Pundits of all stripes are calling this past decade a thoroughgoing disaster, one of the worst in our nation’s history. True, but there’s another way of evaluating the CheneyBush era.
Sure, lots of horrific things happened in the years between 2000 and 2010: a massive terrorist attack, our country lied into a disastrous war in Iraq, the Administration colluding with corporations in looting the treasury and polluting the air and water, a great recession brought into being at least partially by refusing to enforce oversight regulations on financial institutions, eight years lost in the fight against global warming. Yes, all those things, and many more dark episodes, including the strengthening of a kind of native fascism, happened during the CheneyBush era.
But those shameful ashes of the past eight years can, Phoenix-like, also yield a momentous rebirth of American democracy, a more rational foreign policy, and economic justice. What leads me to this contrarian conclusion?
The essence of my guarded optimism rests on the Removal of the Veils.
THE RARE MOMENTS OF REVELATION
Stick with me here. Most of the time, governmental corruption, moral and ethical lapses, wrongheaded economic and foreign/military policies take place in secret, hidden behind the veils designed to keep the truth of what’s really going on from the public. But once every 10 or 20 years, at least in America, the veils part a bit and we can see the scarefying reality of how our government really work: the Army/McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, Watergate and the Pentagon Papers in the early-1970s, Iran-Contra in the early-1980s, and the CheneyBush era of the past eight years.
Suddenly, the citizenry is permitted at least a long, partial glance at the true corporatist/extremist forces at work in our society. The pictures are not pretty. Historically, out of those revelations comes anger, activism, at least some reforms and, at least for a while, a new and often better crop of politicians. The GOP found out about that pattern in 2006 and 2008, when their misrule led to Democratic majorities. Now Obama’s the object of anger. There is major anti-Administration activism coming from both the Left and the Right, including even a budding Know-Nothing party or faction forming on the tea-bagging extreme — all signs that indicate the presence of major seismic activity under the tectonic plates of the American political process.
Let’s use America’s foreign/military policy as our first demonstration model for this Removal of the Veils:
"Soft imperialism" — using diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, political leverage, firm but gentle threats, etc. — has characterized U.S. foreign/military policy for decades, under all presidents. But when the neo-conservatives took power in 2001, the CheneyBush regime felt that "soft" way of acting was liberal-sissy and wouldn’t frighten anyone into acceding to American demands. And so, with the Soviet Union gone and the U.S. as the last remaining Superpower, CheneyBush were proud to reveal the iron fist of "hard imperialism" hidden inside the velvet glove of diplomacy. Read the PNAC documents that became official U.S. policy; it wasn’t enough to threaten to attack, the U.S. was required to initiate at least one major war and, even better, two.
That’s what blitzkrieg and "shock-and-awe" were all about. You resist us, we’ll bomb you to smithereens. Don’t push us, just do what we say and get out of our way. There was even a theological imperative behind such arrogance. Bush, a numbskull unable to keep truths from exiting his mouth, gave that cat away when he revealed God commanded him: "George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq", and that his job as president was to "catapult the propaganda." You may also remember that Bush originally used the term "crusade" to describe the U.S. mission in that Muslim region.
That exceptionalist, neo-con philosophy, the basis for an astoundingly aggressive U.S. foreign/military policy from 2001 to 2009, is still the prevailing thinking in the GOP today. In some ways, these militarist policies continue under Obama, though he also seems open to returning the country to its "soft imperialism" mode.
(We still haven’t reached the point in America’s political maturity — mostly controlled and dominated by corporatist forces — where we can have a full and open debate about whether any imperialism, soft or hard, is what America ought to be practicing. Nor is there a willingness to admit to and talk about U.S. foreign policies that so many terrorists describe as their reasons for joining the Islamist jihad; pretending they want to attack America because "they hate us for our freedoms" or because they are "evil" is simply an attitude of denial that will come back to bite us big-time.)
Let us not forget that the negative result of this neo-con attack on Iraq was to turn much, if not most, of the world against the United States. More than ten million citizens in nations around the globe, knowing the disaster that would follow America’s imperialist misadventure, demonstrated against CheneyBush’s imminent war on Iraq. Protests of such magnitude never had occurred in human history. Even America’s key allies, such as Germany, poked the U.S. sharply in the eye in public against the coming war and then the war itself.
That revulsion and negativity directed against the United States, which receded when Obama became President, seems to be returning in certain regions, especially in the Muslim world where they see Obama continuing CheneyBush’s militarist policies: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, et al. The presence of U.S. troops on the ground, drone attacks inside sovereign nations, heavy "collateral damage" of civilians — all of these are helping to foment the nationalist and Islamist insurgencies in those countries, rather than tamping them down. This stark fact is given little consideration in the Obama White House, and the same holds true for the conservative-leaning mainstream news media. In short, how far have we moved from disastrous CheneyBush policies? What lessons have our leaders learned, if any?
So we’ve got the example of American imperialism, which, as we’ve learned from the removal of the veils, in Iraq as in Vietnam has demonstrated its inherent weakness in dealing with motivated nationalists/religionists. And yet the U.S. blunders on, as if caught up in a sticky loop from which there is no escape.
How about one more example before we discuss how all this might benefit progressive activists?
THE VEIL OVER CAPITALISM
Normally, the Veils of Power conceal well the inner workings of American capitalism. But when that economic system nearly collapses into itself, as happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the second CheneyBush term, it’s fairly easy to see the outlines of how that system behaves.
