PARIS - The inauguration of George W. Bush as 43d president of the United States confirms a fundamental change in the nature of U.S. government. Government has become the instrument of a segment of American society: corporate business. It has become, as others than myself have already recognized, "America Inc."
This change has taken place in full sight and with general consent of the U.S. electorate. A minority has expressed concern; a small minority has anxiously protested that this is not the way it was meant to be; but the overwhelming majority has been content to see this happen.
One might argue from history - the 19th century Populist movement, the 20th century progressives and the New Deal - that the government's takeover by business interests is normal and cyclical, with a "progressive" or liberal reform counteraction foreseeable in 2004 or 2008. After all, Al Gore won the popular vote, and in the opinion of many he should have won the Electoral College vote as well.
However, Mr. Gore was a corporate candidate, too. That is what is new. There is no alternative. A Gore administration would have been different from a Bush administration in its handling of the so-called cultural issues - race, gays, feminism, abortion. It would have been friendlier to labor, but not so friendly as to alienate business.
It probably would have been more enthusiastic about globalization and free trade than Mr. Bush may actually prove to be. Its foreign and economic policies would have been those of the business interests that supported the Clinton administration and profited from having done so, and which largely financed the Gore campaign.
Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader said the two main candidates were Tweedledum and Tweedledee (who "agreed to have a battle," to continue the quotation). We know what happened to candidates Buchanan and Nader. If a candidate today is not acceptable to the corporate mainstream, he is unelectable. Corporate money determines national policy, and even foreign policy. Under Mr. Clinton, industry successfully promoted the U.S. intervention with helicopters and arms into the struggle in Colombia.
A national missile defense system, to which the Bush administration is committed, is an aerospace industry program, not a national security program. Most foreign policy specialists and independent systems analysts regard it as a technologically misconceived response to a vastly exaggerated threat.
Mr. Bush's supporters are already promoting a new threat, which promises to be as costly to counter as building a shield against rogue missiles. A congressionally appointed commission led by Mr. Bush's pick for secretary of defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld, calls for measures against the hostile-nation menace to U.S. satellites.
It calls for "doctrine, concepts of operations and capabilities for space, including weapons systems that operate in space and that can defend assets in orbit and augment air, land and sea forces." This would put American industry in profitable competition with itself, since the countermeasures to be developed deal with a threat that no other high-tech country has any interest in posing.
In the past, weapons development has tended to be driven by military definitions of threat. Today the tendency is for industry to promote advanced weapons systems by marketing novel threats. Corporate lobbyists drove trade policy during the Clinton administration. The banana war with Europe concerns bananas neither produced in nor shipped from the United States.
The disabused citizen may ask what is new about all this. From the 1920s on the U.S. Marine Corps enforced the Central American interests of the United Fruit Company. The sober Calvin Coolidge's observation that "the chief business of the American people is business" is incontrovertible.
What is new about the situation today is that a seemingly irreversible mutation in the American system has occurred. At some point, quantitative change does becomes qualitative change. The point when that change took place was probably 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that money spent in support of a political candidate is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. Moneyed interests now finance not only the winners of national elections but also most of the losers.
This is part of the enlarging domination of American life by business corporations and their values, which are those of material aggrandizement, a phenomenon accompanied and promoted by the circuses and gladiatorial contests provided by the most important U.S. industry of all, entertainment, which now showcases elections and even wars as entertainments.
This is a curious outcome for the United States, whose most powerful cultural source was Calvinist dissident religion, whose members hated display and luxury, practiced severe and unremitting discipline and considered man wholly sinful, able to be saved only by arbitrary grace. Its most influential Catholic immigration was Irish, permanently marked by Jansenist theology - itself, like Puritanism, an extreme form of 17th century predestinarianism.
How far America has come from its origins! How distant its formative beliefs are from the values that politicians celebrate, on such occasions as presidential inaugurations. The country no longer knows what it is.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune