It's impossible, whether tracking stock slides, baseball slumps, or TV shows, to confirm bottoms when they happen, to know precisely when enough is enough. Or, with unending, unwinnable, remote wars, what defines way beyond "enough" until we begin to withdraw. Encircled by bad news, this week my optimistic side looks for solace: can things get too much worse? If not, they may bounce upwards so let us search out light from darkness, how this distraught democracy survives propaganda, betrayal, rigged districts and elections, change to believe in, or unlimited lobbyist bankrolling.
It won't be easy as no one is singing "Happy Days are Here Again," as if days gone by were all that happy. But don't the last few weeks promise a bottoming out at least in general perception on core issues. That hardly means change is in the air - if wars are models of how we extricate ourselves from blunders, we retreat at a snail's pace.
There's one visible, positive factor lurking about, transcending all political noise: a simple, easy way to evaluate the quality of this administration. When you look back on these dreary days, say in ten years, the macro line in the sand will be whether or not this president fulfilled his primary promise: to turn away from Bushism, to reverse eight years of low points in American history and politics, to become the UnBush and reset the compass.
Good News: Low Points Coalesce
Enough of a critical mass of low points, across economics, politics, and systemic rules (the law, regulations), should if history is our guide trigger opposing, restorative responses. The logic is simple: descend far enough, and there will be enough societal pain to inspire a reaction, eventually. By this measure, the national pain threshold, the elites in power are making fine progress: job creation is stagnant, wars and confidence in militarism are both falling, the Senate staggers, the Supreme Court now threatens, not secures the Constitution, cultural wars are regaining strength, and the rightwing is winning the message wars.
Whether or not this White House disregards the liberal base that elected it, or kowtows to rightwing dinosaurs for that 60th Senate vote, what matters most is whether this country can - in fact and perception - reverse Bushism, rebooting, resetting priorities and power relationships. The best way to measure any such reversal is how much goes to Wall Street and big business vs. how much goes to Main Street - whether our democracy is about helping the few or the many, the majority of the people in need. To that degree, despite its imperfections, health insurance reform stands as one exception to the rule.
Assess income and asset gaps, however, and there's negative progress, getting worse over three decades, But that's what bottoms are about: the chance to shift the see-saw of power battles between elites and masses. Let us remember: we reversed a healthy spreading of wealth (from the 1930's through the 1970's in real per capita income) with Reagan and culminated in the late Bush era. Equity is about how a society divvies up its spoils, with spending and taxation the keys, and what happened once could in theory reoccur.
Wars Stinking Like Dead Fish
In these terms, good news is not impossible to find: the Afghan war - in military, political, or popular terms - is kaput, support peeling away, a dead fish beginning to smell. Likewise the war in Iraq, which today the president confirmed would "end" on schedule (switching mercenary for "combat troops"). Any reduction in our occupation forces is a plus, especially as Gen. Patraeus predicts no "victory" and Defense Secretary Gates confirms our Afghan war never aimed to "build a better society." What a relief. Wikileaks may not add sensational new information, but will cement anti-war sentiment. Three times more Democrats in Congress (102) voted against supplemental war funding this year vs. last. Crumbs count as the ship-tanker of state turns.
The Shirley Sherrod incident must (we pray) be a low point for media negligence, as most outlets should be mortified by zero due diligence. Likewise, will even this panicky White House soon again callously sacrifice its own staff (or nominees) to rightwing smear tactics? For months, an awakened public majority may bring not just skepticism, but higher resistance to extremist propaganda or loudmouths like Palin, Beck, and Gingrich. That propaganda flourishes is bad news; yet showing it to be indefensible double-dealing reveals its true nature: as much a threat to democracy as terrorism.
That the Dept. of Justice commenced an exceptional criminal investigation of BP outlaws is good news as such negligence is routinely written off as "accidents." If blatant criminality merits full indictment, then the worst environmental "accident" in history becomes the worst, most expensive corporate crime in history, bringing fines and prison terms. Regulating offshore drilling will likely improve, even be killed in sensitive areas.
May it not be salutary, in the long run, that the failed Paulson-Geithner-Summers Stimulus is getting bad press, missing the promised unemployment targets by 20%? If today's corporate-friendly subsidies and ill-spent pump-priming emerges as a fraud, that could inspire actual job-creation programs, more unemployment benefits, a fairer tax system, even offset a few income and asset gaps. No predictions, just projections. Failure can teach if realized.
Key Linkages Gaining Ground
I take heart more people are coming to appreciate direct correlations, familiar to lefties, between the following: horrendous war spending, misguided anti-terrorism that squanders billions (see Washington Post reports), corporate welfare, the absence of job growth, the outsourcing of our industrial base, and the increasing demolition of the middle class. The linkage between high employment and misspent government budgeting is emerging, even if the Tea Party so far defines the terms. Whether hard times this year favor the GOP, the Greed Over People party, thus delaying any possible progress, well, that's another column. I said Happy Days are far off.
Admittedly, it's hard to see the economy, civil and legal rights, foreign affairs, or the environment as better off now than two years ago. The Constitution, shredded by Cheney's radical insurgency, is in worst shape, and the longer it takes to repair, the harder the restoration. But irritated friends more loyal to the president than I chastise me for quick and negative judgments: Obama may well have six years to reverse trends. And I say, "Bravo, but can't we quicken the process by canning key White House staffers standing in the way?"
P.S. Did I mention Sarah Palin lags behind four other Republican dinosaurs in early New Hampshire popularity and multiple "Tea Parties," per a Mother Jones headline, are "Racked By Infighting, Confusion and Dissent"? Better still, Palin admitted lacking a "hardy enough constitution" to be president and the estimable E.J. Dionne, Jr. wondered if the Sherrod smear could mark "The End of the Fox News Era?" Like hot weather, good news is busting out all over, if you just hunt hard enough.