The layers of the American political pathology are so multiple and so deep, it's sometimes hard to know where to start.
It's not so much that we're a country with problems. Every country has its challenges, and compared to much of the rest of the world I'd take our particular batch hands-down. It's just that so many of ours are self-inflicted.
Still, looking out across the panoply of peril, all the unfortunate ways in which we get it wrong as a society, I can't help but think that what's at the bottom of the stack, providing a foundation for the rest, is a profound national stupidity. Maybe it's my professional bias as an educator, but I often think that our biggest single problem is our (often willful) ignorance. Moreover, that's the single national characteristic that enables so many of our other maladies. If only we would allow ourselves to think, it seems to me, so much of the inanity that passes for normal in our politics would be laughed off the stage, and we'd all sure be a lot better off for it.
Honestly, this was the single thing I found most compelling about candidate Obama (as opposed to President Obama, who's more or less been one disappointment after another). Whether he was talking about dumb wars, or the fear-marketing of guns, gays and god, or addressing the question of race in America, Obama would sometimes do something that America hadn't seen in its political class since Jimmy Carter was in the White House: He would sometimes tell the truth.
Mind you, not often, and not even the whole truth. But the comparison was nevertheless startling, so long has it been since we've seen anything like this. Ronald Reagan not only began the era of "America, The Movie", he personified it as president like no one else ever has. Why worry about national problems when you can have yellow ribbons, poignant sunrises, and kick-ass wars against mortal enemies like Grenada instead? America has never quite recovered from this turn to the fantastical, this Hollywood spectacle of a government. Indeed, so deeply rooted has it become that, in order to help hold onto our comforting delusions, we now have a tenacious mythology which has arisen around the Great Mythologizer himself. The mythmaker has become myth too. New lies promulgated to prop up the old ones.
Whatever. My guess is that if we can ever have a serious discussion of Reagan in the future, one of the great crimes that will be attributed to his presidency will be the same supposed virtue that our lame punditocracy ascribes to it now. They say it was a revival of the American spirit and a restoration of our national confidence. In fact, what it was instead was a grand journey of self-delusion taken by an entire country, and at great cost, much of which we continue to pay to this day.
Thirty years of this disastrous turn in American politics could make even the half-truths of someone like Barack Obama refreshing and welcome, sometimes even stunning. I had almost forgotten what it was like to have a politician talk to me like I was an adult with a brain, rather than some Sunday School kiddie in short pants, who could only distinguish between Mr. God and Mr. Satan, the one with the beard and the one with the horns. I had almost forgotten what it could be like to see a president describe the world in three dimensions, complete with nuances and complexities, rather than some silly faux dichotomy between Good and Evil, with our team always representing the former.
Since becoming president Obama has cracked that door open a bit once or twice, though far from sufficiently and even less than during his campaign. His Cairo speech had some of these elements. And then he did it again a couple of times last week, especially when he visited the Republican House retreat and held a televised Q and A with those scary monsters.
Much as I hesitate to say it, the changes in the Obama White House this last week are slightly encouraging. It's even possible that they've recognized what a suicide mission they've been on this last year and have taken some baby steps in the only direction available to them for survival, let alone any sort of redemption. Obama doesn't strike me as constitutionally able to throw a punch at an adversary. It's just not in his character. But this week, at least, he flicked a couple of spitballs. For this White House, that's progress.
In any case, there was much that was telling about the event. First, that this semi-hostile dialogue - which many have compared to the British weekly tradition of Prime Minister's Question Time - transpired at all was a somewhat profound development. Of course, that statement says far more about the pathetic nature of the American political system than it does about Obama or the cavemen from the Valley of the Right who questioned him. It's also enormously telling that the GOP resisted until the last moment allowing the cameras to roll during the question and answer period - they really didn't want to go there. Think about that. You had a single meek politician going up against two hundred rabid bullies, and which side wanted to make sure the public didn't see the engagement? Did Republicans know something in advance that made them fearful of public exposure, even when going up against President Neville O'Bambi?
Perhaps it was the same thing that caused FOCS (Frighten Old Children Silly) "News" to cut away from the broadcast in the middle of it, despite the food-fight event being the very epitome of what television loves to show in politics. Uh-oh. Not only was Obama occasionally holding Republican feet to the fire, but he was even doing it without a Teleprompter! Evidently, the sight of the nice, genteel, reasonable black man helping a bunch of white sharks make themselves look like the stupid liars they are was all too much for Mr. Ailes and company. Seeing this was causing smoke to pour out of the ears of robo-regressives all across America, their circuits frying all at once. Cut to American Idol reruns, boys! Fast!
Why? Because Obama was actually making these lying thugs own, even slightly, the consequences of their destructive deceits. Here he was with the Republicans at their retreat, for example: "There was an interesting headline in CNN today: ‘Americans disapprove of stimulus, but like every policy in it.' And there was a poll that showed that if you broke it down into its component parts, 80 percent approved of the tax cuts, 80 percent approved of the infrastructure, 80 percent approved of the assistance to the unemployed. Well, that's what the Recovery Act was. And let's face it, some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities." Similarly, the next day he was tweaking seven Republicans who actually walked away from their own proposal for a bipartisan debt-cutting commission, just because the socialist president had subsequently agreed with them on the idea.
