This huge and confusing thing we call the United States of America is in the midst of a major epochal reality check, not your usual, garden-variety recession. The roots of today’s crises go back at least 60 years or more.
Politics in such a crisis state is naturally volatile, swinging this way, then that way, affected by fear and pride and all the usual human emotions. Like the stock market, electoral politics operates with rapid, shifting en-mass movements like a school of little fish into which one throws a rock.
At times like these, it’s interesting to look at what’s not being said – the large elephants in the room going unrecognized. To talk about these things would take courage, self-awareness and humility, like the hard stuff shrinks and counselors try to get troubled patients to look at.
In our current climate of fear, courage is too often translated into military bravery and the capacity to do violence, and humility is virtually against the law, on par with being a “socialist,” a “communist” or a “terrorist.” Or else humility is seen as what the Tea Party has just done to the Democrats, which is humiliation.
So now we have the Tea Party Election. Right wing politicos and pundits are feeling their oats and talking like they’ve just won the Civil War, but this time the South won.
What we tend to forget in these moments, exactly what Barack Obama’s overrated ascendancy to power two years ago has proved, political delusion is a temporary and vulnerable condition.
In this back-slapping, self-congratulatory right-wing moment, let’s not forget that an unforeseen rock or incident can send a school of little fish off again in a completely different direction.
Hopefully – and this seems to be a long-shot – President Obama will not read the midterm election as a call to cave in to the likes of ex-bartender John Boehner and the snake Mitch McConnell. Hopefully it will not incline the White House to pull a Bill Clinton and become “Republican lite” for the remainder of his term, although many think he’s there already.
I’m part of what used to be called the Democrat’s “base” on the left, citizens who now feel they’ve been abandoned by this sitting President. We either did not vote at all this election, or, with zero enthusiasm, we did the very minimum and held our noses when we did vote. As this election made clear, you can’t make that school of fish move your way by caving in to your enemies.
The biggest elephant in the room
This past Saturday, a handful of activists in Philadelphia, myself included, put together a conference called The Town Meeting For Jobs Not Wars. Although we repeatedly sent out several dozen press releases, made some calls and did the whole public relations drill, we got no mainstream press coverage at all. We frankly did not expect any.
The reason is simple: The twelve speakers that included a US congressman were talking about ending our two on-going wars and cutting back on the sacrosanct and incredibly bloated Pentagon budget.
In the media business, huge elephant-in-the-room topics like this are never covered unless one of the major parties decides to turn it into a “pissing contest.” Since both parties see the Pentagon budget as a given like the weather, it is never even mentioned. This was especially the case in this mid-term election.
Now we have the preposterous situation of a fired-up, Tea Party-infused majority in the House Of Representatives calling for an immediate $100 billion cut in discretionary domestic budget items, which amounts to about 15% of the budget. Their proposal would amount to a 20% cut.
On the other hand, the strange bedfellows duo of Rep. Barney Frank and Rep. Ron Paul are calling for a 25% cut in the Pentagon budget, which amounts to 59% of the budget. Of note, Paul’s son Rand, like his father a libertarian Republican, just won a Senate seat from Kentucky.
This would seem potentially to be a quite profound “pissing contest.”
The problem is, so far, one side of this potential contest has failed to prepare for real political battle, instead taking on a “can’t we all just get along” appeasement posture to avoid confrontation in hopes of holding onto power.
But what good is holding power if you don’t use it?
With the thorough viciousness of enemies like Mitch McConnell, who clearly says his goal is the political demise of Barack Obama, compromise doesn’t work. It’s seen as weakness and, like the pathetic bleating sounds given off by a wounded sheep, only instills the wolf with greater viciousness.
McConnell actually put it well when he said it’s time for Obama to give in to the Republicans or it’s time for him to “double down.” Faced with McConnell’s cocky and arrogant attitude, double-down-and-fight seems the only viable alternative.
