The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once said, “While you may not be interested in war, war is interested in you”.
The same is true of politics (of which war is simply one part anyhow): You may not be interested in politics, but rest assured, politics is interested in you.
I can understand why many people have little interest in politics. It’s sometimes complicated and it’s often boring, and that’s on a good day. On a bad one, it can be sleazy and representative of the worst human behaviors, including greed, malfeasance, defamation and arrogance.
But guess what? Sleazy or snowy pure, politics determines a whole bunch about the course of your life, including, not least, how long it lasts. The difference between the freedoms of the United States and the murderous totalitarianism of Hitler’s Third Reich comes down to politics. The difference between the health care coverage available to Europeans and that which Americans have (or, for 50 million of us, don’t have) is due to politics. The difference between war and peace is determined by decisions of international politics and national foreign policies.
There’s more. How do you feel about having a weekend off from work? It didn’t used to exist (and is starting to disappear again), but only came about because people fought for it in the political arena. Do you think racism is cool? If not, you may be glad to know that conditions are considerably better for minorities in America today than they used to be, solely because of the hard-fought political battles of previous generations. Do you like the idea of the government telling you, as a consenting adult, with whom you may sleep? Whether you must continue an unwanted pregnancy? Whether you must stay alive against your own will when you’re terminally sick and deeply in pain? All of these are political decisions made by societies like ours.
The list goes on and on, including very basic questions like who goes to college (a lot more than used to, because of politics, but that now appears to be reversing also), and how much they pay for it (a lot more in America than in other countries, because of politics). But there are three fundamental points you should keep close in mind.
First, many of the freedoms and benefits we now enjoy are the product of the blood, sweat and tears of generations which came before, fighting in the political arena (and often just plain fighting) to secure these for the generations which came after. Neither democracy, nor freedom of speech, nor freedom of religion, nor equality of races and sexes, nor a decent wage, nor any other such achievements were magically created. They did not exist for most of human history, they still do not exist in most places in the world today, and they only exist here and now because of the work and sacrifice made by folks – most of whom were the scorned ‘radicals’ of their day – to secure those blessings.
Second, what has been given due to hard work in the political arena can also be taken away. The number of jobs available, the pay for these jobs, the number of hours worked to enjoy a decent middle-class living – these are all to a large degree the product of political decisions. So are those which determine whether you go to war or not, whether global warming ruins our environment or not, whether you spend your life paying off the debts of others or not, and more. There are no natural rights in this world – to work, to freedom, to healthcare, even to a livable environment. There is only what we, as a society, decide there will be. In a democracy, that means politics.
And, third, not only is it possible for these hard-won rights and benefits of the good life to be taken away, that is precisely what is happening, as we speak. The last five years of American history have been disastrous in this respect, especially for young people who will spend a lifetime digging out from the mess which has been created. Worst of all, this is due almost entirely to political decisions which we, ourselves, have made, and thus is truly a self-inflicted wound.
Consider the fiscal health of the country (and thus, also, of your wallet). The Republicans bill themselves as the party of fiscal discipline, but when Ronald Reagan came into office he spent so much, and cut taxes on the wealthy so much, that he had to quadruple the national debt to (not) pay for it. Democrats managed to reverse that decline in the 1990s, generating the largest surpluses in American history, but then Bush administration policies made Reagan’s recklessness look like kid’s stuff. Spending like crazy – much of it on foolish priorities like an unnecessary war in Iraq, a prescription drug plan which primarily benefits drug and insurance companies, and pork-barrel legislation like multi-million dollar bridges to nowhere in Alaska – while also taking a meat-axe to taxes formerly paid by the wealthy, George W. Bush and his Republican allies in Congress have created the biggest pile of debt in American history.
Indeed, Mr. Bush has now borrowed more money from foreign governments to finance his (well, actually, your) fiscal nightmare than have all the 42 presidents who have come before him – combined! Just how much is that, and why should you care? The national debt has now surpassed $8 trillion. That is about two-thirds the size of what the entire American economy produces (GDP) in a given year. All this, and more, has to be paid back. What is the ‘more’? Well, we’re adding to this mountain of debt to the tune of $350-450 billion every single year, digging ourselves further in. And, of course, we not only have to pay all this back, but the accumulating interest on this debt as well.
All told, each American, including any born just this second, and including each reader of this article, will spend some good portion of their lives paying off their share of this national blow-out, that share at the moment equaling more than $27,000 per American. But since only about half of us work, at least enough to pay taxes, the reality is that any American with a job owes over $54,000 to cover for the Republican Party’s party at your expense. Plus the approximately $2,600 being added to the pile each year, every year. Plus interest on all that. How do you feel about coming out of school with $60,000 worth of debt hanging over your head, for something from which you didn’t even benefit?
