Pundits of all stripes are calling this past
decade a thoroughgoing disaster, one of the worst in our nation's history.
True, but there's another way of evaluating the CheneyBush era.
Sure, lots of horrific things happened in the years between 2000 and 2010: a
massive terrorist attack, our country lied into a disastrous war in Iraq,
the Administration colluding with corporations in looting the treasury and
polluting the air and water, a great recession brought into being at least
partially by refusing to enforce oversight regulations on financial
institutions, eight years lost in the fight against global warming. Yes, all
those things, and many more dark episodes, including the strengthening of a
kind of native fascism, happened during the CheneyBush era.
But those shameful ashes of the past eight years can, Phoenix-like, also
yield a momentous rebirth of American democracy, a more rational foreign
policy, and economic justice. What leads me to this contrarian conclusion?
The essence of my guarded optimism rests on the Removal of the Veils.
THE RARE MOMENTS OF REVELATION
Stick with me here. Most of the time, governmental corruption, moral and
ethical lapses, wrongheaded economic and foreign/military policies take
place in secret, hidden behind the veils designed to keep the truth of
what's really going on from the public. But once every 10 or 20 years, at
least in America, the veils part a bit and we can see the scarefying reality
of how our government really work: the Army/McCarthy hearings in the 1950s,
Watergate and the Pentagon Papers in the early-1970s, Iran-Contra in the
early-1980s, and the CheneyBush era of the past eight years.
Suddenly, the citizenry is permitted at least a long, partial glance at the
true corporatist/extremist forces at work in our society. The pictures are
not pretty. Historically, out of those revelations comes anger, activism, at
least some reforms and, at least for a while, a new and often better crop of
politicians. The GOP found out about that pattern in 2006 and 2008, when
their misrule led to Democratic majorities. Now Obama's the object of anger.
There is major anti-Administration activism coming from both the Left and
the Right, including even a budding Know-Nothing party or faction forming on
the tea-bagging extreme -- all signs that indicate the presence of major
seismic activity under the tectonic plates of the American political
Let's use America's foreign/military policy as our first demonstration model
for this Removal of the Veils:
"Soft imperialism" -- using diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions,
political leverage, firm but gentle threats, etc. -- has characterized U.S.
foreign/military policy for decades, under all presidents. But when the
neo-conservatives took power in 2001, the CheneyBush regime felt that "soft"
way of acting was liberal-sissy and wouldn't frighten anyone into acceding
to American demands. And so, with the Soviet Union gone and the U.S. as the
last remaining Superpower, CheneyBush were proud to reveal the iron fist of
"hard imperialism" hidden inside the velvet glove of diplomacy. Read the
that became official U.S. policy; it wasn't enough to threaten to
attack, the U.S. was required to initiate at least one major war and,
even better, two.
That's what blitzkrieg and "shock-and-awe" were all about. You resist us,
we'll bomb you to smithereens. Don't push us, just do what we say and get
out of our way. There was even a theological imperative behind such
arrogance. Bush, a numbskull unable to keep truths from exiting his mouth,
gave that cat away when he revealed God commanded him:
"George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq", and that his job as president
was to "catapult the propaganda." You may also remember that Bush originally
used the term "crusade" to describe the U.S. mission in that Muslim region.
That exceptionalist, neo-con philosophy, the basis for an astoundingly
aggressive U.S. foreign/military policy from 2001 to 2009, is still the
prevailing thinking in the GOP today. In some ways, these militarist
policies continue under Obama, though he also seems open to returning the
country to its "soft imperialism" mode.
(We still haven't reached the point in America's political maturity --
mostly controlled and dominated by corporatist forces -- where we can have a
full and open debate about whether any imperialism, soft or hard, is what
America ought to be practicing. Nor is there a willingness to admit to and
talk about U.S. foreign policies that so many terrorists describe as their
reasons for joining the Islamist jihad; pretending they want to attack
America because "they hate us for our freedoms" or because they are "evil"
is simply an attitude of denial that will come back to bite us big-time.)
Let us not forget that the negative result of this neo-con attack on Iraq
was to turn much, if not most, of the world against the United States. More
than ten million citizens in nations around the globe, knowing the disaster
that would follow America's imperialist misadventure, demonstrated against
CheneyBush's imminent war on Iraq. Protests of such magnitude never had
occurred in human history. Even America's key allies, such as Germany, poked
the U.S. sharply in the eye in public against the coming war and then the
That revulsion and negativity directed against the United States, which
receded when Obama became President, seems to be returning in certain
regions, especially in the Muslim world where they see Obama continuing
CheneyBush's militarist policies: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan,
et al. The presence of U.S. troops on the ground, drone attacks inside
sovereign nations, heavy "collateral damage" of civilians -- all of these
are helping to foment the nationalist and Islamist insurgencies in those
countries, rather than tamping them down. This stark fact is given little
consideration in the Obama White House, and the same holds true for the
conservative-leaning mainstream news media. In short, how far have we moved
from disastrous CheneyBush policies? What lessons have our leaders learned,
So we've got the example of American imperialism, which, as we've learned
from the removal of the veils, in Iraq as in Vietnam has demonstrated its
inherent weakness in dealing with motivated nationalists/religionists. And
yet the U.S. blunders on, as if caught up in a sticky loop from which there
is no escape.
How about one more example before we discuss how all this might benefit
THE VEIL OVER CAPITALISM
Normally, the Veils of Power conceal well the inner workings of American
capitalism. But when that economic system nearly collapses into itself, as
happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s and in the second CheneyBush
term, it's fairly easy to see the outlines of how that system behaves.
