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The Great Undoing – America Falls To Its Darker Impulses

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A few days ago, America hardly paid attention to the 150th anniversary of one of the most momentous events in its history; the first bombardment of Fort Sumter, an event that triggered the eruption, in earnest, of the long-brewing American Civil War.

It’s a tribute to insidious wave of revisionism which shrouds this country now, that an outrageous, and illegal act of rebellion against the Union should be looked upon as almost insignificant. But the Civil War wasn’t just a bloodletting of the most unspeakable kind, it was also one of the few historical periods when America forged ahead to make a great leap forward to modernity.

The Congress of 1861-62 introduced the first income tax, a better banking system, and a fundamental reassessment and reorganization of the Federal relationship to the States. Under the unfailingly brilliant leadership of Abraham Lincoln, who’s baptism of fire was maneuvering the Union through the Fort Sumter incident the very day he was inaugurated, the nation rallied as he introduced a bold Emancipation Declaration that not only promised the end of slavery in the Southern States, and the beginning of the total war phase of the conflict, but also signaled the birth of the American Social Contract.

It’s been a feature of American History from the beginning that it made its biggest leaps forward during profound crises. Beginning with the birth of the nation itself, through the Civil War, into the Great Depression and through the Second World War and beyond, it was these moments and their aftermaths during which America’s stature and maturity was established and solidified.

In the pantheon of Presidents there are three that rise above the rest. Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, the holders of the office before and during these defining historical moments. Beneath these three, are many other great presidents, like Teddy Roosevelt, Jefferson, Adams, Wilson, Truman, Johnson and Clinton among them, but none of these men presided at the time of the nation’s greatest upheavals and perils.

To be a president during those defining moments must have been extraordinary. In so many ways those defining moments couldn’t be more different, but in one respect the response of the presiding leader at the time was the same.

They each grabbed in both hands the opportunity presented by adversity to take America forward and bring it out of each crisis transformed and stronger than ever.

The result of their efforts is modern America, a nation of laws, of great wealth and innovation, and of social justice. This America was forged not with unanimity but through unprecedented levels of political bravery and skill. To say that Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt were great men isn’t enough. They truly understood the threats our nation faced, and how to put catastrophe to work. They also knew their enemies.

Our greatest adversaries have always been within.

During the Civil War it was the Slave-owners who could not be allowed to break up the Union and corrode its liberty. During the Depression rampant capitalism had to be quelled and the social contract established to set America on the path of progress. And after the war, the superhuman effort it required was channeled into the strengthening of the American state, and its reach abroad.

There were other issues that threatened to derail our progress, among them the legacy of slavery, Civil Rights, and the legacy of the Second World War, the Cold War along with its cousin, Vietnam. However, neither of these – as important and costly and humiliating as they were for so many – could put more than a dent in the great and growing dignity of America in the second half of the twentieth century.

At our high point, our nation was the driver of world manufacturing and innovation, had a functioning and just welfare state, an equitable fiscal system, little national debt, and a financial system that played its part in the growth of American economic well-being. There were pockets of poverty, racism and injustice, but the nation was on a trajectory to overcome them. Johnson’s “Great Society” was a classic example of that.

Then came the rise conservatism, that long-dormant, individualistic darkness in the American soul that began to bubble again in the Goldwater era. Feeding off propaganda, nationalism, and a distorted historical framework, and spreading like a slow tsunami from the cynicism of Reagan’s Southern Strategy, a direct outgrowth of Civil War resentments that were never put to rest, the nation’s progress began to stagnate. Government ceased to be a beacon for Americans but became its whipping-boy. Taxation once more reared its head as the new injustice, the rallying call for a newly emboldened lower-middle class drunk on American individualism. Slowly but surely, deregulation ate, like a boll-weevil, into the stability and justice of the nation. And as de-regulation hit home, not surprisingly, public resentment of a weaker government rose to critical mass.

The slow capitulation of the Democratic party to the rightward surge was papered over with bipartisan euphemism, and empty calls for unity,.

Over the decades the resistance to the Conservative tide collapsed, as independents and moderate Democrats gradually transformed themselves into moderate Republicans in all but name, leaving the rump of Progressive Democrats to fight over the now pejorative Liberal mantle. Carter de-regulated the Airline Industry before Reagan even arrived in office, to be followed by Clinton’s disastrous deregulation of Welfare and the financial system under assault by a rightist Congress. The historical wave that began the dismantling of the American edifice accelerated under George W Bush, who without the leavening of a Democratic Congress could ride roughshod over what was left of American dignity. It was all wrapped up in grandiose rhetoric to cover for its scorched earth core.

Even the calamities that took place on Bush’s watch seemed to feed the beast.

Far from renewing America’s faith in its institutions, the attacks of 9/11 fed the right-wing surge in the electorate with fantastical fears that America was under assault from dark forces beyond its control. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were designed to see off these threats, but only racked up intolerable debts, which cash-rich nations built up on America’s failures were only too happy to service. And by this time, low-taxation had become the banner of the right. Remedying the ills of globalization could not be brought about with anything but spending cuts, they demanded. How convenient.

