As I understand it, certain pundits are struggling with finding an appropriate name for the decade now mercifully coming to an end.
What’s the problem, I wonder? Are their word processor dictionaries redacted of all four-letter words? I mean, I could think of a few dandies, right of the top of my head.
Short of the 1860s or 1930s, this was perhaps the most disastrous decade in American history, and it deserves a good goddamed label to celebrate that fine achievement.
More on that below. Meanwhile, whatever the appropriate term, it’s important to keep things in perspective. I think the most crucial notion to understand about our time – and perhaps the only way to make sense of it – is to see it as the point where the process of imperial decline shifted into third gear. That explains a lot. I like to think that even Americans wouldn’t be capable of the sick stupidity we’ve witnessed over these harrowing years without the effects of rapid altitude decline and the loss of cabin pressure that the ship of state has been experiencing during this era.
Perhaps I’m too generous toward a people who don’t deserve a lot of that sentiment, either because of their diminished intelligence, generosity, compassion, sophistication or all of the above. I imagine that would be the feeling on the streets of, say, Fallujah, where the attitude might well be confined to a lovely blend of schadenfreude and indifference, were it not for the fact that the paroxysms of the flailing elephant send so many fruit stands flying as the mortally wounded beast goes careening down the main street of the global village, toward inevitable defeat in its struggle with unforgiving gravity.
America probably must come down to earth again, its abortive ‘century’ of world dominance having anyhow been artificially fabricated from a toxic combination of circumstance and theft right from the beginning. I can even say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it is, of course, all relative to what replaces Pax Americana. Anyone who assumes that it can only get better on the international front isn’t thinking real clearly or real historically. Indeed, in all fairness, the US may well have run the most benign and least imperial empire in history – though not for lack of trying by the likes of, say, Paul Wolfowitz or John Bolton.
Thus it may well be that the next big thing is even less pretty. Watching the Chinese government in action at home, where they are unfettered, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in what a Pax Sinica would bring once they are also unfettered abroad. If the same cats who brought us Tiananmen Square and Tibet are next gonna be seeking planetary domination, for once in my life I may actually come to appreciate the value of nuclear weapons…
But I digress. As I was saying before those proverbially inscrutable Asian aspiring hegemons so rudely interrupted me, the fall of American global dominance was only ever a matter of time in the coming. What is most lamentable, however, is the way in which we’ve handled that transition, and most especially, the degree to which we’ve exacerbated it. In short, it didn’t have to be like this. If the post-war French and the British represent two rather caricatured but nevertheless illuminative models of how to grapple with the end of empire, we have unfortunately elected to adopt the violent and undignified Gaulist approach. We even went with a actual full-scale replication of the draining Vietnam experience. At this rate, we’ll be invading Algeria next. Heck, maybe that’s just what Bush meant to do, but he pushed the wrong button, mixing up, as he was wont to do, those Islamic countries whose names start with the letter ‘A’ (watch out Albania!).
Probably we’ll just settle for repeating the French experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of actually attacking Algeria. What seems more assured is that we will replicate the catastrophic domestic meltdowns France experienced in 1958 and 1968, as the lunacies of reactionary politics and the realities of tectonic change met on the French battlefield, and the state nearly took on the role of the slaughtered innocent civilian bystander, or what the military nowadays likes to call collateral damage.
If that happens, few will bear more responsibility than Barack Obama, who in less than a year’s time has managed to revive a comatose Republican Party that – like Jimi Hendrix, was dying from asphyxiation of its own vomit – whilst simultaneously flushing away the good will that he and his own party enjoyed down into the overflowing sewers of failed American presidencies. Miraculously, he even managed to do all of this without any serious ‘mistake’, epic blunder, or fresh crisis on his watch. About the lamest positive act Obama did all year was the decidedly inartful and astonishingly unnecessary comment he made about the Cambridge, Massachusetts Police Department. If all you’re counting is the proactive mistakes made, Obama had fewer in a year than many presidents do in a typical week.
On the other hand, if you include blown opportunities into the mix, perhaps only Herbert Hoover can equal this president’s record. If you look at what he didn’t do, in short, it’s hard to imagine a more prolific record of non-achievement. Does he know this? Sometimes – especially when I watched his Afghanistan speech about getting in so that we could turn right around and get back out – I wondered if it could be possible that he has taken it as his task to quietly and heroically direct the managed decline of the American empire, even at the cost of his own presidency.
That, of course, is pretty hard to imagine, but more to the point it is really unnecessary to do it this way, anyhow. We can be a lot better than that, even if decline is inevitable. (And it may not be, at least in an absolute sense. Relative decline cannot be escaped, however, if for no other reasons than that China has other plans. As does India, Europe and Latin America.) A forward-thinking set of politics could really advance the nation and its economy in a hugely positive way, if only the accretionary shackles of predatory rentier pretend-capitalism could be busted off, freeing American society to realize its potential.