Simply stated, greed controls all. CheneyBush, true believers in
laissez-faire capitalism, permitted greed to flourish in the
financial/investment sector devoid of oversight. So what if firms were
selling bundled derivatives around the globe based on nothing but a Ponzi-like
belief in constantly rising real-estate values? Everyone was making out like
bandits. Spread the wealth. The wondrously stable "free-market" economy
could handle whatever blips came its way.
But it wasn't a mere blip in late-'07 and 2008. It was a perfect storm of
economic awfulness, involving all sectors of banking, real estate,
investment, etc. The resulting recession/depression, which we're still in
and won't leave anytime soon, is basically punishing the poor and ruining
the American middle class, all while the still-unregulated large banks and
big investment houses took the bailout money and ran with it, and have
returned to much the same risky financial adventurism that nearly took down
the U.S. and world economies. (While, of course, still awarding themselves
unconscionably huge bonuses.)
Even former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan had to publicly admit that he, and
by implication the American economic system, had been operating for more
than four decades on a false theory that "free market" capitalism always
corrected itself and didn't need governmental regulation. But there has been
no such "correction" and, unless the government passes and enforces some
regulation of their misbehavior soon, prepare for Great Depression#2.
THE EMPEROR APPEARS NAKED
What happens when veils are removed? One sees the system exposed, all the
warts, jerry-rigged structures, thievery, manipulation, corruption, etc. We
saw American capitalism naked, and it wasn't a pretty sight. Still, these
financial players ("too big to allow to fail") rule the roost, along with
similar behemoths in the fields of energy, pharmaceuticals, insurance, the
military-industrial complex, etc. Despite the low opinion in which they are
regarded by the masses, they exert enormous political influence and continue
to operate mostly as they wish even today.
Congress takes no effective action even while smoldering rage and resentment
and desire for political vengeance is building around the country,
especially on the Left and Right but also in the middle, as ordinary
citizens see their retirement funds shrink or disappear, as states can't
fund social or educational services, as municipalities run out of money to
maintain the infrastructure of basic civil life.
When the system collapsed in the 1930s, and socialism gained ground in the
public imagination, the patrician FDR realized that capitalism was doomed
unless it could be reformed, with serious financial oversight, more
anti-trust laws, and firewalls between regular banks and investment houses (the
"Glass-Steagall" Act). In taking these reformist actions, regarded
by Republicans in those days as near-traitorous acts of class-betrayal,
President Roosevelt saved the American capitalist system.
But, quite obviously, CheneyBush, locked into their ideology of rampant
greed and free-market illusions, exhibited no such wisdom, and celebrated
the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and here we are several years later still
trying to climb out of the Republican-generated economic pit.
Economists tell us that we should expect at least a 10% unemployment rate
(that's the officially-reckoned rate, it might be as much as 20% out in the
real world) for at least five to ten years. To close that employment gap,
the economy might best need another huge stimulus infusion to help create
jobs that the private sector is not willing or able to do. But good luck
with that. Obama probably won't touch that third-rail now, and the 2010
midterm elections don't offer all that much hope either for stable majority
control for the Democrats.
At the very least, if Obama can keep in mind the FDR/New Deal lessons, and
if he wants to save an already-shaky capitalism from imploding, he's got to
lead the charge for major, systemic reform, get it passed, and enforce the
hell out of it. Continuing to play footsy with the financial big boys will not do, and
will lead to him being a one-term president for sure. One suspects he knows
this already, but is politically incapable of moving and fighting.
WHAT CAN PROGRESSIVES DO?
So why am I somewhat hopeful, given all this chaos and corruption and
failure at the top?
Because the veils have been removed.
Most of us political junkies were aware of (or at least suspected) most of
these revelations before, but now the inner workings of the
corporatist-capitalist state have been revealed for the entire citizenry.
Most of the anger and frustration in the body politic is inchoate at this
point or has gone into the demagoguery of the tea party sort. But this
scattered and growing rage and resentment is a wake-up call to those of us
on the progressive left to get our asses in gear, create ourselves a wide,
deep movement, and use this new public knowledge and frustration to organize
for the battles now and to come.
Certainly, the far right is out there trying to shape this civic anger in
ways that will benefit their narrow-minded view of the world. And if they
are able to take back the House or gain enough seats in the Senate in the
midterm election in November -- which they could do if there is no
countervailing organizing effort from the left -- you can just imagine the
horrendous damage they will cause in everything from global warming denial
to a further diminution of civil liberties to putting troops on the ground
in Yemen. The progressive left has to respond. We have to rid ourselves of
obsessively focusing on our own little issue and interest-group and join
forces to create an enormous coalition much like "The Movement" in the '60s.
We have to organize the anger and show our fellow citizens (using what we've
now learned) who the real villains are and how to send them packing.
That may mean running for office, actively helping choose and support good
candidates, organizing locally around local issues, contributing money,
taking our money out of the half-dozen largest banks and investment houses
and putting in into local community banks and credit unions (read about
Move Your Money), founding bartering societies and community gardens,
launching affinity groups, writing letters and articles, organizing creative
demonstrations, using the internet to communicate political ideas more
widely, beginning to think seriously about the founding of a broad
populist-democratic party, whatever.
If we're truly serious about what we believe, we cannot be politically
active once every four years and assume since "our" candidate won that the
dangers have passed. Nobody gets a free pass, not Democrats and certainly
not Republicans. ("Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts
absolutely." -- Lord Acton) Democracy requires participation all the time --
especially in the face of the reckless extremists on the right who would
like nothing better than to return us to the horrendous robber-barons era of
Copyright 2010, by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has
taught at universities in California and Washington, worked as a
writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and
currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org).
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