In the 1930s, the only thing we had to fear was fear, itself.
Today, the main thing we have to fear is us, ourselves.
Looking out over the horizon, I’m starting to wonder just how many shades of dark there are on the pallette. Lately, I get the feeling that we’re about to find out.
I wish I could say that this society did our best to fight our demons, but that the odds were simply insurmountable. You know. Like we were just sitting there by ourselves on our remote little Pacific island, a thousand years before telephones and radar when – bang – the tsunami hit, no fault of our own. And we bravely struggled heroically, doing our mightiest to save as many lives as we could.
I mean, if you’ve got to crash and burn, better to go down with a little dignity and honor, eh?
But, no, not for me, apparently. I’m an American. I live in a country – nay, an empire! – that insists on destroying itself. I’m part of the generation of decline. My people are the fools who perfected the fine art of committing suicide by stupidity.
It’s an astonishing act, and one of wide participation.
The nightmare of the right in America edges increasingly close to dragging the country past the point of no return, over the cliff of violent implosion. At this point, there is already little that is missing save the jackboots and broken glass.
The Republican Party was once a moderately conservative, pro-business outfit, until it was highjacked by the oligarchy and turned into a full-on predatory machine, hiding behind the facade of hate mobilizing issues like bogus overseas threats abroad and uppity brown people and demanding women at home. Basically, any way that middle class white males could be distracted from their sinking economic status – through the diversion of a sense of superiority over others, or the supposed threat to that superior status – was employed to cover for a party whose true agenda was to quietly produce the greatest transfer of wealth in all of human history.
Having succeeded dramatically, they are back at it again. It is now transparent, for anyone who cares to look, that the ugly tea party movement in America is an invention of the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Dick Armey and their sick ilk, once again mobilizing a boatload of fools who are angry, but too stupid to know quite why. This explains their endless rhetoric about the evils of the federal government, and their simultaneous desire to keep their Social Security and Medicare benies. It also explains their unmatched idiocy in serving as tools for their own destruction. If they succeed, they fail. If they get their champions elected, they lose their government-provided (Shhhh!) goodies. Brilliant.
In any case, the takeover of the GOP by Serious Money is now well into its second stage. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it is. Seriously, what is the next step after this one fails to provide any long-term solutions to what ails America, as most assuredly will be the case? For a decade or three now, regressives in America have been showing that they are capable of anything. Which more or less answers that question, doesn’t it? If you’re willing to savage military icons like John McCain, Max Cleland and John Kerry in order to win elections – and especially after you get away with it every time – you’re willing to do anything. If you’re willing to mock the 9/11 widows as scheming opportunists, you’re willing to do anything. If you’re willing to don a tuxedo and joke about missing WMD at a press banquet in Washington, just as you’re telling the American military’s adversaries in Iraq to “bring it on”, you’re willing to do anything.
Looking at the rhetoric the right throws in the direction of our president these days, questioning his very nationality (oh, did I mention that he’s black?), it’s easy to see that they‘ve gone completely over the line. But what’s really out of control is what lies underneath this insanity generated for the consumption of an ignorant hoi polloi. And what that is – what you see when you move the slime-infested rock away – is an unfathomably monstrous greed. Watching these folks in action, you could easily get the impression that they had been impoverished their whole lives. That they had been denied everything, right down to food and water. That they had been deprived through poverty especially of their dignity. You know, like the real poor people of this world, the forty or fifty percent of the Earth’s population that survives on less than two dollars per day. Those folks.
Instead, we are talking about people who are already fantastically rich. And who, despite this, are absolutely hell-bent on getting richer, even if that means depriving hundreds of millions of people in the American middle class of their middle classness, and in many cases, ultimately of their lives. How do we explain people like this? Are they not essentially sociopathic? Are they not made of essentially the same stuff as those who can kill without guilt or remorse? Especially when you consider that even the greediest among us reach a limit beyond which one can effectively make use of the next dollar and the one beyond that, so that pushing others into poverty is no longer even for purposes of your own benefit, but instead for some kind of sick sport? Aren’t these the characters whose essential sickness preachers and philosophers and shrinks have been trying to sort out for millennia?
