“American Nightmare” Is an Antidote to Misguided Faith in Liberal Politics

With about eight dynasties now possessing as much money as half the entire world’s population combined, it is impossible to ignore the fact that extreme wealth inequality is antithetical to the health and future of humanity and every other living thing on earth.

Despite the dystopian title — American Nightmare — of his latest book, cultural critic and prolific author Henry Giroux thinks that with a combined regimen of education and organization, we might still overthrow neoliberal fascism, of which the Donald Trump administration is only the most recent and most noxious end-product. He writes:

There is certainly something to be learned from older, proven tactics including using education to create a revolution in consciousness and values, and using broad-based alliances to create the conditions for mass disruptions such as the general strike. These tactics combine theory, consciousness, and practice as a part of a strategy to dismantle the complex workings of the death-dealing machinery of casino capitalism and its recent intensification under the Trump administration. Certainly, one of the most powerful tools of oppression is convincing people that the oppressive conditions they experience are normal and cannot be changed. The ideology of normalization functions to prevent any understanding of the larger systemic forces of oppression by insisting that all problems are individually based and ultimately a matter of individual character and responsibility.

Evidence abounds all over the world that oppressed people are no longer convinced. Workers in European Amazon fulfillment centers walked off the job during the peak of the Christmas buying season over the weekend, and citizens of France are demonstrating all over their country against a new punishing diesel fuel tax. Migrants from Central America defied a tear gas assault by Trump’s military forces at the Mexico-US border, bringing anew their own message of democratic defiance and courage to the world at large.

Meanwhile, back in the US capitol, House Speaker-in-Waiting Nancy Pelosi took to the pay-walled pages of the Amazon Empire’s Washington Post mouthpiece in yet another attempt to convince the oppressed that her plutocratic Congress is in their corner.

But her words can’t help but betray that the Democratic Party’s toothless new “restoring democracy” legislation is simply more sugar-coating of the continued oppression of ordinary people by the Amazon-America League of Oligarchs. She follows the neoliberal playbook of diagnosing the lethal cancer and then prescribing band-aids to keep it nicely hidden. The “big tells” are highlighted in my bold.

First, here’s the obligatory big brave honest and carefully nitpicked “feel your pain” admission of some of the horror oppressing us:

For far too long, big-money and corporate special interests have undermined the will of the people and subverted policymaking in Washington — enabling soaring health-care costs and prescription drug prices, undermining clean air and clean water for our children, and blocking long-overdue wage increases for hard-working Americans.

Now comes the standard laundry list of bromides and placebos:

So let’s rein in the unaccountable “dark money” unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by requiring all political organizations to disclose their donors and by shutting down the shell game of big-money donations to super PACs. We must also empower hard-working Americans in our democracy by building a 21st-century campaign-finance system — combining small-donor incentives and matching support — to increase and multiply the power of small donors. Wealthy special interests shouldn’t be able to buy more influence than the workers, consumers and families who should be our priority in Washington.

The solutions offered by neoliberals for what they themselves have wrought are aspirational at best and devious at worst. Pelosi doesn’t want to outlaw money in politics, she merely wants to “rein it in” and encourage more oppressed voters to donate as a way for the wealthy to be inspired to give (more) in kind. She merely wants to pretend to “level” the playing field by strewing it with cold hard cash from all classes, in order to give our de facto oligarchy the fig leaf of egalitarianism. Your dollar and their million dollars are all the same color and it naturally follows that you, too, can be as influential as they are. But tellingly, she gives discriminatory priority only to those “hard-working” people who still have the power to consume more stuff from Amazon fulfillment centers. There is no mention of the poor and near-poor, who now account for at least half the population. When you consider the fact that fully two-thirds of Americans don’t even have a couple of hundred bucks stashed away for a household emergency, the methods by which experts measure poverty in this country become ever more ludicrous.

Pelosi concludes:

And with a system that works for the people, we will deliver policy outcomes that make life better for all Americans: We will lower health-care costs and out-of-control prices for prescription drugs. We will rebuild the United States’ infrastructure, raise the minimum wage and put leverage back in the hands of workers and consumers. We will finally advance common-sense, bipartisan solutions to prevent gun violence. We will confront discrimination with the Equality Act , pass the Dream Act to protect the patriotic young undocumented immigrants who came here as children, and take the first step toward comprehensive immigration reform.

