Egyptians, Tunisians, Bahrainis and Yemenis clamor for democracy and pour into the streets risking their lives to obtain it. We, on the other hand, who presume to enjoy its fruits already have ample reason to inquire what it is exactly. It’s hard to see nowadays what the rule of the governed in our country is precisely comprised of given the subtle but relentless crushing of political expressions not in conformity with our rulers’ long-term intentions and plans.
Take, for example, the presidency of Barack Obama. He awakened a surprising movement three years ago of people sick of George W. Bush and appalled by the carnage in Iraq and the systematic jettisoning of our core values, like the rule of law and basic human rights. Those not particularly exercised by foreign debacles were shocked and disgusted by the incompetence shown after Katrina, the wholesale delivery of the family farm into the hands of Bush’s rich friends via crippling tax cuts and finally the banking collapse. We mobilized, canvassed, donated, paid attention, believed, voted and celebrated.
So what did our democratic exercise bring about? Endless war in Afghanistan that no one takes seriously but that the Pentagon refuses to give up. Extension of the Bush tax cuts. Equally incompetent handling of disaster of the Gulf oil spill. The biggest banks writing checks to themselves on our account, enabled by Obama’s ex- and future-banker advisors. Continued backhanded endorsement of the crimes of Guantánamo, ongoing snooping into our private lives, and the appalling torture of an American citizen not convicted of any crime, now personally and publicly endorsed by the cool new president. A health insurance reform so whittled down and compromised by its proponents and so effectively blasted and undermined by its enemies that even its good provisions may end up being Pyrrhic victories. And perhaps worst of all, an utter failure to join battle with the reactionary forces building all around us that anyone not part of the Beltway circuit can see.
In December there were reports that Obama’s re-election plan is to ‘persuade hardcore liberals to swallow their anger’. Really inspiring, dude! Of course, only a ‘hardcore liberal’ could be so rigidly zealous as to want pointless wars and the transfer of our national wealth to the Koch brothers to end.
The Republicans, by contrast, are so terrified of their ‘hardcore’ base that Mormon old-timers like Orrin Hatch are frantically kneeling at the Tea Party tents trying to figure out what kinds of crazy shit have to be offered to the fringe elements lapping up Glenn Beck’s conspiracy theories to keep them from further revolt. But Obama’s disappointed troops are to be firmly ruler-thwacked back into line and reminded, YOU HAVE NO ALTERNATIVE TO US. Although the activist base will mostly buckle and conform, the hordes of newly politicized youth will be totally elsewhere and are probably lost to political action for a generation.
If we think we have it bad, consider the poor liberal-minded Brits: after having their stomachs churned for a decade by the unctuous creep who birthed New Labour, they turn to the Liberal Democrats as an alternative only to be rewarded with a Tory lapdog carrying out an insane austerity program in the midst of mass unemployment and signing off on huge bonuses to failed executives at virtually state-owned banks. So where exactly on the ballot is a guy to put his ‘X’ to indicate ‘I dissent’??
The contrast between the fervor and determination of Arab democrats voting with their feet to face down tyranny and our credulous acceptance of the constrained terms of our democratic structures is striking. Being skeptical of all two-legged creatures and their doings, I am inclined to look not at the failings of a particular class of bipeds but at the less visible forces that might be at work.
The steady elimination of anything resembling a liberal alternative in our western societies seems to be indicative of a consensus among the ruling elites that they simply no longer need a vibrant and prosperous middle class of its post-war dimensions. The America we old-timers grew up in with most people doing fairly well and most people’s children doing even better isn’t required for the late capitalist system to thrive—as demonstrated ably in once-peripheral countries like Chile, Indonesia and China. These societies, it occurs to me, are likely to be the wave of the future: hierarchical, fairly closed systems, sometimes autocratic, sometimes less so, where the masses are permitted to survive, but the real benefits accrue only to the top 10 or 20 percent.
That would explain why we have witnessed the steady marginalization of unionism and now the latest round of attacks on public workers as the last bastion of workers’ collective strength. Why tax and spending policies shift more and more of national income into the pockets of the wealthiest and why both Democrats and Republicans rush to do the bidding of the mammoth financial entities sitting at the pinnacle of the pyramid. Why the next big enemy of the nation’s future is the bad old Social Security system that Obama and the Republicans agree is somehow broken and needs to be ‘fixed’.
The Egyptian revolution showed how unstable these unjust, stacked systems can be in the long run. But in a given lifetime it’s quite feasible to bully and terrorize and marginalize people even if they once thought they had a right to a decent life, security, public services and basic comforts. As George Carlin said about how we’re being forced into accepting our fate as outsiders pressing our runny noses up against the window of real life: ‘It’s a big club, and you’re not in it!’