by Bernard Weiner
Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Yes, I know that you and other European friends are, as you put it, "totally confused" by what's happening here in the U.S. right now. Welcome to the club. I wish I could answer all your questions about America's current political/economic crisis with definitive certainty. But the situation is moving real fast, with one disaster after another, and with politicians flip-flopping all over the place.
As a result, it's difficult to know precisely what's going on, but I'll do the best I can. Here are my responses to your italicized questions about McCain, Obama, the financial crisis and bailout, and electoral corruption:
1. BEYOND THE "CRAZY" FACTOR
"Bush, with his policies and wars, has nearly wrecked the U.S. Constitution and economy and America's moral standing abroad. We don't understand why your John McCain, so closely associated with the Bush policies that brought these disasters upon your country and the world, should be nearly even in the polls with Obama. Have you guys gone crazy?"
Short answer: Everyone goes "crazy" for awhile now and again. European history is also replete with such examples. In the American TV age, celebrity trumps experience: We feel we "know" these candidates, since we've seen them on the big screen or had them in our living-rooms nearly every night. In recent years, don't forget, we elected a Grade-B movie actor as president (Ronald Reagan). We elected a professional wrestler and a professional bodybuilder as governors (Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger). We elected a song-and-dance man a U.S. Senator (George Murphy). By and large, those experiments didn't turn out well and did great damage to the body politic, but the fascination with celebrity is still there.
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As to why McCain is nearly even with Obama in the polls, part of the explanation is that racism is alive and well in the U.S. A healthy chunk of the electorate, maybe 10% (and much higher in some states, especially in the South), simply will not vote for a black man. Sometimes, they're quite open about their reason for not supporting Obama; mostly they hide their racism by citing other supposed rationales: "elitist," "not one of us," "doesn't share our values," etc.
Then there's the mask element. McCain, for purposes of gaining the presidency, saw that Obama's change&hope mantra had captured the mood of the public. So, since his own issues weren't catching on, McCain is now Mr. Change, has re-donned the mask of "maverick reformer," and is running against the disreputable Republican record of the past eight years.
McCain apparently is hoping that voters will forget he was a major ultra-conservative part of that record -- he voted for Bush policies 90% of the time, for example, including approval of torture as state policy. But that chameleon trick seems to fool a good many voters. Plus, he added the younger, attractive Sarah Palin to the ticket and she joined him in the charade about "reform" and "change," saying she and McCain "will shake things up in Washington." But she's silent about the extreme, rightwing nature of the "change" she has in mind.
As many wise men have said, you can't go wrong underestimating the intelligence of the American voter. On the other hand, the more the public sees and hears the one-note Alaska governor, and learns more about her lack of qualifications and about the abuse-of-power way she governs, the less attractive she looks as a VP and potential president.
2. FREE-MARKET SOCIALISM
"America in general, and your Republican party in particular, is big on free-market capitalism, keeping the government out of the hair of business. Now the Republican government, supported also by Democrats, is making a 180-degree turn and urging regulation of corporations, and using billions in tax dollars to prop up failing big businesses, even going so far as to buy huge shares of these corporations. What the hell is happening? To us in Europe, who have seen similar alliances between government and business turn into authoritarian control, we can't understand why the U.S. citizens are not revolting."
The corporate elites who control the political system here just want to make profits. Most of the time, they do this best when they keep government at arms'-length from them. But in times of crisis, they go eagerly to Washington for help.
In short, in good times they're capitalists, in bad times socialists -- but only for the rich. Middle-class and poor folks recently got the foot of a burdensome new bankruptcy law placed on their necks. But the upper classes are provided privileged ways to avoid going under. It is ever thus, but it's gone to extreme lengths in the organized looting system for the wealthy arranged by the CheneyBush Administration.
What's been almost laughable is watching McCain, who has been a deregulationist all his political life, on Monday talking about the necessity for not letting government get involved in bailing out failing businesses, and on Tuesday he's proposing that the government start regulating these banks and corporations and get into the private business of selling insurance and mortgages. From deregulator to proponent of nationalizing giant corporations -- that's how fast the economic-disaster quicksand sucked McCain into the vortex.
