the next president.
Which is where I start to get real nervous. Governments that combine a commitment to holding power at all costs with a total absence of real policy solutions and an amoral willingness to do anything to serve their true aspirations are a truly scary prospect. History suggests that the years after 2012 could be the ones during which the wheels finally came off the wagon of what is left of American democracy.
But it could be far worse than that, too, for us and for others. The prospect of a hugely powerful empire lashing out at the rest of the world – whether in rage or seeking domestic diversion – is not a pretty one at all. The Soviet superpower was kind enough to implode rather innocuously. I’m not at all convinced that we yanks would be quite so gracious about doing the same.
I remain haunted to this day by the words of John le Carré, written on the eve of the Bush invasion of Iraq: “America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War”.
Sadly, I think he had everything right in his assessment, save for the word “periods”. That term implies a temporariness to our condition that might at least make it somehow barely tolerable.
But what if it only gets worse from here?
And let’s be honest. Given the nature of the Republicans, the Democrats, the media and the public in America today, how does it not?
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.