Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Your recent email, wondering “what the f—- is going on” these days, questioning whether we Americans have taken “more than your usual amount of stupid pills,” is well deserving of a considered response.
How is it possible, you ask, that the very rightwing party whose policies helped create the current mess may very well take control of the House of Representatives and conceivably the Senate as well, in the upcoming November elections? “Is the U.S.A. experiencing some kind of death wish? Are we in Europe witnessing the paroxysms of a failing democracy, and a failing empire? Will the flat-Earth Know Nothings really take over in America?” Good questions all.
It’s not easy to explain to foreigners what’s happening here and what to do about it. I do know that in too many societies, for a relatively brief period of time, a contagious irrationality seems to spread dangerous nonsense in the polity; moral moorings and common-sense fly out the window. It’s happened in your countries: the French right now ethnically-cleansing themselves of the Roma/Gypsy peoples, for example, or the Holocaust in Germany in the 1930-40s. But I’ll have a go at some explanations, and you and your families and friends in those countries can tell me whether my analyses make any sense.
The Ideological Divide
To understand our current and dangerous political circus requires a quick romp through the historical context:
The first thing to understand is that what’s happening today in American politics is not new. One could go back to the major philosophical splits amongst the Founding Fathers who, because of ideological fervor, were at each others’ throats over how to distribute power. Or we could go back to the “robber barons” era of the late 19th century, when capitalist greed and industrial might, both basically unregulated at the time, ran roughshod over the economy and country. That unrestricted “free-market” philosophy helped lead eventually to the Great Depression and the resulting major social correctives of FDR and the Democrats in the 1930s-1940s.
But for our purposes here, let’s pick up the thread in 1964 when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president.
Extremism as Cherished Value
For the first time in the modern era, extremism and incitements to violence were given political cover as they were introduced by a presidential candidate into American’s civic bloodstream. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” said Goldwater, to cheering GOP convention delegates.
The corporate/fundamentalist forces behind the Goldwater candidacy knew their candidate would not win, could not win, in a country still deeply appreciative of popular liberal policies coming out of post-World War II reconstruction in the 1950s.
The aim of these wealthy forces was to purge the GOP of its moderate voices and create an ideologically pure, HardRight party that through education, political activism and constant agitprop would eventually triumph over “decadent liberalism.”
Clearly, they were thinking long term, and it paid off: Ronald Reagan’s victory came 16 years later, in 1980. How did they do it?
Buying Their Way to Victory
In the years after the Goldwater debacle, billionaire conservative tycoons bought up mass-media outlets — book-publishing firms, newspapers, cable news networks, etc. They funded their own think tanks, with their in-house academic types churning out intellectual-sounding arguments. They supported with millions of dollars rightwing student groups on college campuses. They sponsored how-to-win-election workshops for potential candidates. They donated huge amounts to centrist news networks, such as PBS (look at who supports “The News Hour” these days: Chevron, Pacific Life Insurance, Archer Daniels Midlands, et al.), to help dilute the tenor of objective journalism.
Liberals, meanwhile, were, as usual, dazed and confused, in denial about what was happening to them and supremely over-confident that their fortress of power was unassailable. A native fascism could never happen in America, they believed, since reason would win out over demagoguery and extremist, authoritarian, Big-Lie politics. Right.
The GOP could always count on one third of the electorate — by and large, the fundamentalist, anti-science, anti-change, more authoritarian base — and were able to lure a goodly number of independents and libertarians to their cause on certain issues, aided by an increasingly badly-educated citizenry easily influenced by the mass-media’s emphasis on fluff and nonsense and biased reporting (read: Fox News).
Whack an “Enemy”
Every movement needs a hated enemy. Having one helps stir the emotions, which means lots of small donations from millions of scared citizens, which means a huge mailing/recruitment list to build from. In the post-World War II period, up until the Communist Party imploded in the Soviet Union in the late-’80s, the Republicans’ favorite bete noire was “godless communism,” both abroad and internally. “Socialism” was included under the hated rubric “communism,” just to be sure, and then “liberalism” was conflated with “socialism,” to destroy that brand.