And Obama came along quickly as well, even though he has important caveats of opposition. Though the Democrats are plugging for ways to aid the middle-class in this economic bailout, neither party or candidate wants to risk being held responsible for a full-scale financial meltdown and collapse of the U.S. economy. So, at least for the moment, everyone's theoretically on board.
"Too big to be allowed to fail"
The rationale for the federal bailout plan is that these companies are too huge, too intertwined in so many areas of the economy, to risk them going under. It's like the Italian government saying that the Mafia is too big and thus too important to the Italian economy (read: jobs, contribution$) to let them fail, so we'll just prop them up, look the other way while the looting and violence takes place, and roll along on our merry way.
Yes, of course, these corporations are huge, sprawling, multi-headed behemoths, but the politicians never want to examine how they got to the point of untouchability. How many times have we seen how deregulating industry has resulted in economic and/or social disaster? Anybody remember Enron? The S&L collapse of the '80s (in which a compromised McCain was right in the middle, by the way)? And now Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae? And Lehman Brothers? And AIG? And Morgan Stanley? Et al.
The ghost of the 1930s Great Depression is hovering over the present crisis. Indeed, so fast is the house of cards tumbling down, with more major corporations expected to follow, that the politicians, regardless of party, are falling all over themselves to create an institutional feather cushion to catch these failing enterprises as they crash toward insolvency. These are socialism-like measures, as was true in FDR's New Deal days as well, designed to forestall another Great Depression and maybe even revolution. Except these socialist-seeming solutions are not designed to aid the bulk of the population, the middle-class and poor, but to provide aid and sustenance to the wealthy titans of industry. The rest of us will be expected to pay the bill, probably more than a trillion dollars when all is said and done, since the plan also may include bailing out troubled foreign banks who dived into the giant profit-making machine in the U.S. (This massive federal bailout is being considered at the same time when the cost for America's current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is approaching the trillion-dollar mark.)
The proposed federal bailout of the failing corporations is the ultimate crime caper, well understood by those who have read Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism." Few in their right mind would agree to any of this in normal times, especially expressing a willingness to trust this same President and Administration who have proven themselves reckless, incompetent, secretive, lying power-mongers. But under leaked provisons of the plan, Congress would turn over virtually full control of the trillion-plus dollars for this new program to the Executive Branch (via the Treasury Secretary), with no outside oversight permitted, not by Congress and not by the courts. Here's the wording in the original plan: "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency."
Given the massive effects on the body/social politic, it really doesn't matter if the use of "shock-doctrine" tactics happens as a conscious elitist plot to foment the crisis or follows a genuine crisis that, willy nilly, provides the plutocrats with their opportunity to use the catastrophe to their own economic and power benefit. The result is the same: Ordinary citizens, especially in the middle-class, take it in the neck -- and wallet -- and constitutional government is damaged badly.
The inevitable fallout from greed
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told an anxious public the other day that things should get better now that the government is dealing with the "heart of the matter." He seems to think the "heart of the matter" has to do with moving cash around to keep the house of cards propped up, at least in the public mind.
But the "heart of the matter" has to do with the promulgation of greed as the operating principle in American economic (and social and political) life. It's been that way openly for the past 30 years, at least since Reagan's presidency. We profess shock, shock!, when after a few years that principle leads inexorably to disaster. When those crises develop, invariably the elites arrange themselves massive bailouts, the corporate executives suffer nary a wit, the taxpayers (and their children and grandchildren) are expected to meekly pony up, and then, there being no accountability for bad management, these ethically-challenged magnates feel free to go out and do the same thing again until the next major crisis.
In fact, the moral lesson many CEOs might derive from this experience is: If you're going to engage in high-stakes over-leveraging and gambling on derivatives, don't do it in a small-scale way. Make your corporations so very huge and so important to the system that nobody will want to risk upsetting the social/financial apple cart. So be sure to put at risk as much investor-money as you possibly can and that way, if something goes wrong (and inevitably it will), you'll get bailed out by the government. Small scams will get you nothing and might even lead to you getting arrested; but humongous unwise schemes, the bigger the better, will give you a free ride at taxpayers' expense. Which mostly means by us small-fry.
