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Is There Hope for America?
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“The whole world should care about America—we should always remember that America’s fate is the world’s fate, since America will determine whether we deal with global heating or whether we self-extinguish.”
“So that’s the basic situation—they’ve had a ‘tiger by the tail’ for a long time. And in 2016 the Mitt Romney establishment failed to contain the voting base and the base finally produced a candidate who managed to break through.”
“There are clear and simple and obvious solutions to America’s political crisis—it’s never rocket science but it’s always hard work.”
I just want to use this piece to discuss American politics and what the solutions to America’s political crisis are. The whole world should care about America—we should always remember that America’s fate is the world’s fate, since America will determine whether we deal with global heating or whether we self-extinguish.
The Coup Attempt
There are ongoing hearings about the coup attempt:
Some people’s views might change in response to the January 6th committee’s public hearings. And in response to the evidence accumulating from that investigation about what happened on January 6th, about Trump’s role in what happened, and about the extent to which a larger conspiracy took place in November 2020 and in December 2020.
So I’m interested in “the extent to which a larger conspiracy took place in November 2020 and in December 2020”—it will be interesting to learn more about that aspect of the coup attempt.
There’s a tendency to dismiss the coup attempt as something that had very little chance to succeed—watching the hearing last night, I couldn’t help but feel that this attitude toward the coup attempt is unbelievably callous and offensive and ignorant, since people put their lives on the line and suffered trauma and injury and even died:
At one point, a police officer who was injured at the Capitol, Caroline Edwards, testified to seeing “officers on the ground. They were bleeding. They were throwing up. I saw friends with blood all over their faces. I was slipping in people’s blood. I was catching people as they fell. It was carnage. It was chaos.”
Would you personally have had the courage to put your life on the line in that situation? I’m a coward regarding physical threats—I doubt that I personally would’ve been willing to engage in hand-to-hand combat in order to buy precious time and slow down the invasion and protect Congress.
So it’s true that the coup attempt didn’t involve the military, but take a few minutes to think about (1) the trauma and (2) the injury and (3) the death. We shouldn’t in any way minimize the fact that people who had never even been trained for combat actually had the courage to engage in hand-to-hand combat—and risk their lives—in order to buy precious time and slow down the invasion and protect Congress.
the real headline that should have come out of yesterday’s hearings was not about Ivanka or Jared or hanging Vice President Pence or combat-like violence against Capitol Police. It is that the world’s leading democracy is in critical condition, and unless it can be saved through hearings like these, and by the actions of the Department of Justice and by voters going to the polls, the consequences for the entire planet will be profound.
So healing America is an issue for the whole world, since the “consequences for the entire planet will be profound”—it’s not like the world can survive if the US doesn’t lead the way on global heating.
we need a committee that will be focused not on the specific actions of this or that individual but on the broad social conditions that threaten to bring American democracy to its knees.
I would also love to see a committee focused on “the broad social conditions that threaten to bring American democracy to its knees”, but I’m not sure why that goal should be posed as an alternative to the goal that’s related to the ongoing hearings—don’t you need both committees?
my imagination will not attempt to set bounds to the daring depravity of the times. The stockjobbers will become the pretorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, and overawing it, by clamours and combinations.
It’s poignant to read Madison’s words here—Madison wanted to give power to a wealthy elite so that that wealthy elite could safeguard America’s genuine interests:
These scholars recount Madison’s hope that it would be the “enlightened Statesman” and “benevolent philosopher” who would share in the exercise of power in the political system he designed. Ideally “pure and noble,” these “men of intelligence, patriotism, property and independent circumstances” would be a “chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interests of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” They would thus “refine” and “enlarge” the “public views,” guarding the public interest against the “mischiefs” of democratic majorities.
It’s striking to hear from the system’s main architect himself—in that 1791 letter—that the “enlightened” and “benevolent” and “pure and noble” elite of “intelligence, patriotism, property and independent circumstances” was actually turning out to be anything but what Madison had hoped for.
I think about that 1791 letter a lot when I look at American politics. You have today a situation where the “daring depravity” is worse than Madison’s worst nightmares and the “pretorian band of the Government” has—“bribed by its largesses”—definitely succeeded in “overawing” the government through “clamours and combinations”.
There’s a fundamental problem, though—people are able to vote in the United States, and it’s not exactly a brilliant political strategy to go on the campaign trail and say: “Hey, everyone! Vote for me so I can pour money into billionaires’ overstuffed pockets and rob you blind and stab you in the back!”
You have to come up with a more effective political strategy than telling the truth. And there have always been certain options on the American political-strategy menu. And they’ve always been extremely ugly options.
That’s the basic situation regarding the US—the basic essence of it is actually very simple and goes all the way back to that 1791 letter. It’s not necessarily that the rich and powerful always love the idea of poisoning US democracy and turning the US into a horrifying Hungary-style “illiberal democracy”, but what’s the alternative when you need to mobilize votes for your neoliberal agenda?
