WTF?: A Letter to
Appalled and Puzzled European Friends
By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
October 20, 2010
Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Your recent email, wondering "what the f--- is going on" these days,
questioning whether we Americans have taken "more than your usual amount of
stupid pills," is well deserving of a considered response.
How is it possible, you ask, that the very rightwing party whose policies
helped create the current mess may very well take control of the House of
Representatives and conceivably the Senate as well, in the upcoming November
elections? "Is the U.S.A. experiencing some kind of death wish? Are we in
Europe witnessing the paroxysms of a failing democracy, and a failing
empire? Will the flat-Earth Know Nothings really take over in America?" Good
It's not easy to explain to foreigners what's happening here and what to do
about it. I do know that in too many societies, for a relatively brief
period of time, a contagious irrationality seems to spread dangerous
nonsense in the polity; moral moorings and common-sense fly out the window.
It's happened in your countries: the French right now ethnically-cleansing
themselves of the Roma/Gypsy peoples, for example, or the Holocaust in
Germany in the 1930-40s. But I'll have a go at some explanations, and you
and your families and friends in those countries can tell me whether my
analyses make any sense.
THE IDEOLOGICAL DIVIDE
To understand our current and dangerous political circus requires a quick
romp through the historical context:
The first thing to understand is that what's happening today in American
politics is not new. One could go back to the major philosophical splits
amongst the Founding Fathers who, because of ideological fervor, were at
each others' throats over how to distribute power. Or we could go back to
the "robber barons" era of the late 19th century, when capitalist greed and
industrial might, both basically unregulated at the time, ran roughshod over
the economy and country. That unrestricted "free-market" philosophy helped
lead eventually to the Great Depression and the resulting major social
correctives of FDR and the Democrats in the 1930s-1940s.
But for our purposes here, let's pick up the thread in 1964 when Arizona
Senator Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president.
EXTREMISM AS A CHERISHED VALUE
For the first time in the modern era, extremism and incitements to violence
were given political cover as they were introduced by a presidential
candidate into American's civic bloodstream. "Extremism in the defense of
liberty is no vice," said Goldwater, to cheering GOP convention delegates.
The corporate/fundamentalist forces behind the Goldwater candidacy knew
their candidate would not win, could not win, in a country still deeply
appreciative of popular liberal policies coming out of post-World War II
reconstruction in the 1950s.
The aim of these wealthy forces was to purge the GOP of its moderate voices
and create an ideologically pure, HardRight party that through education,
political activism and constant agitprop would eventually triumph over
Clearly, they were thinking long term, and it paid off: Ronald Reagan's
victory came 16 years later, in 1980. How did they do it?
BUYING THEIR WAY TO VICTORY
In the years after the Goldwater debacle, billionaire conservative tycoons
bought up mass-media outlets -- book-publishing firms, newspapers, cable
news networks, etc. They funded their own think tanks, with their in-house
academic types churning out intellectual-sounding arguments. They supported
with millions of dollars rightwing student groups on college campuses. They
sponsored how-to-win-election workshops for potential candidates. They
donated huge amounts to centrist news networks, such as PBS (look at who
supports "The News Hour" these days: Chevron, Pacific Life Insurance, Archer
Daniels Midlands, et al.), to help dilute the tenor of objective journalism.
Liberals, meanwhile, were, as usual, dazed and confused, in denial about
what was happening to them and supremely over-confident that their fortress
of power was unassailable. A native fascism could never happen in America,
they believed, since reason would win out over demagoguery and extremist,
authoritarian, Big-Lie politics. Right.
The GOP could always count on one third of the electorate -- by and large,
the fundamentalist, anti-science, anti-change, more authoritarian base --
and were able to lure a goodly number of independents and libertarians to
their cause on certain issues, aided by an increasingly badly-educated
citizenry easily influenced by the mass-media's emphasis on fluff and
nonsense and biased reporting (read: Fox News).