Translation: there will be no single payer, Medicare For All legislation coming from her party, despite the fact that more than 90% of registered Democrats are in favor of it, and nearly half of registered Republicans are, making for a combined 70% favorability factor. You might save a few bucks on your drugs, but that’s as far as they’ll go.

The dreaded “common-sense bipartisan solutions” to prevent gun violence do not actually translate into banning gun ownership and assault weapons manufacture, or drastically diminishing America’s violent role as the biggest arms dealer on the planet. It doesn’t translate into government-subsidized medical and surgical care for gunshot victims.

Democrats will timidly “confront” discrimination and only “take the first step” on immigration reform. There will be no more talk of abolishing ICE and protesting Trump’s pediatric concentration camps at the border. The midterm election campaigns are over.

I asked Henry Giroux whether his opinion of Democrats has changed at all since his book was published last summer, in light of their recent takeover of the House of Representatives, and their self-advertised nouveau-progressivism.

“I think the hard line against both parties that the book takes still holds true, and is an antidote to people like Jason Stanley and others who rail against fascist politics but still push a misguided faith in liberal politics and the two party system,” he replied in an email. “This is the dreadful political and moral hangover that gets them reviews in the press.”

Nancy Pelosi is, of course, only one of the zombie characters in our collective American Nightmare. She will likely continue as House leader, because the right-wing Blue Dogs and “New” Democrats currently posturing as her foes actually do make her look “progressive” by comparison. She is an integral part of what Henry Giroux calls “America’s shopworn legacy of ‘habitual optimism,’ one that substitutes a cheery, empty, Disney-like dreamscape for any viable notion of utopian possibility. The Disney dreamscape evacuates hope of any substantive meaning. It attempts to undercut a radical utopian element in the conceptual apparatus of hope that speaks to the possibility of a democratic future very different from the authoritarian past or present.”

He continues:

Trump’s unapologetic authoritarianism has prompted Democratic Party members and the liberal elite to position themselves as the only model of organized resistance. It is difficult not to see their alleged moral outrage and faux resistance as both comedic and hypocritical in light of the role these centrist liberals have played in the past forty years – subverting democracy and throwing the working class and people of color under the bus.”

But as I mentioned above, people are emerging from underneath that bus. The fact that the vast majority of us live in exile does not also mean that we are squashed into helpless pulp by the machinery of capitalism on crack.

Henry Giroux sounds an alarm tinged with optimism in the last chapter of his American Nightmare, in which he explores the notion of Democracy in Exile.

We ourselves, he writes, must be

(A) counterforce and remedy to the Jacksonian intolerance, violence, expulsion, and racism of Donald Trump, Stephen Miller and Trumpism as a nationalist movement drifting in plain sight from plutocracy and authoritarian nepotism to fascism. Democracy in exile is the space in which people, families, networks, and communities fight back. It unites the promise of insurrectional political engagement with the creation of expansive new manifestations of justice – social, economic, environmental.

Spaces for democracies in exile include churches and homes and cities and counties which give sanctuary to refugees and undocumented migrants facing deportation. Henry Giroux explains that

Such cities and counties, and a host of diverse public spheres, function as parallel structures that create alternative modes of communication, social relations, education, health care and cultural work, including popular music, social media, the performing arts, and literature. These spaces are what Vaclav Benda has called a ‘parallel polis’ which brings pressure on official structures, implements new modes of pedagogical resistance, and provides the basis for organizing larger day-to-day protests and more organized and sustainable social movements.

We have to crawl out from beneath that neoliberal nightmare bus, hoist ourselves up, and start talking to each other, finding common ground and reclaiming our humanity. We have to start somewhere, despite how small and puny our efforts might seem to us in the beginning. We have to keep in mind that what we fight against – neoliberal financialized capitalism and its resultant oligarchic power structure – is a small-minded ideology fostered by greedy, small-minded people who have to tell us constant lies to maintain their increasingly shaky grasp on power.