You could almost feel bad for Barack Nothingburger, having to deliver the exquisitely badly timed State of the Union address to the world this week. He, his signature legislative initiative, and his presidency itself were already toast, but he still had to walk in the room and pretend otherwise.
There could hardly have been a worse week for it. The days preceding his speech just brought one disaster after another for the president.
But, since he has decided to be part of the problem, while masquerading as its solution, who cares? As long as he continues to adhere to that position, I’d just as soon see his presidency wrecked and his name humiliated anyhow. Considering that treason is a capital offense, I’d say the guy is getting off easy anyhow.
However – and this may be a news flash for the White House – there is a whole other world out there. And for we ordinary folk, all 6.8 billion of us, it was also an especially bad week.
That may sound like another example of Obama-style mega-narcissism, to believe that America’s problems are also the world’s, but the truth is they are. We’re still the big ol’ superpower on the block, and we’re still perfectly capable, thank you very much, of lashing out in rage toward others when we feel insecure. I’d refer any disbelievers of that notion to about a million Iraqis who could vouch for its veracity. Except for one small problem. They’re dead now. So just take my word for it.
The Week From Hell started out with the heretofore unimaginable notion that Massachusetts could elect a Republican to the Senate. That he could be taking Ted Kennedy’s seat. And that he could be the final blow putting so-called health care reform in America – Kennedy’s long-sought legislative passion – out of its misery.
Don’t get me wrong. I laughed out loud at the stupidity of Democrats thinking they could continue to win elections by being Democrats. In a way, it’s a damned healthy sign that an angry and frightened public is growing increasingly intolerant of bullshit from its political class nowadays. “Aren’t you the same guys who promised us big old change last year? Yeah, well guess what, now it’s this year, and you haven’t delivered jack. So bye.” That’s actually precisely the way it should be, and among the political parties in America, the Democrats would be my close second favorite choice for getting their heads handed to them on a platter by an angry public no longer willing to settle for taxpayer-funded solutions for corporations and cheap rhetoric for the rest of us. These punks had it coming and the only silver-lining to the disaster they’ve brought down on all of us is seeing them become its latest victims.
Don’t get me wrong about healthcare, either. Everything about that legislation was wrong, and I’m delighted to see it die. It was poorly handled in every imaginable way, by what is without doubt the most inept president at least since Herbert Hoover, and by a Congress full of whores, thieves and congenital liars, and I’m happy that the whole thing exploded in their faces. Damn shame, of course, about all those millions of Americans without adequate health care. But since any assistance this bill might have provided them was going to be scant and inadvertent, anyhow, I refuse to feel bad about its demise.
Democrats know exactly what they need to do if they want to fix healthcare in America. And they also know that even if they can’t get the legislation through the Senate, now that they’ve blown their super-majority, they could at least destroy any member of Congress who would vote against such simple reforms that minimally regulate the worst practices of the insurance industry (since we can assume that Democrats could never pull the trigger for single payer). But they also know that they ARE those members of Congress who would be destroyed. When it comes to the essential question of who they work for, they’re really no different than the Grand Old Pigs.
But Scott Brown’s election was a really bad thing for America and the world, at least in the short term, because when you have a two party system and the Democrats are in power, that means a vote to throw the bums out can only go in one place. The story of American politics over the next five years has already been written. In desperation for solutions, and having already forgotten how much they hated the Bush nightmare, voters will soon be handing the keys to American government back to the Republican Party, which will then promptly fail, even more egregiously than the Democrats, to provide solutions. Neither further tax cuts for the wealthy, nor the slashing of social programs, nor gay-bashing, nor some jive war in some banana republic will cure what ails Americans, and it may no longer even successfully distract them for more than a few minutes.
That’s where things will get very interesting. Unfortunately, that may be ‘interesting’ in the unhappy sense of the ancient Chinese curse. Ask yourself this question: If a rageful and desperate America were to make a sharp ideological turn one way or the other in order to seek solutions to its maladies, which way would it go? To the left, as it did in the 1930s? Or to the right, as certain other countries you may have heard of did during the same decade? I’d say it’s actually an open question, primarily because socialist-hating Americans love their socialist government programs like Medicare and Social Security, and they might even want a lot more of those as the free market system championed by the right assists them in continuing to shed their jobs, houses, security and dignity. Still, if I had to bet, I’d say the other scenario is the more likely.
