September 20, 2011

The end of politics

Sam Smith

As I tried, for about the seventeenth time, to make sense of the healthcare negotiations, I suddenly realized that I wasn't watching a political debate at all; rather it was one of those conflicts you read about in other countries that are so hard to understand from afar - the sort in which militant and/or religious sects with hard to remember names and unpronounceable leaders engage in struggles usually reduced by the press to simple goals such as "power" or "strengthening their position."

But instead of Shiek Wahoodie Marzapan or the Terratus Mozaki faction, we have Max Baucus, Olympia Snow and the Blue Dogs. And it all makes about as much sense.

That is, until you stop framing it as a political division and recognize that we are really dealing with quasi-religious fundamentalists engaged in a simple turf battle in which the goal is not healthcare or the lack thereof, but relative standing at the end of the conflict. In domestic terms, it is much more like a mob dispute than a traditional political debate. To be sure, some of the language seems political - talk of a public option, mandates and so forth - but this is mostly just part of the Muzak accompanying the mayhem - symbols that help make the whole thing appear rational.

In fact, politics is pretty much dead in America and has been for some time.

Of course, politics has never been just about such high minded things as goals, ideas and reforms. Such causes have always had to struggle for air against the forces described by Walt Whitman as including "the meanest kind of bawling and blowing office-holders, office-seekers, pimps, malignants, conspirators, murderers, fancy-men, custom-house clerks, contractors, kept-editors, spaniels well-train'd to carry and fetch, jobbers, infidels, disunionists, terrorists, mail-riflers, slave-catchers, pushers of slavery, creatures of the President, creatures of would-be Presidents, spies, bribers, compromisers, lobbyers, sponges, ruin'd sports, expell'd gamblers, policy-backers, monte-dealers, duellists, carriers of conceal'd weapons, deaf men, pimpled men, scarr'd inside with vile disease, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people's money and harlots' money twisted together; crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom-sellers of the earth."

But - whether promoted out convenience or noble purpose - such causes did at least exist and everyone argued about them - albeit often futilely.

For example, here is one such statement of goals:

"This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights -- among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

"We have come to a clear realization of the fact, however, that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. . . People who are hungry, people who are (and) out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

"In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all -- regardless of station, or race or creed.

"Among these are: The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, or shops or farms or mines of the nation; The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation; . . . The right of every business man, large and small , to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad; The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, and sickness, and accident and unemployment; And finally, the right to a good education.

"America's own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens."

Now, if you were to clip the foregoing and wander around the White House and Capitol Hill looking for someone to advocate such a program, you would be lucky if you came up with anyone other than, say, Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders and perhaps a bare majority of the Black Caucus. . . .

The others - from the president on down - would regard such a program as naive claptrap not even worthy of discussion. And not a single mainstream reporter or TV show would give it the slightest attention.

Which will give you some sense of what has happened in the 65 years since these words were broadcast nationally during a fireside chat by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

We like to think of ourselves as so much more sophisticated than those crazy Muslims with their innumerable and indecipherable sects, yet that is precisely what our politics has become as well.

It is not about great issues but about minor factions. It is not about causes to be advocated but subcultures to be preserved. It is not about mass politics but about atomized preferences. And, of course, it is no longer about votes because they have become almost superfluous - symbolic reflections of the dollars that really matter.

If we toss out our traditional political paradigm and start to look at America as if it were one of those countries we like to occupy, destabilize or develop an exit strategy for, it all begins to make more sense.

We find ourselves in a country in which at least three major fundamentalist mujahideens are struggling for power: the conservative, liberal and establishment. Each share such characteristics as absolute confidence in their righteousness, absolute certainty in their beliefs, absolute contempt for doubt, reduction of their opponents to the status of devils, and the acceptance of warfare as a noble exercise as long as they get to pick the target.

In a healthy democracy, two or more parties propose specific programs to better, in their view, the state of the nation. But not one of the contemporary American mujahideens has shown any serious interest in such matters for the past several decades. It has been left to minor sects like the Greens and Libertarians to still worry about issues.

Conservatives, for example, have seemingly forgotten their erstwhile concern for small government and lower spending and have chosen to define themselves instead by what they oppose: primarily abortion and gay marriage. There are about 1.2 million abortions a year and about 150,000 gay marriages or similar unions. In other words, conservatives have established as a primary goal changing the annual behavior of less than one half of one percent of the American public.

