America's Elephant In The Room

The second most astonishing
thing about American politics is that John McCain and Sarah Palin have
a respectable chance of winning the White House in 2008. (Or,
for that matter, that any Republican could have a shot at any office
for which the Democratic candidate hasn't suddenly died on the stump.)

The second most astonishing
thing about American politics is that John McCain and Sarah Palin have
a respectable chance of winning the White House in 2008. (Or,
for that matter, that any Republican could have a shot at any office
for which the Democratic candidate hasn't suddenly died on the stump.)

Yeah, yeah, I know.
Barack Obama has a funny name. He's relatively young and inexperienced.
Oh, and - have you heard? - he's also black. But, just the
same, I mean, c'mon. A Republican could win the presidency in
2008? You gotta be kidding, right?

All of this is deeply
related, in multiple ways, to what is without a doubt absolutely the
first most astonishing fact of American politics. And that is
that conservatism (I prefer to call them 'regressives') isn't
the most repudiated ideology this side of cannibalism. And that
regressive practitioners of this hateful disease masquerading as a political
philosophy haven't been tarred-and-feathered, hung, drawn and quartered,
then run out of town on an electrified rail. And that any red-blooded
American wouldn't infinitely prefer in this day and age to be called
a pedophile, a terrorist or a European - heck, or all of the above
combined - rather than a conservative.

I mean, seriously, people.
Now that Wall Street has imploded, potentially taking down with it the
entire global economy in a fun reprise of the 1930s, what more could
possibly be necessary to repudiate a set of ideas for which a good day
is when thousands of people don't die (again) as a result of anyone,
let alone the world's sole superpower, subscribing to something so
astonishingly stupid? Really, is there anything that the regressive
agenda has touched so far that hasn't completely turned into a pillar
of salt? Not only do these nice pious Christians show every evidence
of actually being the antichrist, they've also managed to be the anti-Midas
as well.

The scope of the destruction
is breathtaking to gaze upon. The rapidity with which American
affluence and power and respect and responsibility were converted into
their opposite numbers is mind-boggling. But the most astonishing
thing of all is the absence of repudiation. Not from subscribers,
of course. That army of clones was so existentially terrorized
in their impressionable years by some toxic stew of religion, racism,
sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-communism and/or some other
forms of anti-otherism - along with a sinking economic status -
that their cold, stiff fingers will never be pried from the politics
of guns, gays and god. Especially now, when they can also add
to their fears the blame for being so spectacularly wrong about everything
imaginable these last decades. Who would want to own that?

But what about the rest
of us? What, indeed. We still live in an America where almost
nobody dares call themselves a liberal. But what's even more
bizarre - and I mean like watching-a-Twilight-Zone-marathon-in-Wonderland-sitting-there-with-Alice-and-frying-on-acid-while-listening-to-In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida-("here-comes-the-drum-solo-man!")-backwards-and-at-half-speed
kinda bizarre - is the degree to which conservatism has not become
a dirty word and a rejected ideology. For my money, this is the
single most absolutely anomalous political curiosity currently to be
found in what is surely one of the most curiously anomalous polities
that ever existed. Oh, and, for the record, it turns out that
that bit about 'my money' is quite literally true - a whole bunch
of it has already been spent on the various insanities of this backwards
ideology, and probably a lot of yours too.

But I digress.
What is conservatism, and how should it be regarded? Like any
ideology, it has lots of flavors and sub-cults, many of which don't
necessarily get along with each other, and certainly don't agree on
which conservative projects should be given priority at any given time.
All the same, I think we can boil the ideology down to a few key concepts
- indeed, ones that even our regressive friends would agree accurately
represent the ideological program.

Traditionally, well...
tradition has been key, as a matter of fact. One key tenet of
conservatism is to avoid change. Reactionaries go even further,
preferring the (typically heavily mythologized) world that grandpa inhabited.
Economically, conservatism is all about low taxes, low government spending
(except when it comes to cops and bombs), balanced budgets, low regulation
of the private sector and privatization of any service which might otherwise
be provided by the government.

