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To Hell in a Handbasket

I live in New York. To say that the politics of my state are dysfunctional would be like saying that Adolph Hitler could sometimes be not such a nice fellow. It’s all true, of course. It just doesn’t do just justice to the scope of the crimes committed.

We have a governor (as of this writing, anyhow) who just got blasted by the New York State Commission on Public Integrity for lying to them under oath in their investigation of him. But that’s okay. Before that, he accepted the favor of free tickets to the World Series, which is what he lied about. But that’s okay. Before that he was putting pressure on a woman who was the victim of domestic violence to go away and shut up. But that’s okay. The person who was beating and choking her was one of his top staffers. But that’s okay, before that he and his wife were involved in all sorts of tawdry but unspecified sex and drug related scandalous behavior. But that’s okay. He’s the governor who came in after the last governor had to resign because he was laundering money in order to visit high-priced hookers. But that’s okay. Everybody in Albany is out of control, including one state senator who cut his girlfriend’s face open with broken glass, and a former leader of the Senate on trial for wholesale corruption. But that’s okay, because none of them actually do anything, anyhow.

Which, considering the sheer scumminess of this lot, could very well be a good thing.

It’s certainly a common thing. I grew up in California, which seems determined not to be eclipsed by New York or anybody in the dyfunctionality department. California once had the nation’s top school system. But it cost money, so they gutted property tax revenues and made it nearly impossible for the state to ever raise taxes again. Now the schools are making Mississippi’s look good. California once had a great Supreme Court, too, which was the envy of other states in the union. But the justices weren’t killing enough inmates, so some nice folks engineered a then-unheard of thing and got the public to recall half the bench, replacing them with pro-death penalty (oh, and incidentally, pro-corporate) new judges. California also once had a decent and politically very moderate governor. But then Enron came in and created power black-outs in order to drive up electricity prices on the grid, and so he to was blamed and then recalled too, replaced by a movie actor who played a tough but loving cyborg from the future. Now, in his new role as governor of California, he plays the leader of a nascent third world country, fiscally so chaotic it’s about ready to qualify for IMF bailouts.

As for Texas, I don’t live there and I didn’t grow up there, either. (I did kinda like Stevie Ray Vaughan, though. I don’t know if that counts for anything.) But them folks are about to re-elect a governor who just last year was talking about how so very heavy is the yoke of the federal government that Texas just might have to secede from the union. Er, rather, secede again, I should say. Funny, though. He didn’t mention how the states where you find the most tea-partiest type of politics tend to be the ones bringing home the bulk of the federal bacon. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted in 2005, only five blue states are net recipients of federal subsidies, while only two red states are net payers of federal taxes. Imagine my surprise at the hypocrisy of it all, and at recent revelations that lots of the Neanderthal Party’s members fulminated in Congress expressing their outrage at the stimulus bill, while simultaneously bragging at home about how many federal dollars from it they were able to funnel into fat local projects.

And then, of course, nominally presiding over New York, California and Texas is the United States federal government, about as pathetic a sight as one is ever likely to see. Groaning under the weight of enormous problems, almost all of them entirely of its own making, it is completely unable to act in any fashion other then to exacerbate those problems further while denying their existence. It’s true that the Founders of this country set out to create a system of government that would almost never be able to do anything, and boy were those fellas good. Just in case, though, the current lot of kleptocrats in the Republican Party have done them one better, grinding a system that’s already ground to a halt all the way into reverse. Except when they have the keys to the government, of course. At which point they employ the legislative equivalent of bunker buster bombs to kick out the jambs and rape the country with impunity.

Meanwhile, there’s another party in Washington, too. You may have heard of them. Heck, they even control the government, though you’d never know it. They’re pretty much committed to not doing anything, ever. And, if by some inadvertent mistake they actually do take action of some sort, they’re equally devoted to doing it ineptly, ineffectively, and on the terms of their adversaries.

Well, really, nominal adversaries would be a more accurate way to put it, since the party that once actually used to do something for the public interest every once in a while has now joined the other party in full-on devotion to the feeding and care of oligarchs, 24/7. The only difference is the masks they wear. If you’re merely a sick puppy, you put on the disguise of ineptitude and frustration as you do the bidding of your corporate masters. If you are, on the other hand, absolutely sociopathic, you work for the same folks, but you sell it to the numb-nuts you affectionately refer to as your constituents in the form of protection from fur’ners and fags, instead. Oh, and a bit of wholesale violence with the invasion of some third world country every other year or so.

