Broken Shards of My Heart: The US in Decline
by David Michael Green
I could tell you that my heart was broken by what happened in Wisconsin this week, but in truth that’s not quite accurate.
The Corporate America Flag on the Lincoln Memorial (Image source: adbusters)
I grew into political awareness and maturity in the middle of the 1970s. For people my age, then, our entire adult lives have been one long witness to the dismantling of that which we grew up taking for granted as a foundation for any further progress that might come. We lived in the relatively egalitarian country of the New Deal and the Great Society, with its robust middle class and a measure of earnest compassion for the poor. Today, that seems like a foreign country, if not a remote planet.
Over the course of our adult lives:
We watched in shock and horror as the country turned to a Hollywood washout, who was literally a national joke candidate five years earlier, and made him president, following him down every path of joyful self-destruction and absurd deceit.
Our jaws dropped in the 1990s at the visage of New Gingrich, the most overtly petulant and destructive piece of self-loathing to ever occupy a human body, as he was elevated to the highest position in the United States Congress, and pioneered the basest politics and the shattering of our government that remains our inheritance today. As if that weren’t shameful enough, at the same time Gingrich’s buddy down at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue was destroying the meaning of the Democratic Party, aping the Republican sell-out to corporate thieves and the abandonment of the public interest – especially the poor, the first to be thrown under the bus.
And, despite the fact Bill Clinton deserves to rot in hell for the damage he did in exchange for his personal joyride in the White House, we were nevertheless forced to watch in horror the relentless and destructive lunacy of the president’s impeachment for the high crime of lying about a blow-job.
We had to endure the travesty of Bush versus Gore, one of the most egregious tramplings of democratic practice imaginable, then watch the sickening product of that judicial rape: the swaggering wars based on lies, the torture, the doubling of the national debt, the environmental depredations, the economic melt-down, and the raison-d’etre for it all: the radical shifting of wealth from the 300 million of us to the one-tenth of one percent who own everything in sight.
Perhaps most emotionally devastating of all – Et tu, Brute? – we’ve suffered the betrayal these last years of another Democratic sell-out, a supposedly liberal-if-not-socialist president actually so conservative and so sold-out that he couldn’t even bear to pursue his own personal interest sufficiently to produce a successful presidency, but has rather continued and amplified the worst characteristics of the open sore that was the Bush presidency, even in the midst of crisis opportunities not seen since the 1930s.
So, no, by this time, my heart was not really broken when my former home-state, Wisconsin, voted emphatically to commit suicide this week. But only because there’s so little of that heart left to break. Shards here and there were crushed and extinguished, to be sure, but I am becoming rapidly beyond caring about the country I live in, a place and a people so determined to get it wrong at every juncture imaginable. At some point, don’t you just have to stop trying and let the substance-abuser finish the job on their own?
This country is dying, let’s be clear. It may live yet. It may survive for decades in slow decline. It may find a way in utter crisis to throw off, before it is too late, the fat slimy boa which is squeezing every last cent of value out of it. Its political class may invent a devastating foreign crisis with massively grim consequences in order to deflect public attention from its manifest failings. Maybe it will even be some combination of all of the above.
We just killed the goose ourselves, through a toxic mix of greed, laziness and stupidity.
Who knows? What we can be sure of, however, is that what was once a great and promising idea as much as a nation is now decrepit to the core, and rapidly rotting away, and that these wounds are entirely self-inflicted. That, for me, is the kicker. The Soviets didn’t invade and take us over. We didn’t succumb to some raging virus like the Black Plague. A meteor didn’t blast a hole in the middle of North America.
We just killed the goose ourselves, through a toxic mix of greed, laziness and stupidity.
Though Wisconsin managed to only break the few shards of my unbroken heart still remaining, it’s worth considering the details of the episode to get a sense of how truly wrecked we are as a people. Much like George W. Caligula, who campaigned as the compassionate conservative but governed as a Cheneybot monster, Scott Walker came to office without mentioning in the campaign any of the scorched earth policies he was actually hired by the Koch Brothers and their ilk to foist upon his hapless state. So the first thing he does after his inauguration is give away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for the wealthy. Then, lo and behold, there appears a shortfall in the state’s budget of precisely that amount – almost as if that whole math thing actually works, after all – and so he declares a crisis which can, of course, only be solved by draconian burdens being imposed upon non-one percenters.
That means that the public employee unions are called upon to bear the burden of massive givebacks of their salary and benefits. But then – this being America and the 21st century and all – the unions agree to one hundred percent of these demands. But Walker and his fellow Koch-class acolytes are not satisfied with having to take yes for an answer, because their real project is to crush the unions into political insignificance, if not to terminate them altogether. So the real issue was never the fiscal crisis, which was entirely fabricated, nor even finding a solution to it, which the already pathetic unions had readily agreed to. The real issue was to destroy the labor movement, and the political party it has (stupidly, in recent decades) supported for so long.
