Summary: There are outbreaks of positive, activist responses to GOP extremism in the U.S. -- but there's not a coordinated effort to create a national movement against the worst excesses of the HardRight. With so many citizens turned off by Obama and Dem fecklessness and refusal to fight, here are some ideas for how the Left can battle its political despair.
"The water is wide and I cannot cross over/Nor do I have wings to fly/Build me a boat that can carry two..." -- Fred Neil
I've been writing about political depression on the Left for years now, especially during the horrific CheneyBush decade but also in the distressing Obama years. I can't tell you how many of my liberal friends have been fighting despondency (and I'm among that cohort) as the social/political/economic situation has gone from bad to worse to a bit better to worse again.
Nearly six months ago, for example, in an essay entitled "The Sounds of Silence: Reactions to Political Despair," I laid out in seven areas of concern the ingredients of that clinical-political depression and concluded that there wasn't much hope for significant change in this country: "In short, American society seems to be well and truly f'd, with few escape routes evident." My advice at that time: "organize for revolution while fighting for attainable, probably small, victories."
During the half-year between that essay and this one, not much has changed; indeed, in many ways, the situation has gotten worse. Yes, there are occasional bubbles of positive activism, but precious little critical mass in that direction.
The most encouraging signs of progressive citizen activism have come in response to extreme over-reaching by ideological zealots on the Right. In Wisconsin and other states, for example, GOP governors and federal and state legislators are attempting to crush the union movement, roll back the social gains of the Great Society and New Deal, destroy Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, and weaken regulatory agencies protecting citizens' right to safe food, clean air and unpolluted water. Unregulated fracking is just the most egregious example.
In short, the Right is openly and aggressively trying to take America back to the Robber Baron days of the late-19th century when rapacious greed was king, when moguls and industries devoid of regulation and oversight were unimpeded in their race to power, with no safety nets for those crushed in the process. The Right's current attempt to destroy the just-borning Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is designed to help provide at least some regulation of the financial sector, and to incapacitate its initiator Elizabeth Warren, is a perfect example of this GOP desire to give free rein once again to the very forces that created our current Great Recession.
STARTING TO FIGURE IT OUT
The public is starting to understand what's happening and, at least in opinion polls, is angry at the very Republican governors and legislative leaders that it elected just six months ago. The public wanted action on improving the economy and in creating jobs, and thought it would do better with the GOP in charge. But the Republicans are not interested in creating jobs, rather they seem obsessed with destroying Obama's chances for a second term and with enacting ideological agendas that were not part of the campaigns last November. Thus the potential backlash against GOP extremism, symbolized most clearly in the public reaction against the Republican's budget, which would effectively destroy Medicare, perhaps the most popular of all government programs after Social Security. If Obama and the Democrats compromise with the Republicans on this Medicare issue, and if they abandon a jobs agenda while focusing on deficits, they risk committing political suicide in 2012. But why would one be surprised if the Dems hang themselves? Stupidity in the Democratic Party appears whenever the possibility of victory is on the horizon.
To deal with my own social despair and political burnout (not surprising after having churned out 350 essays over the years), I took a six-months break in December to devote more of my time and energy to artistic endeavors: writing a new play ("Dead Peasants"), working on a new poetry collection, and preparing for fine-art photography exhibitions. Now I'm diving once again into the political fray with some backed-up observations. As it turns out, they are mostly laments and questions.
CONTRADICTIONS OF CAPITALISM
All across the world, capitalism is reverting to its inner shadow: extreme greed as a life-philosophy, imperialism as a governing imperative, more and more tax breaks for the rich (at the expense, needless to say, of the middle-class and poor), corporatism hand-in-glove with government (which was Mussolini's definition of fascism), austerity for ordinary citizens and more profits for the already wealthy. If anyone complains about the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, that's "class warfare," which supposedly is a bad thing. Note: We're not supposed to interpret the status quo as "class warfare": That's just the way things are and are meant to be.
A decade or two ago, all this rightwing power-mongering was happening behind the scenes, while the conservatives denied their true motives; now it's all happening out in the open. The HardRight these days is downright proud of its take-it-while-we-can-get-it philosophy, and is convinced, now that they're in charge of the House of Representatives and most state houses, that the time is ripe for a successful ideological putsch in 2012. Already, laws have been broken by Republicans in contested elections, specifically in Wisconsin. And in a number of states, Republicans are doing everything possible to rig the voting rolls in advance of 2012, making it extremely difficult, for example, for college students and minorities to cast their ballots. The Democrats are, as usual, asleep at the wheel.
So, if more and more ordinary citizens around the globe are increasingly upset by the organized theft that is the government/business alliance, why aren't they angry enough to do something about it? One would have thought that maybe some revolutionary impulses might be fired-off for organizing and educating of millions of the disenchanted into a united social-political force that would have to be dealt with.
Some of this organizing and educating is starting to happen in other countries -- for example, in Europe, in the Arab Spring -- but little if anything is happening in the U.S. In this day and age, progressives are supposed to feel themselves lucky if they can move the status quo away from its current far-right locus just a tad toward the center-left, and hope that the 2012 election punishes reactionary Republicans and generates momentum for more systemic change.
