American Politics Explained

There’s no end to the stupid, isn’t just our motto around here, it’s a catch all answer to most every question regarding politics today.

But what I really want to say is that the reason we’re really in limbo in America, having made no real progress as a society (Obamacare not withstanding) for 30 plus years is that if you want to get to the center in this country you have to start way over at the furthest left area in the Overton Window you can get to and then wait to be dragged back rightward, like a riptide.

Just to address where we should be as a society, my main premise for asserting there’s been no progress, I mean besides the epic historic dysfunction in government, stagnating wages, gaping wealth inequality, decrepit and crumbling infrastructure and growing holes in the social safety net, let’s take a realistic look at the kind of social democracy they have in the Nordic countries that have been mentioned in the election but not really discussed in any real way. See What Americans Don’t Get About Nordic Countries in the Atlantic, which is an explanation by a naturalized Finnish-American why Bernie Sanders is not crazy to tout the way of life in those social democracies as the goal we Americans should be looking at. By the way Denmark was once again named happiest country on Earth, again.

When I lived in Finland, as a middle-class citizen I paid income tax at a rate not much higher than what I now pay in New York City. True, Nordic countries have somewhat higher taxes on consumption than America, and overall they collect more tax revenue than the U.S. currently does—partly from the wealthy. But, as an example, here are some of the things I personally got in return for my taxes: nearly a full year of paid parental leave for each child (plus a smaller monthly payment for an additional two years, were I or the father of my child to choose to stay at home with our child longer), affordable high-quality day care for my kids,one of the world’s best public K-12 education systems, free college, free graduate school, nearly free world-class health care delivered through a pretty decent universal network, and a full year of partially paid disability leave. As far as I was concerned, it was a great deal. And it was equally beneficial for others. From a Nordic perspective, nothing Bernie Sanders is proposing is the least bit crazy—pretty much all Nordic countries have had policies like these in place for years.

Where the Nordic countries are is where America could, and should be. But we’re nowhere near there, as the fight over the conservative, market-based Obamacare attests to. Why? Because the left in America was demonized and decimated to the point of irrelevance. Republicans went from a big tent party with a pro-business bent to a radical, reactionary revanchist party seeking to roll back the 20th century. Democrats, the party of the New Deal and the Great Society declared a truce on progress and that the “the era of big government is dead.”

Once real, honest to God socialists and progressives were removed from the national political equation the only voices left were the very loud right and the “sensible” middle arguing not to run headlong rightward so fast you run off the cliff. And that voice was ignored, because it could be.

So since Lyndon Johnson, the last real liberal president, who doomed his presidency with the folly of Vietnam, we had:

Nixon, a traditional managerial conservative republican who gave us rapprochement with China, the EPA and the Clean Water Act. But Watergate and the interminable dragging on of Vietnam rendered him a pariah.

Carter, a center-right Southern Democrat, with a progressive energy policy and a conservative everything else, was the first victim of the grass roots conservative movement. It had been originally energized by the Goldwater debacle, and spent a decade under the radar organizing. They flexed their muscles in the early 70s fighting busing and the ERA, but really got motivated in the ’76 GOP race that created the idea that Ronald Reagan could be president. In ’80 they made a revolution happen by electing…

Reagan, the prime mover backwards, healed every heart broken by the Goldwater debacle with his avuncular defense of a pre-New Deal, pro-business, anti-labor economic agenda and not so subtle nods to states rights.  It was no less than a whitewashing and elevation of the John Birch Society to the WH. Reagan had also absorbed the lesson that no politician ever suffered by advocating a lusty military build up. It was arguably hypocritical for a small government advocate to push for a massive government build up, but Reagan’s faithful didn’t care. His picks for the Supreme Court created a 30 year attack on everything liberal, progressive and modern. He was celebrated for choosing conservative woman Sandra Day O’Connor. Yeah, she was a woman, but a reliable conservative for most of her tenure. He elevated arch conservative Rehnquist to Chief Justice.  He chose Scalia, a real ideologue who with Rehnquist influenced a profound rightward move by the court that lasted 30 years. He also chose Bork, a man that was so far out of the mainstream he was denied a seat. Instead he got Kennedy, a less fire breathing conservative who quietly voted with Scalia most of those 30 years. The lasting damage of the small government propaganda and a radically conservative Supreme Court prove devastating.

G. Bush I, was the luckiest man in America and a political cypher with virtually no record as anything more than a party functionary when he was named Reagan’s Vice President. He was considered a traditional, moderate, Eastern Republican and was essential to balance Reagan’s ticket to make Reagan palatable. Eight years later the lightweight is elevated to president when he beats the woeful Dukakis campaign. Four years of colorless political pablum, basically continuing Reaganism, but without a personality brought us…

Clinton, another  center-right Southern Democrat, but a brilliant politician. Clinton essentially continued the Reagan revolution while convincing the country otherwise. Republicans called him a liberal and hunted him (and his modern, professional, hyphenated named wife) from the moment he won. They hated him and the modest tax raise on the highest tax bracket his Budget Reconciliation Act created. Democrats were convinced Clinton was theirs, but the most resonant policies that came out of the Clinton administration and Gingrich Congress were Reagan wet dreams: deregulation of Wall Street, the end of Glass-Steagall, welfare reform and the Defense of Marriage Act. That Clinton convinced Republicans he was the devil, while giving them the policies they wanted while concurrently enjoying the enthusiastic support of Democrats as he devilishly sold all of their values down the river for 8 years was his true coup. Clinton was the Democrat who stated that “the era of big government is dead” killing FDR all over again.

Which brings us to G. Bush II, the compassionate conservative. More talk of small government while government got bigger and bigger with decidedly more shock and awe in Iraq. While Reagan made sensible people nostalgic for Nixon, the Bush administration inspired posthumous affection for Reagan. Bush/Cheney declared war on logic, math and reality besides Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the attack of the people who believe government is the problem proving their case by getting elected and fulfilling the prophesy. They were, however, very effective again at naming conservative fire breathers like Alito to the Supreme Court and appellate courts, continuing rampant Reaganism and the move rightward. The financial meltdown overseen by Bush was a product of the blithe actions of 4 administrations, and in its aftermath continued the push for small government by painfully ironic cries of austerity. At a time when people need government action to support a fragile economy at the macro scale and individuals need the safety net in the micro scale, it’s hard to provide when the coffers have been bled for 25 years and most of the political class has unlearned the lessons of FDR and will only stand behind a bare minimum of government action.

Which brings us back to Obamacare, which was the first real expansion of the great society since LBJ, albeit mostly via a market-based mechanism with some subsidization and an expansion of medicaid. It was a plan devised by the conservative Heritage Foundation, adopted by a moderate president in order to move the ball forward towards getting more people insured. It took so much political capital and caused such tumult that Republicans have done all in their power to reverse it and are still vowing to do so if it’s in their power.

It was a big deal, but a small, tiny, baby step of progress after 30 years of rushing in the opposite direction. It’s sadly true that the deck has been so stacked against progress that it would take the enactment of Bernie Sanders’ rhetorical political revolution to start moving us less furtively forward. The propaganda of small government is bedrock conventional wisdom now. The political process is stacked by gerrymandering. And legally the conservative courts have created a corporate utopia with Citizen’s United.

The left needs to agitate, motivate and push leftist, humanist ideas, arguing for their viability and effectiveness wherever they can, to counter not only the right, but the smart and smarmy cool kids who have perpetuated the idea of the center while ignoring the simple geometrical idea that there is no center without left of said center.

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