But when labor and some Democrats and a lot of courageous and determined ordinary Badgers decided that enough was finally enough, the question was ultimately presented to the public in the form of a recall election. Massive amounts of money (Walker outspent the other side by a ratio of about eight to one) paid for massive amounts of televised lies about how the brave governor was only fighting special interests on behalf of the people, and it worked. (Though, let’s be honest here – lots of Wisconsin voters knew exactly the score, and stupidly and self-destructively decided to tear down teachers and nurses and park rangers and the like from their decent middle class living, instead of drawing a line in the sand demanding that everyone to rise up to that modest standard.)
They are relentless, they are rich, and they are talented in ways that would awe and possibly even repulse Machiavelli himself. Oh, and by the way, they are winning, too. Big time.
That’s the America of today, and it’s a glimpse of the very near-term future. The formula is pretty simple, really. Wealthy elites who have spent the better part of a century chafing under the unbearable burdens of the New Deal and Great Society (where they are rendered mere billionaires instead of zillionaires) have finally found a way to steal back ‘their’ money. Buy whole political parties, buy the media, buy – therefore – the entire mindset of the country, buy the Supreme Court, dumb down education, especially the study of history, make college prohibitively expensive, repress dissent, create distracting enemies abroad (towelheads) and at home (fags), replace jobs with machines and cheap overseas workers, squeeze the economy so that money is scarce, and divide and conquer the 99 percent, so that those who miraculously still maintain a vestige of decent wages and benefits from an ancient civilization called 20th century America will be resented and torn-down by those already drowning.
You gotta hand it to them, it works pretty well. (Being a sociopath evidently does not correlate at all with poor planning skills. But who knew there were so many amongst us?) As a measure of the sheer success of this project, consider how – even in a moment of crisis – there is nowhere on the horizon a politically viable alternative narrative about what ails the country and how to solve the problem. Sure, there is the odd Paul Krugman around, or Dennis Kucinich (whoops, never mind), but ask yourself this question: Can you name even a single prominent politician across the entire political landscape who is remotely telling the truth about the economic holocaust of American kleptocracy? Indeed, it is truly a measure of the stunning proportions of the overclass’s victory that even a water-carrier as devoted as Barack Obama is labeled a socialist, and both he and the ideas he doesn’t even remotely represent are thoroughly discredited. Even if the answers to the question of what would fix America weren’t manifestly obvious (as in, just do what we used to do before the right came along and dismantled everything), this is a stunning achievement of truly Orwellian proportions: For vast numbers of Americans, real understanding of the problem and real consideration of the solution cannot even be thought of.
It will get far worse before it gets better, if it does. The Wisconsin election was widely and correctly seen as a dry run for November, but in fact November is already as over as is May or April. The hapless Obama people may not have gotten the word, but they are as dead as the unions in Wisconsin that they didn’t bother to support. And Obama will go down in near-term, right-wing renderings of history as another Jimmy Carter. Meanwhile, stupid liberals, who slavishly admired a decidedly right-wing, militarist, ultra-statist, corporate-serving Democratic president, will sit holding their heads in surprise at the damage wrought to the president himself, to his party, and to their cherished liberal principles. Um, sorry, but have y’all been snoozing through Afghanistan and Pakistan? Did you miss the whole presidential-ordered assassinations program? Have you not heard what has happened to whistleblowers? Did you forget the tax cuts and the offer to dismantle Medicare? Have you been watching Fox and not heard about the growth of military spending? Did you not know that the health care bill was co-authored by, and for the benefit of, insurance and pharmaceutical companies? Have you not heard that our ultra-progressive president has done nothing whatsoever about the planetary über-crisis of global warming, other than to open vast new oil drilling fields? Did you not see in action the joy and wonder of Obamaism in 2010, the most devastating election for a political party in half a century, and coming only two years after the total meltdown of the GOP under Bush? Sorry, but this is the SOB you adored and went to the mat for?
This country’s future looks grim in so many ways. You can just feel the doors and windows shutting, one by one. Are we really so far off, given the displays we’ve already seen, from being a corporate-owned polity, in which oceans of Citizens United sponsored propaganda limits the cognitive landscape of an entire country, sham elections and a steady stream of brain-numbing high-def television gruel satisfies most of the (obese) public enough to keep them stuck on their sofas, while a massive police state armed with domestic drone aircraft and angry cops deal swiftly with the few remaining malcontents stupid enough to demand a return to the better country we once knew? You know, more or less a carbon copy of Putin’s Russia, here in North America.