It IS crazy. And angering. And not just to liberals; many conservatives also are horrified by the ramifications of the governmental bailout. (As I write this, it's still not clear if and when the much-amended bailout plan might be voted on and whether it will pass in anything close to its original outline.)
3. OBAMA CAN'T/WON'T DO IT ALL
"Will Obama really make a difference? Can he? Didn't Bush and Cheney and their cronies mess things up so badly that nobody will be able to do much?"
Short answer: Yes, even if Obama wanted to institute major changes, he would have to face the unenviable task of trying to undo all the damage done by this Administration. To do so successfully might take a decade or two, especially because HardRightists have been placed into key positions in the bureaucracy, judiciary, and mass-media outlets. Even if McCain loses, Obama will face a constant, nasty battle to get anything decent done. (And if the Democrats in November don't pick up enough seats in the Senate to block Republican filibusters, the job will be even more difficult.)
Many progressives/liberals have chosen to believe that Obama is one of them and is willing, indeed eager, to shake up the system in a radical way. Don't count on it. I am enthusiastically working for and donating money to his campaign, but I have lowered my expectations. Obama is a centrist with some liberal leanings, but beholden to many of the same elitist forces that dominate most power-centers in this country. And his foreign-policy views, while more cautious and realistic, rest on the dangerous exceptionalist premise that the U.S. should be the military policeman in the world.
Obama certainly is bright, thoughtful, and full of good ideas, but the best we can expect would be something like Bill Clinton. Given how far right the country has moved in the past several decades -- the center is now regarded as "left" -- we on the progressive end of the spectrum will have to spend a lot of time and effort pressuring a President Obama to do what's right, given the other forces operating on him. I continue to believe that Obama has within him the possibility of being a dynamic, transformational president, but we shouldn't expect him to be a progressive superman. That's not who he is.
4. THE ROLE OF POLITICAL PARTIES
"Is there any kind of party loyalty and discipline in your presidential elections? Or do voters in America make their decision purely on personal, rather than policy, matters."
Short answers: No and yes. Americans have a disconnect when voting for president. What the parties stand for hardly matters anymore. How the candidates have voted and behaved in the past tends not to count for all that much either. Sad to say, what seems of most importance is biography and how "comfortable" citizens feel with a candidate rather than with the issues and party. Voting from this perspective makes no rational, or even political, sense -- especially since citizens are often voting against their own economic and social interests. Which helps explain why there's such "buyer-remorse" several years later when they see what they got and their rational mind kicks in.
5. THE CORRUPT ELECTION SYSTEM
"Your election systems seem so easily corruptible. Has nothing been done to change that?"
Short answer: Not much. A few states have reacted to the unreliable, easily-hackable touch-screen computers by going to optical-scanning machines that leave a paper record. But about one-third of the voting public in November will still cast ballots on touch-screen machines, many in key battleground states. The more pressing scandal is that vote-tabulation for all forms of voting remains outsourced to Republican-supporting corporations using secret software. Those voting totals, it has been publicly demonstrated, can be altered by a technician or hacker in less than a minute, leaving no indication of tampering. (The puzzling additional scandal is that the Democratic Party has shown no interest in publicizing these vulnerabilities, and the corporate media is complicit as well by its silence.)
In short, Americans have no real certainty that their votes have been, or will be in November, accurately recorded. Rove and his minions are trying to keep the polling-gap between the two candidates to just a few percentage points so that whatever illegal manipulations take place will not be so noticeable. In addition, hundreds of thousands of likely Democratic voters are being purged from the voting lists in key states, or are being victimized by GOP scams of one sort or another, especially with regard to absentee ballots. Once again, in a close election, electoral theft is a real possibility, as happened in the past two presidential contests, judging from the available evidence.
Well, Jacqueline and Wolfgang, let's stop there and deal with your other questions at another time. I wish you good luck in your own home countries, as they suffer "tsunami"-like effects on their economies and political structures because of what's happening here in the States. Good luck and stay in touch.
All best, Bernie.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at Western Washington University and San Diego State University, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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