America's Political Crisis - Some Thoughts on How We Got Here
The worst part about being lied to is knowing you weren't worth the truth.
(attributed to Jean-Paul Sarte among others)
I suppose I could have started this essay without this quote, but in light of the last thirty years, it encapsulates in one sentence just how little the ruling elites across the globe respect the human beings over which they hold power, and whom they exploit with such cruel efficiency. For deceit lies at the heart of what is wrong with our world. A liar passes judgment on each person to whom his or her lie is addressed; i.e., that such people are inferior creatures not worth telling the truth. And a steady stream of lies are what we are witnessing on a daily basis this year.
A person I knew used to divide human beings into three categories: those who prefer to have nothing to hide rather than being obliged to lie, those who prefer lying to having nothing to hide, and finally those who like both lying and the hidden.
It's easy to lie. At the interpersonal level we all tell lies, to others and to ourselves. I should know, for I have been the recipient of lies, and, in my turn, I have told them. But the trauma of evading the truth at this level, the damage done to others and to one's self, as heart-breaking and self-destructive as it may be, are limited.
Lies created and spread by institutions and organizations at the societal level are far more dangerous. Each day of my life I have been lied to by my government, by the two major political parties and by a subservient media. This should surprise no one, since America, the largest empire on the planet, was founded on lies regarding: (1) individual freedom and equality; (2) American exceptionalism, and (3) that opportunity exists for all here, if only we would have the courage to pursue our dreams. The truth about our country, sadly, is that none of these are true. Our history is hideous.
It includes both genocide against the indigenous people of this continent, and also the passive acceptance of slaveery, an atrocity imposed committed against people of Africa and their descendants done purely out of greed. American slavery is a crime for which present day African Americans still pay a terrible price.
The deceptive myth that America has always been a land of opportunity for all is certainly highlighted by those two great injustices, but there have been who have many others nearly as bad.. For the truth is that, for most of our history, only the most ruthless and vile profiteers, or those born into wealth, have achieved success, at least in terms the world measures.
Only the outcome of a terrible war that devastated the majority of the world's nations, allowed America to dominate the globe in the latter half of the 20th Century. Its position of hegemony is one that those who currently control the reins of governmental power seek desperately to maintain. Sadly, only one generation benefited from that brief era when America alone dominated global trade. Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, with it's the passage of it's limited social programs, support of laws favorable to unions and its regulation of the worst excesses of the financial industry, saved capitalism from itself. In doing so, the New Deal in the post-war era created a large middle class, predominately white, and predominately urban.
Nonetheless, for a time, New Deal programs allowed us to deceive ourselves that we were making progress toward the ideals of liberty and equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Yet, even this much ballyhooed "victories" by the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the LGBTQ movement, among others, were illusory and incomplete. Yet they served the purpose of hiding the underlying rot at the heart of our Republic.
However, the time to openly ignore the terrible things being done by our government, at home and abroad, has long passed. The moneyed class, and those who desire power above all else, have regained the upper hand. They now exercise control over our political, judicial and military institutions, and what little progress the New Deal accomplished has been largely rolled back. The middle class as I knew it in my youth has disappeared. We are increasingly a society of haves and have-nots. The flow of economic and social benefits that resulted from the vast economic, military and diplomatic power our nation wielded (and still wields to some extent) was re-directed toward those at the top of the economic pyramid. This led to an ever greater number of Americans living in poverty or residing perilously near its doorstep.
Nonetheless, the elites in positions pf power, through the judicious use of propaganda, disinformation campaigns and outright lies have fooled the great mass of people lower down on the economic scale to passively accept financial stagnation, despite lives beset by misery, suffering and anxiety. They have not revolted, even though every day there are more signs the American economy is a rigged system that favors the richest of the rich. As long ago as the Carter adminsitration, elites began to deploy the same neoliberal economic policies of austerity at home that they long practiced abroad in the "developing world." To prevent a backlash, politicians in both parties allowed large telecommunications corporations to quickly consolidate in their hands all the machinery of manipulation and deception - in short, mass media in all its forms.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Reporters Without Borders ranks the United States 48th in Press Freedom, behind such luminaries as Senegal, Chile, Taiwan and Botswana. Frankly, I would rank us lower. Because it is not merely America's news media that "catapults the propaganda" that our military must be deployed in massive and wasteful resource wars around the globe. The entertainment subsidiaries owned by these same media conglomerates who own the news outlets, also were used to distract the masses. In addition, the giant social media companies that have arisen all operate to manipulate information to keep the lower classes from rising up in protest. In pursuit of short term profits, all forms of mass media in America foster and create false narratives of distraction that we, the American people, ingest daily with our morning coffee.