Simply stated, greed controls all. CheneyBush, true believers in laissez-faire capitalism, permitted greed to flourish in the financial/investment sector devoid of oversight. So what if firms were selling bundled derivatives around the globe based on nothing but a Ponzi-like belief in constantly rising real-estate values? Everyone was making out like bandits. Spread the wealth. The wondrously stable "free-market" economy could handle whatever blips came its way.
But it wasn’t a mere blip in late-’07 and 2008. It was a perfect storm of economic awfulness, involving all sectors of banking, real estate, investment, etc. The resulting recession/depression, which we’re still in and won’t leave anytime soon, is basically punishing the poor and ruining the American middle class, all while the still-unregulated large banks and big investment houses took the bailout money and ran with it, and have returned to much the same risky financial adventurism that nearly took down the U.S. and world economies. (While, of course, still awarding themselves unconscionably huge bonuses.)
Even former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan had to publicly admit that he, and by implication the American economic system, had been operating for more than four decades on a false theory that "free market" capitalism always corrected itself and didn’t need governmental regulation. But there has been no such "correction" and, unless the government passes and enforces some regulation of their misbehavior soon, prepare for Great Depression#2.
THE EMPEROR APPEARS NAKED
What happens when veils are removed? One sees the system exposed, all the warts, jerry-rigged structures, thievery, manipulation, corruption, etc. We saw American capitalism naked, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Still, these financial players ("too big to allow to fail") rule the roost, along with similar behemoths in the fields of energy, pharmaceuticals, insurance, the military-industrial complex, etc. Despite the low opinion in which they are regarded by the masses, they exert enormous political influence and continue to operate mostly as they wish even today.
Congress takes no effective action even while smoldering rage and resentment and desire for political vengeance is building around the country, especially on the Left and Right but also in the middle, as ordinary citizens see their retirement funds shrink or disappear, as states can’t fund social or educational services, as municipalities run out of money to maintain the infrastructure of basic civil life.
When the system collapsed in the 1930s, and socialism gained ground in the public imagination, the patrician FDR realized that capitalism was doomed unless it could be reformed, with serious financial oversight, more anti-trust laws, and firewalls between regular banks and investment houses (the "Glass-Steagall" Act). In taking these reformist actions, regarded by Republicans in those days as near-traitorous acts of class-betrayal, President Roosevelt saved the American capitalist system.
But, quite obviously, CheneyBush, locked into their ideology of rampant greed and free-market illusions, exhibited no such wisdom, and celebrated the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and here we are several years later still trying to climb out of the Republican-generated economic pit.
Economists tell us that we should expect at least a 10% unemployment rate (that’s the officially-reckoned rate, it might be as much as 20% out in the real world) for at least five to ten years. To close that employment gap, the economy might best need another huge stimulus infusion to help create jobs that the private sector is not willing or able to do. But good luck with that. Obama probably won’t touch that third-rail now, and the 2010 midterm elections don’t offer all that much hope either for stable majority control for the Democrats.
At the very least, if Obama can keep in mind the FDR/New Deal lessons, and if he wants to save an already-shaky capitalism from imploding, he’s got to lead the charge for major, systemic reform, get it passed, and enforce the hell out of it. Continuing to play footsy with the financial big boys will not do, and will lead to him being a one-term president for sure. One suspects he knows this already, but is politically incapable of moving and fighting.
WHAT CAN PROGRESSIVES DO?
So why am I somewhat hopeful, given all this chaos and corruption and failure at the top?
Because the veils have been removed.
Most of us political junkies were aware of (or at least suspected) most of these revelations before, but now the inner workings of the corporatist-capitalist state have been revealed for the entire citizenry. Most of the anger and frustration in the body politic is inchoate at this point or has gone into the demagoguery of the tea party sort. But this scattered and growing rage and resentment is a wake-up call to those of us on the progressive left to get our asses in gear, create ourselves a wide, deep movement, and use this new public knowledge and frustration to organize for the battles now and to come.
Certainly, the far right is out there trying to shape this civic anger in ways that will benefit their narrow-minded view of the world. And if they are able to take back the House or gain enough seats in the Senate in the midterm election in November — which they could do if there is no countervailing organizing effort from the left — you can just imagine the horrendous damage they will cause in everything from global warming denial to a further diminution of civil liberties to putting troops on the ground in Yemen. The progressive left has to respond. We have to rid ourselves of obsessively focusing on our own little issue and interest-group and join forces to create an enormous coalition much like "The Movement" in the ’60s. We have to organize the anger and show our fellow citizens (using what we’ve now learned) who the real villains are and how to send them packing.
That may mean running for office, actively helping choose and support good candidates, organizing locally around local issues, contributing money, taking our money out of the half-dozen largest banks and investment houses and putting in into local community banks and credit unions (read about Move Your Money), founding bartering societies and community gardens, launching affinity groups, writing letters and articles, organizing creative demonstrations, using the internet to communicate political ideas more widely, beginning to think seriously about the founding of a broad populist-democratic party, whatever.
If we’re truly serious about what we believe, we cannot be politically active once every four years and assume since "our" candidate won that the dangers have passed. Nobody gets a free pass, not Democrats and certainly not Republicans. ("Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." — Lord Acton) Democracy requires participation all the time — especially in the face of the reckless extremists on the right who would like nothing better than to return us to the horrendous robber-barons era of the 1890s.