Let’s be honest: We live in stunningly, jaw-droppingly, ridiculously absurd political times.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: A far-right predatory overclass has spent the last thirty years undoing the hard-fought gains of the mid-twentieth century, which had produced a robust middle class and vastly more economic and social justice in America than the country had ever known before. These regressives used every kind of deceit imaginable to persuade unsophisticated voters to choose candidates whose real agenda was to assist their plutocratic puppetmasters in fleecing the very same people who voted for them.
Such candidates ran on issues like the death penalty, immigration, bogus wars, gay marriage and abortion. But what they really were about as legislators was exporting jobs to where workers are dirt cheap and politically neutered, crashing organized labor, shifting the tax burden onto the mass public, deregulating industry to allow unhindered profit-taking on the upside and socialized public responsibility for risk on the downside, and locking in a Supreme Court majority that would never blanch at even the most outrageous rulings enhancing corporate power in American society.
If the product of this slow and silent coup wasn’t so bloody and so ruinous to so many lives, you’d really have to hand it to these guys for their political acumen and patience. It took a while, and it required the building of a broad and robust infrastructure, spanning from mainstream media to talk radio and TV to think-tanks to Congress, the presidency and the judiciary, to the GOP and now to the Democratic Party as well, but they have pretty much completely succeeded in grabbing all the levers of power in our society. They dominate its discourse entirely, and they have been almost completely successful to date in securing all the elements of their legislative, regulatory and jurisprudential agenda, at least to this point (how far they ultimately intend to go isn’t clear – the US as Honduras, perhaps? – but it’s unlikely to be pretty). Perhaps the only major exception to that rule was their 2005 failure to privatize the vast pool of public money sitting in the Social Security coffers, which they lust over lasciviously, like teenage boys inhaling online porn by the bucketful.
The product of these efforts has been precisely what one would expect. Corporations and economic elites have grown fantastically more wealthy than they already were thirty years ago. Their tax liabilities are now negligible and sometimes less than zero. Massive national debt, the product in part of those tax gifts to the rich, plus huge bills for interest on that debt (this alone is one of the largest items in the federal budget each year), is now owned by the mass public, who got nickels and dimes worth of tax cuts, in exchange for which they will now have to literally work years of their lives to pay down the taxes the rich escaped. Working people across the country get less and pay more for everything today. College is becoming increasingly out of the financial reach of average Americans. The minimum wage, which actually often isn’t the minimum, is far from a sustainable salary for one person, let alone a family. As of 2004, the richest one percent of Americans possessed sixty percent of all wealth in the country, while the bottom forty percent accounted for a whopping two-tenths of a percent. Between 1979 and 2004, after-tax income for the top one percent of Americans rose by 176 percent, while for those in the bottom 20 percent that figure rose only six percent. And those figures are for six years ago, during what by current standards was flush times for working people. Now jobs are disappearing, with the inevitable effect of driving wages down further, not to mention all the obvious effects on prosperity, security, health, mental health and sheer longevity.
Meanwhile, just the approach to regulation alone has produced three monstrous attacks on American society as a direct result. First the recession-starting-to-become-a-depression and all its devastation, then the recent mining disaster, and now BP’s WMD attack on the Gulf Coast states. What all of these have in common is a government regulatory apparatus that over time transitioned from a public service mission into deference to those supposed to be regulated, and then from deference for the corporate sphere into constituting a straight-out satellite office of the corporations themselves, literally having business supposed ‘regulatees’ fill out their own monitoring forms in pencil, to be inked in later by the planted shills in government. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been wiped out by these actions and the public is paying for its own thrashing through bail-out funds. I’m sorry, but in what sense is this not treason?
Okay, so far so bad. Nothing particularly Alice-In-Wonderlandy or especially novel about rampant greed, is there? But what’s really bizarre to the point of being becoming a fully hallucinogenic experience that really should come under the supervision of the Controlled Substances Act is the effect that this has had on politics. Could there ever be a moment when right-wing ‘economics’ have been so thoroughly and manifestly repudiated? Could there ever be more overt examples of corporate greed gone nuclear? Could the repercussions of these policy decisions ever more clearly have wrecked the lives of economically insecure ordinary Americans?
