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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fear, Ignorance and the Summer of Our Discontent

Fear, Ignorance and the Summer of Our Discontent

by John Atcheson


To those of us in the reality based community, watching the tea-baggers, death panelist propagators, birthers and assorted other whackjobs conjure up government fascism out of whole cloth, even as they unwittingly defend the unbridled fascistic behavior of corporations, defies logic.

Seeing them this past Summer act out their delusions at town hall meetings and on the Nation's Mall -- waving Don't Tread on Me signs; invoking the Founders as they engaged in the most undemocratic behavior; vilifying the President-- perplexes those of us who inhabit the real world. Where, we ask ourselves, does such a deadly brew of willful ignorance and passionate intensity come from?

Good question.

There are cultural, sociological and psychological explanations for their political pornography, and it is useful to examine them.

The most important fact to understand, is that these are the people who were left behind by change. In fact, one of their more popular signs is "Keep the Change". Although they don't realize it, the change they rail against is not the one Obama talks about - rather it is the one that has occurred in the last two generations.

Less than fifty years ago, these largely white and religious cohorts inhabited a world in which they were the majority. A world in which everyone knew why we were placed on this Earth, Who put us here, and what we ought to believe - a world in which everything was mapped out, a world in which they were the cartographers and the keepers of the sacred knowledge.

In those halcyon days of yesteryear, when people defined who it was that constituted "us" and who it was that made up "them," they found themselves in the majority. And it was good.

But society has moved on.

We now live in a multi-ethnic world dominated by rapid change, chaotic cultural shifts, materialism, uncertainty, and perhaps most of all, loss of control. Our children hop into cars and out of our lives. They log onto the web and get exposed to a universe of things that range from the divine to the heinous. Our families disintegrate as they chase jobs, and so too, do our communities and our mores. Transience replaces permanence in people, places and things. We get Relativity, but it comes with relativism.

The certainties that formed their shared reality two generations ago have been swept away. Most people moved forward in lockstep with reality. But those left behind are threatened, scared, and angry at forces they only dimly understand, and their response is to see the world, not as it is, but as they wish it were - as it used to be in a more certain time.


Education played a large part in whether people could adapt to the new world, or whether they couldn't. A Washington Post ABC poll taken in late 2008, found that white people without a college degree favored John McCain by 17 percentage points, while those with a college degree preferred Barack Obama by 9 percentage points.

The dispossessed need narratives and scapegoats to make their plight comprehensible and they need easy targets to blame. The Republicans and their corporate overlords have given them one: Government is the last stereotype - the new nigger, spick, wap, or mick.

The election of a black President to head the all-purpose bogeyman -- evil big gubmint - has allowed fear mongers to literally put a face on this scapegoat, and unleashed an irrational frenzy among the dispossessed. Thus, this past summer thousands on the national Mall and at town hall meetings were joined by only one real common issue -they've accepted an all-purpose scapegoat for their fall from grace: Government is the protector of the source of all their fears and problems: the "others," the "not us," and now it's run by one of "them."

That's why immigration pops up in any issue including health care. That's why the vague fear of Muslims taking over the country. That's why a single group can stand in unison as they protest the strangest of bedfellows: fascists, socialists, and "libruls," that are in some dim way supposed to be connected to health care. That's why they are suddenly concerned about deficits and fiscal responsibility after silently watching as their idols - Reagan and Bush - literally blew up the federal budget. That's why they resent taxes, so much of which they fear is destined for "the others," even though most of the crowd appeared to be at or near the medicare/social security age.

The Roots of Discontent

But here is the ultimate irony - the changes that have left the tea-baggers and other assorted tin foil hat types feeling rootless, disenfranchised, and fearful were unleashed in large measure by the doctrine they defend: Reaganism.

Or more precisely, Corporatism.

The answer to Tomas Frank's iconic question: What's the Matter with Kansas is that Corporations have skillfully and systematically exploited the sense of fear and disenfranchisement that a "market uber-alles" creates to effectively neuter the only power capable of challenging them and containing their excesses: government.

And it isn't just the whackjobs who have been complicit.

While the roots of corporate oligarchy go back to our very founding, and their power derives from some post-Civil War era Supreme Court Decisions which essentially gave corporations rights of personhood, it saw two great incarnations - first, beginning in the Gilded Age and extending right up to 1929; and again, since the 1980's when it became a doctrine on steroids under Regan.