Whatever the explanation for such illness, the effects of their efforts are certainly plain to see. We’re talking here about a class of Americans who have been essentially offended by the diminishment of inequality produced in America during the middle part of the twentieth century, due to the national policies ranging from the New Deal to the Great Society, Republican administrations included. America’s socio-economic structure changed dramatically during that time, and almost entirely for the better. A huge middle class that had never existed before came into being. Anti-poverty programs took the worst sting out of living conditions for the poor. And America became the greatest economic dynamo since the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, by the way, the rich remained very, very rich.
But that was not enough. So they have made a concerted effort over the last generation or so to revert the country back to the bad old days of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. Think about that for a second. What sort of elevated sickness, what sort parental deprivation in childhood, what sort of total absence of conscience and consciousness is required to produce a group of people with that mentality?
I wish I knew. But I do know that their plan worked. As Robert Kuttner notes in The American Prospect: “For more than three decades, the wages of American workers have been close to flat while economic insecurity has risen massively. Although the productivity of the U.S. economy has doubled in a generation, most of those gains have not been captured by workers. And in the decade that began in 2001, inflation-adjusted wages have fallen for all but the most affluent 3 percent of the population.
“This pattern of deepening inequality was well entrenched before the financial collapse – which only made things worse. In 2006, economists at Goldman Sachs, sounding almost Marxian, reported that ‘the most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor’s share of national income.’ By 2006, wages as a percentage of gross domestic product were already at their lowest share – 45 percent – since government began keeping statistics in 1947. In the past three years, the decline in worker earnings has only intensified, as worker bargaining power has been undermined by very high unemployment. As the economy has stumbled toward a feeble recovery, corporate profits and executive bonuses have rebounded smartly, but salaries and wages have not.
“In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, wages and productivity moved upward in lockstep. Beginning in the 1970s, as government regulation of labor conditions faltered, trade with nations that exploited their own workers increased, and corporations declared open war on unions, the lines diverged. Productivity kept increasing, while median wages were nearly flat.”
This is the successful agenda of the right in America, though it has been cleverly masked by the politics of resentment. This has been the real ‘class warfare’ in the United States these last decades – not, as pouncing regressives instantly scream out in an effort to silence truth, the very occasional and even more feeble attempts by the odd Democratic politician who slips up and mentions what has actually happened. And, as Warren Buffett is honest enough to point out, the war is over and his side won. As Robert Reich noted in a recent New York Times op-ed, the richest one percent of Americans have gone from taking in nine percent of the total national income right before the Reagan era began, to nearly one-fourth of it today. As Reich also reminds us, the last time this happened was in 1928. I would rush to say, “Hey, remember how that one turned out?”, but it’s pretty unnecessary to crack the history books for that reference, since we’re now living it. As just about the stupidest society that ever was, we’ve decided to get together to explore the fun and exciting question, “What would happen if America had a devastating economic downturn once again, boys and girls?!?!”
There is one big difference between today and the 1930s, however. Once there was a political party in America – the one that did the New Deal and the Great Society – that stood up a bit for the middle class and the poor. But Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have led the Democrats down a different path. Now the party stands for a slightly weaker version of the GOP’s plutocracy protection service. And, seemingly, for getting its face bitch-slapped bright red at every possible juncture. Both aspects of the New Democrats are a puzzle, but particularly the latter. What sort of psychology of the self-loathing explains how a Clinton or an Obama can be so passive, even when getting handed their heads by the most scurrilous of creeps on the political landscape, pieces of (allegedly) human garbage who could be destroyed with the slightest show of self-defense, let alone a wee assertion of political courage?
The current White House is such a failure that I am sometimes left scratching my head in understanding why that is the case. The puzzle becomes especially acute if one considers how transparently intelligent Barack Obama is, and how strategically clever they were in running their presidential campaign. It’s true, of course, that there are different kinds of smart. Jimmy Carter understood nuclear physics, but not the presidency. George W. Bush understood the presidency, but was otherwise as intellectually vacuous as a mud pie. Still, Obama has shown serious evidence that he has keen political smarts. Until he became president, that is.
