One of the more interesting developments in American history is something that actually didn’t happen. But if one wants to gain some appreciation of the degree to which our public sphere has deteriorated over time, it’s worth remembering this non-event.
When Dwight Eisenhower came to the presidency in 1953, it was the first time in an entire generation that a Republican had held the office. Prior to that time, the GOP had led the country into unparalleled economic destruction, refused to do anything about the nightmare they’d created, lost five presidential elections running, and sat on the sidelines while Democratic presidents guided the US through a few slightly consequential events like the Great Depression, World War II and the beginning of the Cold War.
The American Constitutional system – with its potential for divided power – isn’t so big on the notion of responsible government (as one finds in parliamentary systems), where authority, and thus responsibility for outcomes is clearly assigned to a given actor or political party. Nevertheless, we got pretty close to it in 1953, with the exhaustion of Democratic governance, the repudiation of Harry Truman, and the Republican Spring led by the grey, seemingly-above-politics new president, General Eisenhower.
What’s important here is what could have happened, but didn’t. The character of American government had changed radically – the most in the country’s history – during the two decades since Herbert Hoover had been in office. It was now much bigger in size, it did a lot more things than it used to do, and the federal government had usurped responsibility for policy domains formerly primarily in the hands of the states. Most importantly, the ethos underscoring the relationship between the American people and their government had completely changed. In the past, that relationship had been one characterized chiefly by libertarianism, on the one hand, and oligarchical corruption on the other. With the New Deal, the government was for the first time in the business of serving the public interest and providing Americans a much-needed social safety net. In short, the American welfare state was born.
These changes had been completely contrary to the politics of the Republican Party, and especially to the politics of the plutocrats in American society (for whom the GOP had long prior become an interest-serving vehicle). They saw Roosevelt as a “traitor to his class”, and they hated him so much they couldn’t even spit out his name. They actually referred to him as “that man”.
All of this is relevant and significant because the GOP had a choice to make in 1953. With their hands on the levers of power for the first time in a long time, they could have undone the New Deal. Some in the party wanted to do so. But by that time both Ike and the bulk of his party had left behind the Neanderthal tendencies of the pre-FDR days and had moved to the center-right. Eisenhower famously discussed his position – and that of others in the GOP – in a 1954 letter to his brother: “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
Ah, how very quaint such sentiments now seem in retrospect. Weren’t those just the days, back when even Republicans sorta had a heart with a detectable pulse? Now we live in a very different place. It is a place of destruction and despair. An abattoir where the little people go – all 99 percent of the country, let alone the fully dispensable “human resources” found outside our borders – to be sacrificed on the altar of unparalleled greed.
But that’s just the beginning of the story. We’d be in bad enough shape if it were only Republicans out to destroy us. Then there’s the “Democrats”, including the “socialist” leader of the party, Barack Obama. If we’re remotely honest about it, we’d have to acknowledge that today’s Obama, the former anti-war community organizer, is to the ideological right of yesterday’s Dwight Eisenhower, former five-star general, leader of the Normandy invasion, commander of NATO and head of the Republican Party. As today’s worst elements of the Republican Party (that is, almost all of them) seek to do exactly the things that Eisenhower called “stupid”, there is Obama, facilitating their efforts.
There are the Democrats, continually adding to the pile of tax giveaways for the rich, and therefore adding to the pile of debt which is now being used as a cudgel to force cuts on essential government services, programs despised by the oligarchy since the beginning. There are the Democrats, continually adding to the pile of stupid Middle Eastern wars being fought using resources so scarce that medical care must now be cut for the poor and elderly. There are the Democrats going even further than Republicans in smashing civil liberties and shredding the Bill of Rights. There are the Democrats, as absolutely unwilling as Republicans to remotely face the very real planetary peril of global warming. There are the Democrats, continuing to promulgate the failed Bush education policy of No Child Left Behind. There are the Democrats, turning yet again to corporate ‘solutions’ to health care, which enrich parasitical insurance companies but do nothing for sick people other than to deny them care. There are the Democrats (led by a black man, no less!), joining the chorus of Jesus Freak freaks in denying civil rights to gays.
I think the conservative Eisenhower would sooner have become a German storm trooper than a modern Democrat, let alone a Republican – and on far too many days I’m not sure I can see the difference.