Corporate power reached its zenith during the laissez-faire 1920's, and led to an unprecedented concentration of wealth in the upper 1% of the population and an unconstrained private sector and - inevitably - to the Great Depression. Roosevelt put in place programs which created a level playing field and a constrained private sector that operated in a manner consistent with the public good, and those programs contributed to four decades of sustained growth and a burgeoning middle class.

But for the last three decades, this nation has retreated from those New Deal programs. Progressives watched mutely as wages flatlined, as jobs disappeared overseas, as wealth was once again ripped from the hands of the poor and handed to the richest 1%; as the financial world was de-regulated; as government was vilified; and as the political process got hi-jacked.

The real tragedy is that while progressives hunkered down, afraid to confront the popular and appealing message of Reagan and his ideological descendants, corporations funded a coordinated takeover of the Republican Party, the popular press, and the machinery of government.

The corporate fleecing of America remains the greatest story never told.

Indeed, Bush slipped two ardent corporatists into the Supreme Court while progressives and the news media focused on wedge issues like abortion. As a result, we now have the most corporate-friendly Supreme Court in a century. Last week the Court took the unusual step of rushing a case to judgment that could substantially expand corporate political influence.

It's a War, Stupid

What progressives have failed to comprehend, and what Obama's compromise-driven approach to governance fails to appreciate is that there is a war on for the hearts, minds, and soul of America. In this war, Republicans are bit-players - minions of corporate power. Democratic Blue Dogs are their brethren - sniffing eagerly at the nether regions of the corporate body for tasty crumbs. The real war is one between government and Corporations. And Corporations, having bought off the upper class and both parties, and skillfully manipulated the fearful to encourage divisiveness, are winning.

The shape of the Wall Street bailout; the corporate-friendly nature of the health care debate; the weakness of the climate bills, the obscene size of our defense budget have all been dominated by our complete failure to address the one big issue - to engage in the war of ideologies that must be waged. If people have been fooled, progressives have no one but themselves to blame. They've only heard one side of the debate.

Progressives have simply lacked the courage to take this war on. Even though it is obvious that the laissez-faire dogma of Hoover/Reagan/Bush brought on the Great Depression and the Greatest Recession respectively, Democrats cower when confronted with complaints about big Gubmint' or "socialism," or "fascism"; and they nod placidly when people say that the magic markets will bring about all good things by pure serendipity if we just leave them alone.

As for raising taxes to provide services demanded by voters? Fugeddaboutit. Ditto on regulating the excesses of the financial sector.

Reagan advocated an essentially amoral framework for society - not amoral as it is often used to mean immoral but amoral in its literal sense -- operating outside of a moral context. This essentially undid much of what Roosevelt had achieved: tethering the unbridled power of corporations to the government so that it might be forced to meet basic ethical and pragmatic limitations that served the common good.

With the popularity of Reaganism, we spent three decades shrinking government and glorifying and unleashing the private sector.

The reality of the new world order is that tyranny is, in fact afoot. But it is the handmaiden of corporations not government. And it is about to become much worse, as the Bush Supreme Court Appointees rush to expand corporate control over the political process.

Ironically, government is the only entity capable of protecting people from the new fascists - unconstrained corporations.

The Founders were fond of checks and balances. Thus, the three branches of government were set up to operate as counterweights, preventing any one branch from getting too much power. One must believe that they would have built in checks against corporate power if it had existed then in anything like the form it does now.

Yes, there is a war for the mind, heart, and soul of this country. We must decide, once and for all, whether we wish to be a nation of and for the people, or one of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation.

The Progressive and Democratic response to this war has been a three decade swoon that makes them the modern-day equivalent of Neville Chamberlain, appeasing the Reaganistas at every turn. It has not worked; it will not work.

The Health Care Debacle - Poster Child for Progressive Cowardice

Watching the tea-baggers, one is tempted to dismiss them as little more than slack-jawed yokels at a three-card-monty festival - another case of dumb asses getting the wool pulled over their eyes.

But watching the health care bill turn from populist reform to industry pork aided and abetted by the Democrats we elected, we have to wonder whether we're really any smarter.