This is why conservatives
love to describe themselves as the ideology which maximizes freedom,
but this turns out - shockingly, I know - to be a lie. Indeed,
it first turns out to be a lie because in practice supposedly conservative
governments break most of their own economic rules catalogued above.
Saint Ronald The Reagan quadrupled the national debt by irresponsibly
slashing tax revenue (especially for the rich) and massively increasing
spending. Before he sold out the country for his own career aspirations,
George H. W. Bush described that formula as "voodoo economics".
He ought to know. His voodoo spawn was not to be outdone by any
White House predecessor. Or even all of them. Lil' Bush
has followed an irradiated version of the same formula as Uncle Ron
and has now doubled all the national debt which was incurred by his
42 predecessors. Combined. Very 'conservative', eh?

But the even bigger lie
is that the supposed ideology of freedom from government doesn't even
pretend to extend outside of the economic sphere. Ladies, would
you like to control your own bodies? Better try another ideology.
Real conservatives don't even want you to have access to birth control
or divorce, let alone abortion. Want the freedom to decide who
you can sleep with, what you can do in bed (even if you're a married
hetero couple), and who you can marry? Oops, you stumbled into
the wrong philosophy, brother. And don't even get me started
on substances of various sorts one might choose to imbibe, even to stay
alive while undergoing chemotherapy. Freedom? Guess again.
Unless of course you mean the freedom to live the life prescribed for
you (but not themselves) by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Mark Foley,
Larry Craig or Newt Gingrich, based on their selective misinterpretations
of some obscure text written by hermit politicians 4,000 years ago in
the Palestinian desert. (Where people are still fighting over
ownership of the sand to this very day - hey, let's follow that

Lastly, conservatism
means hawkish aggression in the face of potential threat, real or imagined.
Abroad, that translates into sending in the Marines or small nuclear
devices to deal with pesky former clients who've now gotten a little
uppity in their ambitions. Domestically, that means lots of cops,
lots of judges, lots of jails and lots of electric chairs (but only
for little people, of course, who can't afford good lawyers).

So that's the formula
- and, again, I doubt even conservatives would dispute this rendering:
traditionalism, the pretense of small government in the economic sphere,
big government in the social domain, big stick abroad and on the streets.

But here's the part
that they won't admit to, despite the fact that it is inescapably
true. Indeed, precisely because it is true, and because of where
it leads. And that's this: This is an ideology that has
been tested. Nobody can say that George W. Bush, or his cronies
in Congress or his enablers on the Supreme Court have pulled any punches
these last eight miserable years. But the truth is, it runs a
lot deeper than even that. With the exception of Bill Clinton's
moderately and sporadically progressive social policies, it's actually
been a solid thirty years of conservative politics in America, including
Clinton's economic policies, which were indistinguishable from anything
you'd get out of Wall Street or off the GOP convention platform of
any given year. Ever since Reagan, and in some ways even back
to Carter, Washington has been all about implementing a conservative
agenda of tax cuts, deregulation and privatization, unraveling feminism,
gay rights, civil rights and the Constitution, along with interventions
abroad and mass incarcerations at home. In short, it would take
an obscene distortion of truth - of which regressives have so often
shown themselves singularly capable - to argue other than that we've
had a very thorough and robust test of the ideology these last decades,
and especially under George W. Bush.

So, hey, how's it all
turned out? Can you say "unmitigated disaster"? Not
even John McCain, who nowadays will say anything, argues that we're
better off than we were four years ago. He, of course, neglects
to mention the degree to which he's been part of the problem, and
now even seeks to extend it another four or eight years.

Let's start with national
security. The "grown-ups" who were supposed to come to town
and show Clinton Democrats how to do government right were so obsessed
with their little pet Iraqi project that they were asleep at the switch
(if not behind the wheel) during America's worst national security
crisis ever. Then they went to war against the supposed perpetrator
of that crime in Afghanistan, until they got bored with it all and sent
the troops to Iraq instead. The upshot has been two endless wars
completely un-won seven years later (at least one of which was also
completely unnecessary), a broken American military, global hatred toward
the US, massive 'defense' spending equal to more than that of every
other country in the entire world combined, and a polarized and deceived
public at home. Quite a score-card, eh?

