Nobility is a bitch, and a real seductive one at that.
I’m capable of some serious cynicism, but these days I kinda wish I had a lot more of it. I kinda wish I had born and raised in a more cynical time. Then maybe I wouldn’t get my heart broken so often.
That’s a funny thing to say about the time I grew up in, in a way. It was the era of Vietnam and Watergate, the era of police attack dogs and burning cities. My Lai, Kent State, Nixon, Watts. What’s uglier than that? And can’t one make a very compelling case that these are significantly better times today? I mean, after all, the government isn’t beating and murdering our kids on America’s streets. And while we’re still fighting wars (of course), there are a lot less casualties on either side these days. Aren’t things better?
No. They’re worse. What’s absent today from the America of my younger days is hope and understanding. Back then, everyone understood there was a struggle going on, and lots of people did just that. And they generated enormous successes, ranging from changing both racial civil rights laws and norms, to doing the same for gender equality, to demanding cleaner government, to improving the New Deal social safety net, to ending the Vietnam war, to distributing the national wealth more fairly, to changing environmental consciousness and law, and more.
It was a painful process, but one that came with an outstanding record of achievement, a record which therefore justified the sense of hope. There was solid and robust empirical evidence to prove that having high expectations for the country was not some pollyannaish exercise in naivete.
That’s all gone. It’s been replaced by something far worse than a tired stasis. And, really, when you consider the present picture in its full glory, you’re left with something beyond despair. For this is not only a story of deceit and hypocrisy, of rampant greed, of sociopathic disdain for the lives of others, but, finally, also a story of complete betrayal and the predatory exploitation of innocent people.
As in any crime story, it’s crucial to understand the who, what, when, why and how in order to unravel the true tale, and to have any hope for crime prevention and remediation in the future.
The ‘what’ of this crime scene is crucial, and so many people still don’t understand it (despite the rampant prevalence of CSI dramas all across the television dial – or perhaps because of it). It’s been said that the perfect crime is one of which the victim isn’t even cognizant. That’s all too true here. This lack of comprehension of what has been done, who did it, and why is the single most depressing feature of American politics today. How can 300 million people hallucinate so deeply all at once? Is there really that much LSD to go around? Or do we just get our drugs from the end of a cable nowadays?
There’s really only one main theme to the story of American politics in the last century (if not more), and that is the question of the distribution of wealth. This is particularly true of the last three decades, a period during which other important things – not least including wars and civil rights struggles – transpired, but were ultimately peripheral to the real story. And yet people still don’t understand this central concept and the crime committed around it.
A hundred years ago the distribution of wealth in this country looked like that of any standard issue banana republic. The rich had almost everything, and all of the rest of us barely got by, working (alongside our children) long hours in horrid conditions, for low pay, no benefits and zero respect for us as humans deserving of an equal regard for our welfare, happiness, opportunities, fortunes and basic dignity. We were ‘human resources’ (though the term was not in use until the ethos was revived in the present era), who were to be used and abused in the processing of natural resources, and discarded when our usefulness ceased. This approach to class relations within the society produced the expected result: wealthy Americans lived long and highly comfortable lives, while the rest of us resembled something nearer to characters out of Hobbes.
But then Franklin Roosevelt, easily the most transformative figure in American history, gave us a New Deal, which was quite literally that. Roosevelt and his fellow travelers in and out of government changed the essential terms of political economy in America, such that it was no longer a game entirely for the benefit of the wealthy. Mind you, those rich folks still did real well, thank you very much, and it is correctly argued that Roosevelt actually saved capitalism from capitalists – so, when it comes to FDR, we’re not talking about Leon Trotsky here. But Roosevelt’s program changed the rules of labor relations, taxation, government spending, regulation and so on, a reform that had the ultimate effect of redistributing wealth in America, so that the richest among us no longer had it all. And, in the process, this massive sea change in public policy also created a giant middle class that had not existed before, and launched an era of prosperity in this country that may have no equal across all of human history.
