Summary: The past two years should have taught us much, as Trump abandoned his populist promises, the Deep State revealed its power, and the Left revealed its true beliefs. But while more Americans now see our peril, few understand the core problem. Here is a brief explanation, pointing to a better future. This is a revised, more explicit, and darker version of a post from 2014.
The America Republic is dying. Are we a dead eagle or a phoenix?
The media overflow with descriptions of America’s problems. They are many and varied. They threaten to overwhelm us by their sheer numbers. This is an illusion resulting from our lack of vision.
Father Karras: It might be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, I’d say there seem to be three. …
Father Merrin: There is only one.
— From The Exorcist.
A different perspective on America
During the long halcyon days of the post-WW2 summer, America forgot about economic and social classes – and inequality and social mobility. Fortunate circumstances made a new America: the stopping of immigration after 1930, the New Deal’s reforms to America’s political and economic structures, the post-WW2 social programs (especially the 1944 GI bill and the Cold War-boosted funding to education, the 1960’s civil rights legislation, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the late 1990’s tech boom.
These things created the long boom, sustained growth of real per-capita GDP and wages. A large middle class grew, with a modest degree of social mobility. By 2000, we considered this success to be our just due. America was exceptional, history’s favored son, a new moment in history. Marx became a comic figure. “The only remaining Marxists live in Berkeley.” We believed that this wonderful new America – so different from the horror show of 19th century America – was the true America.
The Boomers were the big beneficiaries of the long summer. They inherited the New Deal coalition, and most of their political activism was to benefit themselves. They rioted to end the draft. They organized to gain more rights for women and gays. The faced only light opposition, since the 1% (as a class) were uninterested in these matters.
America forgot that this was a hard-won victory after generations of oligarchy. We forgot the long slow low-violence revolution that began after the Civil War and ran to the New Deal, laying the foundation on which the middle class rose. It was a brief summer, a pleasant moment in our dark history. A potential beginning, not an entitlement. We forgot that we are the crew of America, not passengers on the Love Boat. Too few of us bothered with the boring work of working the engine room and steering the ship.
The long summer peaked in the 1970s, and slowly reversed during the next five decades. After 2000, autumn came. But few saw the leaves falling. Economic growth has slowed. Income inequality has returned to levels last seen in the 1920s. Social tensions are skyrocketing.
How America came to this point
“The Universe was 5 miles long, and 2,000 feet across. Men scoffed at the legends of such things as stars, or the demented idea that the Ship was moving …For the Ship wasthe Universe, and there could be nothing outside. Then one man found his way into a forgotten room, and saw the stars – and they moved…”
— About Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein (1951), about the voyage of the starship Vanguard.
Orphans of the Sky is one of the better-known science fiction stories about a starship whose voyage takes multiple generations (Wikipedia). America is like the Vanguard, with a crew who has forgotten who we are and our responsibility to keep the ship running. Like those on the Vanguard, we must retake control of the ship lest its voyage end badly. The first step is to see the stars – our potential to again govern ourselves and regain our liberty.
Then came the counter-revolution
Not everybody enjoyed this long summer in America, and the core New Deal and civil rights reforms that made it possible. The 1% have patience, vast resources, and a long-term vision of an America that better met their needs. They planned a counter-revolution. Out in the open, disdaining to keep it secret from the peons.
(a) Starting with Goldwater, the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” made respectable again the antebellum ideologies of racism and States’ Rights. With this they broke the New Deal coalition, forging a new political machine to wage the counter-revolution. There was no plan, just a “run to daylight” strategy (i.e., exploit opponents’ weakness) by exploiting the internal contradictions and discontents that triumphant liberals had allowed to develop in their coalition.
(b) The Powell Memorandum: Sent by Lewis F. Powell, Jr. on 23 August 1971 (2 months before his nomination to Supreme Court) to Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chairman of the Education Committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Titled Attack On American Free Enterprise System, it outlined a strategy for large corporations to roll back much of the New Deal reforms on business and crush the unions (perhaps the key brick in the New Deal coalition and the middle-class structure).
(d) In his 14 July 1978 testimony to Congress (9 years before becoming Fed Chairman), Alan Greenspan first described the “starve the beast” strategy: “Let us remember that the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today’s environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.” The massive tax cuts by Presidents Reagan, Bush Jr., and Trump succeeded in this, at the cost of damaging the government’s solvency.
The result: a decisive win for the 1%
Decades of work have produced a decisive win for the 1%. Now the foundation of the middle class lies in ruins.
(a) The private sector unions are a shadow of what they were. Now blue collar work is again insufficient for a middle-class life, and the political power unions produced for workers has been broken.
(b) Corporations have shifted the expense of training onto workers. Increasingly jobs are contingent (eliminated on whims of the business cycle or corporate mergers and reorganizations), part-time, seasonal, minimum wage, temporary, without benefits. For most of the population, people scramble to provide security for their family, with no time for political theory – let alone political activism.
