Thursday, September 25, 2008

Going Down By The Head

I do not typically read much in the way of current politics beyond newspaper coverage. I prefer the passage of a little time to fill in the details of an event. I'm especially leery of contemporary political books, left or right. I'm always suspicious that the truth lies somewhere in the no-man's-land between the screeching tracts, and unless a person is deeply engaged in politics I fear it is difficult to be really informed about something.

But I find myself convinced beyond question that our present political situation is rotten to its core. My disbelief is not an argument, I know; but I simply cannot fathom that any sane, informed person can think that our present political world is an improvement on what we had a decade back or even that it's trending toward any good place. And given that, I am completely at a loss to explain how ANYONE can look favorably upon the McCain / Palin ticket. I can't see what anyone finds attractive, nor do I understand what perils are thought to lurk in an Obama presidency, given our current debauched state of affairs.

Politics is always a dicey business, and no one's hands are quite clean. But the flavor of political maneuvering we've seen during the two terms of George W. Bush infuriates me and makes me despair for our political institutions. I'm far beyond convincing that this Republican government is simply inept or misguided; there has clearly been malice aforethought, and I fear that the group have done damage far beyond anything in my lifetime--beyond Watergate or Iran-Contra or WAAAAY beyond the laughable benignity of Clinton's Grand Jury lies about his libido. Extraordinary rendition; secret black-ops prisions; warrentless wiretaps; Guantanamo Bay; the regular use of torture; over 700 signing statements; key political operatives in prison or under criminal investigation: politics may indeed be dirty, but this catastrophe is Republicans Gone Wild. The question becomes whether we can salvage things from the wreckage left behind.

In the bookstore a month or so ago I ran across Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. He offers a detailed exposé of the decade's governmental meltdown and much more to boot. This is not just the impotent wail of the disaffected (which is what most of my political blog posts amount to): he reveals a black hole of deception and treachery and base manipulation in the pursuit of power and money that takes your breath away. The systematic use of intimidation, the subversion of science and the undermining of our educational system, the unceasing spin and manipulation of information; Frank gives us a front row seat to what surely a huge majority of good citizens stand in opposition to (or would if they saw the reality laid before them). In many ways, Frank's book is a basic political science primer for the modern right wing, talking in basic terms about what the Republican party has come to stand for, and about the tactics they employ in pursuit of their goals. His focus is the transformation of the political right since the Reagan revolution and the details of their playbook.

His thesis is that contemporary conservatism is not at all what it's held up to be in the popular media. "Conservatism-in-power is a very different beast from the conservatism we meet on the streets of Wichita or the conservatism we overhear talking to itself on the pages of Free Republic." The rhetoric and public face of conservatism is a carefully-constructed topcoat that conceals a malignancy underneath (and this duality, which is a key aspect of vote-gathering, is at the core of his previous book, What's the Matter With Kansas?). Our current state of affairs vis-a-vis the Iraq war and the budgetary malaise and the general dysfunction of government are not simply the inevitable outcome of how the party in power is running things; rather, this state of affairs is something specifically pursued by conservatives, and it stems from several key principles.

  1. Conservatism in this country is preeminently an economic stance. Social conservatives or freedom's idealogues are courted for their votes, but the movement's real power has no interest in, or concern over, people's social lives except as they relate to the ability of business to make money.
  2. Accordingly, freedom is much less an individual thing than it is an expression of the ability of business to make money unimpeded. "Freedom" means "free markets."
  3. Anything that stands in the way of business--and specifically, of the making of money--must be eliminated by any available means.
  4. Government is inherently evil--because it absorbs and redistributes money and does not create it; so the goal is to have as little government as possible and, for what's left, that it be ineffectual and impotent so that it cannot stifle profits.
  5. Ergo, the outsourcing of government functions--that is, the turning over to private business of the functions of government--is to be relentlessly worked toward. This ensures a business-friendly government, and it turns the money-sucking business of government into a money-making enterprise.

He spends a great deal of time on these items, giving them plenty of support. Which is necessary, since it sounds paranoid and unbelievable if it were not laid out for us. Our disbelief is expected and cultivated, of course.

It goes without saying that the advantages gained from these conservative pursuits find a highly lopsided distribution. The upper tiers of big business stand to gain enormously from this strategy while the population at large is unrewarded, or even burdened. (We're seeing this today as even failing businessmen receive millions in parachutes while the working classes are being denied credit and losing their houses and worse, are being forced to pony up another three quarters of a trillion dollars.) We have no right to be surprised at any of this, as the right have made no secret of their aims. Reagan himself famously said "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

From Frank's introduction:

Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we've come to expect from Washington.

Everything can be understood, Frank says, by following the money. Cui bono? The entire movement is all about money, and we can grasp the totality of what conservatives desire and how they work to attain their goals by looking at who benefits from the strategies they employ.

Some quotes from the book:

In America... conservatism has always been an expression of business. Absorbing this fact is a condition to understanding the movement; it is anterior to everything else conservatism has been over the years. To try to understand conservatism without taking into account its grounding in business thought--to depict it as, say, the political style of an unusually pious nation or an extreme dedication to the principle of freedom--is like setting off to war with maps of the wrong country.
Cynicism is of this movement's essence. It is cynical not only in the way it wriggles about, denying everything, dumping its former heroes, endlessly repositioning itself; but more fundamentally, it is cynical about the very possibilities of improvement through government.

