If you’re looking for a decent indicator of the political health of the nation, consider the following excerpt from a Christian Science Monitor article this week: “The decision by the White House Friday to not preempt the season premiere of the psychedelic crash-drama “Lost” for the State of the Union address reveals the surprising power of that much ridiculed stereotype: the American couch potato.”
Well, at least no one can accuse us of not having our national priorities in order, eh?
Actually, that’s only part of the story – and frankly the more benign part, to boot.
Presidents like to say, in their annual messages to Congress and the country, that “The state of the union is strong”. Maybe Obama is bold enough to tell a whopper that big even in 2010. I guess when you’ve taken an entire country over the cliff lying about “hope” and “change”, even a stinker that rude wouldn’t be so egregious, relatively speaking.
In fact, the health of this country is tenuous, and that’s on a real good day. All the obvious and tangible manifestations are there: massive unemployment, polarized wealth suitable for any banana republic, broken government and political system, environmental catastrophe and more. It’s almost as if our goal is to commit national suicide in order to keep a whole next generation of Jared Diamonds employed or something.
These are huge problems, they are nigh on intractable, and they are destructive in the extreme. Indeed, so grim is our situation that the only real hope looking forward is for a resurgence of common sense and mutual sacrifice allowing for at least the possibility of finding the national will to address these crises.
But I’m afraid that’s where things really start to get grim.
If you’re under the age of forty, you might not realize that things weren’t ever thus in American politics. The current ugly nature of our political discourse is perhaps simultaneously the greatest ‘victory’ and greatest tragedy of the regressive revolution in America these last thirty years. Not only has the state itself been captured for purposes of thorough looting by oligarchs, but the very political consciousness of the nation has been diluted and polluted – all while our faux patriotism is saluted – beyond recognition.
Government is bad. Government always screws up. Corporations are heroic. Greed is good. Conservatism is about protecting freedom. Personal sacrifice for national improvement is for fools. Personal destruction is an appropriate form of politics. Hypocrisy is even more acceptable. There is one set of rules for elites, another for the rest of us.
All these form the fabric of our national ethos today, woven deeply into our political consciousness.
Regressives understand in ways that progressives tend to be clueless about, the simple idea that, who narrates governs. The explanation for the right’s visceral appreciation of this wisdom is likely rooted in the survival instinct at the core of the human creature’s very DNA. When you’re peddling an absolutely absurd and destructive pile of bullshit, even dressing it up in pretty pink ribbons isn’t going to be enough. If you hope to have any prayer of making the sale, you gotta teach people from their earliest days that turds are really, really valuable. Get yours now!
This was one of Orwell’s most powerful perceptions in 1984, a book loaded with crucial insights about society, politics, government and human nature. The state could expend endless resources battling for the supremacy of a certain type of politics. That’s one option. Or, far more cleverly, it could just remove the possibility of imagining alternatives from the public’s consciousness. Much easier. Much cheaper. This is why Orwell concentrated so much on language in his novel. He understood that action requires desire, desire requires imagination, and imagination requires language.
American politics and political culture have descended into a grim visage from what they once were, to something taking a form today of which Big Brother could be proud. It’s quite true, of course, that there are always nasty actors out there, and that it has at times been worse than it is now. But what’s discouraging about our moment is that it comes after, not before, those other times and the better ones that followed. Of course there will always be oscillations from better to worse. But one expects that both will represent improvements over the betters and worses of the past.
But we, in fact, are moving in the opposite direction. The level of vitriol in American politics grows uglier everyday, and the absence of rationality more astonishing. Back in the day, mainstream political actors weren’t in the habit of calling the president a fascist, or accusing him of seeking to murder senior citizens. They weren’t so unsophisticated as to call him a socialist at the same time they labeled him a fascist. They weren’t so intoxicated with their own venom as to believe that a president who so obediently serves the interests of Wall Street – to a degree that might have horrified even Richard Nixon – is some sort of maniacal leftist radical, bent on killing capitalism in America.
Recent polls are showing that generic tea party candidates beat Republicans or Democrats amongst the electorate today. Part of what that makes that as surprising and significant as it is, is that no one really knows what the movement stands for, apart from some inchoate rage against incumbents, taxes and spending (but try to get them to specify what they’d cut, and you’ll see how little content there actually is).
All of this represents the pinnacle (one hopes) of regressive efforts to realize Orwell’s nightmare scenario. Americans feel rage – as they should – but they don’t know what at, exactly, or why. And they certainly don’t have the tools to envision better realities. What else could have happened after three decades of right-wing lies, intimidation and destruction? What else could be the product of presidents like Reagan and Bush, who so transparently served the interests of their class, but so effectively wrapped their predations in the maudlin cloth of the flag and the cranked up rhetoric of fear? What else could we expect from the vitriolic demonization of a so-called left so-called alternative like Clinton or Obama, whose politics are essentially the same as Reagan’s or Bush’s, sans the more nauseating genuflections toward values that, truth be told (and it must never be, of course), only apply to the stupid little people in practice?