One obvious explanation for this puzzle is that the guy, like Clinton before him, is just another flavor of corporate tool. Ya got yer Republican Wall Street marionettes, see, and ya got yer Democratic Wall Street marionettes… That much is clear, but it still doesn’t explain why this White House has been as inept as it has. Another claim that some people make is that he just wants one term, and will take the money and prestige and run. The problem with that theory is that he already had the money. And, quite arguably, he could have done better financially by simply writing a third book than by sitting in the Oval Office earning a mere half mil per year. What is absolutely clear, unless there is some radical and nearly unimaginable change of course, is that he will leave the presidency as one of history’s great losers, which again suggests to me that he would have been better off just sitting it out. Not to mention all the stress and ever-present death threats he could avoid by just hanging on the sidelines.
Whatever the explanation, the effect could not be clearer. Obama came into his presidency with more wind in his sails than perhaps anyone since Johnson in 1964, and this for a black man with an Islamic name, no less. He then blew it, utterly and completely. The indications of this are everywhere, starting with all the subsequent by-elections which he has turned into ‘bye’ elections for candidates from his party. Meanwhile, there are Democrats running for Congress today who are literally running TV ads dissing Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. And even those who are not mostly don’t want the president showing up in their districts before this election.
Now the latest polls are showing Republicans with a ten percent lead in generic congressional ballots. This is the biggest they’ve ever had in the 68 year history of polling. Meanwhile, half of Republican voters are enthusiastic about voting this November, while only one-fourth of Democrats are. On top of everything else, Republicans are doing this well despite offering nothing in terms of a plan for solving the problems that are upsetting voters. They will cut taxes on the rich. That’s it. The entirety of the rest of what they stand for is simply “NO!!!” to all things Demon Obama.
Now, think about this for a second, and bear in mind that when it comes to the GOP we are talking about a political party that the very same polls show voters still hating. How astonishingly inept do you have to be to turn the world upside down on its axis and hand not only resurrection but in fact control of Congress to such thugs, and hugely despised ones at that? What kind of a full-blown multiple-car crash of a politician do you have to be to make the party of Bush, Cheney, Boehner and McConnell seem preferable to the public, by a wide margin?
Wait. Don’t answer yet. It gets worse from there. In 2003, the ratio of Democratic to Republican identifying/leaning voters was about 50 to 40 among young voters, known as the Millennial generation. By 2008, via a combination of the effects of both George W. Bush and (candidate) Barack Obama, that ratio had moved an astonishing distance to provide a whopping gap of 62 to 30. Now, less than two years into the rule of Mr. We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, it is back to 54 to 40. These are incredible swings in identities that are usually far more stable. And they are incredibly important, because there is good evidence to suggest that voters who select a given party over a series of elections in the early part of their lives wind up keeping that party ID for life. In other words, Democrats had an opportunity here to lock in with an entire generation of voters a hugely disproportionate preference to continue voting for them. Imagine the difference this would have made in elections for the next seventy(!) years, especially over time as these Millennials replaced older, more conservative, voters in the electorate, and as they themselves came to turn out in larger proportion each election cycle, as every generation does when it ages. Democrats could have come close to locking up control of American government for the coming half-century, just as they essentially did after 1932. Instead, the party’s leaders have alienated this generation so much that they have returned the identification numbers to the period when George Bush and his party were highly popular. That’s a real achievement, folks.
Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s communications director, recently averred that “The public is rightly frustrated and angry with the economy”. So far so good, Dan. Very perceptive for a guy in the Obama White House. You should have stopped there, though. Instead, Dan went on to say that, “There is no small tactical shift we could have made at any point that would have solved that problem”. You know, I don’t really know who Dan Pfeiffer is, but I would say that anyone making this claim should be removed from office, and fast. Indeed, right now I would say that anyone who has the title of Obama’s communications director should probably just be taken out back and shot, on account of gross incompetence and lethal negligence. I’m sorry, but these fools are so clueless. This could have turned out so differently, and, moreover, that was obvious in January of 2009 to anyone who had paid attention to American politics for the last thirty years. This White House was not praiseworthy for seeking to be bipartisan. Rather, it was embarrassing for not even knowing who its enemies were.