The Kumbaya Kid is considerably more gentle about whacking these Joe McCarthy protégés than I would be. I'd like to see a lot more Harry Truman out of him, and a lot less Harry Reid. A lot more Betty Friedan, and a lot less Betty Crocker. Just the same, the Massachusetts election may go down as an inflection point in this presidency, the moment at which the White House figured out that standing by silently and watching yourself get your ass kicked by dress-up cowboy cowards unarmed with anything but lies and bullying tactics turns out to be, amazingly enough, something of a strategic error in national politics.
But what I find so astonishing about moments like this is how revealing they are of simple truths that somehow manage to get lost, particularly in the ranks of the Democratic Party. To begin with, Barack Obama has been hard at work for a year now, crashing an enormously promising presidency that just happens to also have his name attached to it, and the way forward has always seemed to me so transparently clear. Regressives in Congress (some from his own party), representing parasitical special interests, are sucking the blood from the American polity, even as the corpse begins to stiffen in rigor mortis. Maybe I'm just a sucker for that old fashioned democracy gospel, but I still believe that many times good policy can also be good politics. How much greater public fury at banks and other corporate predators does there need to be before the president realizes that actually taking on the malefactors of great wealth in this society also happens to be the best thing that could happen to him politically? How many times does he have to lose public support because of the astounding fabrications people are promulgating about him before he decides to stop playing nice and call the liars liars?
After seeing the president in action this week, the obnoxiously abrasive pundit Chris Matthews opined that Republicans should fear Barack Obama's learning curve. That one gave me a real chuckle. As far as I can see, no one in America has more to fear from Obama's learning curve than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who is currently slated to be very much on the housing market in January of 2013. Indeed, the single thing most utterly astonishing to me about the Obama presidency is how such a politically astute candidate could turn out to be such an absolutely lame, slow-to-get-it, president. And I'm not even talking about the guy's policies or ideology, much of which I abhor, since they frequently amount quite literally to warmed-over Bushism.
I'm just talking about Obama's lack of street smarts. The health care bill was paradigmatic, though hardly the only example. When it comes to selling his policies and strategic communications and winning the battle, he is decidedly not Bush-like. That reality is made all the more ironic by the fact that, unlike Bush, Obama doesn't even need to resort to outrageous lies in order to pitch manifestly evil policies (even if his are considerably less than wonderful). Never has a president failed so dramatically to employ his best weapon - the bully pulpit - to market his proposals for the country. Never has a president gotten so little from such favorable conditions for presidential success as Obama did this last year.
All of which begs the question of what American politics might look like if we had a president who was out there swinging for the fence, telling big truths, and mobilizing the public behind some new, healthy, and not even necessarily so hard-to-swallow national choices? The results could be astonishing.
The lists of areas where honest political discourse combined with presidential leadership could produce huge effects is fairly endless, though there is of course the danger of overload and distraction with too many initiatives at once. Just the same, here's my top ten:
* Start with campaign finance reform: No other single domain has more potential to unleash more necessary change in America. The simple truth is that American government is for sale, and about eight or nine tenths of what ails the country is attributable to these daily acts of treason, in which government officials sell out the national interest in favor of their own, and that of their political benefactors. This problem will never be solved by Congress. It requires a president who lays it out, pounds the drum incessantly in public, and humiliates the legislative branch into action. However, that would, of course, require telling a whole bunch of truth.
* America is in fiscal crisis right now, and the president's current solution is to pretend to seriously cut spending, and to locate all those cuts in the domain of domestic spending, just as some folks argued long ago was the real conspiracy behind Reagan's massive deficits. What astonishes me almost daily is that there is not a single serious actor in American politics who is talking about slashing ‘defense' spending. The United States today drops twice what the entire rest of the world combined spends on their militaries, and there is not a single state actor anywhere in the world who does or could threaten us. There is no Nazi Germany or expansionary Soviet Union. And yet we spend like we're in a great power death match, despite the fact that we are bleeding red ink in order to do so. Couldn't somebody speak honestly about this, especially since our finances are in a meltdown, or must we all continue to tip-toe around the drunkard in the family, pretending not to notice all the damage?
* Deregulation has produced the all too predictable results almost everywhere it has been applied, but especially in the financial sector. There's a reason we have jails and courts and police and laws against robbery, rape and murder, you know. There's also a reason why, following the debacle of the Great Depression, we regulated banks and Wall Street. The reason for both is the same. If you make it easy for people to commit crimes (especially by no longer making the acts in question crimes at all), they will. How many times do we have to go down this path before we learn that greedy bastards will kill us all if we let them? And yet, even today, when there is so much anger at Wall Street, no prominent voices are seriously talking about the paradigm shift that is necessary to protect the society and indeed the world against these predatory sociopaths.
