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Tom Engelhardt: The Meaning of a Do-Nothing Election

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The Mandate of Hell
How Not to Change the World
By Tom Engelhardt

In the fall of 1948, Harry Truman barnstormed the country by train, repeatedly bashing a "do-nothing Congress," and so snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in that year's presidential campaign.  This year, neither presidential candidate focused on blasting a do-nothing Congress or, in Obama's case, "Republican obstructionism," demanding that the voters give them a legislative body that would mean an actual mandate for change. 

We now know the results of such a campaign and, after all the tumult and the nation's first $6 billion election, they couldn't be more familiar.  Only days later, you can watch a remarkably recognizable cast of characters from the reelected president and Speaker of the House John Boehner to the massed pundits of the mainstream media picking up the pages of a well-thumbed script.

Will it be bipartisanship or the fiscal cliff?  Are we going to raise new revenues via tax reform or raise tax rates for the wealthiest Americans?  Will the president make up with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or not?  Will it be war or something less with Iran?  And so on and so forth.  It's the moment the phrase dej- vu all over again was made for.

A Hell of Our Own Making

When a new Chinese dynasty came to power, it was said that it had received "the mandate of heaven."  We've just passed through an election campaign that, while the noisiest in memory, was enveloped in the deepest of silences on issues that truly matter for the American future.  Out of it, a "mandate" has indeed been bestowed not just on Barack Obama, but on Washington, where a Republican House of Representatives, far less triumphant but no less fully in the saddle than the president, faces media reports that its moment is past, that its members are part of "the biggest loser demographic of the election," and that its party -- lacking the support of young people, single women, those with no religious affiliation, Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans -- is heading for the trash barrel of history.

If true, that does sound like a mandate for something, sooner or later -- assuming you happen to have years of demographic patience.  In the meantime, there will be a lot more talk about how the Republicans need to reorient their party and about a possible "civil war" over its future.  And while we're at it, bet on one thing: we're also going to hear a ton more talk about how much deeply unhappy Americans -- the very ones who just reinstalled a government that's a senatorial blink away from the previous version of the same -- really, really want everyone to make nice and work together.

But isn't it time to cut the b.s., turn off those talking heads, and ask ourselves: What does election 2012 really mean for us and for this country?

Let's start with one basic reality: we've just experienced a do-nothing election that represents a mandate from a special American kind of hell. (Admittedly, Mitt Romney's election, which would have put the House of Representatives and Big Energy in the Oval Office, undoubtedly represented a more venal circle of that fiery establishment.)

That, in turn, ensures two different but related outcomes, both little discussed during the campaign: continuing gridlock on almost any issue that truly matters at home and a continuing damn-the-Hellfire-missiles, full-speed-ahead permanent state of war abroad (along with yet more militarization of the "homeland").  The only winners -- and don't believe the outcries you're hearing about sequestration "doom" for the military -- are likely to be the national security complex, the Pentagon, and in a country where income inequality has long been on the rise, the wealthy.  Yes, in the particular circle of hell to which we're consigned, it's likely to remain springtime for billionaires and giant weapons manufacturers from 2012 to 2016.

How do we know that gridlock and a permanent state of war are the only two paths open to the people's representatives, that Washington is quite so constrained?  Because we've just voted in a near-rerun of the years 2009-2012, which means that the power to make domestic policy (except at the edges) will continue to slowly seep out of the White House, while the power of the president and the national security state to further abridge evaporating liberties at home and make war abroad will only be enhanced.  The result is likely to be stasis for the globe's last superpower at a moment when much of the world -- and the planet itself -- is in the process of tumultuous transformation.

Here are things not to expect: a major move to rebuild the country's tattered infrastructure; the genuine downsizing of the American global military mission; any significant attempt to come to grips with a changing planet and global warming; and the mobilization of a younger generation that, as Hurricane Sandy showed, is ready to give much and do much to help others in need, but in the next four years will never be called to the colors.

In other words, this country is stuck in a hell of its own making that passes for everyday life at a moment when the world, for better and/or worse, is coming unstuck in all sorts of ways.

Fiddling While the Planet Burns

The United States remains a big, powerful, wealthy country that is slowly hollowing out, breaking down.  Meanwhile, on planet Earth, the global economy is up for grabs.  Another meltdown is possible, as the European, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian economies all continue to take hits.  Power relations have been changing rapidly, from the rise of Brazil in what was once Washington's "backyard" to the Chinese miracle (and the military muscle that goes with it).  A largely American system that long helped keep the Greater Middle East, the energy heartlands of the globe, under grim, autocratic control is unraveling with unknown consequences.  Above all, from increasingly iceless Arctic waters to ever more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and the acidification of the oceans, this planet is undergoing a remarkably rapid transformation based largely on the release into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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