It gets better.
At home, the highest national surplus ever was rapidly turned into the
greatest national deficit ever, adding and compounding now to nearly
$10 trillion in debt (and rapidly rising), twice what it was (then falling)
when the Little Bush came to Warshington. That's $66,666 (hey,
don't all those sixes mean the devil is nearby?) per taxpayer, for
those of you keeping score at home. If Bush's massive tax transfers
(commonly but erroneously referred to as cuts) are continued, as McCain
vows to do, that number will explode even more than it will still be
mushrooming anyway without them. Meanwhile, the dollar is lower
in value than ever, the trade deficit is astronomical, inflation is
rising behind gas and food prices climbing off the charts, and a steady
diet of regressive deregulation has jeopardized the entire global economy,
requiring taxpayers to ante up another trillion bucks to rescue us from
the depredations of the robber baron elites, whose vision of capitalism
- abetted by their cronies in government - is that all profits go
to them and all risks go to stupid regular people.

What a great economic
record, eh? Since the 1970s, when the right side came to bat,
polarization of wealth in America has increased to banana republic proportions.
The rich now account for half of the income in this country - up from
one-third during the liberal period of the 1930s through the 1960s -
and the middle class has actually lost ground, despite an economy that
has been fairly steadily growing over the last decades. It ain't
rocket science, folks. Cut the legs off of unions, apply pressure
to workers to keep them too frightened to organize, globalize jobs abroad
and reward their export with tax incentives, change the structure of
the tax system to favor the rich - guess what's going to happen?
Guess what has happened? Of course, it hasn't hurt to also throw
in a few scary foreign boogeyman monsters, racism, homophobia and some
other nifty tricks to keep voters distracted long enough to loot their

The record outside of
foreign and economic policy is hardly any better. Healthcare in
America is a disaster, made worse by another eight years of standing
by watching conditions deteriorate, and letting a sexually-obsessed
American Taliban dictate policy on stem-cell research and anything else
even remotely related to genitalia and other evil things. That
whole idea of using government to reward cronies and political stormtroopers
turns out to have worked just about as well as it did back in the nineteenth
century - before we abandoned it the first time - as Heckuvajob
Brownie so well demonstrated during Katrina. And won't history
be kind to the regressive right for denying that global warming was
a massive threat to humanity, and then blocking solutions once it became
undeniable that it was? Or attempting to destroy the International
Criminal Court (hmm, wonder why?). And so on, and so on...

These are the reasons,
altogether, that Bush is the most widely reviled president ever seen
in polling data, and that many notable historians have abandoned their
traditional reluctance to weigh in on any subject that isn't half
a century old and have gone ahead and declared the Bush presidency the
worst in over 200 years of American history. But we need to remember
that Bush, of course, is only the most visible manifestation of an entire
regressive movement, which is as completely predatory as it is patently
a failure.

So the real question
is, how come 'conservative' isn't a dirty word today, a label
that any politician outside of Mississippi would run from as if it were
the Ebola virus? The answer, I think, has principally to do with
marketing, and also with the will and motives of the so-called opposition
party. I remember George Bush the Elder, carrier of the demon
seed, mercilessly hammering the hapless Mike Dukakis across the 1988
campaign as "a liberal", spitting the word out as if it was the
worst epithet imaginable. Week after week, Dukakis said nothing,
as his poll number slid into the basement, missing the obvious retort
of "If you mean someone who favors Social Security, Medicare, school
loans, the GI Bill, civil rights, equality for women, protection of
free speech and the Constitution - then, yeah, hell yes I'm a liberal!"
Week after week he was silent, that is, until finally I saw him do it
live, with my very own eyes. He copped to being a liberal.
On the very last day of the campaign. In San Francisco, no less.

What's happened is
that the regressive right has been wildly successful at one of the only
two things they're good at (the other being theft), which is marketing
lies. The Atwater/Rove/Schmidt machine is fairly brilliant at
using fear, smear and queer to turn night into day, black into white,
Palin into Truman. Nowhere does this show up so clearly as in
the contrast between policy preferences and the ideological self-definition
of voters. On issue after issue - yes, even including guns,
gays and taxes - Americans definitively line up in favor of liberal
positions, often by huge gaps. They want national healthcare,
they want regulation of guns, they support equality for women and gays,
they oppose 'free trade', they favor government steps to ameliorate
the polarization of wealth in America, they want to protect the environment,
they approve 'big government' providing more services, they want
the minimum wage raised, they support stem-cell research and massively
oppose Terri Schiavo-type government interventions into personal morality,
they strongly support abortion rights and oppose repealing Roe by a
two-to-one ratio. Nowadays, they're even giving up on the death