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
This was no accident. Conservatives and big business long railed against the New Dealers who instituted government regulation of the marketplace that after the Great Depression, as evidenced by the failed candidacy of Barry Goldwater and the red scares of the 50's and 60's. However, in 1971, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell set forth the framework for dismantling the liberal regulatory regime, initially created by New Deal Democrats, in a memo to the President of the Chamber of Commerce that called for a counterattack by Big Business on government power.
By 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell felt compelled to assert, in a memo that was to help galvanize business circles, that the “American economic system is under broad attack.” This attack, Powell maintained, required mobilization for political combat: “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” ... “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
The election of President Reagan, whose dog-whistle racism and populist appeal to the white working class, along with the rise of the fundamentalist Christian Right, allowed these powerful corporate interests to sow discord among various demographic, ethnic and racial groups, and then leverage the divisions within our citizenry to their advantage. Then, as a coup d'grace, the Koch brothers and other business interests began funding the Democratic Leadership Council as an alternative to the the rump New Dealers that still survived in the Democratic Party. That set the stage for a political duopoly.
A political duopoly is defined as a nominally two party political system in which the two factions we view as opposing forces, primarily agree on economic policy at home, and economic, diplomatic and military intervention abroad. Only a small number of social issues remain over which these two parties are permitted to differ, thus creating the illusion that Americans have a real choice in how our government operates. We believe we are a democracy that holds free and fair elections, when nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, upon the the election of DLC darling, Bill Clinton to the Oval Office, the Democratic Party fundamentally changed into a center-right party favoring business interests, discarding support for the poor and working classes, retaining only the hollow rhetoric of FDR and his former New Deal acolytes to keep their voters in line. Regardless of labeling, the Democrats are now a conservative, right wing party on economic issues that is reliant on corporate funding to exist.
This political system based on deceit would have continued indefinitely, except for two events that were unforeseen. One was the appeal generated by the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Party's primaries when he alone challenged the center-right establishment's preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. The other? Clinton's own foolish promotion, with the help of willing members in the corporate media, of Donald Trump, a faux populist who used that media attention to defeat all of the mainstream conservative GOP candidates running that year.
After securing the nomination, Clinton and the media then made the error of shunning Sanders and his large and mostly independent base of grassroots support, in order to run the most negative campaign in recent history against Trump, the opponent she chose and believed she could easily defeat. Her failure, and the failure of the Democratic party leadership, to understand Sanders' appeal to millions of eligible voters who felt disenfranchised, led her to abandon the progressive agenda he inserted into the party's platform at the convention. Mistakenly, she foolishly played into Trump's hands by running to his right on many issues. When she lost, the Democratic Party became, in my opinion, an endangered species, and our country became embroiled in a crisis that threatens to blow up the current political system and plunge us into turmoil that will be exploited by the worst right wing factions in both parties.