If Southern Slave-owners threatened to destroy the Union 150 years ago, starting about 30 years ago, a far greater, more syrupy, more seductive enemy began to cannibalize and corrode this nation. Consolidated corporations fed, nourished, and internationalized by renewed Wall Street power freed from regulation and powered by lower taxes, exported its labor needs, undermined the economic fabric of the nation. This in turn, inspired the anger of the poor and forgotten, who just like the ragged Johnny Rebs who fought and died for the Confederacy had very little but their bravery, their ignorance and their pride. Conservatism, in the able hands of its propagandists like Gingrich, Atwater, Rove and Cheney, were all too happy to feed the beast, and put the poor, deluded American individualists in the service of the very corporations that were sucking them dry, before leaving the sinking ship for calmer waters and cheaper labor overseas. America had served its purpose. And like a good parasite Corparate America was ready to abandon the husk that was once its glorious host.

Bush was a marvellously ineffectual President, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his lasting achievement was to take the – deeply undemocratic – Supreme Court back into the dark ages. It has become a faithful agent of untrammelled capitalism, primarily by allowing its money to dominate and pollute the political process even more than it ever had before. It now takes millions and sometimes billions to win. Politics is a stacked game, drowning in lobbies and money (in the name of free speech of course) and its claim to be democratic is shaky in the extreme.

By 2007 the false boom fed by deregulatory zeal had run out of steam.

It was inevitable that the bubble would burst, which it finally did with style six weeks before the 2008 presidential election. On September 15th of that year, the Republican campaign was gathering strength, and fast eating into Barack Obama’s early season lead, following a very successful GOP Convention and the meteoric rise of Sarah Palin. That was the day the GOP loss was sealed.

But it didn’t matter. The damage was already done.

There was no way a Democratic President and Congress could possibly turn the tide of American decline without a superhuman effort and more bravery than anyone in the Oval Office had displayed since Roosevelt took on his “class” in the mid-thirties. Barack Obama was and is no Roosevelt. He was and is no Lincoln. But to say he squandered his opportunity to join the Pantheon of presidents made great by their presence at profound crises would be unfair. For all his great abilities, he simply didn’t have the chops to get it right. The political school in which he was brought up was that of capitulation – which he called bipartisanship, or “rising above the fray”. He made the calculation that the battle was fruitless, that the excellent art of compromise was the only way forward. If Lincoln had thought the same was true, slavery would have lasted far longer than it did. If Roosevelt had agreed, perhaps there would have been no Social Security. Maybe the Nazis would still be running Europe.

Compromise is capitulation.

Obama’s health care and financial reform legislation would have been fine and dandy in the seventies, but they’re small beer now. Whittled down by the crushing lack of fight and imagination of our so-called “representatives” in Congress, terrified at losing the trappings of power, the Conservatives have torched too much of the fabric of the state to leave them much chance of success. Indeed, their reliance on regulation is almost charming in its naiveté. And the attitudes of the voters towards these so-called reforms, range from the rebellious to utterly dissipated. Everybody knows they’re of little value. That they’re “all we could get”, that they’re “better than nothing”. Unfortunately, they’re not even that.

The great succubus of Wall Street is on the verge of completing its work emasculating the nation that gave it a home. For having engaged in a mindless feeding frenzy on the back of the nation’s regulatory hari-kari which sent the nation into a depression (in all but name) it is now leading the charge to put the final nails in the coffin of American dignity. Its Republican mouthpieces tell us that after trying ( and failing ) to bail out America and the banks, adding trillions to our debt, we can never raise taxes again, and must redress the problems by – yes removing the very parts of the American vista that made us strong. Some might call this the ultimate double whammy. Or the biggest con in world history, or the carpetbagger’s story to end all stories.

Would the deficit destroy us? No. Is there a crisis? No.

Have we been made to think so? Definitely. The truth is that interest rates are at an all-time low. The full faith of the US dollar is in no danger, and the debt ceiling were raised with no fuss, then there would be, well, no fuss. Indeed our debt is a fraction of Japan’s for example, where interest rates are a whopping 1.4%. The death throes of the country, it seems, are all in the mind.

We are perhaps entering the endgame.

Barack Obama has made his decision. He has decided – wisely from an electoral standpoint – to build a fortress in the political center “above the fray”, which means more capitulation masquerading as “bipartisanship”. He is invested in continuing the panic. Indeed it serves him far better if he does. Instead of demanding that the electorate have the truth visited upon them, to his cost of course, he is indulging in their ‘independent’ – neo-republican fantasies. It will serve him well at the ballot box, but his victory will be tragic and hollow, because, sadly, peddling the myth of the nation’s much exaggerated death is exactly what the succubus wants him to do. On Wednesday, Obama spoke glowingly that the scorched-earth plans of the right had no place in the ‘America he knew’, but to defend that America requires the President to turn a corner that no other President before him has ever attempted.

I truly hope he can embrace the mantle of greatness. But I very doubt he will.

The Republican overreach on Medicare is clearly a miscalculation. There is no way that the broad base of the electorate will ever accept a serious attack on the cornerstone of the Welfare state. Their half-hearted interest in deficit reduction doesn’t come close to allowing that. But the GOP will hold the nation to ransom over taxes, and as a first concession Obama has already signaled that brutal cuts will be part of his approach. That’s where the center is (formerly where the right would have been) and that’s where he will win the election.

Trillions must be cut in the eyes of all but the most sensible economists, and unless Obama accepts that it must all be from spending cuts, the debt ceiling will not be raised, and the self-fulfilling panic threatened by the cannibals on Wall Street and in the internationalized corporations will be unleashed as the nation enters its first ever default. In other words, the crisis is utterly manufactured, so that the Great Undoing can continue at an ever faster pace.

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Written by coolrebel

April 14, 2011 at 11:09 am

Posted in Washington