(c) The education system lies in tatters. Inner-city schools produce barely literate workers. The colleges have become so expensive – and financial aid so small – that young people work long hours to fund it, then enter their working lives groaning under the debt. Careerism is good sense; a liberal arts education is a luxury. Most students lack the security, resources, and time to become politically active (except at elite schools).
(d) Both of the major political parties are subsidiaries of the 1%. Bill Clinton sold the Democrats to Wall Street. In 2016, the Democrats ran the Goldman-financed Hillary for president. Of course, the major candidates in the GOP presidential primaries were all devoted to the 1%, as seen by their proposals for massive tax cuts for the 1%. One of them one, and delivered as promised.
Now begins the “pursuit” phase of the class war, the chasing down and crushing remnants of a broken foe, preventing their later resurgence. Now they begin the post-bellum restructuring of law and society to accommodate the appetites of our ruling oligarchy. The Republican faction of the 1% offers circuses. The Democrat faction offers free bread. Both work to keep us divided into tribes – and weak.
The candor of their courtiers shows their confidence, as they express anti-democratic sentiments that have been hidden until now. Such as this by journalist James Traub: “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses” in Foreign Policy (the military-industrial complex is one center of the 1%’s power) – “The Brexit has laid bare the political schism of our time. It’s not about the left vs. the right; it’s about the sane vs. the mindlessly angry.”
Also see their books chortling about the post-democracy America, such as The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic by Eric Posner (Prof Law, U Chicago) and Adrian Vermeule (Prof Law, Harvard).
The changes made to America so far are small. We are on the gentle rise of the early phase of the “S Curve”. Now we enter the steep part, as the 1% makes larger changes, without fear of effective opposition. Despite all the noise about political polarization, policies of great interest to the 1% (and their special interests, such as the military industrial complex) often find bipartisan support.
Suddenly we discover – inequality
Now that we have been broken by the 1%, powerless and divided, we discover the concentration of wealth and income resulting from our defeat. Social class dynamics again dominate American society. The lavish spending of the 1% is seen at the many little Versailles across America – in Manhattan, Silicon Valley, and Beverly Hills (see Bill Gates’ mansion). The Washington Post was once a giant business in Washington D.C.; in 2013, Jeff Bezos bought it for fun (and for its political influence).
Gradually more people see the policies that produced this inequality – such as a 1%-friendly tax system with lax enforcement, and cartelization of ever-more industries (after its latest merger, Disney will control 1/3 of the US box office). It has become too obvious to conceal.
Many studies show the responsiveness of the government to the 1%, the shift of our national income from workers to owners, and the concentration of wealth. But social scientists have lost the language to describe the situation. The Bourgeoisie (the 1%) and their key servants, the Petite Bourgeoisie (the next 9%), own everything – and control what they don’t own. We have forgotten Marx’s terminology, and must now slowly and painfully recover it (his prescriptions were a first cut at the problem, as good as first cuts usually are – i.e., poor).
Time is our enemy. The 1% grows ever stronger while we grow weaker.
The problem and the solution
After defeat comes the dreamland (see America enters the dreamland), as storytellers give us comforting lies. Do nothing; eventually technology will bring us to the promised land! Do nothing, eventually the brutal rule of the 1% will force people to arise and bring down the temple! Do nothing; eventually the system will crash from an inevitable economic or ecological disaster. Do nothing; it’s hopeless (there are hundreds of comments saying this on the FM website). Do nothing; eventually people will Rise Up and Smite Their Oppressors.
These fantasies hide the bleak truth from us: we are the problem. We have lost the willingness to bear the burden of self-government. That is how the Roman Republic died. Once we again accept responsibility for America, the rest will follow. Necessity will force us to see more clearly, to organize, to act. The day is late. It will not be easy.
To begin, we must choose the first step on this path. I believe it is neither knowledge nor logic. We need rage. But not rage at our foes (we always have foes), but contempt at what we have become. We have become less than we were and less than we can be. How we react to that insight will determine our future for good or ill, depending on our national character.
“Anger is easy. Anger at the right person, at the right time, for the right reason, is difficult.”
— Aristotle, in The Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, Chapter 5 (lightly paraphrased)
“Telemachus, now is the time to be angry.”
— Odysseus, when the time came to deal with the Suitors. From the movie The Odyssey (1997)
This is the opposite of most proposals offered today, which suggest blaming others. Foreigners, the rich, the poor, terrorists, foreigners, or our leaders (they don’t kiss our boo-boos and cut the cake unfairly). Those proposing such views suggest that we adopt the attitude of alarmed cattle, or mice. They want us to wildly stampede, or flee, or give our souls to leaders who will think for us. Above all, they want us to feel fear, the enemy of thought and strength.
The political machinery bequeathed to us by the Founders remains, rusty but decisive when used. It requires only our energy to make it work. Either party can form a populist – progressive alliance, like that which built the New Deal – and win.
“United we stand, divided we fall.”
— From Aesop’s fable, “The Four Oxen and the Lion“.