And that scenario became all the more likely because of the second development of the prior week, the ghastly decision by the Supreme Court to open the floodgates for wholesale corporate purchases of the US and state and local governments. I’ve seen a lot of ugliness in American politics over the course of my lifetime, ranging from Vietnam to Watergate to Iraq and the current Great Recession, but few items can match the decision by the right-wing majority of the Court in Citizens United for its sheer destructive power.
Before turning to the substance of the ruling, it’s important to note how we got it at all. Or, more precisely, how we didn’t get it. None of the litigants in the case were actually arguing these questions or demanding this remedy. This was, instead, the purest case of ‘legislating from the bench’ in perhaps all of American history. The extreme right, which now owns the Supreme Court as well as the rest of American government, simply told the parties in the case that the Court was hijacking the issue and turning it into something the majority wanted to address. The lawyers were instructed to prepare new briefs, in short order, on new issues that the right-wing RATS (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia, plus Kennedy) wanted to rule on. And then they did just that. They just went ahead and wrote a new law, like any parliament or Congress would, using this hapless case as a vehicle for what they intended to do along. This, mind you, comes from the same folks who always rail against judicial activism, who rant about respecting precedent, who supposedly hate legislating from the bench, and who have told us that judges should simply ‘call balls and strikes’. Except, of course, when their particular ideology happens to have a majority on the Court, that is.
But, of course, who could blame them for making this decision, even if their methods possessed all the veracity of, say, WMD as a casus belli for invading Iraq, or all the procedural and substantive integrity of Bush V. Gore, brought to you by more or less entirely the same crew who did Citizens United? I mean, after all, can anyone deny that corporations are lacking a policy-making voice in America today? Does anyone not think they are subjected to a gross institutional bias which prevents them from being heard? Does anyone not agree that they are human beings, just like you and me, and should be treated as exactly such by the law? What could be more commonsensical?
Indeed, the only thing more egregious than this decision is the way it was made, and the only thing more egregious than that is the degree of blatant hypocrisy it reveals amongst those who made it.
But that’s not exactly news. What is now new is that more or less all obstacles to complete corporate control of the country have been loosed. It has now become almost impossible to argue anymore that ours is anything but a sham democracy, with sham democratic rituals meant – along with WWE wrestling matches and state-run lotteries – to distract us from the real story. And that story is the use of the American polity for no other purpose than the redistribution of wealth from the bottom and the middle to the top.
For thirty years now, the folks Teddy Roosevelt once identified as “the malefactors of great wealth” have been busy destroying the Grand Compact that once governed American labor relations and society, formerly stipulating that the upper class and middle class and even the working class would all do pretty well, comparatively speaking. But that was not enough for the greedy rich. So they hired political hacks like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and they rewrote the terms of the deal. Whether it’s tax policy or trade relations or labor organizing and negotiating rules or government benefits, the new new deal is the same across the board. Way more for the rich, way less for the rest of us.
Of course, people notice. So the first line of defense was to dumb them down enough such that they would at least be slow to notice, and so that they could be sold bogus solutions. Those policies and that rhetoric have been the second line of defense. “It’s the fags and the towelheads and the nigrahs and the feminazis and the wetbacks and the gubmint who’ve made you miserable”, said every regressive from here to the horizon, for decades now. It worked pretty well up until 2006 and 2008, when the folks saying it were in charge and yet still weren’t delivering prosperity, and when the schadenfreude of someone else being kicked in the teeth no longer delivered sufficient comfort to placate the ripped-off masses.
Now comes the third line of defense, when all avenues of democratic change and redress are being closed off. Congress and the White House – both nominally controlled by the party of the people – are no less the tools of the plutocracy than when the GOP was sitting in those seats. Now the Supreme Court has likewise been captured, and we should anticipate many more of the kind of rulings we’ve been seeing, underwriting big state and big corporate power at every turn. Poor Justice John Paul Stevens. What a beautiful anachronism he has become, a vestige of a more humane and more innocent time, back when Democrats were still Democrats, and Republicans still approximated human beings. Now, with the floodgates open, and with more and more judicial positions at the state level being drowned in electoral campaign money, all the doors are being closed, just as planned.