Despite their best efforts, the leadership of the Democrats were unable to eradicate the appeal of the progressive movement sparked by Sanders 2016 campaign. A number of new progressive candidates arose to challenge old style DLC incumbents. Their victories (most significantly Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez's victory over a member of the Democrats' top Congressional leadership) was quickly recognized as an existential threat to the current DNC regime. These "Third Way" or "New Democrats," who hold sway over the party apparatus, rely upon funding from wealthy donors and oligopolies to keep their network of candidates, consultants and neoliberal think tanks (such as the misnamed Center for American Progress, or CAP) viable. Nearly four years of relentless attacks on Trump, but also on the progressives, focusing on a conspiracy theory that Trump won election through collusion with Russia did nothing to grow their base of support among eligible voters. In fact, Democrats in Congress mostly acceded to the budgets proposed by Trump, his continuation of military intervention, and did little to oppose trade deals and tax cuts that primarily benefited large corporations and the rich. The reasons for their ineffectual resistance to Trump's agenda should be obvious. It benefited their donors, even as it harmed the people they claim to represent
The leadership of the Democratic Party never expected their most passionate voters to revolt and create a movement around by a long ignored left-leaning independent politician, Bernie Sanders. The new wave of progressives primarily coalesced around his 2020 bid for the Dem nomination and his platform that includes the progressive policies he and noe they champion. Now that Sanders eads the race for the 2020 nomination. the Democratic establishment, in a panic, turned to a former Republican Mayor of New York City, a billionaire named Michael Bloomberg. This was done despite his racist, sexist and anti-democratic positions, values that stand in direct opposition to those held by the largest block of voters who typically back the democratic party: people of color and union members, as well as the numerous progressives, amny of them young people, who were energized by Sanders' 2016 run, and to a lesser extent, by others who claimed the progressive mantle, such as Warren, Yang and Gabbard.
From what we've witnessed over the last month, it's clear that this crisis within the Democratic party threatens to tear it apart, whether Sanders wins the nomination, or is wrongfully denied it by the DNC and its major donors. Studies done after the 2016 Democratic primaries revealed the extent to which the DNC, controlled by Hillary Clinton, and backed by state parties run by establishment supporters reliant on national leadership, manipulated the primary elections to deny Sanders millions of votes, and quite possibly the 2016 nomination itself. (See, Democracy Lost: A Report on the Fatally Flawed 2016 Democratic Primaries). Now we are seeing a repeat of those same tactics used to defeat him again.
Bloomberg has poured between $200 - $300 million of his $60 Billion dollar fortune already into his campaign, flooding the TV airwaves with ads attacking Sanders and buying influence by contibuting millions to vsrious party organizations and figures among the Dem elites. Other establishment supported candidates such as Biden, Buttegieg and Klobachar have also joined in what appears to be a coordinated effort by all concerned against the Sanders' campaign. Unsurprisingly, corporate media has been consistently hostile to Sanders, even going so far as to suggest he's a Stalin-like figure leading a mob that would execute prominent intellectuals and journalists, or, alternatively, comparing his supporters to Nazi brownshirta,a mob of gangsters terrorizing the American people on the internet, if not in real life.
Waiting in the wings is Hillary Clinton, already rumored to be a potential Vice presidential option for Bloomberg. She has smeared Sanders and other progressive figures such as Tulsi Gabbard, as "Russian Assets," continuing the new McCarthyism by Establishment Democrats have used to smear both Republicans and Progressive Democrats alike, a tactic of vilification that has made political discourse in the USA even more toxic and divisive, again playing into the hands of Donald Trump.
What is the solution to this crisis? Frankly, I see no clear path to salvage the Democratic party. Its center-right leadership and consultant class, by enabling Trump's worst actions as President, has ripped away the veil behind the propaganda machine that had, until recently, so effectively masked the operation of our political duopoly. I can only say I fear for the future, regardless of how this crisis is ultimately resolved. It seems clear that the US government is edging ever closer to devolving into an out and out despotic regime in which electoral offices will be fought over by competing factions of oligarchs, supported or opposed by factions within the military/industrial/intelligence complex. Bernie or Bust, in my mind, has taken on a whole new, and much darker meaning as a result of current events playing out before our eyes.
No one can predict with confidence any resolution of this crisis that doesn't end in significant disruption to the very foundation of our political system. The last time we faced such polarization among the populace was as a result of factional strife in the lead-up to the Civil War. Absent something that unifies the country, as occurred after Japan's December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, I cannot foresee a positive outcome, though I continue to hope for a miracle that offers our country and the world some glimmer of hope that we're not doomed as a species because of the greed and shortsightedness of the planet's oligarchs.