Meanwhile, here’s the real kicker. We used to have a somewhat fair system of tax distribution prior to the Bush program, but nowadays the rich pay far less in taxes than they used to, and the middle class pays just slightly less (and that’s only if you don’t count increases in state and local taxes, tuition, fees for government services, and more, all of which have gone up to fill in for the loss of federal revenues). Since these tax ‘cuts’ have been financed by borrowing, however, what that means is that the middle class will continue to have to pay their own share of the national debt in future years, plus the taxes that the rich won’t be paying in the future, plus the taxes that the rich also didn’t pay in the past (now) when this problem was created. Americans should therefore understand that this was never really a tax cut, but simply a tax transfer, from the rich to the middle class, and from Mr. Bush’s generation to yours.
These are all political decisions. Does politics seem more important, now that it has just handed you a $54,000 (and rapidly rising) bill? Are you okay spending this sum on financing the second or third yachts of the wealthy, or would you rather have used it to pay for your education, or as a down-payment on a house? Unfortunately, to the extent you leave politics to others, this question gets answered for you, and so it has.
Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our time is the war in Iraq, which a highly respected former American general (and Reagan administration official), William Odom, has called “the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history”. In purely personal terms, this war has probably cost each American taxpayer about $2,500 so far. Is that how you would have chosen to spend your money? But the real costs run far deeper than that. Over 2,000 Americans are dead, 15,000 are gravely wounded, tens of thousands will come home psychologically damaged, and we don’t even know how many Iraqi civilians have perished, but estimates run from 30,000 to over 100,000.
Meanwhile, the American military nears its breaking point, much of the world has come to hate us because of the invasion, the ineptitude of the occupation, and the torture. Now add to that the admission (following the lie of an initial denial) that we used white phosphorus chemical-like weapons in Iraq, which burn the flesh off of human beings, right down to the bone. Even the CIA admits that the Iraq war is creating anti-American terrorists, rather than Bush’s fantasy that ‘we are fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here’. Meanwhile, former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi says that human rights abuses in Iraq are today as bad as or worse than they were under Saddam Hussein.
And for what purpose have we created this multi-dimensional disaster? Iraq never posed even a remotely serious threat to the United States. It neither threatened us nor ever attacked us, and it had absolutely nothing whatever to do with 9/11. The Bush administration told lie after lie about weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda in order to justify the war. This is the primary reason – among many – that there is so much anger directed toward an astonished president today, and the reason that his job approval ratings are now at Nixonian levels circa Watergate. Meanwhile, the real perpetrators of 9/11 roam free, and what does the president say of Osama bin Laden, the man whom Bush blames for 9/11, and whom he vowed to bring in “dead or alive”? He literally said, “I don't really think about him very much.”
During the 2004 campaign, Bush promised there would be no draft – an extremely reckless thing to say – but the American voluntary military is now crippled under the weight of his war of choice in Iraq, with forty and fifty year-old Guard and Reservists serving third, and now fourth and fifth tours of duty there. In addition to your money being spent on this war, in addition to friends and family you may know directly affected by it, and in addition to the harm the war has caused to America’s reputation in the world – which we’ll all pay for, for decades – there is the very real prospect that young readers of this article may someday soon find themselves subject to a draft, in order to save a military broken by George Bush. And if you don’t, it will be because Bush has decided it is better for America to be militarily weak than for him to take the political hit which would come from instituting a draft. Either way, you lose.
There is more – lot’s more – beyond the disaster of conservative fiscal and foreign policies. There are the lost jobs, the weak economy, the massive trade deficit, the environmental damage and exacerbation of global warming, the health care and pension meltdowns, the death of our civil liberties by a presidency that rips up the Bill of Rights, the political mugging of gays, the attempts to control our bodies and personal freedoms, the general divisiveness in the country, and lots, lots more.
The point is this: These are all the products of political decisions. Within the broad constraints dictated by nature, humans choose their own destinies, and they do so through the mechanism of politics.
No one can be blamed for sometimes seeing politics as a slimy affair (though it is occasionally quite noble). But everyone should be blamed for ignoring politics and assuming that their lives and society’s welfare will be unaffected. Obliviousness is no excuse.
The ancient Greeks had a name for the totally private person, the person uninvolved in the politics of their time. We use the word a bit differently now, but perhaps we should reconsider. Arguably, the Greeks had it right when they described someone who stood by and watched politics happen to them as an “idiot”.
It’s your life. Will you stand by while others screw it up?
David Michael Green (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. This essay was originally published in the Hofstra Chronicle, but it is the author’s desire that it also be read by others beyond the ‘yutes’ of Long Island.