At its root, the health care debate is simple. Right now, we have a middle man - the health insurance industry - that imposes a 30% surcharge (nearly $400 billion each year) on health care, while adding no value whatsoever to health. In fact, they restrict care. Operating beside it are government run programs which have a transaction cost of only 3.5%, with better outcomes and higher customer satisfaction. The same is true for pharmaceuticals - Bush's program prohibits the government from negotiating lower prices and prohibits customers from buying imports, which gives big PhRMA some $700 billion in excess profits.

So the question is, do we want to pay a 30%, $350 billion surcharge for poorer and more uncertain care, or do we want to pay a 3.5% transaction cost for better care and better service? It's that simple.

But we've watched mutely as 3,300 health care lobbyists (more than six lobbyists for each member of Congress) storm the Hill, spending more than $4 million a day solely to obfuscate the issue and preserve their amoral profits.

This summer we yielded control of the Bill to six Senators - who represent only 2.6 % of Americans and who have received more than $8.5 million in campaign contributions from the health care industry - and allowed them to strip out consumer protections in the Bill even as they load it with industry party favors.

We watched in silence as Obama and the Dems unilaterally jettisoned the single payer plan, and we watched as the gang of six stripped out the anemic alternative -- a public option -- even though the majority of Americans initially favored both. How is it that our elected representatives do not - will not - represent us?

We accept at face value the idea that the Bills all preserve choice, when in fact industry gets first choice of whether you get to keep your insurance, or whether you get to opt for the public option (if their even is one). Obama has stood idly by while this corporate takeover of the debate proceeded - in fact, he cut his own backroom deals with big PhaRMA - privately agreeing, as Bush did, not to use government's bargaining authority to reduce drug costs in exchange for their support.

This is a war; but health care is only a battle. On its face, it appears that on one side are lunatic tea-baggers full of equal parts passionate intensity and ignorant delusion; on the other are those lacking all conviction. But the reality is, that above it all, conning the yokels with distractions, and buying off the last pockets of government power are the corporate forces of tyranny - neither evil nor good, just doing whatever we allow them to do.

We will lose this war, until and unless we constrain corporate power - until we name the beast and demand that our representatives represent us.

This is our last chance. Obama's address to Congress was a start. But it will take a great leader - not simply a great rhetorician - to win this war and he can't do it alone.

Obama has suffered comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt since he crossed the threshold of the White House, but as many have pointed out, when Roosevelt was confronted with demands from the activists in his party, he said, "I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it."

If we expect Obama to do his part, we must do ours. If 70% of us want serious health care reform, we can't simply talk to pollsters about it. If we are upset that Wall Street is being made whole with our taxes and disbursing mega-bonuses to fat cat CEOs, while the rest of the economy - the real economy - languishes, we can't passively wait for justice to arrive by Limo or Lear Jet.

We must demand that we get our government back; we must confront and drive a stake into the thoroughly discredited theology of Hoover/Reagan/Bush; we must be sure our voices are heard. We must turn the money changers from the sacred halls of governance. We must insist that media become something more than stenographers turning tricks for their corporate Johns. At the end of the day, corporations only have money - we have the vote.

Tea baggers have been manipulated by corporate interests precisely because they are the most aggrieved and disenfranchised members of society.

Corporations have bet that the slightly more affluent progressives have enough skin in the game that we'll stay on our couches and mumble epithets. We can make fun of the tea baggers, but at least they are out there.

As Labor Day drifts into hazily recalled burgers, beer, and bogus sales from retailers, we should remember what it stands for. It is time to organize. If our representatives are on the take, we must get rid of them. If our leaders won't lead, we must lead them.

We can stop the corporate K-Street takeover of America. But we must first believe that it exists. We do not face evil, we face something far more dangerous - an entity that is devoid of all values and ethics save one: the relentless drive to accumulate wealth and power for its own sake. Adam Smith was wrong - without the government to set boundary conditions and establish an even playing field, there is no common good in capitalism. Only tyranny and subjugation.

We must work to check the unbridled power of money in our political system or see it destroyed. Our voices and our votes can triumph - but only if we get off the couches and, to borrow a phrase from the tea-baggers, Take Back Our Country.

Of course, we do have an alternative.

Care to pick a card, yokel? Any card?

John Atcheson's writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, as well as in several wonk journals. Email to: atchman@comcast.net

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