About the only major policies that establishment fundamentalists have pursued during this same period has been to find new ways to transfer wealth from the many to the few and to periodically change the identity of their major enemy - i.e. the devil incarnate - and thus periodically redefine themselves. Over these three decades the devil has been serially located in El Salvador, Libya, Lebanon, Grenada, Honduras, Iraq, Panama, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. And the most deadly horned beast of all has been the one selling drugs, the war on which having cost more American lives than any conflict since Vietnam.

But the only clear victory in all of this was in Grenada and, as Ted Turner recently noted, the last country to actually surrender to us was Japan. Yet not one significant member of the establishment mujahideen has apologized for the futility and cost of their warrior fantasies and, as of this morning, not one leader of the establishment has apologized for their near disastrous financial policies and misdeeds from which we are now desperately attempting to recover.

But then, the enemy was never there to be defeated but as a constant threat enforcing the loyalty of one's constituency. As Ernest Becker put it, "war is a sociological safety valve that cleverly diverts popular hatred for the ruling classes into a happy occasion to mutilate or kill foreign enemies." With it you need no progress, no policies, and no change in the system at all.

All you need is an enemy, with the greatest threat not being the enemy itself but that it might disappear. Constatine Cavafy put it well a century ago:

Night is here but the barbarians have not come.
And some people arrived from the borders,
And said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.

Few in public office have said it so bluntly, a remarkable exception being the State Department's director of policy planning in 1948, George Kennan, who argued, "We should cease to talk about vague and. . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. . . We are going to have to deal in straight power concepts."

While an establishment or conservative movement obsessed with power certainly has plenty of precedents in history, this tendency was mitigated in the United States during its first two centuries because, for better or worse, Americans of all stripes believed in things and their politics reflected this.

But what is rare enough to be deeply disturbing has been the transformation of the American liberal constituency into a similar sect - one searching for power without the necessity of purpose. Certainly since its cynical acceptance of Bill Clinton, mainstream liberal Democratic politics has not displayed more than a passing interest in any major policy - sharing with the right a reliance on things like gay marriage and abortion while ignoring massive economic, environmental and civil liberties issues. To be sure, there are progressives and groups that have tried to take up the slack, but they have been uniformly ignored, or even dissed, such as the refusal to invite single payer advocates to White House discussions on health care, which mainstream liberals barely noticed.

Further, liberals have increasingly taken to acting like conservatives. They are defining themselves by their enemies rather than by their own beliefs and programs. For example, their obsession with the faults of Fox News argues that true virtue lies in not being Sean Hannity. There was a time when liberals had higher standards than that.

Worse, the liberal paradigm has assigned to much of America the sins of Rush Limbaugh, condemning the very people who should be converted, disparaging much of our land as mere "fly over country," and showing no respect for the problems of those who live in such places. These are the characteristics of a snotty private club, not a political movement.

There are a couple of reasons why all this is deeply disturbing. The first is that almost without exception, the best political ideas - from democracy itself to a minimum wage or ecological preservation - have come from the left. For liberalism to go into sleep mode or retreat into a cocoon of smug self identity endangers the whole nation.

The second is that one of the hidden dangers of politics without purpose is that it becomes increasingly corrupt and supportive of aggressively narcissistic and anti-democratic abuse. This is what happened in Nazi Germany as the disintegration of liberalism became an important part of the cultural rubble upon which Hitler climbed.

There is nothing, however, that prevents the rediscovery of real politics in America. Admittedly, it would be difficult given the almost total bias of the media towards the personality rather than the substance of power. But there could still be a progressive populist movement that would promote a real economic reform movement, defend the weak against the powerful, the local against the centralized and rediscover the sort of rights of which Roosevelt spoke 65 years ago.

Since the media is a key part of the establishment mujahideen, it will not voluntarily admit this to its viewers and readers, but we are living in a nation of increasingly angry, restless, confused folk and if they are not offered decent and realistic answers they will become increasingly susceptible to the worst kind of lies.

Yet for it to happen, we must first accept the degree to which the system we were taught we lived under simply no longer exists. That our politics have lost honor and soul, with conscious programs and polices replaced by the transactions of mobs, exemplified by healthcare negotiations in which the major winners will inevitably be the healthcare industry and the biggest losers those in whose name a final measure will be passed.

And we must also view that part of unempowered America with which we find disagreement not as irreparable rightwing junkies but as fellow citizens who have been deceived, misled and screwed. And then, issue by issue, turn them into allies as together we rediscover what politics was meant to be - and still can be - about.