To choose but the most proximate example, we could have had real healthcare reform, I believe, if Obama had fought for it like George W. Bush or Lyndon Johnson fought for their respective legislative agendas. To see what I mean, think of Bush hawking the manifestly idiotic idea of invading Iraq. When he first began his marketing campaign for the war, most Americans wanted no more part of that imperial folly than they were hankering for a good dose of the clap. But Bush and his people were as relentless as they were ubiquitous, and in a few months time they turned public opinion, managing to get about two-thirds of the country lined up behind their plans for a most excellent adventure in Mesopotamia. Obama, on the other hand, is possessed of rhetorical skills that drive someone like W – who couldn’t have conjugated his way (in English!) out of tenth grade, even after his grandpa paid for the new school gymnasium – nearly apoplectic just thinking about them. And yet the bloodless current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue can’t be bothered to work up either a passion or a sweat to sell his policy wares. Or is it that he just realizes, as so many progressives now have, that what he’s selling just isn’t worth getting excited about?
These two presidencies really do illustrate all too nicely the pathos that is twenty-first century America. Consider their respective situations, and what each did with those circumstances. Bush came into office after marketing himself as a moderate, after one of the most contentious election meltdowns in American history, with a Congress almost exactly evenly divided (and the Senate soon to fall into the hands of the Democrats), with no particular crisis going on short of a mild recession, and with really no mandate of any sort, apart from hopefully not acting as ill-suited and unprepared for the job as he seemed to be during the campaign (no worries there, though – Cheney and Rumsfeld and Powell would be keeping him on the right path – remember?). So what does he do under these circumstances? He adopts a radical regressive agenda. He polarizes the country. He lets loose a marketing campaign of epic intensity, he hammers Congress, he aggrandizes to himself probably more unilateral power than any president in history. And he gets virtually everything he wants. If you can hold your nose long enough to get past the results of his policies, it’s quite an amazing story of boldness and presidential success, made all the more remarkable because of how astonishingly bad his ideas were for the country, and how transparent that fact was even at the time. This guy was selling melted poisonous ice-cubes to Eskimos in wintertime, and he not only made the sale, he got them to want the purchase.
Obama, on the other hand, is dealt almost the opposite hand when he comes to office. He is elected in a clear and compelling victory. He gets a Congress with his party controlling both houses by lopsided 60-40 margins. He receives a clear mandate for change, and he is backed by a stunning outpouring of goodwill, both at home and abroad. He’s got crises that everyone agrees need some serious tending to. In short, you could hardly come up with a better set of circumstances for presidential success if you sat down and created them yourself. So what does he do with this gift? Again, the opposite of Bush. He demands nothing. He fights for nothing. He negotiates with everyone, including those who have zero intention of voting for a bill that he is nevertheless allowing them to dilute, and those (generally the same folks) explicitly trying to ruin his presidency.
And what does he have to show for it? More looting of the public fisc by the already fantastically wealthy. Policies that would be heartily applauded by the far right if enacted by Bush and a Republican Congress. But, since they aren’t, he is hated by those same people anyhow. And, as an extra added bonus, he’s managed to alienate millions of progressives and young first-time enthusiasts in the political system who rallied to his cause – thinking it was their cause – in 2008. This is an astonishing act of cynicism for the history books, and one which will come back to haunt both Obama and his party in a huge way. For which I, personally, am delighted.
However, Obama’s abuse of real people who really care about their country, and who for precisely that reason rolled up their sleeves and worked their butts off to get him into the White House, will also have grave repercussions for what’s left of the republic – and those consequences I do happen to care about. There is huge anger out there, huge antipathy to politics as usual, and huge reluctance to get fooled again. The situation is ripe, the moment pregnant. My guess is the next stop is some form of radical demagoguery (can you say “Palin”?), perhaps followed by a complete abandonment altogether of the two-century-plus American experiment in democracy, when the demagoguery tanks even worse than Obama. Yep, the guy who just won the Nobel Prize could be the guy who unravels democracy in America. Of course, he’s had a tremendous amount of help, so we can’t give him all the blame. But more and more he looks to me like James Buchanan, the man widely considered the worst president in American history. And why? Because the fifteenth president continued practicing politics as usual as crisis for the republic loomed large. As a result of trying to please everyone, Buchanan pleased no one, lost popularity, had a one-term presidency, split the Democratic Party, and stood by as the country plunged toward civil war. Why does that sound a bit too frighteningly familiar to anyone besides me?
America has been ‘blessed’ in the twenty-first century with two presidents who are fine exemplars of their parties. One stood for the absolute worst tendencies in American politics, but knew his convictions and would take no prisoners fighting to win at all costs (especially somebody else’s costs). The other seems to have no ideational tendencies of particular note whatsoever, and would certainly not be so rude as to break decorum in any way, even for purposes of advocating for something that might actually improve the condition of the country. I mean, what would people think?
Seeing this talented African-American president benefit so much from the struggles of prior generations of progressives, and from the massive outpouring of goodwill from those who need deliverance and wanted to believe his rhetoric of hope – only for him to win election and then muster the full weight of the oligarchy-sponsored American government to stand on their throats, choking off the life of the country and the planet – well, that’s a fitting end to this particular sorry decade.