Which brings us to the ‘who’ of this murder mystery. They are the predatory plutocrats who hated FDR and the New Deal then, and have not stopped doing so down to this day. They despised Roosevelt so much for being “a traitor to his class” that many of them had to refer to him as “that man”, because they couldn’t bear to actually spit out his name. These people, with their infantile obsession for acquisition coming right out of some Freud 101 textbook, have never gone away. But they were marginalized during the half-century of the New Deal era. In fact, they were marginalized by the core mainstream of even the Republican Party. Dwight Eisenhower referred to them – in particular, to those who wanted to abolish Social Security twenty years after its launch – as “stupid”.
Eisenhower’s comment points to another answer to the ‘who’ question here. Plutocrats need agents to commit their crimes for them. That includes cadres of cops and soldiers who are either clueless as to their place in the scheme of things, or satisfied to be bought off for a few shekels and/or a pittance of prestige in the social hierarchy. In the contemporary context, however, it mostly means politicians. In our time these (alleged) people are little more than kabuki dancers, who job is to maintain a layered set of illusions. On top is the idea of political debate, as if there was fundamentally any difference between the two parties in America. As if Harry Reid and Barack Obama get up every day wondering how they can spend their waking hours fighting off Republican intransigencies to make life better for you and me. At the next level down is the idea of patriotism and the national interest. This facade brainwashes us to believe that while we may disagree with leaders of the other party, at least they are well meaning patriots who just happen to be wrong-headed – but right-hearted! – in their prescription for what ails the country. Finally, we have the last veil, the democracy ruse, where we are told that our government is responsive to the public will. Never mind all that corporate money washing around in the system – it doesn’t actually effect anything. It’s one person, one vote. Where your representatives are concerned, you count every bit as much as the CEO of Goldman Sachs.
Almost without exception, our contemporary political class serves the function of acting out this tawdry little soap opera, this elaborate diversionary scheme. That’s why there’s so much overlap between Madison Avenue and Hollywood and Washington, America’s politicians are B-rate actors (sometimes literally), playing a role in a lame white-hat-versus-black-hat pseudo-drama filmed on a soundstage called Washington, and doing the commercials in-between as well. But it wasn’t always thus. We used to have (at least some) limits, and we used to have (at least some) politicians genuinely committed to the public interest.
That crucial difference gives us the ‘when’ to this tale. For fifty years there was a broad consensus in America around the values of the New Deal and the lessons learned from the period preceding it. That consensus began unraveling in the 1980s, and has continued to do so ever since. The essential narrative of the last thirty years is the story of the dismantling of the New Deal, and with it the broad and shared prosperity that Americans once enjoyed. This process has occurred piecemeal, because it had to, because in fact both the deal of the New Deal era and the values it personifies are highly popular with the American public.
So the ‘how’ was to lie, cheat and steal in order for the rich to redress the ‘crime’ of the New Deal and get ‘their’ money back. Trade deals that seemed on their surface plainly to be disastrous for American workers – perhaps because that is exactly what they were – were sold to us as beneficial. Union busting, a la Reagan and PATCO, was made to seem an act of necessary national toughness. And who needed unions, anyhow? Didn’t we already have good wages? Deregulation – hey, what a great idea! Let Wall Street banks do whatever they want – you know, like in the 1920s! They didn’t call ‘em “roaring” for nuthin’, pal! Tax slashing for millionaires and billionaires was another big winner. It’ll trickle-down to the rest of us when these job-creators create jobs, it won’t cost the government any revenues, and it will jump-start the economy. So what if regressives went zero for three on those claims? We have to cut taxes even more! And then there are the diversions to keep you voting for the kleptocrats at every turn, such as foreign evil-doers (Ooooohhh, Saddam! Very scary! Noriega! Plenty bad man! Castro! An athiest, for Christ’s sake!), job-stealing Mexicans (you would have wound up being a rich attorney – even though you didn’t go to law school, or even college – but some sneaky wetback crossed the border and took your job), and predatory gays who want to deflower your innocent daughter – er, well, something like that.
Really, you have to give this country credit where credit is due. No contemporary developed nation in the world can touch us where political stupidity is concerned. We’re the best at that! American exceptionalism, man! Take that, you cheese-eating European socialists! Having repudiated the rampant regressivism of the last president – a shit-kicker Texas Republican governor who made his bones frying people on death row – and having spent four years with more of precisely the same politics (except with much more niceness) from our present Social Worker-in-Chief, we are now very likely to turn again next to an even more radical version of the Bush debacle, that being the current shit-kicker Texas Republican governor, Rick Perry. I mean, it all might even have a certain entertainment value to it if Americans had any sense of irony whatsoever. Alas, that is far from the case, and this will all somehow make perfect sense to voters in 2012. The Democrat who governs like a Republican couldn’t do squat to fix the crises created by the Republicans, so we’ll need to get an even more Republican Republican in there to do it right! Far, far right.
