So, How'd You Like Your Beer?
Go on. Admit it. You never thought this would end, did you? You never thought they'd actually leave, huh? With only days remaining, you still have nagging doubts, don't you?
Finally. Mercifully. Astonishingly. Incredibly. The insane adventure in national suicide known as the Bush administration is at last coming to an end.
This was a ride that beggars belief. Even after McCarthy and Nixon and Reagan and Gingrich, nothing prepared us for the last eight years, and I for one have difficulty finding the words that could begin to do justice to describing this historical folly of epic proportions.
The list of self-inflicted wounds is endless, running from the fiscal irresponsibility, to the lies about war, to the incompetent execution of every policy, to the extreme recklessness of environmental catastrophe, to economic meltdown, and to turning one of the most admired countries in the world into one of the most reviled.
It is a breathtaking record. It really is. Indeed, one might argue in complete seriousness that it would be far easier to list the one or two exceptions to a blanket rule of disaster than to catalogue the endless list of travesties themselves. It would certainly take a lot less time to specify any successes than to climb the mountain of wholesale failures. In short, it literally involves almost no exaggeration to describe this adventure in catastrophic governance by means of a simple covering adage: If there was a way the Bush administration could have diminished America, it did.
Given this endless chronicle of national implosion, I won't try - for the umpteenth time - to catalogue the crimes and catastrophes here, despite the fact that this week offers a good opportunity for summing up our world of hurt. There are too many, and they are too well known. Except for those that are not, of course, of which I expect there is a huge quantity. Not for nothing did the administration - in one of its very first acts in government - rewrite the rules concerning the release of presidential documents, so that it could control them completely, despite the fact that they belong to you and me, not Alberto Gonzales. Not for nothing has Mr. Cheney's shredder needed sharpening every morning for the last six months.
As tempted as I am to once more list what has been lost by an America that has lost so very much, I will instead confine myself here to two simple, albeit not simply answered, questions: What happened? And, Why?
The first one is easier than the second, though I contend that most Americans still don't know the correct answer. My guess is that most people think the Bush administration has been highly ideological and partisan, and indeed it has. I think they believe the Bush people were largely incompetent at governing, and they were. Many Americans might have a sense of the corruption attendant to Bush's team, and they rightly should. Lots of them probably see the president as simultaneously arrogant and over his head, and they're quite right to do so.
But I'm convinced what most Americans fail to perceive, even to this day, is the true depth of the evil here. What they don't understand is that the incompetence and the partisanship and even the garden-variety corruption are the least of what just happened. What they don't get is that the major reason the Bush catastrophe was so catastrophic is that these people never came to Washington to do good, in the first place. They came instead to do well, and boy did they.
If this child in the body of a man were named Putin or Castro or Kim, Americans would get it. If they were observing the country from the perspective of Zimbabwe, instead of the other way around, then they would get it. They can understand the notion of some foreign thug who means to do harm to our country. They get the idea, in other places, of a domestic thug who seeks to plunder his own country. They just can't imagine it happening here. And, therefore, they don't see that it just has.
Most people have completely failed to perceive the magnitude of the Bush crime, because they see it as limited to ‘merely' dumb policies, poorly implemented, by incompetent stewards of government. Would that that were so. We'd be so much better off as a country and as a world had it been only that.
Instead, this was an American Stalin, seeking to use military power for purposes of overrunning and raping other countries. Instead, this was an American Mugabe, seeking to steal power by any means, in order to plunder the wealth of his own country per the interests of a narrow band of cronies.
This president - and indeed the entire movement of regressive politics these last three decades (which I refer to as Reaganism-Bushism) - can only be properly understood as class warfare. Its purpose was never to make America a better place. Indeed, if we define America as a country belonging to its 300 million inhabitants, then the purpose was actually precisely the opposite. The mission of this ideology was in fact to diminish if not impoverish the vast bulk of these citizens, so that the already massively wealthy among them could instead become obscenely wealthy.
Where you or I might have looked at the middle of the twentieth century and seen the moment when America finally did justice to its national promise by introducing a measure of serious economic equality for the first time, and thus vastly expanding the middle class, the plutocrats behind Reaganism-Bushism saw a filthy aberration to the natural order of master and slave that had long existed in human history. They therefore set about to overturn that aberration and return to ‘better times' through a process of class warfare. That meant that labor unions had to go, along with workplace protections, good wages, decent benefits, government protections, and a far-too-moderate average CEO to lowest-paid worker salary ratio on the order of fifty-to-one, replaced instead by something closer to five-hundred-to-one.
And, where Washington was concerned, that meant that government was to become a vehicle to serve not the 300 million, but rather the 300 families at the top, who already owned the most but craved ever, ever more. It was a cash cow that could provide enormous riches to buccaneers who make the Somali pirates look like Campfire Girls in comparison. Social Security is not, from this perspective, a program to serve seniors and keep a roof over their heads during their final decades of life, but rather a pool of money which the government had been kind enough to already collect and centralize, just waiting for barons to come along and robber it. Deregulation is another important purpose of the federal government. Protecting the long-term integrity of the economic system from the exploitation of short-term Ponzi schemers with their derivatives and their garbage loans was so mid-twentieth-century, you know? And then, chief among all purposes of government under Reaganism-Bushism, are the tax cuts for the wealthy, even if - especially if - they can be made more massive by borrowing from suckers' - I mean, citizens' - children in future generations.
