Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Always nice to hear from you and to get your queries about politics in the U.S. of A. To make it easier, I'll copy and paste your five inquiries in italics, with my responses below that. My answers will be in the way of informed speculations, since many of us progressive Americans can't believe what we're seeing either. It's like we're caught in a Republican-created whirlpool of crazy, spinning around and around with no way the raging flow can be
turned off in time to save the country – or our battered minds.
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Here we go:
1. A Mad Video Game
So what the f—- is going on? American politics is always a bit weird, but these days it seems even more bipolar and demented. It's more like a mad video game, points being given for especially ruthless, ignorant and violent denunciations directed at your perceived opponents. No wonder so many of your citizens stay home on election day. What's the American saying?: “Why should I vote? It only encourages them.”
Indeed, the extreme right-wing of the GOP is dedicated to its Manichean, no-compromise ideology, one that could push the country's economy and social structures off a cliff. These hard-rightists have gone so far off the reasonable radar that more and more traditional, stalwart conservatives are coming to realize the likely electoral consequences in 2012: a second term for Obama, and a broken GOP and an intra-party civil war.
Among that growing Republican cohort worried about the ramifications of the party's intransigent positions: conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, conservative Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, mostly conservative Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, even hard-right leader Karl Rove, et al. (Rove agrees with the positions taken by the extremist GOP leaders, but more important than that, he wants to return the Republicans to power in the White House in 2012 – and behaving like tantrum-prone children, he suggests, ain't gonna make it).
2. Risking a Second Great Depression?
We don't understand why the Republicans are risking your country's vaunted credit rating. Do they really not understand the horrific ramifications of what they're doing, how their approach could lead to a worldwide Great Depression?
Of course they understand it. They (and their corporate masters) simply don't care. Their more important – and only – goal is to defeat Obama in 2012. Therefore, he must be denied any possible victory. If Obama were to introduce a bill saying that the sun rises in the east and sets in the West, the extremist GOP would work to defeat it, claiming that it's a liberal plot to propagandize the citizenry and that Obama is the “Socialist-Nazi-Muslim-Stalinist Antichrist.”
In some ways, the Tea Partiers/extremist-Republicans seem to be afflicted with a kind of Tourette syndrome. When they hear the word “Obama,” they begin twitching and jerking and saying dirty things. If they were to see him coming down the street carrying a legislative idea they originated, they would immediately disown their proposal, make a 180-degree turn and begin flinging clods of mud at him over their shoulders.
You're right: anything can be said in the US these days by noted public figures, no matter how crazy. Nearly 80 young Labour Party campers get slaughtered by a right-wing fanatic in Norway, and American right-wing pundit Glenn Beck compares those kids to “Hitler Youth,” suggesting they got what they deserved since they were liberals.
No doubt much of this nonsensical, rabble-rousing behavior will subside in America at some point – perhaps if the Republicans are badly defeated in the 2012 election – but, as you well know, every country, in times of great stress, seems to go through periods of mass derangement, and afterwards reasonable leaders re-emerge and socially responsible democracy takes root once again. Right now, America is going through its loony, anti-democratic phase. In all likelihood, you Europeans will have to deal with your own outbursts of crazy in the near future – the anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim Norway tragedy may be just the tip of the iceberg: politicians and parties who agree with those sentiments are being elected to various countries' legislatures across Europe, from England to France to Denmark and beyond.
3. The Clown Show
Does Obama really have to worry about being re-elected? The Republican candidates we see on TV over here look like little more than a bunch of uneducated, pandering clowns.
Obama is still popular in America, but his numbers are going down a bit as the economy remains stuck in the jobless doldrums and he's doing little or nothing to help create jobs. I don't think Obama ordinarily would have much to fear from any of those “clowns,” as you call them. After all, only about one third of the US population – many from the fundamentalist, anti-science, anti-reality world – share their extremist views. But Obama has thoroughly pissed off a good share of his own Democratic base by behaving more like a Republican than the centrist pragmatist he pretends to be.
Like Clinton before him, Obama, unwilling to fight for traditional Democratic principles, seems so hungry for any little reform he can call a “victory” that he compromises before any battle has been joined, or else offers some GOP-friendly compromise for free, without using it for political leverage in negotiations. Necessarily, then, he constantly gets rolled by the Republicans, and then is hammered by liberals and progressives for his timidity and naivete. That base worked so hard and gave so much money to get Obama elected in 2008, only to see the policies of Cheney and Bush show up again in the White House (unwinnable imperialist wars abroad, civil liberties ignored, corporations favored over the middle class, jobs-creation forgotten, etcetera, etcetera). He seems to suggest that he only backs down because of political pressures, but he's the one who initiates and pushes for the so-called “compromises.”