No, no and no. All this is as obvious and predictable as sunrise. And yet… Here we find ourselves in this remarkable and remarkably absurd position where the folks who not only created this monster, who not only have worked assiduously to prevent any solutions to the destruction they’ve wrought, and who now also promise even more of the same – these very folks are poised to win resounding electoral victories in November. And the folks who will be voting for them will once again become victims of their predations. And the folks in Congress and the White House they’ll be voting against – supposed socialist-fascists (whatever strange Janus-faced zoological beast that would look like if it actually existed) – are in fact just about the most pro-plutocrat government imaginable. But they’re going to get stomped by voters for being socialists.
How on earth did this happen?
Well, to start with, it happened because it was intended to happen. As described above, this is the product of a broad, concerted and patient effort by the radical right to capture and control American government, and it has worked remarkably well, especially when one considers the sheer amount of deceit required to pull it off. It’s like trying to sell a cocktail of Dirt Drink mixed with Sawdust Soda to a man dying of thirst. But it can be done, and we know that because the process is now all but complete. When even John McCain refers to Congress “the best government that money can buy” you know you’re really hurting, pal. As for that Trotskyite socialist in the White House, well he’s staffed his economic team directly out of Goldman Sachs’ boardroom, he bails out mega-banks one hundred cents on the dollar without even requiring that they loan money, he wrote a health care bill that forces thirty or forty million Americans to buy a product from bloated thieving insurance companies whether they want it or not, and he has dramatically increased spending on an already astonishingly distended military, while remaining essentially silent about (meager but essential) unemployment benefits right now in the process of terminating for millions of Americans. Yeah, baby – that socialist. “Workers of the world unite” is definitely what they rap about at White House cabinet meetings. Geithner, Summers, Gates – all those revolutionary syndicalists can’t talk it up enough. Then they sing “The Internationale”.
Clearly, the political branches of the US government have been fully captured by monied elites. Perhaps scariest of all, however, is the newly emboldened ultra-radical majority on the Supreme Court (that description is not reckless hyperbole used for effect – look at what they’ve done in cases like Bush v. Gore, Ledbetter and Citizens United, and watch what they do in the coming years – it will be astonishing in its scope, radicalism and hypocrisy). After decades of histrionic lies about supposed objections to judicial activism (what they really hated was the impudent offense of an elite court handing down liberal decisions and siding with mere mortals in American society, period), they have now kicked out the jambs to expand the practical definition of the ‘activism’ term beyond all recognition. Lori Blatt, former attorney in the Solicitor General’s Office, put it best: “They are fearless. This is a business court. Now it’s the era of the corporation and the interests of business.” No case underscored this tendency better than Citizens United, of course, where the regressive majority was so blatantly activist that they literally told the stunned litigants to go home, come back in a month and reargue the case around a far, far bigger question than was at stake for the parties involved, and then sweepingly cast aside long existing law in order to blow blitzkrieg-size breaches in the barriers that had previously controlled corporate influence of elections. The only case that can rival this one for utterly transparent activism seeking a regressive outcome is Bush v. Gore, in which the right-wing bloc simultaneously violated three of their own cardinal tenets – judicial restraint, states’ rights, and hostility to civil rights principles – in order to require vote counting be stopped (say what?!) and to crown the mentally deficient dauphin as king. It could hardly be clearer that the Roberts Court ominously completes the troika of the right-wing governmental coup.
But there are other reasons we’re in this state, as well. Think about Barack Obama and the Democrats for a second, and then try applying Ms. Blatt’s phrase, “They are fearless”, to those folks. Now pick yourself up the floor. Change the underwear you just soiled from laughing so hard. Wring out the hanky you just soaked from sobbing so relentlessly. Part of why we’re in this mess is that Democrats wouldn’t know what guts looked like if they were all board-certified gastrointestinal surgeons. But, of course, to complain that “the people’s party” lacks sufficient courage of their convictions assumes that they have any. The good news is that they do, as a matter of fact. The bad news, however, is that those convictions can be reduced neatly down to two: serving themselves and serving the nice folks who donate money to get them elected. It’s a bit of a problem when the gang who are meant to protect us from the crimes of the GOP are nearly indistinguishable from Cheney’s thugs, apart from stylistically. Democrats are happy to give you a little kiss on the cheek before they screw you. Republicans prefer to just get on with the assault.