I don’t know what form the fourth line of defense will take, but I’m pretty sure it will involve blood. The events in Iran lately or China’s Tiananmen Square are probably instructive in this regard.
The third item of note in this Week From Hell was the closing of Air America. I’m pretty close to the last person in the world who will miss this attempt at a progressive answer to the wall of horror over there on radio right. The programming of Air America, with a couple of notable exceptions, was dismal beyond belief, ping-ponging between screeching shriekery and apolitical inanity, and rarely resting for even a moment in-between on anything articulate or informative or thoughtful. You know, if I wanted embarrassing political commentary on my radio, I already had Limbaugh and Hannity and Savage and all those other drooling thugs with ganglion cysts where their brains were supposed to be to choose from.
Still, the idea that it’s so hard to inject thoughtful discourse into the national dialogue in any moderately broad-based medium is really depressing, even if in this case it might have been more to do with spectacularly bad management than it was because of spectacularly dumb Americans.
We are in a really bad place now, and it feels as though all the avenues offering even a glimmering of hope and redemption are closing down simultaneously. Progressive commentary is being silenced in the supposed marketplace of ideas, while vitriol-spewing hard-right thugs proliferate like so many Spanish Fly-addled bunny rabbits. Meanwhile, trillions of dollars worth of corporate influence have now been unleashed to further overwhelm the already daunting odds of fair competition in electoral contests, and to fully secure the purchasing of favorable policy for special interests. And this was done by a radical one-vote majority of the Supreme Court, who took it upon themselves to go out and change a hundred years worth of Congressional legislation as well as recent precedents of the very same Court. Just calling balls and strikes? No. More like just balls. These guys went out an bought land, built a stadium, wrote the rules and invented an entirely new game.
Then, of course, there’s the so-called progressive party, now in charge. You know, the one that’s supposed to provide an alternative, in a democratic system, to the party of death, destruction and deceit. Yeah, that one. Except it turns out that the Democrats are no alternative at all. At least when it comes to policy. If, on the other hand, you like your politicians to be embarrassingly weak, inept and ineffectual, then the latter-day Three Stooges – Barack, Harry and Nancy – offer a refreshing break from the linebacker eyes and the freight train punch of the GOP killers.
But, of course, you always wind-up back there anyhow. What the last thirty years make increasingly clear is that the Democrats have simply become a sort of halfway holiday from the worst excesses of the GOP, a kind of spring break from the serious business of wrecking a superpower. When things get really obnoxious under Republican rule, the Dems come in to provide the requisite comedic interlude for a few years. When the economy is good, they may even be invited to actually stay a bit longer, as Bill Clinton was – provided, of course, that he didn’t actually mess with anything that mattered. When money is tight, however, comatose ineptitude as a governing philosophy doesn’t play so well, and the duration of the Democratic intermission gets short.
Such is the meaning of another of the dismal events of the past week, the president’s State of Potemkin speech. What a piece of crap that was. What an abysmal laundry list of platitudes that will be not be remotely remembered by anybody in ten years or even ten days. This White House seems to have now gone full-on Bill Clinton, trotting out silly quarter-measure policy initiatives that even they don’t believe in, begging the rabid right to punk them yet again and again, and studiously avoiding any action or rhetoric that would threaten even half a percent of the take collected every day by the predatory governing interest structure for whom America is not a country so much as a handy aggregation and collection apparatus.
Among other indicators, Obama’s fleeting and half-hearted pep talk on health care – merely the signature issue of his administration, mind you, and the item that consumed almost all the country’s political oxygen over the last year – made clear that he has now decided to walk away from the issue, though the awkwardly-timed SOTU address made it necessary for him to pretend that he’s not. (Remember, just a week or two ago, when they were trying to schedule the address to triumphantly follow his signing of the bill? My, how things have changed, and my, how fast it’s all gone down the toilet.) In this respect he’s gone Clinton as well. Make an awful attempt at health care reform, write really bad legislation, handle the strategy and politics of it stupidly, wreck yourself and your party in the process, then just walk away and leave the dying corpse there, squirming in the dirt.