* The health care fiasco has (once again) been just that. But even if the administration had gotten its bill through Congress, it would have only been a fiasco of another sort. Democrats on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue looked like circus freak contortionists, trying to write a bill that brought positive change to the country's massively broken system, but doing so without going anywhere near the systemic, fundamental source of the breakage. No one can quite come out and say the truth here, as simple as it is: Introducing private insurers into health care provision adds nothing in terms of care, and dramatically degrades the system in every respect, from cost to complexity to coverage to care. We don't require people to buy insurance - or have a job which provides it - if they want national security from the military or home security from the fire and police departments. So why should we do health care that way? The short answer is because nobody with a platform has the guts to tell that truth.
* Education is another area with fundamental issues that nobody dares speak about. There are lots, actually, including the stupidity of making a college education increasingly out of reach for current and future generations. How brilliant is that, even if all you care about is global competitiveness or national security? There's plenty more where that particular lunacy comes from, but the one that is the most sickening of all, and that most betrays our supposed commitment to equality of opportunity, is local funding of schools. While dollars spent don't directly equate to quality of education, they sure do matter, especially in their absence. It is a national crime that kids growing up in one neighborhood get vastly greater educational resources than the (probably darker-skinned) kids from just down the street. It seems to me that a little public education, pardon the pun, on this issue might go a long way toward shaming America into living up to its professed values.
* Global warming is another area where an astounding vacuum in pedagogical leadership from our political class has created a planetary suicide pact in place of what should be a plethora of prudence preventing post-apocalyptic peril. It's one thing to allow the tail of narrow interests like pharmaceutical, health insurance, sugar, tobacco or weapons industries to wag the dog of public policy and murder tens of thousands of people every year. It's quite another to allow the short-term stock price of Exxon-Mobil to take out an entire planet. Where is the political leadership educating the country on the nature and imminence of this threat?
* It might be nice if we could have an honest conversation about some of our recent foreign policy crimes, too, especially now that other countries like the Netherlands and Britain are at least cracking that door open. There is already so much evidence out there proving the magnitude of lies we were told about Iraq and torture and 9/11 and more. Would it be too much to ask for a little bit of truth to come out? We spend countless hours and unending rolls of yellow ribbon trying to convince ourselves how much we care about our military personnel. In fact, by continuing to allow them to die for lies, we hide from ourselves how little we actually care.
* We could be a lot more honest about our foreign policies in general, as well, especially when it comes to the Middle East, where some pretty whopping ongoing lies cost us dearly, every day. Americans not only get just one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represented in their media, they even get just one side of the debate within Israel. There's a greater range of dialogue inside Israel about that country's policies than there is in America. Supporting the paranoid Likud version of reality is not the same as supporting American interests in the world. Indeed, it's not even the same as supporting Israel's interests, truth be told. But how could most Americans ever figure that out, when they are limited to only one side, of one side, of the story?
* The United States has a sickening approach to world governance, as well. Whether it comes to land mines or the rights of children or global warming or family planning or just about any treaty, norm or initiative you could name, we are right there alongside Somalia and Libya as the outliers in international morality. Our attitude toward the United Nations and other global institutions is similarly self-reverential. These organizations are seen to exist for the purpose of supporting American interests (and those, worse yet, as defined in corporate boardrooms), and are ignored, defunded or otherwise trampled upon whenever they do not. How refreshing would it be if our political class might reeducate the country to start acting like we're the five percent of the world's population we actually are, rather than ninety-five percent?
* And while we're at it, we could really make some profound changes to our attitudes about governance at home, as well. For thirty years now, regressives have been teaching Americans that it's well and proper to hate their own government. Never mind that those same right-wingers most often have been the government over the last three decades. And never mind what it means to hate a government in a democracy, where the people doing the hating have chosen that government. The effects of this massively destructive impulse have been profound, and go a long way toward explaining the unraveling of American society and political culture we're now living through and living with. Governments do some truly horrid things sometimes, it's true, along with some pretty wonderful things as well. But policies, and the vehicle for those policies, are not the same thing. It's time that we had some leadership who reminded Americans that government, for all its flaws, is not inherently evil. Indeed, it can profoundly impact people's lives for the better, including protecting people from predators of all sorts. Which is precisely why the purveyors of unmitigated greed in America so badly want us to hate it.
I know, I know. It's a lot to ask, talking honestly for once about all these issues and so many more not even listed here.
Actually, it is and it isn't. So many people in America already get so much of this stuff. In so many cases, the public is ahead of its politicians.
The ground is fertile and the moment is pregnant with possibilities. Once you start talking about these things honestly, you can never go back. And creeps like just about every politician in the GOP, along with their enablers on radio and TV, can no longer commit their verbal and legislative outrages with impunity once people know better, and once they are regularly exposed to an alternative narrative.
People in this country are ready to seek solutions again. We just need a little honesty to make the critical difference, and prevail over the frightened Neanderthal tribe and their politics of fear.
Won't somebody just give us a little truth?