In the 1990s, the conservatives’ enemies of choice have included homosexuals and blacks and browns; later those “enemies” morphed into “terrorists,” “immigrants” and, for too many, “Muslims.” Quick version: the Other. You can always count on “God, Guns & Gays” to help you win votes.
What is being played so skillfully by the power-composers of the Right (with Karl Rove as conductor extraordinaire) is the instrument of change as something to fear. The calm, comfortable world that most middle-class whites grew up in is quickly cracking apart. More and more ethnic and social minorities are moving out of their real and perceived “ghetto mentality” and proudly moving into the social, political and cultural mainstream, jockeying for power and influence just like everybody else. Internationally, similar changes are happening, as formerly subservient countries and leaders chafe under U.S. hegemony and begin to push back. American exceptionalism is taking a beating.
Our Era’s Great Depression
All this is genuinely unsettling, disturbing, scary to many, some of whom feel — thanks to incendiary language and incitement to action by rightwing leaders — encouraged to initiate violence against leader-identified “enemies” (and often against journalists who ask pointed questions). Don’t those people and nations know their “place”?
And then a “perfect storm” of social/political/economic collapse occurred in the last years of the CheneyBush Administration:
* Virtually unregulated, rapacious capitalism led to a meltdown of the financial system, showing up most visibly in desperate failures of the huge investment houses, which had been selling unsecured debt instruments in a massive Ponzi-like scheme. The ramifications of such giant failures affected economies in countries worldwide, and led to austerity programs negatively impacting mostly the working and middle-classes. (Unlike docile Americans, millions of Spaniards and French and Belgians and Greeks have erupted into open opposition in the streets.)
* The mortgages at the heart of these unsecured debt instruments (“derivatives,” “credit default swaps”) were peddled by unscrupulous lenders, and when the economy and real-estate values tanked, the buyers of homes were left holding the bag. Of course, virtually none of those in the banks and corporate offices who sold those instruments were ever punished. In our current plutocratic system, rarely do leaders in positions of power ever have to pay a real penalty for their bad, or even illegal, acts. Either they are given a free pass (“too important to fail”) or they find a “bad apple” scapegoat.
* With the economy in the toilet, and the Republicans resisting any stimulus or other effective measures to help the working and middle-class climb out, fewer and fewer Americans had any cash to buy big-ticket items and many, with no jobs and the safety-net shredded and their pensions and retirement savings cut in half, had to struggle just to keep afloat. That meant factories were shuttered, in addition to those that had been closed because of “outsourcing” of jobs to China, Mexico, India, et al. during the Clinton and Bush presidencies. Millions were laid off and, due to the resulting loss of tax revenues, cities and states were out of monies to finance everything from police and firefighters to helpful civil servants.
As I write this, an estimated 10-18% of the workforce (roughly 20 million citizens) are unemployed, and having extreme difficulty finding jobs. More than 35% of American children are living in poverty. And this current Great Depression is projected to last many years, maybe a decade or more, as a result of Republican machinations and Democratic timidity.
Millions of Jobless Recruits
Wolfgang, you know better than I do the possible ramifications of having millions of unemployed young men, many of them under-educated, feeling like rejected losers. As we know from what happened in Germany in the 1930s, these angry, frustrated masses of young men and their parents become perfect fodder for extremist demagogues. What’s most frightening, these likely recruits, energized by their rage and emotions, feel comfortable inside a balloon of voluntary ignorance, eager to support such political nitwits as Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, Ken Buck and the rest.
