Politics in the Past Tense
Can America be Salvaged?
By DAVID MICHAEL GREEN
I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which proposing a new and better version of corporate-plunder masquerading as national healthcare gets you burned in effigy for being a socialist stooge by gun-toting angry mobs.
I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which the same people who hate you for being a socialist simultaneously hate you for being a fascist.
I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which angry mobs of supposed anti-socialist demonstrators scream at their congressional representatives to “keep your government hands off my Medicare”.
I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which claims that the government is going to start killing off seniors are taken seriously by tens of millions of people.
I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which people are all worked up about government czars, but sat silently while the Bush administration destroyed the Bill of Rights and used a thousand signing statements to write Congress out of the Constitution.
I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which deficits have all of a sudden become the source of enormous anger among people who said nothing about them previously, as the tax cuts for the wealthy, off-budget wars based on lies, and unfunded prescription drug Big Pharma giveaway transmogrified the biggest surplus in American history into the biggest deficit ever.
I really don’t know what to say anymore, about a country in which politicians can rant incessantly about other peoples’ sexual morality, get caught screwing prostitutes, and then still be reelected to the highest ranks of government by trashing the president.
I could go on and on, but what would be the point? The positions of so many Americans on so many policy questions are truly inane – yes, for sure. I wish that was all that concerned me. But it all goes so much deeper than that.
The entire premise of a self-ruling democracy rests on some reasonable degree of rationality and some reasonable degree of an ability to discriminate between real information and falsehoods.
Today’s American democracy seems to lack these qualities in increasingly abundant amounts.And yet it goes deeper than that still. The entire premise of a society – any society, democracy or not – is that it possesses a certain degree of shared community, a ‘we-ness’ that transcends narrower tribalisms and self-interest in critical ways and at critical moments. That too has unraveled of late. Think of the nice white men with shotguns blocking the exit from flooded New Orleans during the worst moments of Hurricane Katrina.
Looking at America today, it all feels so very past tense to me.
In some very profound ways, this is not the place nor the time you’d expect the implosion of an established democracy and society. To be an American is to be a member of the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. If they’re not whining so much in Botswana these days, who the hell are we to?
On the other hand, though, it makes a lot of sense. The moment correlates precisely with the peaking of the empire several decades ago, now further exacerbated as the deep wells of remedial pillaging – our credit cards, our mortgages, our children, a rising Chinese middle class, brown people everywhere, the environment – have disappeared entirely, with nothing but despair and moral dessication left in their place. Moreover, the folks most aggrieved and most estranged from their senses of late are precisely the people who were bought off of their sanity at every turn with the latest form of bigotry du jour, used to assuage their ever-diminishing sense of relative social status. Over and over again, the people I see on my television screen acting absolutely and incoherently stupid in their senseless rage seem to be little more than fat, white, Southern, sixty-something racist good ol’ boys.
Well past their sell-by dates, they’ve of course gotten tremendous help cranking it up again. That’s no surprise. I’m not sure these crackers are smart enough to even be stupid without coaching. As Lyndon Johnson used to say: “Couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel”. Lucky for them, those marching orders come from a host of politicians and media whores who, in an even moderately just world, would receive a wee taste of Abu Ghraib in repayment for the reckless destructiveness they’ve fomented upon the always precarious edifice of liberal democracy. There’s special place in Hell reserved for these shouters of “Fire!” in crowded theaters, these bloodsucking bottom-feeders, especially since they are being paid so handsomely for their faithful service as prolocutors for predators.
I doubt anyone has ever reminded us of this ongoing danger more eloquently than did the famous American diplomat, George Kennan, when he wrote: “The counsels of impatience and hatred can always be supported by the crudest and cheapest symbols; for the counsels of moderation, the reasons are often intricate, rather than emotional, and difficult to explain. And so the chauvinists of all times and places go their appointed way: plucking the easy fruits, reaping the little triumphs of the day at the expense of someone else tomorrow, deluging in noise and filth anyone who gets in their way, dancing their reckless dance on the prospects for human progress, drawing the shadow of a great doubt over the validity of democratic institutions. And until peoples learn to spot the fanning of mass emotions and the sowing of bitterness, suspicion, and intolerance as crimes in themselves – as perhaps the greatest disservice that can be done to the cause of popular government – this sort of thing will continue to occur.”