I got a letter this week from my good friend, Barack. I call him by his first name because his note was addressed to “David” and signed “Barack”. I guess we’re old pals, though in my dotage I seem to have neglected to notice that the most powerful and prominent man on Earth somehow became my personal bud-bud. It was a letter to announce that he was launching his 2012 campaign for reelection. He seemed to be laboring under the misconception that I give a shit. He also seemed to think I hadn’t heard.
In fact, the media reported that Barack launched his campaign by announcing it over Twitter, that network of abbreviated bursts of inanity which is ground zero for our national epidemic of narcissism. I think that is totally appropriate that he would make such a momentous announcement in that fashion. Not, mind you, because he’s a cutting-edge sort of fellow, mobilizing the new social media technology for political purposes. But, rather, because that particular outlet of that medium speaks so perfectly to the impossible lightness of being that is our President Tweet.
Anyhow, Barack wrote to tell me that he wants to do a big old grass roots campaign again next year, one that doesn’t start with “expensive TV ads”, but with me – “with people organizing block-by-block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends”. Now those would be some brief goddam conversations, I can tell you. “Hey neighbor, let’s do some organizing for Obama, ‘cause he capitulates so gracefully!” “Hey co-worker, would you like to pay more taxes so that rich people can contribute even less than they already do? Let’s give Barack another term!” I don’t think so.
Then he let me in on a little Team Obama secret that, “In the coming days, supporters like you will begin forging a new organization that we'll build together in cities and towns across the country. And I'll need you to help shape our plan as we create a campaign that's farther reaching, more focused, and more innovative than anything we've built before. We'll start by doing something unprecedented: coordinating millions of one-on-one conversations between supporters across every single state, reconnecting old friends, inspiring new ones to join the cause, and readying ourselves for next year's fight.”
Wow! That’s awfully flattering. The President of the United States – ol’ Potus himself – wants my help in shaping his plan to create a people-driven, grassroots campaign for “the cause” of giving him a second term. If only I didn’t have other plans for, gosh, well, the entirety of every waking minute in 2012. Looks like, for some reason, that project he has in mind is going to be a big job, too. He goes on to tell me that, “We've always known that lasting change wouldn't come quickly or easily. [Oddly, I don’t remember this campaign slogan from 2008.] It never does. But as my administration and folks across the country fight to protect the progress we've made – and make more – we also need to begin mobilizing for 2012, long before the time comes for me to begin campaigning in earnest.”
There’s that word “fight” again. Ol’ Barack, he’s a real fighter, eh?! At least now that there’s an election where something that he wants is at stake. I noticed that he didn’t really seem to fight for anything during his first two years in office, least of all for anything progressive. Even his health care legislation, which is only partially progressive on a good day, didn’t seem to inspire any spunk from the president. Did you ever get the feeling that he wanted it real bad? Do you remember him ever pushing the public to rally hard behind this national necessity, making the urgent case for how it would make the country better off, in the same way that, say, Reagan or Bush pushed hard for their beloved tax cuts, or their wars based on lies? Do you even remember Obama standing up to the insane lies told about him and his legislation, the death panels and government rationing and socialism cant, and so on? For that matter, do you remember Obama ever even defining what shape his own signature bill had to take? Single payer? Public option? Money for stethoscopes?
Predictably, a president who stood for nothing during a period of multiple crises got routed in the midterm election. Even still, did it seem to you like he cared very much about that? I’m starting to develop a new theory about Obama. In 2008 I thought he might be a progressive. Then I thought he was such a wimp that it was just easier for him to capitulate at every turn, rather than to fight for progressive values. Now I think he’s truly regressive in his politics, and is purposefully altering his operating environment to allow him to pursue those policies while still remaining the nominee of a party that’s supposed to be devoted to the people’s interests. “Golly”, he can say to stupid Democratic voters, “I really wanted to be progressive on [Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Egypt, Libya, health care, education, gay marriage, the budget, the economy, the environment, civil liberties, whatever] but those mean right-wingers won’t let me. And now there’s even more of them than there used to be! What can I do but give in even more?” It’s a perfect formula for anyone with those priorities. Regressivism begets more regressivism, under cover of the long shadow of a genuinely liberal Democratic Party, thirty years dead.