You need some way to get the votes. And of course, the crazy stuff can get out of control—I took some notes based on a commentary from back in the 1990s:
“What’s happened here is very interesting. If people weren’t suffering, if you were looking at it from Mars, it would be interesting to watch.”
“Big business for years has been trying to undermine and roll back the whole social contract, the welfare system, and so on.”
“But there are elections. You can’t approach the population and say, Look, vote for me, I want to kill you. That doesn’t work.”
“So what they’ve had to do is to try to organize people, as have other demagogues, on other issues, what they like to call ‘cultural issues.’”
“So what they’ve organized is Christian fundamentalists and jingoist fanatics and a whole range of extremists, plus plenty of people who live off the government but pretend that they’re entrepreneurial, like the high tech culture, all publicly subsidized, but they pretend all sorts of entrepreneurial values.”
“They’re all big libertarians as long as the government’s paying them off enough. Gingrich is the perfect example.”
“So that collection of people is the only one they can mobilize.”
“It’s not hard in the U.S. It’s a depoliticized society. There’s no civil society. It’s been destroyed. There is very deep fundamentalist fanaticism, widespread fear, a very frightened society, people hiding in terror. The jingoism is extraordinary.”
“This is all a result of lots of corporate propaganda and other such things.”
“But the result is that they’ve now got a tiger by the tail.”
“It’s a little bit the way probably Hitler’s backers in the industrial-financial world felt by the late 1930s. The only way they were able to organize people was in terms of fear and hatred and jingoism and subordination to power. Pretty soon they had these maniacs running around taking political control of the state.”
“The state is a powerful institution.”
“We’re getting something like that in the U.S. There is an anti-big business mood among the troops that big business has mobilized.”
“The reason is they couldn’t mobilize them on any other grounds. You couldn’t mobilize them on the real project, namely kill yourselves. That won’t work.”
“So they had to do it around other projects, and there aren’t a lot around.”
“So you get something like—I don’t want to draw the analogy too tightly, because things are different—it has something of the feel of Hitler Germany and Khomeini Iran, in which similar sorts of things took place.”
“The business sectors in Iran, the merchants, the bazaaris, the guys who wanted to get rid of the Shah, they did organize Islamic fundamentalists. And they weren’t happy with the results.”
“Something similar is happening here.”
“The Russians are gone.”
“The Pentagon stays the same, in fact it’s even going up.”
“We were told for fifty years, which of course was always ridiculous, that we need this huge military to defend us from the Russians.”
“What happened is, it’s there for the same reason it always was.”
“How else are Newt Gingrich’s rich constituents going to stay rich?”
“You obviously can’t subject them to market discipline. They’ll be out selling rags. They wouldn’t know what it means to exist in a market.”
“What they know is, the government puts money in their pockets, and the main way it does it is through the whole Pentagon system.”
“Gingrich’s constituency, his district, gets more federal subsidies than any suburban county in the country outside the federal system”
“Take away Arlington, Virginia, which is part of Washington, and the Florida home of the Kennedy Space Center, and Cobb County is first.”
“That’s the nanny state. They are the beneficiaries of social policies which direct public resources toward the rich.”
“A lot of it is through the Pentagon, which has that domestic function.”
“So his constituency is in fact the beneficiaries of the nanny state to an extent beyond probably any other in the country outside the federal system.”
You don’t tell people that the game plan is to pour money into rich people’s pockets, though. You instead mobilize people on “cultural issues”—“cultural issues” is a highly euphemistic way to refer to certain virulent and poisonous currents that go way back in American history.
And when it comes to the whole Trump era, people need to remember that the GOP’s Mitt Romney establishment had a “tiger by the tail” for a long time before a candidate from the base finally broke through in 2016—I took these notes based on a 2019 commentary:
“Two well-known commentators from the American Enterprise Institute, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein years ago, described the Republican Party since Newt Gingrich as a radical insurgency that has abandoned parliamentary politics, and is now off in a different dimension.”
“What’s actually happened is that during the neoliberal period both of the political parties have shifted to the right.”
“So the mainstream Democrats, the ones who are now meeting with their billionaire friends to try to figure out how to get rid of Sanders and Warren, they’re basically what used to be called moderate Republicans.”
“The Democrats abandoned the working class by the late ’70s.”
“The last bit of a show of interest was the Humphrey Hawkins 1978 Full Employment Bill which Carter watered down so that it had no teeth.”
“And after that, they kind of gave up.”
“They handed the working class over to their class enemy, the Republicans who try to mobilize them on what are called cultural issues.”
“They’re shafting them at every turn, including Trump, but you can try to mobilize them on the basis of abortion, immigrants, guns, anything but the real issues.”
“it’s worth looking back a little bit”
“for the last, I suppose, 15 years, take a look at the Republican primaries”
“Every Republican primary, a candidate who arose from the base was so outrageous that the Republican establishment tried and succeeded in suppressing them.”
“All madmen, and they managed to suppress them.”