I have no interest whatsoever in being a prophet of doom, but I ask you, is that really so far-fetched? If you look around you honestly today, is it not fair to say that we are pretty much already there? With the partial exception of social policy issues, do you really have any choice at the ballot box? Can anyone say that Democrats in Washington, including the sitting president and the astonishingly narcissistic whore that was Bill Clinton, represent corporate interests any less than Republicans, whatever their pathetic rhetoric? Has US foreign policy gotten even slightly more enlightened since Obama took over from the smirking troglodytes? Do Americans have any idea of what is truly happening to them, as opposed to being fixated on gays, immigrants, foreign bogeymen and spoon-fed celebrity drivel? And were not Occupy activists subjected to pepper spray, mass arrests and wholesale street clearings, even by supposedly liberal mayors and college presidents?
It’s possible, of course, that the end is not nigh after all. Indeed, I see something of a great historical race transpiring in America. On the one hand, the powers of greed are rapidly filling in all the puzzle pieces of their sociopathic conspiracy to own everything, including – yes, really, I’m not kidding – food, water and our very genes. They are relentless, they are rich, and they are talented in ways that would awe and possibly even repulse Machiavelli himself. Oh, and by the way, they are winning, too. Big time. Even when they lose, they win.
On the other hand, demographics are not so favorable to the destruction of the nation. Young people are far more progressive than their scary-stupid and mega-mean grandparents. The good news is that the latter are dying, and the former are taking their place. Moreover, demographic trends are also shifting the racial composition of the electorate. For whatever reason, whites tend to have horrible politics, so the browning of America is also a very good thing. (If we could pull off the same stunt with gender, that would be great news, too, since it indeed turns out that, that’s right, the women are smarter. Better politics through bioengineering, maybe? Soon to come to your local supermarket. Or at least obstetrician.)
We have also seen displays across the globe of Basta!-ism which raise hope. From Russia to Egypt to Israel to Greece to Canada to Wall Street and Santa Monica College, people are standing up and saying Enough! And it works. These schoolyard bullies crushing us are like … well, schoolyard bullies. Call them out on their blustery braggadocio and watch them fold in the face of real power. True, it doesn’t always happen (see “Wisconsin, State of”), but it does often enough. And there is also the hope that as the plutocrats continue their insatiable campaign to impoverish the rest of us they will go a bridge too far, pushing by their own actions a squawking wholesale resistence out the proverbial birth canal and into being.
Indeed, if there is one bit of transcendent hope left it is that people in this country still seem non-comatose (or perhaps just self-interested) enough so as to make regressives their own worst enemy. Their shit sells well to dummies in campaigns, but it turns out that while you can lie about everything imaginable – right up to nice bearded people in the sky who control everything from war and peace to NFL touchdowns but somehow never seem to appear on Earth – the lies cannot ultimately withstand the laws of political physics. Those lovely pieties and viciously divisive tactics that are so successful at separating idiots from their votes on election day are rather less capable of doing magic tricks thereafter. Regressives may want very badly for Iraqis to lay down and accept American imperialism, but that doesn’t make it happen, and no amount of arrogant bring-it-on blustery by Vietnam-avoiding chickenhawks can change that. They may want voodoo economics to balance the budget, but those pesky mathematical equations keep getting in the damn way. They may tell you that global warming is a hoax, but nevertheless every day the planet gets relentlessly hotter.
In short, time after time there is no better antidote for regressive government than regressive government itself. That’s why the right always and endlessly pays homage to a ridiculously distorted version of Saint Ronald of Reagan, a guy so long departed from the White House that he might as well be James Buchanan as far as most contemporary Americans are concerned. Hmmm. Why not talk about the joys and wonders of George W. Bush, instead, who after all, was far more Reagan than Reagan, and who happened only just yesterday? Perhaps for the same reason that governments pursuing austerity in Europe are falling like dominoes. And also for the same reason that the sweep of regressive state governors brought in by the Obama debacle of Election 2010 are proving so unpopular, including even Scott Walker, who, despite surviving the vote, is only the third governor in all of American history to be subjected to a recall.
Thus, as much as it sickens me to say it, perhaps the best thing that could happen to us could be the election of a Mitt Romney, especially one, as this one is, so completely straightjacketed by the insane elements (that is to say, all of them) of his party. Unless Romney turns out to be very, very lucky, his policies will not only not turn the economy around, but they will saddle the country with vastly more debt than the right has managed to do so far already. It’s possible this could be the tipping point, once and for all, in the race between good demographics and bad demographics, between sanity and insanity. Maybe people will finally get what they’re buying, and start looking for a refund.
On the other hand – and be honest here – wasn’t that just what you were thinking after eight years of Bush and Cheney, the entire last four of which spent with the president’s job approval ratings in the toilet?
I sure as hell was, only to see Republicans (with a lot of help from Obama) win a crushing victory only a mere two years later.
In the end, there may be no bottom to the depths of self-destructive stupidity of which Homo Americanus is capable of stooping.
I’m pretty sure we’re gonna be finding out here, real soon.
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 (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org), 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.