I'm capable of some serious cynicism, but these days I kinda wish I had a lot more of it. I kinda wish I had born and raised in a more cynical time. Then maybe I wouldn't get my heart broken so often.
That's a funny thing to say about the time I grew up in, in a way. It was the era of Vietnam and Watergate, the era of police attack dogs and burning cities. My Lai, Kent State, Nixon, Watts. What's uglier than that? And can't one make a very compelling case that these are significantly better times today? I mean, after all, the government isn't beating and murdering our kids on America's streets. And while we're still fighting wars (of course), there are a lot less casualties on either side these days. Aren't things better?
No. They're worse. What's absent today from the America of my younger days is hope and understanding. Back then, everyone understood there was a struggle going on, and lots of people did just that. And they generated enormous successes, ranging from changing both racial civil rights laws and norms, to doing the same for gender equality, to demanding cleaner government, to improving the New Deal social safety net, to ending the Vietnam war, to distributing the national wealth more fairly, to changing environmental consciousness and law, and more.
That's all gone. It's been replaced by something far worse than a tired stasis. And, really, when you consider the present picture in its full glory, you're left with something beyond despair. For this is not only a story of deceit and hypocrisy, of rampant greed, of sociopathic disdain for the lives of others, but, finally, also a story of complete betrayal and the predatory exploitation of innocent people.
As in any crime story, it's crucial to understand the who, what, when, why and how in order to unravel the true tale, and to have any hope for crime prevention and remediation in the future.
There's really only one main theme to the story of American politics in the last century (if not more), and that is the question of the distribution of wealth. This is particularly true of the last three decades, a period during which other important things -- not least including wars and civil rights struggles -- transpired, but were ultimately peripheral to the real story. And yet people still don't understand this central concept and the crime committed around it.
A hundred years ago the distribution of wealth in this country looked like that of any standard issue banana republic. The rich had almost everything, and all of the rest of us barely got by, working (alongside our children) long hours in horrid conditions, for low pay, no benefits and zero respect for us as humans deserving of an equal regard for our welfare, happiness, opportunities, fortunes and basic dignity. We were "human resources' (though the term was not in use until the ethos was revived in the present era), who were to be used and abused in the processing of natural resources, and discarded when our usefulness ceased. This approach to class relations within the society produced the expected result: wealthy Americans lived long and highly comfortable lives, while the rest of us resembled something nearer to characters out of Hobbes.
But then Franklin Roosevelt, easily the most transformative figure in American history, gave us a New Deal, which was quite literally that. Roosevelt and his fellow travelers in and out of government changed the essential terms of political economy in America, such that it was no longer a game entirely for the benefit of the wealthy. Mind you, those rich folks still did real well, thank you very much, and it is correctly argued that Roosevelt actually saved capitalism from capitalists -- so, when it comes to FDR, we're not talking about Leon Trotsky here. But Roosevelt's program changed the rules of labor relations, taxation, government spending, regulation and so on, a reform that had the ultimate effect of redistributing wealth in America, so that the richest among us no longer had it all. And, in the process, this massive sea change in public policy also created a giant middle class that had not existed before, and launched an era of prosperity in this country that may have no equal across all of human history.
Which brings us to the "who' of this murder mystery. They are the predatory plutocrats who hated FDR and the New Deal then, and have not stopped doing so down to this day. They despised Roosevelt so much for being "a traitor to his class" that many of them had to refer to him as "that man", because they couldn't bear to actually spit out his name. These people, with their infantile obsession for acquisition coming right out of some Freud 101 textbook, have never gone away. But they were marginalized during the half-century of the New Deal era. In fact, they were marginalized by the core mainstream of even the Republican Party. Dwight Eisenhower referred to them -- in particular, to those who wanted to abolish Social Security twenty years after its launch -- as "stupid".
Eisenhower's comment points to another answer to the "who' question here. Plutocrats need agents to commit their crimes for them. That includes cadres of cops and soldiers who are either clueless as to their place in the scheme of things, or satisfied to be bought off for a few shekels and/or a pittance of prestige in the social hierarchy. In the contemporary context, however, it mostly means politicians. In our time these (alleged) people are little more than kabuki dancers, who job is to maintain a layered set of illusions. On top is the idea of political debate, as if there was fundamentally any difference between the two parties in America. As if Harry Reid and Barack Obama get up every day wondering how they can spend their waking hours fighting off Republican intransigencies to make life better for you and me. At the next level down is the idea of patriotism and the national interest. This facade brainwashes us to believe that while we may disagree with leaders of the other party, at least they are well meaning patriots who just happen to be wrong-headed -- but right-hearted! -- in their prescription for what ails the country. Finally, we have the last veil, the democracy ruse, where we are told that our government is responsive to the public will. Never mind all that corporate money washing around in the system -- it doesn't actually effect anything. It's one person, one vote. Where your representatives are concerned, you count every bit as much as the CEO of Goldman Sachs.
Almost without exception, our contemporary political class serves the function of acting out this tawdry little soap opera, this elaborate diversionary scheme. That's why there's so much overlap between Madison Avenue and Hollywood and Washington, America's politicians are B-rate actors (sometimes literally), playing a role in a lame white-hat-versus-black-hat pseudo-drama filmed on a soundstage called Washington, and doing the commercials in-between as well. But it wasn't always thus. We used to have (at least some) limits, and we used to have (at least some) politicians genuinely committed to the public interest.
That crucial difference gives us the "when' to this tale. For fifty years there was a broad consensus in America around the values of the New Deal and the lessons learned from the period preceding it. That consensus began unraveling in the 1980s, and has continued to do so ever since. The essential narrative of the last thirty years is the story of the dismantling of the New Deal, and with it the broad and shared prosperity that Americans once enjoyed. This process has occurred piecemeal, because it had to, because in fact both the deal of the New Deal era and the values it personifies are highly popular with the American public.
So the "how' was to lie, cheat and steal in order for the rich to redress the "crime' of the New Deal and get "their' money back. Trade deals that seemed on their surface plainly to be disastrous for American workers -- perhaps because that is exactly what they were -- were sold to us as beneficial. Union busting, a la Reagan and PATCO, was made to seem an act of necessary national toughness. And who needed unions, anyhow? Didn't we already have good wages? Deregulation -- hey, what a great idea! Let Wall Street banks do whatever they want -- you know, like in the 1920s! They didn't call "em "roaring" for nuthin', pal! Tax slashing for millionaires and billionaires was another big winner. It'll trickle-down to the rest of us when these job-creators create jobs, it won't cost the government any revenues, and it will jump-start the economy. So what if regressives went zero for three on those claims? We have to cut taxes even more! And then there are the diversions to keep you voting for the kleptocrats at every turn, such as foreign evil-doers (Ooooohhh, Saddam! Very scary! Noriega! Plenty bad man! Castro! An athiest, for Christ's sake!), job-stealing Mexicans (you would have wound up being a rich attorney -- even though you didn't go to law school, or even college -- but some sneaky wetback crossed the border and took your job), and predatory gays who want to deflower your innocent daughter -- er, well, something like that.