Meanwhile, the current condition of the United States is fantastical, the stuff of legend, the kind of absurdity that no one would find credible enough to buy were it presented as a work of fiction. We have genuine crises, but we ignore them. Instead we squabble about non-issues, while the ship of state rapidly sinks. And who is squabbling? The far left versus the far right? The reds against the blacks? We should be so lucky. No, it’s this faction of political whores carrying water for the oligarchy versus that almost identical faction of political whores carrying water for the oligarchy. Meanwhile, the only seemingly assured ticket to electoral success in our political system on any given day is to have enacted failed policy ideas the day before. And, most bizarre of all, no one will seek to reward the depredations of the political class more rapidly than those who are its victims. Wonderland would seem to Alice quite the paragon of rationality by comparison.
The current budget brouhaha is only the most recent and obvious example of this political pathology par excellence. Think about it. Here’s the real version of what has happened: A decade ago, the United States had the greatest budget surplus ever recorded in human history. Then the regressives came to power. They quickly slashed tax revenues, especially from the rich, borrowing like crack addicts in order to pay for their profligacy. They meanwhile spent gigantic sums on wars based on lies, on hugely increased military spending apart from the wars, on a new Medicare benefit which they insisted on setting up in a way that massively benefitted insurance and pharmaceutical corporations rather than the federal treasury, and on general pork barrel spending, thus driving the national debt up dramatically further, and creating the world’s greatest ever deficits. Let me repeat, it was the GOP who did this. Now these very same people are falsely claiming an electoral mandate to slash spending, screaming that borrowing is an urgent problem which must be addressed at all costs. At the same time, they continue each year to further slash revenues coming in to the government, massively exacerbating the very problem they claim to desperately want to solve.
Their solution is to cut spending on essentials for poor people and the middle class. They have completely taken any form of tax restoration off the table. They won’t dream of reducing military expenditures, which are bloated to an absurd degree. They cannot contemplate allowing the government to buy way cheaper drugs from Canada, or negotiating a bulk price discount for those drugs, let alone rescinding their (socialist) prescription drug benefit plan. They would never accept a reduction in the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on corporate welfare each year for agricultural or sugar or oil or other industries.
Instead, they’re right back at us again, with more of exactly the same formula. Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan continues his (only in über-Wonderland) multi-year run as a media darling, some sort of budgetary guru, some sort of brave truth-teller. He this week released a ten-year plan that is, in fact, astonishing for how cowardly and dishonest it is. It slashes almost every form of domestic spending imaginable, dramatically cuts Medicare for seniors, and turns control of Medicaid over to the fifty states, each of whom can of course then do whatever they want with it. Most amazing of all, while this entire draconian meat-axe of a budget proposal is predicated on the urgent necessity of slashing deficits, Ryan’s plan would gut revenues to the government by lopping almost 30 percent off of top individual and corporate tax rates, taking the top rate down from 35 percent to 25 percent. No wonder, then, that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has calculated that Ryan’s plan would actually increase deficits, the direct opposite of the very rationale that supposedly justifies its existence.
Perhaps most ludicrous of all is the context in which this all arrives, along with the latest budget deal slashing $38 billion in federal spending on domestic programs. The two most urgent problems facing the United States today are global warming and a crappy economy for workers that is probably never going away. But the stuff we argue about has nothing to do with the former, and only exacerbates the latter (because cutting spending will kill the demand in the economy which is precisely what is needed now to stimulate a recovery). We, as a society, could not possibly be more irrelevant to ourselves. And that’s the good news. If only it was just irrelevance.
None of this is random, however. This has been a three decade long process to produce that which our unparalleled greedy rich have craved the most, namely, a return to the good old days when they had everything and the rest of us had nothing. They have been indignant at the very notion of the slight bit of economic egalitarianism America managed to maintain for a couple of generations. They sat on their hands, gnashing their teeth, from the 1930s through the 1970s, because they had to, but now they’ve come back with a vengeance.
Exporting jobs, slashing government programs, moving tax burdens, bankrupting the government, breaking unions, coopting Democrats, creating bogus news media, dumbing down education, fabricating scary bogeymen, stealing elections. It’s all there, man.
Remember when Nixon and Kissinger decided to kill socialism (not to mention lots of people) in Chile by “making the economy scream”?
Welcome to Chile Norte, amigo.
As Scott Walker and Paul Ryan and the rest apply the finishing touches, the job is today almost complete.
And now, for the kill.