Simple example: When asked whether they support Obama’s new health-care approach, many of these newborn rightwing activists rant about how the government shouldn’t be in the business of helping people via entitlement programs. But they get very angry if there is any talk about cutting back or eliminating their agriculture subsidies or Social Security checks or Medicare coverage. When their hypocrisy is pointed out to them, it becomes clear that they feel they deserve the government help but the Others, especially minorities and the poor, do not. Racism and classism are alive and well in the American polity.
Today, many young, unemployed men (and their parents), devoid of hope, wind up recruited by militias and political groups of one sort or another, and are encouraged into action by far-right demagogues like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin to channel their anger into the Tea Party movement allied with the Republican Party. Their “enemies,” they are led to believe, are minorities, journalists, “the government,” gays, Muslims, liberals, immigrants, “moderate” politicians, the supposed SocialistMuslimNaziStalinist in the White House, et al. In other words, every angry citizen can pick a convenient enemy to hate and act against.
Timid and Asleep at the Wheel
Normally, the party in power would provide energized correctives to pull the confused, frustrated masses back toward the middle. But the Democrats, and especially President Obama, have been mostly clueless as to how to combat this movement, which is based on lies, arrogance, duplicity and threats of (and actual) violence. In any event, their halfway-effective responses were always many months too late. Only in recent days, for example, has Obama even begun to energize his base to fight back in the midterm election, now two weeks away. He’s only partially successful since he and his spokesmen have belittled the Democrats’ progressive base for nearly two years now, using it as a convenient punching bag as he tried to lure Republicans and Independents to his side.
Obama was at least a year late in recognizing what progressives knew mere weeks after his inauguration: that there was no way he ever would be able to gain GOP support for any of his programs. The Republicans had one goal and one goal only: destroying his presidency in order to regain their political power, and all the perk$ that go with that power. If, in their desire to overturn all the social advances of the New Deal and Great Society, our current Great Depression gets worse, if millions more lose their jobs, if the government goes bankrupt, well, that is just the “collateral damage” the country will have to bear in the name of Freedom.
Mirroring Cheney-Bush Policies
Obama had run a campaign in 2008 based on major structural change; transparency in governance; moving away from CheneyBush policies with regard to respect for the Constitution, civil liberties, disengaging from the previous administration’s bullying approach in foreign/military policy. But once in the White House, he continued many of the worst policies begun by his predecessor in amassing presidential power unchecked by Congress or the courts. For example, he has assumed the right, with no checks on his authority, to order the assassinations of Americans suspected of alliances with terrorists. And he has enlarged, rather than diminished, U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and found a way to authorize “extraordinary renditions” to other countries especially skilled in torturing prisoners.
Obama can rightfully point to a good many solid initiatives that a President McCain never would have pushed for, but, overall, Obama has come across as pretty much a conventional Washington Beltway politician, consistently siding with corporate agendas, jettisoning his campaign attitude and promises far too quickly along the way. No wonder his base is only partially in the Democrats’ corner for this election. So many of the Obama stalwarts in 2008 — students, African-Americans, progressives — have abandoned him because they feel he abandoned them, early and often.
Emerging From the Crazy
One can hope that a galvanized Get-Out-the-Vote campaign by the Democrats will be able to salvage some key races and keep the most egregiously lunatic candidates from moving into the Senate and House. But even if the Dems manage to extract some good news in this midterm election, it seems clear that the shift in momentum and power-relationship does not bode well for American society in the next decade.
In short, unless some electoral GOTV miracle occurs on November 2, I will anticipate getting more letters from you two as America continues to wallow in its despair, social spasms, energized political flailings. We are entering the choppy waters of dire straits. We don’t know how many years will go by before Americans might experience “buyer remorse,” before they decide they’ve had enough and return to their senses, before the epidemic of crazy runs its course.
In the interim, one can expect that revolutionary attitudes and forces will be building strength against politics-as-usual in America. While some of that is devoutly to be wished, we’ll all be going on a wild roller-coaster ride. As Tiny Tim might have said: “God help us everyone!”
Copyright 2010 by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government and international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as Co-Editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: email@example.com.