WHACK AN "ENEMY"
Every movement needs a hated enemy. Having one helps stir the emotions,
which means lots of small donations from millions of scared citizens, which
means a huge mailing/recruitment list to build from. In the post-World War
II period, up until the Communist Party imploded in the Soviet Union in the
late-'80s, the Republicans' favorite bete noire was "godless
communism," both abroad and internally. "Socialism" was included under the
hated rubric "communism," just to be sure, and then "liberalism" was
conflated with "socialism," to destroy that brand.
In the 1990s, the conservatives' enemies of choice have included homosexuals
and blacks and browns; later those "enemies" morphed into "terrorists,"
"immigrants" and, for too many, "Muslims." Quick version: the Other. You can
always count on "God, Guns & Gays" to help you win votes.
What is being played so skillfully by the power-composers of the Right (with
Karl Rove as conductor extraordinaire) is the instrument of change as
something to fear. The calm, comfortable world that most middle-class whites
grew up in is quickly cracking apart. More and more ethnic and social
minorities are moving out of their real and perceived "ghetto mentality" and
proudly moving into the social, political and cultural mainstream, jockeying
for power and influence just like everybody else. Internationally, similar
changes are happening, as formerly subservient countries and leaders chafe
under U.S. hegemony and begin to push back. American exceptionalism is
taking a beating.
OUR ERA'S GREAT DEPRESSION
All this is genuinely unsettling, disturbing, scary to many, some of whom
feel -- thanks to incendiary language and incitement to action by rightwing
leaders -- encouraged to initiate violence against leader-identified
"enemies" (and often against journalists who ask pointed questions). Don't
those people and nations know their "place"?
And then a "perfect storm" of social/political/economic collapse occurred in
the last years of the CheneyBush Administration:
* Virtually unregulated, rapacious capitalism led to a meltdown of the
financial system, showing up most visibly in desperate failures of the huge
investment houses, which had been selling unsecured debt instruments in a
massive Ponzi-like scheme. The ramifications of such giant failures affected
economies in countries worldwide, and led to austerity programs negatively
impacting mostly the working and middle-classes. (Unlike docile Americans,
millions of Spaniards and French and Belgians and Greeks have erupted into
open opposition in the streets.)
* The mortgages at the heart of these unsecured debt instruments
("derivatives," "credit default swaps") were peddled by unscrupulous
lenders, and when the economy and real-estate values tanked, the buyers of
homes were left holding the bag. Of course, virtually none of those in the
banks and corporate offices who sold those instruments were ever punished.
In our current plutocratic system, rarely do leaders in positions of power
ever have to pay a real penalty for their bad, or even illegal, acts. Either
they are given a free pass ("too important to fail") or they find a "bad
* With the economy in the toilet, and the Republicans resisting any stimulus
or other effective measures to help the working and middle-class climb out,
fewer and fewer Americans had any cash to buy big-ticket items and many,
with no jobs and the safety-net shredded and their pensions and retirement
savings cut in half, had to struggle just to keep afloat. That meant
factories were shuttered, in addition to those that had been closed because
of "outsourcing" of jobs to China, Mexico, India, et al. during the Clinton
and Bush presidencies. Millions were laid off and, due to the resulting loss
of tax revenues, cities and states were out of monies to finance everything
from police and firefighters to helpful civil servants.
As I write this, an estimated 10-18% of the workforce (roughly 20 million
citizens) are unemployed, and having extreme difficulty finding jobs. More
than 35% of American children are living in poverty. And this current Great
Depression is projected to last many years, maybe a decade or more, as a
result of Republican machinations and Democratic timidity.
MILLIONS OF JOBLESS RECRUITS
Wolfgang, you know better than I do the possible ramifications of having
millions of unemployed young men, many of them under-educated, feeling like
rejected losers. As we know from what happened in Germany in the 1930s,
these angry, frustrated masses of young men and their parents become perfect
fodder for extremist demagogues. What's most frightening, these likely
recruits, energized by their rage and emotions, feel comfortable inside a
balloon of voluntary ignorance, eager to support such political nitwits as
Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, Carl Paladino, Sharron Angle, Rand Paul,
Ken Buck and the rest.
