Can national government that puts the interests of the American people ahead of short-term elite interests be achieved within the contemporary party structure?
The steady decline in U.S. national health care management, financial system regulation, environmental oversight, and national security in recent years—trends not reversed by the election of Obama—all point to one conclusion: it is time for the American people to start defending their interests against the elite. In each of the above arenas, the perspective of the elite is exactly the opposite of the perspective of the average citizen.
Health care. U.S. health care for the rich is superb; it is “only” the workers, not to mention the unemployed, and our elderly parents on pensions, and the children of young parents just beginning their careers who risk being denied affordable health care. Not only does the elite have no health care problem; the elite also benefits from the current lucrative health care industry by being able to invest with the certainty of a profitable return: there will always be plenty of sick people, and as long as the health care system is designed to make a profit, a profit is exactly what it will make.
Finance. As for the financial system, the glaring contradiction between the recent surge in Goldman Sachs profits marching step-in-step with the surge in unemployment says it all. The U.S. national financial system still contains a good bit of money (at least so long as the Chinese don’t call in their loans); the allocation of that cash is the issue, and since the beginning of the new and now evidently endless Federal bailout of bankers and Wall St. gamblers, the elite has had little reason to complain about the allocation of the cash.
Environment. The environment is not even perceived by the elite as a “separate system;” rather, it is, for them, part of the financial system…just like health care. The environment, for the elite, consists of such goodies as national forests that their corporations clearcut, leaving behind a desert that cannot return to normal forest growth. Surely, the government (i.e., the taxpayer) at least gets a reasonable return for selling the national wealth to corporations? Well, no, actually the ruling elite essentially gives the trees away, in a classic “socialism for the rich” escapade that voters are too lazy to protest.
National security. National security is a bit harder for the average person to understand. The rapid spread of U.S. military bases throughout the Mideast and Central Asia (castles literally built on sand), the endless military victories in every “face-to-face” encounter between the world’s most high-tech force and 19th century insurgents, the dramatic media portrayals of the day’s little troop surge, and dominant position in national debate of stern-faced generals calling for more war (because the generals opposing war seem to get themselves sacked and then blacklisted by the compliant media) all give the impression that—whatever Washington may be doing to the rest of the world—at least U.S. national security is being well defended. Unfortunately, those foreign bases are like the dikes around New Orleans: imposing structures but not designed for the job. Those bases would have stopped Stalin’s late-1940s push into Iran cold; they would have stopped the Soviet 1978 invasion of Afghanistan cold. And they would serve marvelously as launching pads for regional aggression. But in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, they are recruitment posters for al Qua’ida.
The bases, the surges, the endless expensive high-tech conflict all do have one undeniable characteristic, however: they are very good for business. Blackwater, by whatever name, is doing booming business running a mercenary army outside of Congressional control, and the need for weapons and machinery and construction is endless.
So for the elite, these four critical national problems that are as plain as day to citizens simply do not exist. The state of health care, the state of the financial system, the environment, and the state of national security are, for the rich and powerful, not problems but opportunities. Speaking in another era about a different issue, in his series of 1858 debates with Steven Douglas, Lincoln criticized Douglas’ defense of racism as “blowing out the moral lights around us, eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people” [as quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 207]. Lincoln argued that the “real issue” was “the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle” .
Many problems in life are unfortunate situations that man must learn to cope with. It is important to remember that the state of U.S. health care, finances, the environment, and national security result from choices intentionally made by the ruling elite. The critical problems in all four arenas do not result from nature or foreign enemies; we Americans did it to ourselves. More specifically, the elite did it for private purposes while the rest of us were out at the mall.
The rich are surely deluding themselves if they imagine that their exploitative behavior can endure endlessly, but there is little reason to think that they are worrying much about the lives their children will live: the view of the complacent is a short-term one. As far as their own personal prospects are concerned, on the other hand, the rich tend to know exactly what they are doing.
It is, for example, now well known that Wall Street investors were so sensitive to the possibility that they would be indicted under anti-gambling laws for the highly dangerous new derivative investment practices they planned around the turn of the century that they persuaded their Congressional allies to pass a law exempting them from the anti-gambling statues. So they gambled, they lost—provoking the worst recession since the Great Depression in just five years, and right before leaving office the Bush Administration used taxpayer funds to compensate them for their losses. The Democratic side of the ruling group, complicit in passing the original exemption under Clinton, avoided any serious protest.
And the key national security decisions being made by Washington in recent years have been choices not necessities, far different than, say, the unpalatable constraints faced by decision-makers when Hitler began his global adventure. But it is not just the obvious fact that Iraq was a war of choice unrelated to the struggle against bin Laden that makes the current situation so different from facing an invasion. The original decision to respond to 9/11 with war rather than a police action was itself a choice, as was the decision to invade Afghanistan rather than give diplomacy a chance. The argument applies to any number of major decisions since 2001 as well, including the choice to destabilize the 2006 Palestinian regime after Hamas won a democratic electoral victory, the choice to support Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and the choice to rely on threats rather than inducements to influence Iran. Needless to say, aside from the occasional protest of a Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel, the Democrats were fully complicit in the fundamental U.S. post-9/11 national security strategy as well.
Given the depressingly rapid evaporation of the enthusiasm evoked by the electoral message of “change,” it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Democratic side of the ruling elite is far too complicit in the fundamental elitist policies on health care, economics, the environment, and national security to offer a strategic alternative.
In sum, it appears that only a reorganization of the national political structure akin to that when the then-innovative and crusading Republican Party was invented in 1856 will open the door to the policies required to protect American society in the 21st century.
The very secretive White House discussions about Afghanistan, discussions that evidently focused on tactics to the exclusion of any serious examination of fundamental strategy, are the most recent and most blatant case in point. Was the question of a non-military solution that addressed the needs of the Afghan people and the dangers of a global heroin epidemic even raised by the little group of military men and conservative politicians at Obama’s table? Does Obama even know Malalai Joya’s name? The rigid White House attitude toward Iran, at a point where the Iranian domestic decision-making process had obviously crumbled into incompetence and needed breathing space for restructuring, and utter caving in to pressure by Netanyahu complete the circle: the wagons of traditional national security thinking in Washington are drawn tight against the arrows of innovation.
Similar arguments could be made for the attitude toward alternative policy options in the other key arenas, but perhaps a brief checklist of what those alternatives might be will suffice:
- Empire – oppose it, for empire is democracy’s worst enemy; cut back foreign bases and resurrect diplomacy as the conflict resolution tool of choice; on Afghanistan, take the moral high road by focusing on ending the drug trade and minimize American boots on the ground by urging a global Islamic crusade to protect the Afghan population; on Israel, support the population but oppose the Greater Israel mini-empire project;
- Health care – a service and a right for all;
- Environment – start with strict enforcement of current laws to protect the nation’s air and drinking water; restructure the tax system to, at a minimum, make corporations pay reasonable market prices for access to national forests and mineral resources; include environmental degradation in calculations of cost;
- Economy – regulate first, compensate second; compensate individuals first, main street second, Wall St. last; tax to encourage work rather than financial manipulations (e.g., tax each derivative trade at a rate greater than the income tax rate paid by the average American worker).
Those are just a taste of the banquet of policy options available to a patriotic U.S. government dedicated to serving the American public. But getting there will require that the American people realize their own best interests and organize to defend them.