A very good measure of the health of a given polity – especially in a democracy – is given by the quality of leadership running the joint. That measure is incredibly telling in the case of the United States, and what it is telling us is grim indeed. Consider the last three presidents against the comparative backdrop of one of our greats, and his response to the country’s most serious existential crisis ever, excepting the Civil War. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the Germans soon thereafter declared war on the US as well, Franklin Roosevelt led the country into a massive national response and a four-year-plus effort combining full-on public support, massive military, industrial and societal mobilization, masterful diplomacy and stellar strategic vision in order to defeat the genuine threat of global fascism.

If Bill Clinton had been president, on the other hand, he would have responded by trying to cop a feel off the Japanese ambassador’s daughter. If George W. Bush had been president, he would invaded Mexico, bungled the war for seven years, then invaded Botswana, and sapped the military’s strength by simultaneously bungling that irrelevant war for six years, all while the Japanese and Germans rampaged freely, coming closer to American shores every day. And if Barack Obama had been president, he would have studied the matter for a year, offered to bargain away half of Europe and Asia in a deal with the Axis Powers, and then, when they spit in his face for the thirty-seventh time, deployed a half-dozen or so unarmed marines in a rubber dinghy as America’s military response to the attack.

Our so-called leaders are bad enough, but it gets almost worse at the level of the American public, who of course also bear the burden of choosing these abysmal presidents, on top of their own crimes. These latter include utter negligence in maintaining the gift of American democracy, complete laziness in the most basic of civic duties, mass corruption of social, political and personal values, and a reliance upon every form of cheap magic or distraction to avoid basic personal and civic responsibilities.

And, always, it’s about having everything. At once. For nothing. The same idiots who have been seduced by cigarette-money-sized tax cuts for themselves, used to justify a massive slashing of the burden once carried by the rich, are now bitching as government services implode. The New York Times is reporting that citizens of Arizona – one of the most regressive states in the union – are now unhappy because their highway rest stops have been eliminated due to the state’s fiscal crisis. I just want to grab these people and shake them by the shoulders, politely suggesting to them that next time they have to pull over in the desert sands between Tucson and Phoenix and squat by the side of the road, they might want to give a thought or two to all the money they pissed away in another desert, this one in Mesopotamia. Likewise, people are now also starting to whine about schools closing and prisoners being released from jail, also because of budget slashing. And I just want to ask those bright folks whether they still think all those tax cuts for the already outrageously wealthy plutocracy were such a good idea in retrospect, after all.

This is just the tip of the spear. American government is in the process of imploding, and it won’t be long until the pathetically minuscule social safety net that we have will be shredded as well. Stupid voters who turn to the Republican Party in the next two election cycles will be outraged at the GOP if it does what it says it will do and slashes social spending. And, of course, they will be equally outraged if the Republicans don’t. It just doesn’t seem to occur to these folks that you have to pay for government services. And why should it, really? The GOP have been selling the magic of free government since Ronald Reagan brought voodoo economics to the national stage in 1980, nearly quadrupling the national debt in the process.


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And when the financial voodoo remedies somehow amazingly fail to entice the gods sufficiently to redeem the disaster that is American fiscal policy, desperate political invocations and supplications to the deities du jour are sure to follow. In fact, they began long ago. Term limits? Swell! No tax increase pledges? Cool! Tea parties? What a great idea! Ross Perot and his binders full of government plans gathering dusts on the shelves of bureaucracies all across Washington? Brilliant! Deregulation? Of course! Let the market fix everything! Privatization? Why have a government when you can buy a lousier one for a lot more money, so that profits can be extracted? Hey, and while we’re at it, why not pretend to fund our schools as the pretext for government-sponsored gambling through lotteries? Excellent! That’s a threefer! Bad schools, government-induced addiction, and a rip-off of the public’s money.

The American public is in oscillating parachute mode right now, and my guess is that it’s going to get worse. Like a desperate patient with a potentially terminal illness, we careen from one panacea to the next, hoping that the laws of political physics can somehow be suspended if we just wish it earnestly enough. In observing this pathetic sight, I am reminded of nothing so much as a cranky adolescent who expends ten times the energy and grief to avoid doing his math assignment as it would take to just sit down for twenty minutes and crank it out.