I have to confess that I am deeply despondent about politics today, in a way I don’t remember feeling, even during the ugliest days of George W. Caligula. It was awful then, but those actions and ethics were only a natural extension of what had already been going on within the GOP for twenty years. Each successive wave of thuggish animals was uglier than the last (as continues to be the case today), from Reagan to Gingrich to Bush. The Obama presidency, on the other hand, has been crushing to the spirit, and more so because even disappointed liberals still don’t get it, thinking he’s a wimp or a lousy poker player, when in fact he is – like Clinton before him – just another kleptocrat, come to sell out not just the country, but also the ideology of liberalism and the political party which once embodied those principles. That’s quite a trifecta, really. Most horror story politicians would be satisfied just to wreck their country in the name of personal narcissism. Obama is additionally destroying a set of crucial and hard-won ideas along with a political party in the bargain.
He is the anti-FDR in every meaning of that term. FDR saved the country. Obama is burying it. FDR created the Democratic Party as we (used to) know it, once probably the most formidable political machine in American history. Obama is dragging it curbside. FDR gave America its social contract. Obama is dismantling it. FDR reveled in the hatred of the greedy thuggish scum who despised him. Obama keeps hoping they’ll like him and invite him over for a beer if only he lets them pass his limp body around the jail cell one more time. FDR was America’s greatest president. Obama is undoubtedly one of its worst.
This cuts deep, man. Perhaps I should have been used to it after eight years of Clinton (whose adoration to this day by Democrats is a thing of sad wonder and another unrelenting source of despondency) and the absolute nothingburgerness of Nancy Pelosi and crew following the 2006 election. Just the same, I’m having an “Et tu, Brute?” moment as I watch the complete sell-out of 300 million people by a handful of traitors. I’ll give Obama credit for achieving one goal, though. This is a truly bipartisan act of treason. Good for him. Working together with Republicans seems very important to this president.
Meanwhile, though, what is there to do, say and think when the avenues for seeking solutions – hell, even for just ending our suicidal tendencies – all seem to be closing up at once, and every iteration of American politics is about losing more of what matters? Like I said, it’s getting harder and harder to have hope, and even to care. I guess at some point if stupid people want to do stupid things to themselves, you gotta let them. I kinda wish the rest of us weren’t dragged down the toilet with them, though. That’s just rude.
It’s even tempting to think that a Republican sweep in 2012 would be good for the country. Since conservative prescriptions can only continue the destruction they’ve begun, perhaps this disaster could mark the repudiation of the ideology forever. ‘Course, that’s what some of us thought in 2008, and now it is only worse. Far worse. Who could have imagined that, after a decade of Bush, regressivism and disaster that two years later the right would be back with the tea party and stronger than ever? Kafka? Dali? Timothy Leary?
The most disheartening thing about the American political condition is the degree to which people don’t get what has happened to them, and still continues to happen, destroying the body politic. It’s as if you were staring at an x-ray of a giant tumor in your belly, and nevertheless still sat there in befuddled consternation, wondering what the hell was making you feel so ill. It’s as if you then thought to yourself, “Oh, what the hell, I guess I’ll just drink a keg or two of this here Tumor Growth Potion. Maybe that will cure me.” In the latest sign of this diagnostic idiocy, voters in Wisconsin this week had the opportunity to respond to the tumor that is their Republican governor, through the mechanism of recall elections. The results were hardly a ringing endorsement for sanity, or even self-protection from the predators for whom Scott Walker and his party (as well as most of the other party) shills. That’s really depressing.
What is most disheartening is that Americans don’t even understand the experiment they’ve been subjected to these last thirty years. They seem to get the fact that it has failed, but they don’t know what “it” is. How many people know that regressives have won more or less every single economic policy battle of the last three decades, from taxes to trade to labor relations to deregulation to privatization to subsidies and beyond? How many Americans know this? How many know, to simply choose the most obvious example (but the same logic applies across the board), that taxes are far lower in America today than they have been for almost a century? And how can they possibly reject this regressive experiment in political economy if they don’t even know that it has been conducted?