It began, equally fittingly, with the Enron debacle, which demonstrated emphatically the nature of a society that has come to worship above all else a greed so rapacious that alleged people could even contemplate tripping electrical system blackouts for an entire region of the country, just to make an extra buck. So what did we do about that? How about institutionalize it as a full-blown system of governance, and choose for president a guy who was up to his faux cowboy belt-buckle in the Enronics of Kenny Boy Lay, one of his biggest contributors?
Well, of course, ‘choose’ isn’t quite the right term, is it? Shortly thereafter came Bush vs. Gore, when the United States Supreme Court jettisoned any and every pretense of dispassionate apolitical jurisprudence in favor of a judicial-led regressive coup so blatant that it actually issued an order halting the counting of the votes. You know your democracy is toast when masses don’t assemble in the streets over that one. Iranians do. We, on the other hand, just wanted it all to be over.
The new president, as stripped of a mandate as he was of a conscience, immediately proceeded to begin dismantling wholesale the bipartisan foreign and domestic pillars of the post-war Pax Americana system, many of which had even survived the Reagan years. Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? Gone. International Criminal Court? Gutted. Kyoto? Abandoned. Transatlantic alliance? That was ‘Old Europe’. Massive tax cut for the already fantastically wealthy, leaving gaping revenue gaps in its place? You betcha. Let’s not forget. This was already a radical presidency on September 10, 2001.
Then, of course, the next day came. As the events of that day came into focus, my first thought was for the poor people in those buildings. But I must confess that my second thought was that having this occur on the Bush administration’s watch could only mean much ugliness around the corner. I felt a bit guilty for thinking about politics at the time, but I must say in retrospect: Check. Got that one right.
There is much evidence to suggest that the politically correct conspiracy theory about 9/11 – that is, the conventional story – has both some gaping holes and some holy lies in it. But even if we leave aside the horrifying implications of that thought, the idea that a president who was minimally criminally negligent on terrorism policy could benefit so much for so long from this tragedy is yet another reminder of how bad the decade was.
Then came Afghanistan, which shortly thereafter became one of the myriad casualties of Iraq. There are no words for this. There is no meaningful difference – in law, morality, politics, culture or civilization – between Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The only divergence between the two acts of pure aggression is that when the hegemon does it, there’s no one around to block or punish the crime. Although I must say, in the longer term, the gods of karma have gotten better on that score – notwithstanding the fact that Bush and Cheney and the rest of the cowardly crew who ordered up this outrage have so far escaped more or less untouched.
History will also record this as the decade when the evidence for global warming became so compelling that even George Bush endorsed it. And then we did nothing. If this country was a drunkard spouse who was bringing a hailstorm of destruction down on the family, you’d toss the creep out on the street and get a divorce. We haven’t. And, really, when you think about it – why should we? There are plenty of other planets out there to choose from once we wreck this one, aren’t there?
Of course there are myriad further tales of woe to be told. After all, this was the decade in which the thirty year assault of radical regressivism came to full fruition, and was there for people to observe in all its glory. The damages have been incalculable, and I haven’t even gotten to Sarah Palin yet.
If there was one bright spot, it was the seeming recognition by the American public that this full glory of regressive politics was a fairly horrifying prospect to behold, once stripped by a sufficient dose of reality immersion to reveal the truth behind the marketing slogans. Americans seemed to finally come to their senses just a bit, and decide that the thirteenth century was best left in the history books, after all.
But then along came Barack Obama to provide the fitting end to it all. Crushing any sense of possible recovery or redemption (and even his own presidency) on the altar of perpetual obedience to corporate predation, he has now made the decade complete in every way. Not only has he abandoned any meaningful solutions for the multiple crises he inherited, he has absolved by silence the folks who produced those very catastrophes. No, strike that. He has more than absolved them, he has revivified them.
If there is any bright spot in the whole affair, it is that conditions are fertile for potentially big change in this country. But, then, this is America, a place where a corporate milquetoast like Harry Reid defines the supposed left, and is considered some sort of Bolshevik revolutionary. Or worse, I should say that it is an increasingly desperate, collapsing empire America, where the chances that such big change could be really ugly are lots higher than not. Really, pushed off its fat ass toward one political pole or another, do you see this country careening more toward twenty-first century Sweden, or 18th century Prussia? And when you look at the actors and energies out there working hard to move the nation in one direction or the other, just who seems to have the horses today? (Hint: The Tea Partyers are not progressives in this particular tableau. Perhaps in Germany circa 1933, but not in the America of 2009.)
So let’s just hunker down for the new year, hope for the best, and call this one “The Devil’s Decade”, eh? Chalk it up to the red guy with the tail and pitchfork. Maybe we’ll do better next time, but so far in the twenty-first century the score stands at: Satan, one; Humanity, zero.
Of course, I don’t really believe in the Devil. Or in angels, or saints or miracles, or any of the other human-made dramatis personae and sundry religious claptrap that get us into so much trouble.
No, I don’t really think there is a dude running around out there who is the Devil.
Whole countries, on the other hand…?
Well, now. That’s another matter entirely.
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.