The worst, though, is what is to come. Obama and the Democrats will get slaughtered in November. This will happen not so much because of the socialist crimes they are alleged by the right to have committed – which are of course utter nonsense – but simply because of what they have not done, which is to solve the country’s problems. Yet, because of the socialist, big-spending, freedom-crushing narrative that regressives have successfully fomented and that the administration (including – Hello! – paging COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR DAN PFEIFFER!!) has been completely inept about countering, and because the other post-election option of actually getting it right would appear to be (and would be vociferously made to appear to be, by Republicans) an act of spiteful spitting in the public’s eye, the administration will have no option after the election but to tack yet further to the right in the ensuing two years.
That will be disastrous for Obama, for Democrats and for the country. (I could care less about the first two, who deserve it, and frankly I’m leaning that same way for number three on the list as well.) Like Clinton before him, Obama will try to placate voters and Republican monsters with their sponsoring oligarchy by moving to the right. Of course, there is absolutely nothing there except tax cuts for the wealthy (he is already proposing tax cuts for the bottom 98 percent). The Republicans have no other solutions for the economy (or anything else, for that matter), though these dam-busting boondoggles for the fiscally obese are, of course, no solution either. And, like Clinton before him, Obama will be relentlessly hounded by congressional investigations into every manner of bogus scandal that the fevered minds of the closeted perverts on the right can dream up to keep the administration reeling.
Unlike Clinton, however, there will be one big difference. I often said, back in the day, that the only thing that kept the American public from immolating Wild Bill, and the only thing that kept the Senate from convicting him in his impeachment trial, was that the economy was jumping at the time and Americans were therefore fat, dumb and happy. Today, however, they’re merely fat and dumb, and even the fat part isn’t a good thing in this case. The public could not possibly be more surly – apart that is, from how surly they’ll be in a year or two. Obama has been as idiotic a president as could be created if you sat down with the intention of making one, and they will be happy to watch him get savaged him when they have a chance. By bringing timidity and compromise with criminals to bear against multiple severe crises, and by refusing to fight for anything, he has launched a vicious cycle that is sucking him inexorably down, and us with him: He fails to solve the problems, the public gets angry and frustrated, his party loses elections, the right accuses him of everything from being a socialist to a fascist, he says nothing in response, the public gets angrier and more frustrated, his party loses more elections, they are then even more unable to govern than before, the public is about to explode in anger and frustration, he moves to the right and thereby offers even less of a solution to these crises than the non-solutions already on display, and … so on. And so on, again. Rinse and repeat.
Obama and the rest of the cowardly and corrupt members of his party have guaranteed their own destruction, that’s for sure, but that is likely the least unkind thing that history will say about them. If we think about where this all goes next, it becomes clear what these shallow punks are trading away for their pathetic self-interest and unwillingness to fight against treasonous criminals. Democrats will be smashed in the next two elections, and the right will gain full control of the government and full responsibility for the state of the country. At that point, Republicans will have to put up or shut up. Since they will have no remotely viable way to solve the problems people face – since, indeed, their real mission is to make those problems worse, because that is necessary to further enrich their sponsors – they will reach for ever greater means of distraction to keep the public’s attention elsewhere. All I can say is, “Watch out, third world countries everywhere”.
We know what these people are capable of, though Cheneyism has only hinted at how bad it could ultimately get.
History will record – if there are historians left to record it – that this was a moment of monsters, cowards and indolents: those being the right, the supposed left, and the public, respectively.
It’s the worst of all worlds, and the combination is likely to be catastrophic.
Given the magnitude of the crises we face and the ability of those who would govern us – and those who would be governed by them – to do anything whatsoever in pursuit of their own, narrow, short-term interest, it could well be far worse than catastrophic.
It could be entirely lethal.
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.