“What was different in 2016 is that they failed.”
the GOP’s “primary constituency is extreme wealth and corporate power”
“Those are the ones they serve.”
“So you take the one legislative achievement of the Trump administration, the tax scam. That was for the rich and the very rich and the corporate sector.”
“Take deregulation, does it help working people to eliminate health and safety conditions in the workplace? Does it increase profits?”
“Same across the board.”
“So you run across the legislative programs, the ones that are carried out by the really evil characters, Mitch McConnell. Before him, Ryan and so on.”
“those policies are dedicated to the traditional Republican constituency”
“But you can’t get votes on those policies. So you have to mobilize some kind of a voting base.”
So that’s the basic situation—they’ve had a “tiger by the tail” for a long time. And in 2016 the Mitt Romney establishment failed to contain the voting base and the base finally produced a candidate who managed to break through.
There are clear and simple and obvious solutions to America’s political crisis—it’s never rocket science but it’s always hard work. Here’s a comment from Ornstein:
Right now we need to mobilize enough outside forces to prevent the worst—which is a successful coup—from happening.
These pieces argue that we have to activate all of those moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans—the Liz Cheney types and the ones who have become the Jennifer Rubins in the society—and unite together to prevent our democracy from being distorted or destroyed in the coming weeks and months.
There are a sizable number of these Liz Cheney types out there who have access to bully pulpits and access to media, and they’re influential, and some of them are ex-officeholders. So I think that these people can be mobilized to at least try to change the public narrative.
“push for education reform”
“roll back willful ignorance”
“stigmatize willful ignorance”
“roll back the phenomenon where people celebrate contempt for science”
“stigmatize the phenomenon where people celebrate contempt for science”
DiMaggio comments as follows:
We have to build this mass movement and achieve these things—if we don’t, we’ll continue to live in a nation where people construct their own “truths” in ways that often diverge very dramatically from reality.
What about Noam Chomsky’s ideas for how to turn things around in America? I took notes on a fantastic 2017 Chomsky interview:
“The Left needs to become uniﬁed and integrated because whatever particular issue you’re working on, this crisis of potential extinction is overshadowing it. There must be international solidarity.”
“The situation for organizing here is not that bleak.”
“There’s a natural and justiﬁed call for change. These are opportunities for the Left.”
“Many of the people who voted for Trump could have voted for Sanders.”
“The so-called identity politics has led to great successes, but when they are designed and presented in such a way that they appear to be an attack on the lifestyle, values, commitments of a large part of the population, there’s going to be reaction. That shouldn’t be done.”
“The core of this, I think, which you’ve mentioned several times, is revitalizing the labor movement.”
the reasons that labor has to be at the core “include scale, history, and so on, the ways people interact, gain understanding, and become committed to work together for common goals that will beneﬁt all”
“Labor has always been and will continue to be pretty much in the forefront of any progressive activities, just as it has been in the past.”
“It’s been severely damaged by corporate and government programs going back to right after the Second World War, but escalating during the Reagan and Clinton period, the neoliberal period.”
“It can be revitalized.”
we don’t just have to organize “people living in the bayous”—we have to organize people who are “living 2 miles away from us”
“There are things to be done.”
“It doesn’t have to be just labor, but that should be a central part.”
“Organize in churches, organize in communities.”
“How did the Central America solidarity movements develop? People totally secular and Left like me were perfectly capable of working together with Evangelical Christians on concrete things, like helping communities protect themselves from criminal atrocities, state crimes, and so on.”
regarding the civil rights movement, there was “real interaction, very constructive interaction”—you had “Northern college students” and you had “deeply impoverished repressed Black areas in the rural South” and these two demographics helped “each other, worked together, created bonds”
“It can be done.”
“There’s no point arguing that it can’t be done because the cultural differences are too great.”
“Press forward as far as you can.”
“My guess is one will ﬁnd that the cultural differences, though they’ll remain (why shouldn’t they?) can be overcome by common concerns and interests.”
“We should proceed with the opportunities we have which are considerable.”
“Almost half the population thinks there can’t be a climate change problem because of the Second Coming within a couple decades. That is not dealt with by demonstrations, but by sympathetic interactions.”
“Pursue the opportunities that exist.”
“There are many of them.”
“We don’t know how far they can reach.”
“There’s no point mourning the bad things that happen.”
“Find the things that can be done.”
“Many of them with international connections, because there are similar problems.”
“Many of them integrating people who seem to be on opposite sides of the divide, but really have common interests. Those could be extricated and pursued.”
And what’s my own point about what can be done to fix America’s problems? This isn’t an original point or anything, but my unoriginal point would be that we should look at what institutional power is up to and take that as a cue and do the exact opposite.
So institutional power want to depoliticize people? Repoliticize people.
And institutional power wants to stimulate distrust and isolate people and destroy social bonds? Overcome distrust and bring people together and build social bonds.
It’s never rocket science, but it’s always hard work—the stakes literally couldn’t be higher and the opportunities to make a difference regarding humanity’s trajectory literally couldn’t be greater.