The practice of our politics is so broken today, but what pains me worse is that we have gone a long ways toward no longer even possessing the capability of imagining better alternatives. Good Americans – of generous intentions, thoughtful analysis and progressive dispositions – are losing the capacity to imagine genuine alternatives to an American politics which offers the choice between right, far right and hysterical right, all of them differing only in the shading of the patina they spray over their common oligarchical core. No presidents could possibly better serve the interests of the plutocracy than Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (indeed, finding any sort of meaningful dividing line between the White House and Wall Street is an increasingly difficult task). And yet those on the right in America foam at the mouth in their rage at these communist infiltrators, while some progressives foolishly believe that Obama is trying his darndest to be a good lad, against a tough situation he’s inherited.
This condition represents an utter failure of the imagination, and therefore the startling ‘success’ of the regressive framing effort. This limitation of what is conceivable and the concomitant diminishing of expectations is the greatest triumph of right-wing marketing, and it’s Orwellian to its core. What makes it especially startling is that the alternatives in question are so commonsensical and so proximate in real life form, and yet even some progressives in America have been trained to lower their expectations enough to ignore the existence of these ideas and models. What could be more basic than removing gushing profits and massive bureaucratic waste from a country’s healthcare system, especially one that is groaning so clangorously under the burdens of runaway costs? What could be easier to figure out than nationalized healthcare, when every other developed country in the world already does it? And yet such ideas were nowhere remotely near consideration throughout these long months of tortuous negotiations over ‘reform’ of what actually amounts to the care of corporate health in America. And yet even the most pathetic feints in the direction of real solutions – a public option or the extension of Medicare benefits – were immediately dispatched with, so that the profiteers’ victory could be unequivocally complete.
Military spending is another excellent example. This country drops twice as much on ‘defense’ as what is spent by every other country in the world combined, and we do that despite having not a single state enemy (you know, the kind you could actually use such a military against) anywhere on the horizon. And we do that despite having a nuclear deterrent arsenal that means sure suicide for anyone stupid enough to invade America or even seriously provoke the country. But even if none of that were true, and even if we were spending just a little bit more than necessary for national defense, what might one logically expect of the character of political debate in a country that cannot afford to educate its students, cannot provide healthcare for its citizens, and cannot maintain its infrastructure? What about in a country that cannot do those things, and which also happens to be so deeply in the hole financially that the Treasury Department has been relocated to the floor of the Pacific Ocean? What would you expect to see in a country like that? Perhaps a wee discussion of spending those bucks a bit differently? Would that be so bizarre?
And yet, do we see such a conversation about reducing these obscene expenditures anywhere on the political landscape? Can anyone name a mainstream politician who advocates these views? Can anyone find a major political party saying we need to cut defense spending in half – so that we ‘only’ spend as much as all the other 195 countries of the world combined – and then use the proceeds to provide healthcare for all?
We could go on and one here. Where is the great movement for saving the planet from the destruction of global warming, even if it means foregoing that SUV? Where is that most commonsensical call to divorce special interests and their money from American politics? Where are remotely sensible policies on guns or drugs or crime? And so on, and so on. None of this is even close to happening, and it is regressivism’s great triumph in removing from the realm of the politically imaginable even those things which are so transparently sensible, even those things which exist en masse in every other developed democracy in the world, even those that fairly scream out for adoption at home.
This failure of the imagination demonstrates better than anything else the full measure of our political impoverishment. What can you say to a country so far gone that it not only cannot swerve the car – even as head-on collision with a speeding freight train is only seconds away – but cannot even imagine swerving it?
“Good night and good luck” certainly comes to mind. But little else.
There are a few signs of hope, of course. Americans at least know enough to know that we’re not doing well, which is more than you can say for the good folks of Oceania. We recognize that both major political parties are worthless, though I don’t think we quite understand why. We were sensible enough to vote for what was advertised as ‘change’ in the last presidential election. But not sensible enough to demand that we actually got it after inauguration day.
And we’re also not smart enough to understand why we’re dissatisfied with what we’ve got. But then, how could we be if watching “the psychedelic crash-drama ‘Lost’” on television is more important than the biggest single night of the year on the calendar of our national political discourse? And what an appropriate show to hold out for, eh? Could it get any better than “Lost”? I dunno. Is there a show out there called “Lost, Stupid and Too Lazy to Stop Getting Punked”, perhaps?
Our problem isn’t that the Obama administration is socialist, but rather that it is a captive of the worst elements of capitalism.
Our problem isn’t that our politicians make awful decisions that have nothing to do with advancing our interests, but rather that we keep tolerating politicians who do that.
Our problem isn’t that we chose the wrong ideological alternative, but rather that we have so little to choose from.
Indeed, our deepest problem is that we can’t even imagine anymore that there could be real choice.
But, hey: Shhhhh!
You’re not allowed to say that.
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.