It would seem that Obama's 2012 election strategy rests on winning over moderate Republicans (those appalled by what their party has turned into) and independents in the middle. He knows he'll never win that third of the population dedicated to Republican know-nothingism, and he's willing to continue antagonizing his liberal base because he figures: 1) doing so gives him more “only-adult-in-the-room” street cred; and, 2) because enough of his disgruntled base eventually will hold their noses and vote for him because the Republican candidate will be so off-puttingly awful that they'll have little choice. Of course, this strategy could be thrown off if the economy gets worse (which, as the GOP certainly realizes, it certainly would do if the debt ceiling is not lifted), or if, say, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, or someone else, decides to challenge Obama for the Democratic nomination from the left.
4. “Austerity” and the Missing Left
The right-created Great Recession has led to huge budget problems not only for you Americans, but also for those of us across the globe and for the policies of “austerity” being forced upon us because of those shrunken budgets. Those “austerity” policies come down hardest on the middle-class and poor, and so there have been massive demonstrations against those policies – and the wealthy and corporations who benefit – all over Europe, most graphically in Greece, Spain, France and so on. Those same shock-doctrine “austerity” policies are being implemented in the various states in America, but we don't see massive protests against them. What's happening? Is there no real left anymore in America? Do those being hurt by these policies just not care?
I share your sense of puzzlement. But I can offer a few speculations.
I think part of that seeming calm here is that Americans have been led to believe that we are not a class-based society. In short, if you're not doing well right now, that can change and you can become a millionaire someday. So, the “system” is permitted to remain in place without major reforms. If you point out the fact that the middle-class has not moved up economically since the 1970's, and that the wealthy have only grown geometrically more wealthy and less interested in helping those below them, you are lambasted as preaching “class warfare,” which is held to be a bad thing. (You're not supposed to notice that protecting the status quo is “class warfare” against the great majority of Americans.)
Your instinct is correct: there is not a viable, united, effective left in the United States these days. The culture over the past few decades has been shifted ever rightward. Indeed, what used to be the right is now the center. Thanks to incitement by right-wing commentators and media outlets, it's risky to be a liberal – or, God forbid! – a progressive in many places in the United States.
But there are some signs that the tectonic political plates may be shifting. What has led to this potential shift are the reckless, extremist policies of far-right Republicans. The 2010 election brought those types into power in so many states (and, of course, into the majority in the House of Representatives in Washington, DC), and the extremist governors and legislators decided to push the envelope way beyond the traditional political parameters. They are going after unions, workers (including firefighters, nurses, teachers, police), they are openly attacking the gains from the New Deal and Great Society (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), even the government itself, cutting off all sorts of social services and benefits.
If the Republicans had continued to do this in increments over the years on the low-down, probably nobody would have been too riled up. But the extreme conservatives are so greedy for money and power, they felt this was their best chance in generations to go for it all, in the open. And this has led to a significant liberal backlash as ordinary citizens, openly attacked by the GOP, decided to fight back to protect their unions, their jobs, their rights – in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and so on. Whether this fledgling movement will coalesce into an active, effective national left is not clear, but at least the building blocks are there.
5. Loony Tunes and Demagogues
Who are the most popular, dangerous right-wing fear- and hatemongers in the United States today? Are their ranks growing or shrinking?
Three who are certifiable: Pamela Geller, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck – unadulterated, frothing loons. Next tier: Rush Limbaugh, almost anyone on Fox “News,” Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, et al.
Those are among the most obvious candidates – easy targets for satire and criticism. The more dangerous are those in the Republican mainstream who enable these demagogues by encouraging them and, often, offering endorsements of their bigoted, hate-filled screeds – folks like Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Sharron Angle, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, et al. They create the stew of “respectable” cultural parameters; the extremist wackos add the explosive spices.
As for popularity, these politicians and pundits become the media darlings of the right, and then, inevitably, they start to lose their luster, and a new goofy hero appears to be fawned over. Beck is a good example: amazingly popular with the know-nothing crowd, and then he got wackier and wackier, and his star dimmed. Let it be so for the rest of them.
Hope all is well with you two and the kids. I miss hanging out with you all. Maybe next year. Thanks again for writing.