But then these same people
have, over the last thirty years or so, self-identified as conservatives
to the tune of about 30 percent of the population, versus liberal on
the order of about 20 percent. And while there are decent arguments
to be made that the public doesn't understand ideological labels as
well as they might, or that the other 25 percent or so calling themselves
moderates are really liberals, the more important point has to do with
marketing success. Who in America wants to be labeled a 'liberal'
today? It's still a dirty word, even though all its policy prescriptions
are widely held, and even though conservatism has been monstrously and
emphatically disastrous. This is the product of a marketing coup
of first proportions, a stunning Madison Avenue success at, well, putting
lipstick on a pig. You could see it, most recently, at the Republican
Convention last month, where neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney nor
even the word Republican were anywhere to be found, and yet people bought
into loads of the claptrap about Sarah Palin. Democrats would
have been hopeless and morose with a hand like the one Republicans have
dealt themselves in 2008. The GOP, on the other hand - them
boys know how to peddle soap, man.

Meanwhile, the Dukakis
tradition, well preserved by the likes of Gore in 2000 and John Kerry
and still somewhat by Barack Obama today, continues to illustrate one
of the few things a conservative ever got right - namely, Edmund Burke's
oft-quoted observation that all that is required for evil to prevail
is for good men to do nothing. But there's good and then there's
good. As another famous old quip notes, many progressives during
the New Deal era came to Washington to do good and stayed to do well.
One reason that regressivism has been so miraculously successful as
a set of politics while being simultaneously so disastrous as policy
is surely because of Democratic cowardice. But, just as surely,
another is because far too many donkeys are nearly as bought into the
corporate predatory nexus as are the elephants (and I don't mean Babar).

Why does this all matter?
Well, for the same reason that eight years of Bush/Cheney matters, and
that the very real prospect of a McCain presidency followed by a Palin
presidency matters. Political battles are half-won or lost, in
advance, by the framing and labeling which precede the actual contests.
The right understands this so well, which is why, among other of their
successes, liberal is a dirty word, and the press has been successfully
labeled with a liberal bias. Progressives - or at least Democrats
- are clueless about this stuff. They've never worked on Madison
Avenue. They've never been driven by a rapacious ambition toward
infantile self-aggrandizement. They've never had to sell gold-plated
cappuccino machines or Hummers to idiot consumers just itching to depart
with their own money in order to salve their raging insecurities.
No wonder they can't win elections.

It's astonishing, if
you think about it - how much can be sold on the basis of so little
substance. Put it this way: I'd be willing to bet there
isn't a day that doesn't go by in which Karl Rove doesn't salivate
all over his Dockers, dreaming of the kind of empire he could build
if he had the material progressives have to work with. An angry
public, policy agreement on virtually every issue in the public sphere,
a hated government powerfully representing the opposing ideology.
What more could you want? It's true, conservative voters are
incredibly susceptible to fear-based political appeals, and tend to
have the critical analytical faculties of a pile of rocks. Still,
it's been a very long time since the cards were stacked so heavily
in favor of a progressive tsunami in America, and the right knows it.
And they alternate between sheer astonishment and giddy joy as they
contemplate the utter inability of progressives to pick up that ball
and run with it.

Those, like Rove, in
the regressive controlling class cannot believe their good fortune in
not being completely chased from the field of play, as if they were
transsexual Nazi pedophiles advocating for the national agenda a confiscation
of all private property and America being annexed as a province of Bolivia.
"Goddam, I'm good" Rove tells the guy in the mirror each morning
as he shaves, I can assure you. And he's (very) right, I can
also assure you, provided you take the talented meaning of the word
'good', not the moral one.

But imagine if progressives
were half as good, especially with all the material they now have to
work with.

They could be the chemotherapy
for the country's conservative cancer we've so badly needed for
so long now. Instead of an America on life support, we could once
again be a healthy polity, growing and thriving.

And the regressive disease
could be banished from the body politic forever.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.