Frank spoke with conservative champion Grover Norquist, who extolled to him the virtues of outsourcing government. Frank writes:

And then it struck me... Norquist was hinting at something both ingenious and incredibly malevolent: a systematic connection between conservative politics and private profit. Consider what the liberal order had to offer, back in its heyday: affluence for most, civic peace, and a certain amount of social justice. When the liberal machine worked, it delivered 5 or 6 percent growth per year--a great deal for the nation, but a handful of crumbs when compared to the return-on-investment that Norquist was talking about. Who will stand up for the liberal state when there are hundred-thousand-fold returns to be made from wrecking it?

Frank talks at some length about the irony and contradiction inherent in the conservative railing against the inefficiency and corruption of government when conservatives themselves have long been in control of much of that government. With irony that would do Joseph Goebbels proud, conservatives complain that the entrenched liberal state is too large and labyrinthine to kill off quickly; it is in fact the Republican dismantling and selling off and destruction of the mechanisms of government--to huge profits by conservative businessmen--which will take years and immense sums to rebuild. And all this has happened with our tacit approval, without discussion in any open, public forum. This is all by design.

What a cast of unsavory characters, cynically wrapped in the flag and carrying their bibles, all the while preaching to their faithful of the vast sums of money to be had: Jack Abramoff and his College Republicans, Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition, Newt Gingrich with the "Contract with America," Pat Buchanan, Paul Weyrich, Tom DeLay, Oliver North, Jack Wheeler, Richard Viguerie, Terry Dolan, Russel Crystal, and the cancerous Howard Phillips and his "defund the left" mania. Today we have a new batch spreading the poison: Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Karl Rove.

Abramoff, among his many other cancerous exploits, helped run the United Students of America Foundation (USAF), whose purpose "was to lay down supporting fire for whatever assault the College Republicans were making." Frank writes:

The USAF's motto was "Promoting a free market of ideas on the nation's campuses," and here we encounter yet another signature theme of the Washington right. Like many winger ideas--anticommunism, for example--it sounds good at first. A "free market of ideas" sounds like "free inquiry," or a "free exchange of ideas"; an environment in which hypotheses are tested and bad ones are weeded out while good ones go on to earn the respect of the community of scholars. But this is not what the phrase means at all. Markets do not determine the objective merit of things, only their price, which is to say, their merit in the eyes of capital or consumers. To cast intellectual life as a "market" is to set up a standard for measuring ideas quite different from the standard of truthfulness. Here ideas are bid up or down depending on how well they please those with the funds to underwrite inquiry--which effectively means, how well they please large corporations and the very wealthy.

One of the right's favorite tools is the web of non-profit organizations to "mask the movements of the money, yielding tax deductions for the chosen, punishment for the uncooperative, and nice things for the friendlies." In talking about Oliver North and the Iran-Contra affair, Frank writes:
Prodigious though they might seem, these acts of retail profiteering were miniscule beside the colossal entrepreneurial gambit that the Iran-Contra investigation revealed. The insiders called it "the Enterprise": Private money, raised through the sale of government favors and property, would go to fund private armies of "freedom fighters" operating overseas. The ultimate aim of the enterprise, as envisioned by CIA director Casey, was privatization on the grandest scale imaginable: the construction of a foreign policy instrument that was free from the meddling of Congress, financed by sales of weapons and other precious commodity that the government had in abundance but which it had hitherto been reluctant to market--access

As a foreign policy venture, Iran-Contra was a disaster, and the Enterprise eventually fell apart under congressional scrutiny. Fifteen years later, however, this very bad idea was back in even more grandiose form: a vast selling-off of government favors to those willing to fund the conservative movement, a wholesale transfer of government responsibilities to private-sector contractors, and even private armies, unaccountable to Congress or anyone else.

Underneath it all, then as now, was the bedrock cynicism of the right. [Oliver North]...broke the liberals' law against funding the Contras because he disagreed with it; he kept secrets from the State Department and Congress because he had little respect for them. Contempt for government and contempt for the liberals who built that government thus led irresistibly to North's curious blend of self-righteousness and corruption, a combination we shall encounter again as our story progresses.

All the outsourcing and bribery and maneuvering and subterfuge is implemented with an ingenious smokescreen, a carefully-constructed flummoxing layer of obfuscation so as to make oversight difficult or impossible. Better yet, why not just outsource the oversight? Or even cancel it altogether! We've seen much of both strategies. The masses of voters are much more likely to respond to promises of lower taxes or promises to clean up the excesses of which they do not approve but also do not understand.

One of my frustrations is to realize that some of this addled conservative thinking may have leeched its way unwittingly into my own thinking (and that of many others, including, say, Bill Clinton, who was mostly on board with the concept of "entrepreneurial government"). I think I have a nagging sense of government as a bungling, bureaucratic nightmare, a hugely over-staffed entity which is incapable of reacting to the needs of its citizens. Now I learn that this is a central idea of this new right, something pounded into our collective psyche for decades, again, to pave the way for the systematic plan to get government out of the way of business and money-making interests. Conservatives have come to power on the outrage of the dysfunctional state, and yet are not held accountable for failing to fix anything after 30 years--indeed, as we teeter on the brink of an economic meltdown and depression (without stopping at recession first), they've made things considerably worse.

It all adds up to a massively unresponsive conspiracy whereby people seek power and use it to amass vast fortunes and even greater powers. Surely this group of bottomlessly-cynical machinators do not represent what American citizens want in their government. I've been reading this relatively short book now for three weeks, as I can stomach only 10 or 15 pages at a sitting before I fall into depression. The details are so rotten, and so ingeniously wrought, and the solutions are difficult and elusive.

I recommend the book, not because it's a fun or inspring read, but because we all ought to know what's going on. The only source of hope is that enough people will recognize our present diseased state and will rise up to take our country back.

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