The dysfunction is a product of ideologies.
The Republicans have a clear and vibrant ideology. Smaller government, lower taxes, return to the social mores of the 1950s (though not the progressive economics—strong unions, 90 percent top marginal tax rates, free universities—these have been erased from history like purged Soviet officials), and let’s all be white.
The Republicans have been gaining in power since the Reagan administration and achieved full power under Bush II.
With that power they demonstrated that they were not, in fact, for smaller government; Republicans were for government that used its power to transfer money from regular people to the rich.
They cut taxes and thereby proved that cutting taxes is bad for the economy. This is perhaps the most peculiar fact in our political landscape. It’s as if they dropped Mt. Everest on top of St. Louis and it was invisible, even to Democrats driving down Highway 61.
They showed that they shouldn’t be in charge of our intelligence operations (9/11 happened largely because of Bush and Cheney’s willful determination to ignore warnings).
They proved that they couldn’t run a war, let alone two. They also exposed institutional flaws in our national security.
They proved that America’s intelligence services are astonishingly inept, in spite of a budget of nearly $50 billion a year. The second reason for 9/11 was a simple failure to communicate among those agencies. Also, Osama bin Laden is still at large! In answer to which I reissue the Beinhart Challenge! Give me $50 billion, and I guarantee the capture of bin Laden (even after I take the standard $10 or $20 billion corporate skim off the top). They believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. They failed to predict the chaos that followed the invasion of Iraq. They failed to figure out what to do in Afghanistan.
US defense spending is calculated to be somewhere between $880 billion and $1.03 trillion annually. And we can’t win a war.
There are certain kinds of wars we probably can win, but we can’t find them, so we get involved in wars of occupation instead. We call them counter-insurgencies. They’re fought to suppress insurgencies that are attacking our occupations, so it’s a roundabout form of euphemism. We have difficulty with such wars because we are reluctant to embrace the tools of totalitarian conquest: massive troop presence, mass executions, population removal, and secret police. But even the Nazi and Stalinist models don’t last forever.
The theological underpinning of the Republican ideologies is the magical belief that individual greed-based actions will be guided by an invisible hand to create the best of all possible worlds and the strongest possible nation. Government action is, therefore, bad because it interferes with the magic.
This is buttressed with the ego-stroking idea that those of us who have money and security have earned it through hard work and good behavior and deserve it, while the have-nots and the have-littles likewise deserve what they get. Government action is, therefore, bad because it is class warfare that takes from the deserving classes to give to the undeserving classes.
This works because it plays to the tribalism basic to human psychology. Europeans are happy with social democracies because European countries are ethnically homogenous. So social welfare is taking care of their own tribe. Nowadays, with significant immigrant minorities, Europe is beginning to see a backlash, a rising tide of resentment against taking care of members of other tribes.
America is multicultural, multiethnic, made up of people who left their tribes. During World War II we united and started to see everyone as “us.” When Lyndon Johnson insisted on including black people in the tribe, the “us” began to shatter. Ronald Reagan found out how to link that social fissure to economic policy, using references to welfare queens and welfare Cadillacs. Taxes, in Reagan-speak, were a tool to take money from our good, hard-working, worthy tribe, and social programs were a way to hand it out to worthless, shiftless members of “other” tribes. Anti black racism is no longer respectable, but the impulse remains, and the new symbol of the “other” tribe is the illegal immigrant.
Those twinned ideas have wrecked, and continue to wreck, havoc with our economy. They are the guise under which the richest and greediest class have waged class warfare and scored victory after victory. Poverty has increased. Middle-class people now work harder for less. Financial security has disappeared. Medical costs—which we all pay for—are double what they are in the rest of the civilized world. Our physical infrastructure is crumbling. Worse, our social infrastructure is being eviscerated. In this recession we’re laying off police, firefighters, and teachers, closing courtrooms, and cutting social services.
Rich people—in gated communities, with great medical insurance, who can afford to send their children to private schools and universities, who can afford private security and expensive lawyers—are immune from all this havoc, and are very happy, so long as their wealth is untouched.
With each victory in this class war, the rich have more money to spend on lobbying, lawyers, the judiciary, corporate power, media control, and propaganda.
It is time to declare that yes, class warfare is taking place! We, the people, are losing. Big Money will sell out Americans every time they can profit by it. They’ll ship jobs overseas. Advocate for wars we don’t need. Keep us dependent on oil. Mortgage our industries to take big banker fees out of the deals. Buy off our politicians. Back judges who will raise the rights of corporations over individuals. Steal and loot our pension plans. Pollute the Gulf of Mexico, pollute our coasts, and rivers. Steal our national parks. Let our businesses go bankrupt.
Out-of-control Big Money is Un-American! We do need to take back our country. No individual can fight the big banks. No hard-working person can get their pension back after the Wall Streeters have ruined it. Patriotism means standing up to multinational corporations. They don’t care about this country, only about their profits.
There needs to be an ideology, with emotional, button-pushing slogans, short as bumper stickers, that rational, sensible people can use to motivate emotional people—that can move us with rage.