Then there’s the media in this country which is, of course, beyond hopeless. Watching Rachel Maddow the other month throwing a few medium-speed hardballs at Rand Paul only served to remind me just how rare it is for any of these pathetic hacks to actually do their job, as opposed to doing the cash-driven bidding of those in power, especially tough-guy Republicans who must get plenty of laughs out of how easy it is to bully the Washington press whores – er, sorry, I mean press corps. There’s nothing quite so self-made as the disasters of Election 2000 and the Iraq invasion of 2003, and the absence of any sort of serious media scepticism in those cases simply illustrates how utterly worthless the press truly are. Except, of course, as excellent public relations specialists for plutocrats. These days it seems like the only outlet doing anything approaching serious journalism is Rolling Stone. As to what it says about American society and journalism that you have to wade through cover photos of Lady Gaga’s full-on unclad posterior to find out the lies our government is telling us, well, I’ll leave that to you.
But clearly the neutering of the obedient profit-motivated media has worked spectacularly. One of the key fronts in this class warfare conducted by the wealthy in America has been with respect to framing. For three decades now, all we’ve heard is how government is a screw-up and how heroically efficient are the captains of industry in the private sector. The way regressives trash our own government in a democracy would certainly have seemed traitorous in another day. Just imagine if you said the same things about the military, which seems to miraculously escape the right’s attention as the biggest and most famously wasteful government bureaucracy of all. Moreover, looking back over Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, not just a small bit of the curtain has been pulled back from the notion of the military’s supposed infallibility. It’s been two-thirds of a century since the United States won a big war against a serious adversary, and even then the Russians did the heavy lifting, at least in Europe. Somehow we never hear much about big, incompetent government in that context, though.
But, hey, forgive my little flight into logical analysis there. We really cannot have that in these times. For a minute there, I forgot to forget. It won’t happen again, Mr. O’Brien, I assure you. From now on, up is down, black is white, war is peace, government is bad and corporations are purveyors of Happy Meals (happy, that is, unless you happen to be a cow, like having small businesses around, have a problem with obesity, don’t want your planet to catch fire, or object to the creation of massive great lakes full of animal waste). Yep, big business is good! That’s why we need to apologize to BP for our government “shaking them down” and forcing them to be slightly-barely-kinda-nominally-sorta responsible for their ecological and economic epic disaster in the Gulf. Get it?
But the other sad truth is that, at the bottom of this roll call of nefarious predators – under every Cheney and Obama and Brian Williams and Lloyd Blankfein doing (his green) god’s work, is a great big stinking pile of yahoos better known as “Us”. We’ll vote Republican this fall because we utterly lack the intellectual curiosity to investigate other options. We’ll vote Republican because we’re greedy and lazy and willing to step on anyone’s throat to get our little slice of prosperity back. We’ll vote Republican as if we weren’t only two years ago just absolutely counting down every second until the previous government packed up and left town. You know, the er, uh, Republicans.
But I have just one question for my fellow Americans before they step into that voting booth. The truth is that what ails us now is exactly what y’all have been voting for over the last three decades. The truth is that if you vote Republican in November it will all only get worse. The truth is that you’re living the regressive dream just now, right as we speak.
We’ve let corporations run wild. We’ve decimated the government whose function it was to regulate them in the public’s interest. We’ve shifted a very large pile of your money into the hands of the richest one percent of us, and given you and your kids loads of government debt to pay off in exchange. We’ve shipped your job off to China or India. We’ve completely immunized all branches of your government from any form of influence other than from rapacious plutocrats.
So my question is, fellow Americans, now that we’ve all had a nice heaping helping of what regressive politics means for us real people down here below the stratosphere, “How’s that recessioney, oily thing working out for ya?”
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.