It’s fair to say that this is not the very worst of times in American history.
The British are not marching through the homeland, burning down the White House. We are not murdering each other by the hundreds of thousands, as we did during our Civil War. A fourth of us are not unemployed, as was the case during the Great Depression. And Joseph McCarthy – though not necessarily his techniques and his amorality – seems safely ensconced in his grave, despite Ann Coulter’s attempt to revive him (wow, how sick is that?).
It could be worse, true. But this is, nevertheless, an ugly time in the historical journey of this nation, and the peril of the present moment runs far deeper than middle America has begun to appreciate. Just as a single plane crash is often more horrifying to people than is the plethora of everyday car wrecks ultimately inflicting much more carnage on the society in total, so it is that far too many of us are not noticing our slow-motion national wreck, even as it transpires before our eyes.
Make that wrecks, actually, for the crises are multiple, and they are extensive.
You can play all the statistical games you want (Hey, have you heard? National debt as a ratio to GDP over the population growth vector times the inverse of Chinese export subsidy allowances is actually not at historic highs!), but the truth is that we’re handing over an obscene pile of IOUs to our own children. Right now, each American taxpayer owns about $60,000 worth of federal debt, a number which is growing by about $2,000 with each year’s additional deficit, and which is compounded each day by additional interest on the loans as well.
You can bury your head so deep in the sand that the soles of your feet get sunburned, but the idea that "we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them here!" still cannot be made into a sensible conclusion for sentient creatures. The nasty truth about Iraq will not go away. Every additional day there is another day of fodder feeding the booming output for the American hatred factory, as it stamps out enemies of the United States faster than you can say "IED". Even if we weren’t bankrupting ourselves in Baghdad, and even if we hadn’t broken our Army there, as well as our National Guard and Reserves meant for domestic crises, and even if we hadn’t made the rest of the world hate us, this adventure would still be a crisis of first proportions for the United States.
And, perhaps most historically egregious of all (which is really saying a lot!), you can keep cranking up your air conditioner till the knob breaks off in your hand, but that won’t change the facts about the environmental destruction that a society in deep denial is causing to its one and only life support system. Boy, is history going to judge us harshly on this one, assuming there are any people left around to be historians. And, boy, will we deserve that.
The list (sigh) goes on and on. From Florida to Ohio to the (In-)Justice Department itself, American democracy is in crisis on more fronts than I care to count. Our civil liberties are under siege. Jobs are flying out the window. Our healthcare system is the pride of the planet, as long as you’re willing to leave aside those pesky countries of the First and Second Worlds (and even some of the Third). And so on, and so on.
It is truly a dark hour for America, and all roads lead to the same explanatory address: the country has been hijacked by a movement of regressive kleptocrats who have not governed well in large part because their intention never was to govern well – but rather, instead, to liquidate every asset from the beast before then dumping its tattered carcass in a fire sale. There are no parallels for this in our political history. Only the leveraged buyout does it justice. Think of this as the Gordon Gekko model of governance. Woo-hoo.
Add to that, however, the political parallels that do exist. Bush embodies the worst of all American presidencies (and notice they’re almost all Republicans). If you took the drunken bungling of (Bush’s cousin) Franklin Pierce, and combined it with the corruption of the Grant administration, the imperialism of McKinley, the incompetence of Harding, the coldheartedness of Hoover, the militarism of Eisenhower, Constitution-smashing of Nixon, the nationalist arrogance of Reagan, and the ham-handedness of Poppy Bush, you might begin to approximate the disaster of the current Resident. It’s as if Doctor Frankenstein’s assistant not only brought back the sociopath’s brain from the morgue, but every other part as well, and they stitched them all together to make the present monster.
So, yeah, this is some pretty awful stuff, though we also don’t want to overstate the case. This isn’t bad like Civil War bad. But it is still quite disastrous, and it will get worse, even if we were to at least stanch the bleeding today, without taking any remedial steps. Say impeachment were to put an end right now to our lovely little national project of inflicting greater and greater damage upon ourselves (one of "Rumsfeld’s Rules" – and, man, should he ever know: "If you are in a hole, stop digging"). We’d still be suffering for a long time to come. These guys have been so cynically clever with their project from the beginning, and one of the smartest things they’ve done is to temporally disengage consequences from their causes. We’re going to pay huge costs for their mistakes, that’s for sure. But they’ve made sure that those fees mostly come later, not during the time the damages are being done. Kinda like Best Buy selling stereos. We have the "No Payments Till January of 2009!" government, and it works. Turns out you can sell wars, deficits and environmental destruction that way too, not just appliances.
One of the many benefits of doing that (take careful notes here, all you would-be Machiavellis) is that it produces a condition amongst the public in which some substantial political wisdom and some real attention to governance are required to recognize in the present tense how profoundly destructive such regressive policies actually are. Regrettably, not many Americans can claim either of those two qualities, let alone both.
Truly this is one of the worst of times. But, all that said, I actually believe that we stand today on the precipice of a possible reversal of this ugly chapter in our history, and one of considerable potential magnitude. Call it a case of national-scale lemonade-making. Without question, there are a lot of ifs involved for this to transpire. More challenging still is that hitting a few of these conditionals is not enough – we more or less have to do them all. But if we do – and I honestly don’t think that even the collective series is all that improbable – there is real potential here for something positive to happen. And not just a Clintonesque, non-Bushist, version of kinder, gentler corporate marauding. I’m talking about something more akin to a latter day revival of the New Deal. In short, a truly progressive political agenda for America.
The first thing that has to happen to achieve this is more of the same of what we’re experiencing right now. This is well more than possible – it’s highly probable. I don’t think Bush and Cheney are going to be impeached and convicted in the time remaining, and I know for sure they’re not going to change their policy stripes in a last-ditch effort to save this presidency from its unsalvageable fate as the worst in American history. The fundamental mistake that Americans – even those who have come to revile this administration – still make in assessing them is to believe that their problem is incompetence, arrogance, ideological rigidity, political aggressiveness or even petty corruption. All those things are true, of course, in spades, but they also serve to mask a deeper core which is significantly worse. Like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, this administration fundamentally exists to steal the national patrimony from you and I and deliver it into the hands of an already fabulously wealthy plutocracy.
Given that core mission, it is impossible to imagine them reversing the tax giveaways to the rich. Indeed, Bush is seeking to make them permanent. Given that raison d'être, it is impossible to imagine a serious effort on global warming when so much oil and coal money is at stake. Given that purpose, it is impossible to imagine a reversal on Iraq short of Republicans in Congress dusting off their white robes and pointy hats and forming a little posse for a brief cruise down Pennsylvania Avenue (which could happen if Bush continues to be the one-man GOP unemployment machine that he’s become of late). Short of that, however, what would Blackwater or Halliburton, let alone ExxonMobil, say if we bailed on Iraq? No, John Bolton will be out trick-or-treating for UNICEF before we see these guys change stripes.
Of the several things that need to happen for an American progressive revival, you can count this one as a sure thing. Bush will certainly continue to pursue his disastrous policies. Moreover, my gut has never been surer of anything than that scandal in this administration runs deep and wide. I doubt seriously that it can all continue to be bottled up, even though the contemporary Democratic Party would probably attempt the physiologically impossible act of running from its own spine, should it ever happen to accidentally stumble across it tucked away in a broom closet somewhere. Bush will keep pursuing his unpopular policies till the bitter end. Scandals great and small will continue to emerge during the same period. And the public’s attitude toward him will thus migrate from exhausted disdain to active disgust to simmering anger to and perhaps even to a bubbling boil. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a good thing for those of us hoping to advance a progressive agenda in this country.