Simple example: When asked whether they support Obama's new health-care
approach, many of these newborn rightwing activists rant about how the
government shouldn't be in the business of helping people via entitlement
programs. But they get very angry if there is any talk about cutting back or
eliminating their agriculture subsidies or Social Security checks or
Medicare coverage. When their hypocrisy is pointed out to them, it becomes
clear that they feel they deserve the government help but the Others,
especially minorities and the poor, do not. Racism and classism are alive
and well in the American polity.
Today, many young, unemployed men (and their parents), devoid of hope, wind
up recruited by militias and political groups of one sort or another, and
are encouraged into action by far-right demagogues like Glenn Beck, Rush
Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin to channel their anger into the Tea
Party movement allied with the Republican Party. Their "enemies," they are
led to believe, are minorities, journalists, "the government," gays,
Muslims, liberals, immigrants, "moderate" politicians, the supposed
SocialistMuslimNaziStalinist in the White House, et al. In other words,
every angry citizen can pick a convenient enemy to hate and act against.
TIMID AND ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
Normally, the party in power would provide energized correctives to pull the
confused, frustrated masses back toward the middle. But the Democrats, and
especially President Obama, have been mostly clueless as to how to combat
this movement, which is based on lies, arrogance, duplicity and threats of
(and actual) violence. In any event, their halfway-effective responses were
always many months too late. Only in recent days, for example, has Obama
even begun to energize his base to fight back in the midterm election, now
two weeks away. He's only partially successful since he and his spokesmen
have belittled the Democrats' progressive base for nearly two years now,
using it as a convenient punching bag as he tried to lure Republicans and
Independents to his side.
Obama was at least a year late in recognizing what progressives knew mere
weeks after his inauguration: that there was no way he ever would be able to
gain GOP support for any of his programs. The Republicans had one goal and
one goal only: destroying his presidency in order to regain their political
power, and all the perk$ that go with that power. If, in their desire to
overturn all the social advances of the New Deal and Great Society, our
current Great Depression gets worse, if millions more lose their jobs, if
the government goes bankrupt, well, that is just the "collateral damage" the
country will have to bear in the name of Freedom.
MIRRORING CHENEY-BUSH POLICIES
Obama had run a campaign in 2008 based on major structural change;
transparency in governance; moving away from CheneyBush policies with regard
to respect for the Constitution, civil liberties, disengaging from the
previous administration's bullying approach in foreign/military policy. But
once in the White House, he continued many of the worst policies begun by
his predecessor in amassing presidential power unchecked by Congress or the
courts. For example, he has assumed the right, with no checks on his
authority, to order the assassinations of Americans suspected of alliances
with terrorists. And he has enlarged, rather than diminished, U.S.
operations in Afghanistan, and found a way to authorize "extraordinary
renditions" to other countries especially skilled in torturing prisoners.
Obama can rightfully point to a good many solid initiatives that a President
McCain never would have pushed for, but, overall, Obama has come across as
pretty much a conventional Washington Beltway politician, consistently
siding with corporate agendas, jettisoning his campaign attitude and
promises far too quickly along the way. No wonder his base is only partially
in the Democrats' corner for this election. So many of the Obama stalwarts
in 2008 -- students, African-Americans, progressives -- have abandoned him
because they feel he abandoned them, early and often.
EMERGING FROM THE CRAZY
One can hope that a galvanized Get-Out-the-Vote campaign by the Democrats
will be able to salvage some key races and keep the most egregiously lunatic
candidates from moving into the Senate and House. But even if the Dems
manage to extract some good news in this midterm election, it seems clear
that the shift in momentum and power-relationship does not bode well for
American society in the next decade.
In short, unless some electoral GOTV miracle occurs on November 2, I will
anticipate getting more letters from you two as America continues to wallow
in its despair, social spasms, energized political flailings. We are
entering the choppy waters of dire straits. We don't know how many years
will go by before Americans might experience "buyer remorse," before they
decide they've had enough and return to their senses, before the epidemic of
crazy runs its course.
In the interim, one can expect that revolutionary attitudes and forces will
be building strength against politics-as-usual in America. While some of
that is devoutly to be wished, we'll all be going on a wild roller-coaster
ride. As Tiny Tim might have said: "God help us everyone!"
Copyright 2010 by Bernard Weiner
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government and 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).