It's inexplicable. The ingredients for radical action are present in the U.S., but nothing seems to happen nationally in an organized fashion. (Vermont creating a single-payer health-care system is an outlier.) We've become inured to lack of progressive success; incremental reform, we're told, is about all one can hope for. While a good share of the blame rests on reactionary and mean-spirited GOP policies and leaders, fed by a base that glories in its voluntary ignorance, one can also blame Obama and the corporate media for some of this inertia:
OBAMA'S DISAPPEARING ACT
Obama (who, for sure, is far better than McCain/Palin would have been) talks a good fight about change but seems mostly content to operate within a very narrow, Beltway box, always protecting "The System" and those who wield the power within that system. Thus, tiny reforms are passed but little of systemic import gets realized. In addition, the HardRight media keep the status quo in place. Meanwhile, the Democrats, seemingly forgetting that they control the White House and Senate, play fearful defense, while the unpopular Republicans, always on offense, behave as if they're in total control. What hath Karl Rove wrought?
True, the Republican/conservative juggernaut in the House and state governments makes it difficult to get decent legislation passed. But Obama and the Dems should realize that the GOP will be content only with total destruction of the opposition and full implementation of their extreme policies. Obama, for example, could use his presidential, prime-time bully-pulpit to help shape that fight and to educate the citizenry on key issues like Medicare, Medicaid and the EPA. But, more often than not, Obama goes into retreat mode and sells out his base by watering down liberal proposals in a futile effort to placate those who wish only for his destruction. I don't get it.
By backing away from the fight he promised, as a "transformational" president in the mode of FDR, Obama has committed the unforgiveable sin of destroying hope in democracy. Many millions of voters, especially young and minorities, abandoned their cynicism and participated in the 2008 electoral process, many for the first time in their lives. They did so because their candidate promised a new day, structural changes in the way "The System" worked, a return to adherence to Constitutional principals with regard to civil liberties, avoiding imperial wars abroad, with leaders held accountable for their misdeeds, etc. etc.
And then Obama dashed progressive hopes and dreams by revealing himself to be pretty much a traditional, triangulating Beltway politician, who says one thing to get elected and operates in a different way when in office. Yes, yes, he's faced huge obstacles in governance and the economy, and a totally negative GOP opposition in Congress, but we all know his behavior has wrecked his once-formidable political operation and created despair among millions who wanted, and were promised, better.
It won't be easy winning those folks back to voting for him in 2012 -- unless, as seems possible, the Republicans select an extremist neanderthal as their candidate. If a decent, charismatic progressive were to run against Obama from the Left or as a third-party candidate (Russ Feingold? Bernie Sanders? RFK Jr.?), that might shift Obama's attitude. Or perhaps not, as Obama has a tendency to bash his progressive base as he moves toward the center/center-right. But, who knows, maybe such pressure from his left might help maneuver him into supporting a temporary job-creation program, a la FDR's Works Progress Administation, or pulling away from his neo-imperialist war policies abroad.
MORE UNFOLDING CLIMATE DISASTERS
In area after area of social concern -- in the U.S. and elsewhere -- the predominant political direction is retrograde, reactionary, dangerous to the polity and planet.
Scientists, for example, are warning that the global temperature might continue to rise more than three degrees by 2100 as a result of human-influenced carbon pollution/climate change. Sea-level flooding will be speeded up, with disastrous consequences. Precipitation patterns will go haywire, there will be more catastrophic storms and flooding and mudsliding, hundreds of thousands of deaths, billions and maybe trillions of dollars in damages, agriculture will be even more calamitously affected, leading to even more key food shortages and starvations worldwide.
Because CheneyBush and the economic forces behind them were philosophically (read: $$) opposed to doing anything about the global-warming issue, America, and the world, lost a key decade's worth of possible mitigation. Lacking U.S. leadership, most other nations did little as well. It may very well be too late to rectify most of the damage done, but at least a few countries are making some attempts. Germany, for example, is one of the leaders of the "green revolution" -- way ahead of America in developing "green" sources of energy (wind, solar especially), with U.S. industries lagging way behind the curve. Germany is also moving away from nuclear energy, and will shut down its 17 reactors within a decade, and transition to cleaner, safer forms of energy-development.
THE NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE
The U.S., the country that possesses the highest number of nuclear reactors, will "stay the course," and, under Obama, is open to building more such plants. This even in the face of Japan's nuclear catastrophe, which continues to disperse deadly radiation into the soil, ocean and air, with unknown health implications across the globe. The private company that runs the Japanese reactors lied and continues to lie about the meltdown dangers, as does the Japanese government. Scientists are talking about a concrete, Chernobyl-like sarcophagus that will have to be built to contain the worst of the leaking radiation. The media, especially the U.S. media, basically have dropped this story. Too scary?
It goes without saying that FUBAR is the new normal. All across the globe, in region after region, on issue after issue, the center is not holding. The relative stability enjoyed in so many areas for decades is disappearing, sometimes quite suddenly -- social and political earthquakes as the underlying tectonic plates undergo wrenching shifts.
Every sane person realizes that things must change, and soon. And yet very little changes. "The System" continues on, protecting its own at the top. The rest of us, the "little people," are told to get by as best we can. Socialism for the wealthy, capitalism for the poor and middle-class. And thus, to crib from Albert Einstein, everything "has changed save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."
If that's not a prescription for radical change, I don't know what is. Organize, Organize, ORGANIZE! Build that non-violent, revolutinoary boat! And in doing so, social action becomes an effective antidote to political depression.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at universities in California and Washington, worked for two decades as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: email@example.com .
Copyright 2011 by Bernard Weiner
First published by The Crisis Papers 6/5/11.
Posted: June 9, 2011