In short, if you merely hate the Bush administration for driving the country into penury, making us hated around the world, bringing on a global economic crisis, ignoring when not exacerbating a looming environmental catastrophe of planetary proportions, killing a million Iraqis on the basis of a host of lies, letting New Orleans drown, trying to wreck Social Security, sleeping through (at best) the worst terrorist attack on our shores, allowing when not assisting the Middle East in going up in flames, or dividing our country internally - if that's ‘all' you've got against these guys, then you have no idea how bad it really is.
Because how bad it really is can be found in the same place where one sees the difference between first-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. The latter is a crime of ineptitude, the former one of intent. If you are fooled into thinking - as I suspect that most Americans have been - that the Bush administration was just a bunch of bungling ideologues who governed like Keystone Kops, then you will have been duped by the crime of the century. For at bottom these were kleptocrats, pure and simple. They came to steal, not to serve, and - with the chief exception of their foiled Social Security raid - they accomplished their mission rather handily. This was class warfare, and we lost badly. The rich in America are now far richer than they've been since 1929, while we and our government are infinitely more impoverished than we've been since the New Deal.
Of course, a movement representing one-half of one percent of the American public is never going to win elections as such, even as imperfect as is America's democracy, and so the kleptocrats had to do three things. First, they had to lie about their agenda. Second, they had to enlist others as unwitting agents in their crime. And, third, they had to steal elections. The three are, of course, heavily related. By pretending to be hyper-patriots, and by dressing up tax code changes, privatization and deregulation in the vernacular of freedom and the unleashing of economic dynamism, they could give their agenda a plausibility sufficient to fool those not looking too closely. Recruiting a few jive economists from academia to flak for not-so-funny-after-all Laffer Curves and the like gave the thing an additional patina of legitimacy.
Then, by pretending to give two shits about religious piety or national security threats, the kleptocratic junta could enlist the shock troops of the religious right and enough lazy and selfish voters necessary to seize power through elections (albeit with an occasional assist from regressive Supreme Court justices or swing-state secretaries of state) and fulfill their mission. As if they ever cared a whit about either of these grand diversions of religion or national security. These predators would have happily sold Saddam Hussein the very nails to put Jesus himself up on the cross if there was money to be made in it.
This has been, indeed, the crime of the century, and my only hope at this point is that it will ultimately be recognized as such. Right now, we are far from that. Most Americans abhor the Bush administration, to the point where quite a large percentage would probably be willing to call it the worst in American history. But that fails completely to do it justice, because it still misses the crucial question of intention. The difference between the perception of the Bush administration and the true reality of its mission accomplished is the difference between a well-intentioned bungler and a vicious though friendly predator.
There is so much that is amazing (in the same sense that witnessing a tsunami or a hydrogen bomb test is amazing) about these last eight years and the two decades preceding them, but if you're looking for something to top the list, consider the fact that the regressive right in America has now been reduced to using wholesale incompetence, gross negligence and catastrophic outcomes as its alibi. Think of how ugly and deep the real crime you're hiding must be if those are your diversionary tactics.
What's more, it's crucial to note that the danger of historical misinterpretation is far from the only one lurking here. In that respect, we would be well advised to remind ourselves that - even after eight years of devastation, even with homes being repossessed in droves, with jobs being lost, with medical conditions untreated because of insufficient funds, and even with an anodyne and centrist Democratic presidential candidate running a near-perfect campaign against a buffoonish McCain-Palin ticket - even after all that, we should remember that Barack Obama won in 2008 by a mere six percent of the vote.
And the resulting possibility that we could experience yet more Reaganism-Bushism brings us to the question of how this could have happened in the first place. What drives people to embrace stupidity, aggression, recklessness, destruction and contemptuousness as national policy, especially when they have other choices? Even worse yet (though that is hard to imagine), what impels them away from perceiving the even deeper crimes lurking below the death and destruction on the surface?
This second of our two questions is less easy to understand, but I believe the short answer is fear. Which is fairly astonishing, when one considers that we have long been the richest and most powerful country on the planet, by leaps and bounds. And yet this is a country whose populace strikes me as riddled with all manner of fears, in myriad aspects, whose ugliest political operatives understand this as well as they do the very concept of breathing, and who have become so used to preying on those fears that they engage in both practices both with about equal forethought.
