President Bush says that he has taken the country into war in part to foment a democratic revolution in the Middle East. Others have tried; lots of luck to him. What's just as notable, though much less noticed, is the counterrevolution under way at home. Lots of luck to the rest of us.
Across a wide swath of public and private-sector affairs rumbles a steady, unrelenting rollback. Rights, privileges, entitlements, practices that have been customary parts of life in this society for decades, are quietly being taken away.
It's hard to think of a single thing that has gotten better in America since Sept. 11, 2001. That didn't have to be. Even amid national mobilization we could have sought progress and social betterment. The attacks, as our president himself said, were a challenge to our values, a crazed accusation of moral bankruptcy. Though leveled by murderers, it nevertheless made us wonder whether some rededication to our own fundamentals might be overdue -- since we were being taunted into defending them before a world that suddenly seemed full of peril.
At first, with all the grieving, the talk of common purpose and shared sacrifice, it did appear that 9/11 might shock us out of the hollow consumerism that was the shabby legacy of our boom-boom years.
Instead, we got mean. We got a counterrevolution. With the blanket excuse that the new austerity and stringency are nothing more than realities of the post-9/11 world, things are moving the wrong way.
Instead of a society that's fairer, more compassionate, more tolerant of debate and diversity of thought, more insistent on shared burdens, more democratic and caring, ours has grown steadily more dogmatic, more selfish and more disposed to slaver over the rich and consign everyone else, in a fine phrase from Bush's own speechwriters, to ''the soft bigotry of lowered expectations.'' Lowered? Expectations are in free fall.
In politics, the raucous two-party system has given way to single-party control of all three branches of government. A governing structure in which policy was once negotiated through a fractious system of checks and balances is now an autocratic state, with power overwhelmingly vested in the executive branch and within the executive in the security apparatus. And nobody can say we're one bit safer.
The social safety net is being unraveled in one of those vaunted partnerships between government and business. For its part, Congress is eyeing $470 billion in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, education, child care and other programs over the next decade. The cuts are critically important to help address a $2.7 trillion deficit -- two-thirds of it due not to the country's sluggish economy, but to upper-bracket tax give-backs desperately needed to take some of the sting out of being rich in America.
Meanwhile, higher education is less affordable than ever for students of modest means, and minorities are being elbowed aside in pursuit of a color-blindness that exists nowhere else in society.
NO UNIVERSAL COVERAGE
More than 41 million people have no health coverage. That number is growing. Some 80 percent of them have jobs, but their employers either are too small or too cheap to help pay for group coverage.
A dozen years ago President Clinton declared that universal health coverage was a top national priority. He couldn't deliver. The counterrevolution has been so successful that it's unimaginable that a leading politician of either party would even try to make universal coverage a priority now.
Social Security has long been inadequate. But it was just a supplement to private pensions, right? Then employers decided private pensions cost them too much. So we got tax-advantaged savings plans instead, and employers partly matched workers' own savings. Lately, though, a growing number of private employers are halting their 401k matches. Again, too expensive.
After all, they first have to pay their CEOs like sultans.
The upshot is that increasingly, this society does not have in place any organized system to ensure decent living standards for retirees. Americans have no pension plan. Maybe we should have more kids to sponge off in our old age. That's family values.
In the legal system, we have no idea how many people who thought that they were protected by the Bill of Rights are now locked up, prevented on national-security grounds from even talking to lawyers.
We once had a right to sue somebody who harmed us. Now the courthouse door is essentially locked to more and more plaintiffs, not because their cases are unfounded, but be cause their injuries might be burdensome to the people who caused them.
This rollback didn't start with Bush, and the pressure for counterrevolution won't cease when his presidency does, whether in two years or six.
But there's something fresh and brutal about the frankness with which the current administration declares that the rich must be nurtured, and that their welfare is key to the future of our economy. And there's something familiar about the style of leadership they bring to public office; it's the crisp decisiveness of the boardroom, where discussion, debate, the long-winded process of finding consensus -- in short, democracy -- aren't strengths but encumbrances, to be overridden or circumvented.
And now we have a war, with a quarter-million American troops on a distant battlefield. The service they do us is a rare one, almost as rare as the pensions some of them may actually get.
Edward Wasserman is a writer and consultant in Miami.
Copyright 2003 Miami Herald