One place Democrats could start fighting — if they can find the backbone — is to call out the new Republican Speaker Of The House John Boehner over his desire to trim the deficit with draconian cuts in the federal budget. The word he used was “discretionary” funding. The largest discretionary line in the budget is the Pentagon.
This is a major pissing contest just waiting for somebody to begin the challenge. And the perfect place to start is for somebody to piss on Boehner’s shoes.
The Pentagon budget is the largest elephant in the room that no one except the antiwar left will talk about. There is no good reason for this, since the crisis represented by the bloated Pentagon budget goes far beyond the anti-war movement, reaching into the lives of all working Americans. Sure, it will mean a fight, but fighting is good at this juncture – much better than laying down.
They’re coming to get us
The post-9/11 terror that shook America and to this day drives our out-of-control military expenditures has led to a false sense of security. As we reinforce and bolster the fortress meant to protect us, we neglect the strengths of character and the needed investments in the educational and economic engine that could save us.
While we indulge our fears and spend more and more of our tax resources on war and military violence, the rest of the world is girding their economic loins to roll over us. Consider China, India and Brazil.
China owns over $800 billion of our debt, which totals over $4 trillion. Meanwhile, China is huge and is building the middle class necessary for a very effective economic engine. This year, China has overtaken the United States with the world’s fastest computer, a machine that has lurched way ahead of the US in speed. China is investing in itself with an eye to the future.
As we see ourselves managing the Chinese rise to first-world economic power, the Chinese, we are told, see themselves as equally managing US decline.
Thomas Friedman writes about the vital entrepreneurial optimism flourishing in India and how Indians see the United States as overwhelmed with fear and pessimism and beginning to lag behind.
Friedman quotes Nayan Chanda, an Indian business observer:
“The U.S. seems sadly unprepared to take advantage of the revolution it has spawned. The country’s worn-out infrastructure, failing education system and lack of political consensus have prevented it from riding a new wave to prosperity.”
As Friedman put it: “Ouch!”
Then there’s Brazil, where the people just elected a female socialist as president and successor to the very popular former labor leader, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known simply as Lula. Over two terms, Lula has overseen the significant rise from poverty of a growing lower middle class. Along with major business efforts, this trend is expected to increase under the new President Dilma Rousseff.
While the once-developing world is plowing its resources into a rising middle class and an optimistic wave of entrepreneurial energy, the US seems to be doing exactly the opposite, undermining its middle class economic engine by protecting the interests of the very rich, indulging in fears and delusions of grandeur and failing to invest in its own working people.
This is how a filmmaker friend of mine in Atlanta described the recent Tea Party Election:
“It’s pretty remarkable and disheartening that the people at the bottom of the food chain are jumping on the tea party bandwagon, as if lower taxes on corporations and billionaires, a Somalia-like reduction in government services, and a theocracy are magically going to improve our economic prospects.”
The danger is that a growing fear of, and alienation from, the rest of the world, especially the former “developing world,” will contribute to the feeling in America that we are losing ground and on a slippery slope to disaster. In this sense, one can see the right wing Tea Party Movement as a desperate attempt to hold onto a glorious past.
If this is true, if what we fear is that we are no longer who we once were – or who we thought we once were — ignoring the real problems because they are uncomfortable only makes those problems worse and the day of reckoning more nightmarish.
If we continue to spend 59% of our treasure on military adventures – that is, invest in more and better weapons and a reliance on violence to try to hold onto the past – if that’s what we’re about, we’re in real trouble as a nation.
The dumb lunacy of Tea Baggers aside, long-term security can only come from creating jobs, improving education, fixing up our crumbling infrastructure and investing in a domestic “Marshall Plan” to be totally reliant on alternative energies within, say, ten years.
Basically that means becoming realistic, humble and sane and thinking about the United States as a society, not as a place to plunder. I just saw the infuriating documentary film Inside Job which makes the case that unregulated finance industry pirates got us into the mess we’re in by seeing America as a place that protected their amoral urge to plunder.
The Tea Bag Movement is only going to encourage more of this behavior. It’s a road to Hell.