Does this turn to Clintonism mean Barack is going to start screwing White House interns, too? Perhaps, because his fiscal politics are Clinton-like, as well. Trying to placate the insatiable right, he leaves untouched a growing military budget that so dwarfs those of the entire rest of the planet combined as to inescapably render America the international sociopath among nations, while practically echoing Clinton’s “the era of big government is over” swill with his spending freeze on domestic programs. Hey man, they’re only poor people, aren’t they? It’s only the environment, isn’t it? It’s just education, right? Who cares? Meanwhile, predictably, the right begins to boo and hiss literally right as the words pass across the president’s lips. This is classic Obama: breathtakingly tepid nothingburger supposed solutions to serious political problems that piss off the left because they want him to be going the other way, piss off the middle because they want something that works, and piss off the right because not even troglodytes like John McCain are mentally ill enough to satisfy them anymore.
The sad – and what I think will eventually prove quite ugly – truth is that this administration is simply not up to the requirements of the times. Part of this country’s mythology about itself – and not a terribly inaccurate view, in some ways, either – is that each generation of Americans rises to meet the call of history, the challenges of their respective moments. But for a very long time now, this generation has not, and Barack Obama is just the latest in a sorry string of losers who have sought to deceive, distract or simply coast on inertia, while the long-term prospects for the country crumble under our feet.
Obama’s peculiar sin is that he – unlike Reagan or Clinton or the pathetic Bush family goobers – is stuck presiding over the national decline at the moment it has slipped into fourth gear, and at a time after which all those other clowns have more or less exhausted the suite of remotely plausible diversionary tactics.
But those difficult circumstances could also have been his opportunity instead. Like the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts of the past, he could have risen to the occasion of what history demands here and now. Instead, his is a cowardly presidency, afraid to offend even criminals, stuck in the middle of the road like a deer in the headlights of the eighteen-wheelers barreling down on him, and stupidly believing that if he merely doesn’t move at least he will survive his own inaction, whatever happens to the rest of the country. Obama is purely the wrong actor for his time. At a moment when Americans want action, he continues to avoid acting, thinking he is saving himself, even as all the indicators – from tea parties to losing elections in three states he won a year ago to plummeting job approval ratings – scream out for him to do otherwise.
Right before the Massachusetts contest, Barack sent an email urging me to help out the hapless Coakley campaign. He said, “David, If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election”. And then he went up there and did a rally for his candidate, telling people that “Bankers don’t need another vote in the United States Senate. They’ve got plenty.” And then his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told us that a key theme of 2010 will be asking voters “whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they’re on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they’re on the side of protecting insurance companies or whether they’re on the people’s side.”
Well, Barack, if you’re reading this, let me first thank you for your note. How kind of you to write. And, yes, as a matter of fact, I was a bit fired up for the last election. But, no, I wouldn’t dream of being fired up for you or your party again this year, and perhaps not ever again any year, as a matter of fact. And you’re a big reason for that, my friend. You see – how shall I put this? – bankers don’t need another vote in the White House. They’ve got plenty. And since you’ve decided to ask folks in 2010 which side the people they have in Washington are on, my answer is that they are overwhelmingly on the side of protecting the big banks, on the side of protecting the big oil companies, and on the side of protecting insurance companies.
Oh, and perhaps you haven’t noticed, but you and your party won the last two elections. The ‘people we have in Washington’ right now are not they, but rather you.
And you’re wrecking the country and the world.
And so it was, this Week From Hell, in which the avenues of national redemption closed more completely and more emphatically. There will be no genuine party of the people on our ballots, there to choose in elections. There will be no alternative voice of sanity in the media flinging even toy arrows at the impenetrable wall of national psychosis. There will be no change you can believe in from a president who seems content to be just a slogan in a suit. There will be only more of the same, until the next election, when it will get worse, and then the one after that when it gets worse still. All of which may be but a mere warm-up act for the real fireworks.
Such was the Week From Hell, indeed, except for one final blow.
Howard Zinn left us, shutting down yet another of the few remaining voices of sanity in this deeply unhealthy society. Judging by these events preceding his death, it’s not unreasonable to guess why he went when he did.
You can die from a broken heart, can’t you?
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.