That’s the funny thing about the American political malaise. Some of the changes most necessary for our rescue would not only be easy, they’d be way cheaper than free. This country could solve ninety percent of its problems by the simple act of getting money out of politics and thereby (re)turning the American government into being an instrument for the benefit of the public, rather than a servant for aggregating wealth on behalf of a predatory plutocracy. Among the immediate benefits such a change might be expected to realize would be precipitous drops in military spending and corporate welfare, along with a serious rise in revenues from a tax system that required the rich to actually pay their share. In other words, for no cost to the individual American other than getting up off their couches and actually demanding government for the people rather than for the people’s vampires, the public could right the ship of state and probably even get a beloved tax cut out of the deal. But, alas, there is that couch to keep warm...

Really, I’m afraid the kindest thing you can say about America today is that it is so not a serious country anymore. Churchill joked that you can always count on America to do the right thing, after it has exhausted all the other possibilities. I’m down with the second half of the equation, but unfortunately growing increasingly dubious about the first.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is no substantial economic recovery – measured in jobs, not GDP or the Dow or Wall Street bonuses – in the coming years. I regret to say that I think that’s a pretty safe assumption. The abandonment of workers in America that we’re seeing today is a the final (we hope) result of a decades-long relentless pursuit of profits in the name of overclass greed über alles. Who cares about American workers if you can do a job cheaper with a machine? Why give a shit about shutting down entire communities if you can export those jobs overseas at a fraction of the cost? Sorry too about those trade treaties that only helped to exacerbate that tendency! Oh, and too bad we don’t have any money to dump into community redevelopment or schools or infrastructure. Gots to do tax cuts for the rich instead. Gots to keep our priorities straight, you know?

In short, we’ve worked pretty hard these last decades to destroy the American middle class and to hammer the working class and poor, all because the folks who were really rich decided about thirty years ago that they instead deserved to be fantastically rich. And, lo and behold, it’s worked! The good years of the mid-twentieth century in America are now going, in the long view of history, from being a foundation to a continuing and improved future to instead becoming an historical anomaly. It was a blip, in between the normal of gross disparities of wealth that came before it and after it. A thirty year party. A generational experiment that went badly awry for the boss class, ‘til they returned to clean up the mess.

But it’s hard to give it up, especially since nobody told us it was a one-time deal. Ironically, our decline based on class thievery soon became become the perfect condition for its own amplified replication, as the regressive movement in America, starting with Reagan, began marketing an exacerbation of this effect, masked as just its opposite and channeling the fear and rage of economic insecurity into hatred and violence toward brown people, gays, women, etc. Aided and abetted by an ‘opposition’ party that went from consternation to crash to concussion to confusion to compliance to co-optation to collaboration and then finally to clones, the process has been really quite remarkable for its diabolical ingeniousness and its near complete success.

Emphasis on the word ‘near’, though. It’s not over yet, and this is where I think we begin to get into some really scary territory, and where Churchill’s formula may well break down. This is a country steeped in violence, political stupidity, racism, sexism, homophobia, and beliefs in every kind of magic, including – especially – religion. It feels in my gut, right now, like a very combustible collection of tinder, and I don’t imagine the revolution, if it comes, will be a particularly progressive one.

I would expect the Democratic Party to get annihilated in the next two election cycles. Assuming people will even wait that long for serious change, that brings Sarah Palin, or her equivalent, and gang to power three years from now.

Consider their choices as they take control of the government.

If this new regime does nothing, or reverts to the GOP’s previous form of spending more, taxing less and borrowing like crazy, they will solve nothing, and will be tossed out (again) like the Democrats before them.

If they govern like they actually say they will, they will slash spending on social programs, angering the public furiously, and completely alienating their only real remaining base, old white people.

Which leaves, to my mind, only a third option, kinda like the one Hitler brought to the Weimar Republic, then suffering from similar tendencies toward economic despair, political oscillation and ineffective governance.

That’s pretty drastic, but I guess it comes down to the question of just what one thinks these people are capable of.

As for me, I say keep you passport current.

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David Michael Green

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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