Hear, hear. Sorry to say it, George, but you’re lucky to have died when you did. It’s only gotten so much worse in just the last few years.
And while the O’Reillys and the Reagans of our time have joined forces to turn “the counsels of impatience and hatred” into an entire political party and more, they are, of course, mere conscious tools of the Big Green Greed that ultimately drives the system. They know they are prostitutes, but the money’s good. And so is the fame and adulation – no small thing for these sorry critters. Look at the Becks and Limbaughs and Gingriches of this country. Were there ever people in this world with so much self-esteem ground to be made up from the transparent ostracization of their younger days? Were there ever individuals so obviously motivated by retribution against everyone who treated them like the jerks they were in their formative years? Was there ever a walking warning sign more brightly flashing about the costs to society of youthful bullying? I’m sorry Glenn, I’m sorry Rush, I’m sorry Newt. I know when you were younger you were pudgy fast-talking smart-ass petulant pricks who made up in wedgies from bigger guys what you never got in attention from attractive women. But isn’t about time you stopped taking it out on America? I’m sorry you got your ass kicked on a weekly basis, but I didn’t do it.
Though I’m thinking about it now.
It takes a willful act of ignorance (something we see a lot of these days) not to perceive the United States as the latest in history’s falling empires. Like Rome, the true contribution of its sometimes great ideas has ultimately been substantially buried under the rubble of its ill-fated decision to greedily grasp the nettle of empire. Unlike Rome, this puppy is taking decades, rather than centuries, to collapse.
Empires come and go, of course. Rising and falling is what they do. It’s their job in life. What is truly frightening to contemplate, however, is what happens when an empire falls in the era when technological capacity absolutely dwarfs political maturity? And what happens if that occurs not just anywhere, but in arguably the most immature, self-serving and self-indulgent of developed societies on the planet?
The only model we have for this so far is the Soviet implosion of two decades ago, though even that is only a partial representation, since the Soviet bear was no match for the American boor in piggishness. Even so, that history does not bode so well, outward appearances notwithstanding. We should all collectively be walking on eggshells thinking about the tens of thousands of strategic and smaller tactical nuclear warheads that may or may not be accounted for. Nor is the renascent and rather irredentist new Russia necessarily a pretty picture either, a fact that may become increasingly relevant in the coming decades. Still, all this noted, the Russian imperial collapse has to be said to have been relatively uneventful, closer to the post-war British and French experiences than to any cataclysmic end of days scenario.
I wish I could be so sanguine about the implosion of the American empire. In one sense, it was probably a good thing for the Russians to go through this experience with only a fake democracy and repressed civil liberties in place, and some serious if undemocratic quasi-dictators running the show. It might have saved the country from the worst elements seizing control. I don’t much care for the product of American democracy and political discourse as things now stand. Imagine how it might all turn out under real duress, with the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs further egging on both the angry rabble on the ground and the Sarah Palins in the political sphere.
I’m tired of overused Nazi references these days, but the most salient analogy has to be to 1930s Weimar Germany. The economy is broken, the political system is broken, the public is struggling, angry and full of nationalistic rage at their country’s failure to possess all the riches and glory it and they deserve. And so say bombastic demagogues, backed by a small army of street thugs, and offering both a scapegoat and a solution. Given a democratic election in which voters can choose between a dynamic, assured and energetic salvation figure, on the one hand, and an enervated, inept and passionately passionless status quo government, on the other, it’s not hard to figure what will happen. And what did.
Above all, what is wrong with this country (and what therefore inevitably becomes the world’s problem too – just ask the people of Iraq), is not so much the vicious thugs who would just as soon vacuum it free of any piece of wealth they can get into their hands as take their next breath. Nor is it the existentially petrified Confederate Crackers for Jesus who find that hate and violence is a pretty decent emollient to mitigate for the moment their otherwise completely debilitating fears.
That stuff always happens, though admittedly not often quite like this.
What’s really wrong is the near total absence of prominent political figures willing to sacrifice much of anything to protect their country from these depredations.
It’s been so long now that I’ve forgotten for sure, but didn’t they used to call that patriotism?
David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg [at] regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.