Summary: Sometimes, as in depressions and wars, we recognize periods of great political change. But sometimes we keep the illusion of normalcy while the nation changes beneath our feet. This is America today, in the midst of a slow-motion revolution. We cannot manage these changes (or perhaps even cope with them) until we see them.
America has drastically changed since 2000. The buildings remain the same, as do its people. The forms of government remain the same. But it is vital that we understand the new trajectory of our politics set by our past two presidents. They deserve to be on Mount Rushmore in terms of their transformative effect on America. Only time will tell whether for good or ill.
Bush Jr., the transformative president
Bush Jr. earned a place on Mount Rushmore – or perhaps starting a new line of sculptures – because he undercut or outright reversed so much done by Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. The changes Bush made had precedents — as Hoover’s policies foreshadowed FDR’s. But like the bold measures of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, Bush’s effects on America are of breadth and scale that defy easy description. We’re too close to see the full range of these changes, to assess their relative importance, or do more than guess at their effects. But they’ve clearly set America on a new path.
Consider just a few of his major policy initiatives. The roots of these policy changes lie in the past, but he brought them to maturity.
- His tax laws shifted the burden of Federal taxes from the rich to the middle-class (only slightly rolled back by Obama; State and local taxes were already regressive). He boosted the deficit. Both continued the work of our previous transformative President – Ronald Reagan.
- He shifted the US from its post-WWII policy of containment and support for international law (largely a US-driven creation) to one of militaristic aggression – quite mad for a world in which new power centers are arising.
- He decisively broke with the New Deal patterns, weakening the regulatory apparatus’s ability to interfere with corporate profits – and diminishing the influence of contrary interests, such as unions and environmentalists.
- He decisively broke with generations-old legal prohibitions (e.g., torture, preemptive war, indefinite detention without trial) or centuries-old (e.g., use of mercenaries).
Let’s look at these revolutionary political changes in more detail, since journalists and pundits have forgotten them.
Homeland security, not national defense.
After his administration ignored eight months warnings about al Qaeda, 9-11 struck. He masterfully exploited American’s shock and fear – supercharging it during the next 7 years – to reshape America from one protected internally by law enforcement agencies to one subject to security services, as seen in the Stasi-like name and functions of the Homeland Security department. The immense expansion of the domestic armed forces and intelligence agencies — including those who, working with our allies, actually suppressed al Qaeda – in both size and power (including the numerous legal, borderline legal, and illegal domestic surveillance programs) continues today.
His programs affected all levels of the government, as in the accelerated militarization of police, with the expansion of their surveillance programs and increases in transfers to them of military equipment under the 1033 program. For a fuller picture of this see “The Militarization of U.S. Domestic Policing“ by Abigail R. Hall and Christopher J. Coyne in The Independent Review, Spring 2013.
Bush started the Long War (aka the bizarrely named “War on Terror”), with expeditions to fight in foreign civil wars on a scale without precedent in US history. We invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, sent troops and missiles and drones to participate in shadowy ways in insurgencies in other nations (e.g., Yemen, Pakistan, Philippines) – and laid the foundation for new wars by creating the Africa Command – building upon the Pan Sahel Initiative, which became the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. The disastrous Libyan intervention was its first fruits.
Bush didn’t build a new world order just by starting wars. He withdrew America from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Through his invasions and occupations he overthrew not just the international law established at such cost by America after WWII, but abrogated treaties prohibiting torture going back to 1906 and treaties restricting the use of mercs and preemptive attacks going back to Westphalia in 1648. These precedents will haunt us for decades, perhaps generations. We have embraced the evils of torture and mercs, with malign effects we cannot well imagine.
Perhaps the greatest effect on America has been on our national character. We have become a nation shaped by wars, internal distrust, wide surveillance, and militarized police. We watch the adventures of our stylish security police (NCIS, NCIS-LA, NCIS-New Orleans) – who treat laws as mild suggestions, and regard judges and juries as irritating formalities. We don’t just embrace torture as a useful tool, best done with a minimum of supervision or records, but applaud stories about torture at theaters. I’m not the only one to worry about our increasingly evident bloodlust.
Undercutting the solvency of our government.
Keynes said that we should run large deficits during recessions and reduce the debt during expansions. Clinton did this. He balanced the budget so that experts forecast a rapidly shrinking debt that would put the government in strong condition for the inevitable deficits from 2020 – 2040 (as the boomers retired). Like his Republican predecessor Reagan and Republican successor Trump, Bush Jr. did the opposite. All three worked with great success to demolish the solvency of the Federal government.
Like Reagan, Bush made irrational promises about the magic of tax cuts – without any basis in history or economic theory – which we believed a second time – to get Congress to approve the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. The resulting deficits and slow economic growth weakened America, setting us up for the great recession of Bush’s last two years in office.
That change in the trajectory of the Federal debt, a second push into the red, puts us on course for some difficult times ahead. Not the end times, as the deficit doomsters say, but we’ll need good policies and some good luck to get through the next several decades.
The 2007-08 crash was another fruit of Bush Jr.’s policies. The deregulation mania of Republican officials made it possible, with the support of Wall Street (e.g., the SEC’s 2004 regulatory scheme in 2004, that allowed a massive increase in leverage of investment banks). Just as Team Bush ignored the warnings about al Qaeda, they ignored the far louder warnings about the real estate lending bubble.
Obama continued America’s transformation
In most things, Obama continued the policies of Bush Jr. Obama did, however, make three great policy innovations. First, his assassination of US citizens violating not just the Constitution but breaking precedents going back to Magna Carta. Second, he implemented a treaty without Senate approval. Third – perhaps most momentous – Obama devised a way to expand the Federal government without limit, overcoming the public’s resistance to socialism, a rational resistance, given its horrific history.
That we do not see these things shows our inability to clearly see our world.
Obama’s anti-liberal, even fascist, actions.
Obama’s fascist accomplishments are legion. He did many of the same things Liberals condemned Bush Jr for doing, and did things Bush did not even imagine: illegal surveillance programs, advocacy for broad NSA power, most aggressive-ever use of the Espionage Act of 1917, persecution of whistleblowers, mockery of his pledge to run the “most transparent administration ever“, continued use of Guantanamo Bay, and assassination programs (including US citizens).
The left’s pro-war president.
Obama decisively broke the Left’s anti-war tradition. Iraq kicked us out of Iraq (Bush negotiated it, Obama executed it). Obama offset it by deepening our wars in Afghanistan and Yemen, waged an illegal war in Libya (of the sort he specifically promised not to do) – with terrible results – and laid the foundation for future wars by expanding Africom. The Left loved him!
The Left’s new priorities.
Clinton forged the Left’s alliance with Wall Street, but Obama put it to work, justifying every dime they paid the Democrats. Obama prioritized the interests of banks, their executives, and their shareholders. Mortgage fraud by the banks was ignored. Hillary continued this grand tradition.
Who goes on Rushmore after Bush and Obama?
This is not just presidents leaving large footprints across America. This is a process of accelerated evolution. I doubt that it has ended. All of the leading Democratic candidates for president are far Left (ignore journalists labeling some as “moderates”). Sanders is very far Left. My guess is that the staff of these candidates is more Left than their candidates.
If the Democrats win in 2020, the age of transformation will leap ahead again.
There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.
— Paraphrase from Marx’s letter to Engels, 9 April 1863.