One reason they don’t know, of course, is that nobody is telling them this. Sure, there are a couple of real liberals in Congress and even a socialist senator. But the real truth is that there is absolutely no left in America today, as a serious political movement. None. Liberalism hasn’t had a real voice in America for thirty years, perhaps forty. What we have today, instead, is an insane tea party right, whom people like Eisenhower would have utterly abhorred. Then we have the ‘mainstream’ GOP, like John Boehner, who are simply yesterday’s regressive tea party revolutionaries, and who therefore look moderate only through (faux) comparison to the Michele Bachmanns and Allen Wests of this world. Then you have the so-called ‘centrist’ or moderate Democrats in Congress, who can always be relied upon to provide any non-GOP votes necessary to stuff the plutocratic stocking with Xmas gifts, not to mention the one in the White House who signs the bill a day or two later. Finally, there are the Nancy Pelosis and Chuck Schumers of our political firmament, whose job it is to provide the image of an opposition to oligarchy and the military-industrial complex. “We’ll shut down the war as soon as we get control of Congress”, they say. Until they actually do win majorities, that is, when it becomes, “Oh, did we say that?”
And so on. Like I said, there is no one out there – and hasn’t been for over a generation – who is leading the progressive charge, or even trumpeting the liberal narrative, to counter the absurdly manifest lies of the right. Fox News only makes sense if you’re stupid. Similarly, more tax cuts for billionaires as a solution to an economy and a federal budget wrecked by tax cuts for billionaires only makes sense if no one else is out there pointing out that this particular imperial monarch is standing before us buck naked (if you catch my drift). I wouldn’t mind quite as much that my country was committing national suicide if I thought that was the intention. In fact, it’s more like murder by giving poisoned lollipops to middle-aged babies who gleefully grab for them. Hence my despondency.
If there is a small ray of hope out there, it is that more people are beginning to catch on. There has been a large spate of articles in the media lately with the theme of Obama’s complete ineptitude and insignificance as a serious political force. Liberals are by and large finally, amazingly, beginning to understand that he is not a liberal champion by any stretch of the imagination. That’s progress, at least, over reading for the last two years that Obama is a liberal or socialist or has a far-left agenda. What sickening, Orwellian, bullshit that is. Sadly, however, while commentators and the voting public are starting to recognize that Obama is not one of us, they have not yet realized the full truth, which is that he is one of them. As if somebody else picked Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and Bob Gates to serve in his cabinet. As if someone else decided to bail-out Wall Street while doing nothing about jobs or mortgages. As if there was another guy in the White House who tripled American forces in Afghanistan, or maintained Guantánamo in its fully operational state. This is what is, ultimately, so sickening about our current political condition. As a country, we don’t even know what it is.
If there is another slightly larger a ray of hope on the horizon, it is the premise that there is a breaking point out there somewhere. We’re seeing it in Israel (though, of course, the US media declines to cover the story), where huge swaths of the population have been on the streets protesting against – not Palestinians – but rather plutocratic plundering and the diminished lives it has left them with. We’ve seen that right across the Arab Spring countries, and in Greece and Britain.
Just the other day someone correctly noted that, “There is no excuse for violence, no excuse for looting, no excuse for thuggery, and those who are responsible must know that they will be brought to justice. I think this is about sheer criminality.” I couldn’t agree more, except that I was thinking it applies to the greedy bastard thugs whose sheer criminality, looting and – yes – violence has brought the world’s economy to its knees, rather than to the response to that on the streets of London, which was what Tory Home Secretary Theresa May meant when she made that comment. In any case, maybe we’re seeing the beginnings of the breaking point. Perhaps people are at last starting to say Basta! to impoverishment of the many in order to serve the greed of the few.
Maybe such restored political nobility will even come to America.
Maybe it isn’t the entire human species that tramples on nobility in its grubby pursuit of greed, but just Homo Sapien Americanus.
And maybe even we children of the Neanderthal can do better, if pushed hard enough.
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.