It's been long said of George W. Bush that he wins elections because he seems like the kind of guy voters would be most comfortable having a beer with. That says a lot - an unfortunate, awful lot - about us fearful Americans. How frightened and insecure do you have to be, after all, to deliberately choose mediocrity for your government - with all the perils affecting you and your children such a choice entails - just so you won't be reminded every night as you watch the news that you're not as accomplished as the guy in the White House? Would we want our heart surgeons and airplane pilots to be equal exemplars of mediocrity? Would we enjoy the beer we'd be sipping with them in the afterlife, once they'd managed to get us killed? Nor is this just clever and fun, but specious, analogy. Just ask the thousands of Americans dead in Iraq, or because of absent health insurance, or a government that was partying instead of protecting them when the bad guys hijacked airplanes, or when the hurricanes came onshore. A certain American vice president likes to say that "elections have consequences". Well, indeed they do, Dick, and some of them can be quite lethal as a matter of fact.
The simple fact of George W. Bush as two-term president of the United States and leader of the Free World - as opposed instead to, say, the could-never-grow-up, could-never-stay-sober, sixty-year-old-frat-boy-cheerleader, Midland-Texas-Elks-Club-Secretary-Treasurer-who-couldn't-actually-keep-the-minutes-or-balance-the-checkbook, local-car-crasher-extraordinaire - will not exactly acquit us all very well in the history books. At least the Romans had the excuse of monarchy to explain Nero and Caligula. We don't. Nor can we plead ignorance. Our friendly neighbors in Europe dropped their collective jaws and looked on in astonishment from Day One. "You guys chose what? Out of 300 million of you? You put a dude in charge of a planeticide-capable arsenal who can't even properly pronounce the word ‘nuclear'? Are you freakin' kidding?"
Maybe the one thing I got out of the horror of the last eight years was a lesson in political culture. I learned that he who goes looking for rational thought or dialogue among the ranks of the regressives will come home a confused, addled and empty-handed fellow. That's what I was half a decade ago when that revelation whacked me across the forehead. I couldn't believe what I was witnessing. I couldn't believe that most of my fellow citizens could believe what we were witnessing.
But my mistake was to conceive of an America characterized by rational thought and some rough approximation of deliberative democracy. It's so long ago now, and no doubt my memory is foggy, but it seems to me that's what we had in my younger days. Yep, even with Vietnam and Watergate, even with Nixon and McCarthy, we seemed so much closer then to the Enlightenment ideal of the country's Founders. But something went desperately wrong - beginning in the late 1970s or early 1980s and culminating with this reign of the American Caligula - and it strikes me that there has been a paradigm shift in this country's cognitive architecture. Which is just a fancy way of saying we got ourselves real stupid, real fast. And real willfully, too.
I don't know what explains that, but I like to take the long anthropological perspective on these questions, and one can't help noticing that this is the exact moment that the wind went out of the sails of the American standard of living. Ever since then - following an economic rocket ride in the post-war period - it's been static, if not a real-value decline, for the American middle class (and we don't even bother talking about those in poverty any more). I think what happened is that we hit a wall and began having to get very creative in stealing from ourselves and from others and from our children in order to maintain a semblance of the old mass-consumption lifestyle. And I think we went looking for a politics that could justify and personify that expression of wholesale greed, which the regressive movement and the Republican Party were more than happy to provide. Thus did the most gluttonous faction of the most gluttonous tribe of the most gluttonous species come to rule the planet. And thus have we wrecked everything in sight.
I think we lived in some kind of deep fear that someone would take our toys away from us. And, worse, since we had so foolishly come to also imbue those toys with a sense of meaning, we thus added the existential fear that their loss would also mean taking away our very purpose for living as well. I think a political movement arose which understood that it could get additional subsequent money and power (and entertainment) out of stoking such fears by means of prior thefts of money and power from a frightened people. Give them employment insecurity and financial woes by siphoning their wages into the coffers of the already super-rich, and they'll just turn around and choose politicians who will then do far more of the same. It was the ultimate racket, and it lasted an astonishingly long time.
Nor is it even at all clear that people are the wiser, still at this late date. It's curious enough to ask how it is that Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter got ridden out on a rail, while this Thing continues blissfully on in office. How is it that he is not hated and despised? How is it that he dares show his face in public? How does he continue doing inane farewell interviews and presidential speeches without being confronted with even a sliver of reality?
Perhaps it is that the same fear which led us in this direction originally now also prevents us from reckoning with our wreckage. Perhaps our cowardice has now morphed from solitary failing to enduring habit.
But, of course, what isn't paid for now is only paid for later, at a much higher cost. I will be amazed if the coming decade or two isn't a period characterized by multiple and profound self-made catastrophes raging home in an amphetamine-stoked frenzy, each of them furiously seeking Mama, looking for a hug. That's an embrace we surely won't desire, but just as surely neither will we be able to avoid it.
We've been on a bender of exquisite proportions for thirty years now. We've done everything there is to do, to everyone there is to do it to, and more or less gotten away with it all. But now our creditors - literal and figurative - are lined up around the block, knives in their teeth, and they don't look happy.
All I can say, America, is that I hope it was worth it.
I hope you enjoyed the free ride you took by offloading your woes on the rest of the world, including your own children.
I hope you feel good about yourself.
And I hope you liked your beer.