Oh!pinion Rotating Header Image

A great nation is a terrible thing to waste

inverted flagProfound changes in the U.S. economy that began during the 1970′s should’ve triggered public-policy responses to mitigate their bad side effects, keeping the middle class strong and growing in part by increasing public-sector investment, maintaining the country’s manufacturing base and backstopping organized labor.

Instead, public policy accelerated, intensified and entrenched the bad side effects, with the predictable result that our manufacturing base is gutted, organized labor is a shadow of its former self, and our shrinking middle class is hurting in ways unknown since the Great Depression.

We can account for how the world’s largest, strongest, most dynamic economy was brought low, and how the democracy with the most productive, stable and affluent society ended up deep in debt, with high unemployment, no job security, a tattered social safety net and gridlocked government, in five words: ignorance, bigotry, ideology, inattention and selfishness.

Ignorance: Most Americans think they know more about our country — its geography, Constitution, history, government, society and economy — than they actually do. A few decades back, a reporter went out on the streets of midtown Manhattan and read the First Amendment to a random sampling of passers-by. He asked them if that should be the law in our country. A shockingly high percentage said no.

For an equally revealing exercise at home or at work, hand out sheets of paper and challenge your friends, family or co-workers to name the 50 states. Then, ask them to explain in a simple paragraph the main differences between U.S. senators and representatives. If those in your group are all or mostly college educated, see if even one can accurately define capitalism, democratic socialism, state socialism and communism. Finally, ask for a simple paragraph explaining how banks create money.

Good luck. And remember, in our system, the people decide who to trust with the levers of governmental power. The people decide who will make public policy affecting our society, and our national and economic security. Thus, it’s reasonable to expect that the less voters know, the more likely they are to let themselves be flim-flammed into electing ignorant, incompetent, dishonest, ideologically warped and/or crackpot-crazy public officials.

Bigotry: If you’ve ever used a shoehorn to ease a foot into a stiff new shoe, you can appreciate how useful people steeped in prejudice are to low-road politicians. A congressional district or state with a high percentage of racially biased people can be used to slide an unscrupulous and/or incompetent politician into a House of Representatives or Senate seat, or other high office, in much the same way. This explains the long, lucrative political careers of people like South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms.

That these two examples are Southerners figures, because unfortunately, from Virginia to East Texas and including all or large parts of border states of the old Confederacy, a relatively high percentage of white residents are more or less prejudiced against people of different races and backgrounds. We want to be clear, however, that not all white Southerners are racists, and that those who are vary greatly in how far they’ll go in acting on prejudice. We also want to be clear that, unfortunately, bigots can be found in every part of the country.

Our reason for explaining the above is to make an unassailable point. That is, white Southern voters are overwhelmingly Republicans for reasons other than just a regionwide desire to shrink and weaken the federal government and limit federal taxation. Social, economic and political traditions, all of them intertwined with racial prejudice, are key factors in the relationship. Simmering resentment and elements of spite are no less so.

Politically, this means the GOP is the party of the South. It also means proactive support from the overwhelming majority of white Southern voters is essential to Republicans winning the White House and controlling Congress. The South and GOP need, use and empower each other in ways harmful to our whole country.

We suspect many white Southern Republican voters who aren’t rich and powerful know in some corner of their mind that trickle-down economics is a scam that hurts them. They nevertheless continue supporting Republicans dedicated to trickle-down policy for three reasons. First, they believe doing so protects their Southern way of life, with its vestiges of racial bias and separation. Second, they’ll be damned if they’ll join their black neighbors in voting for Democrats after what Democrats did to their Southern way of life through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the mid-1960′s, and other interference. Third, they’ve been cushioned from some of the economic pain caused by trickle-down failures due to migration to their region of Northeast and Rust Belt businesses. Pork-barrel largesse arranged by their senators, representatives and Republican presidents has helped buffer the South’s economy as well.

Thanks to the Southern-Republican marriage, in the 31 years since 1980 voters have elected three Republican presidents who served a total of 20 years and two Democrats who served (so far) just 10.5. Two of the Republicans were rooted in the Deep South part of Texas. A third Texan, Ross Perot, ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1992, winning 19 percent of the vote. Now, another Texas Republican is running for president.

During that 31 years the economy returned to boom-and-bust cycles. It gave us debacles like the savings and loan collapse, the Enron scandal and collapse, the tech and housing bubbles and wreckage that followed them. Through it all, working-class and middle-class Americans’ net worth, earning power and other aspects of economic well-being and security declined.

None of this is coincidental. The longterm best interests of all Americans, of the country as a whole, is not the top priority of most white Southern voters or of Republican activists and politicians wherever they hail from. Race, resentment, religion and regionalism are. Political power and control are.

Ideology: Educated, informed and involved people legitimately hold differing views and preferences about public policy. When the clash is among honest, conscientious people devoted to the country’s longterm best interests, those differences hinge on facts and truth. Issues are debated and decided within certain bounds. So, if a particular approach repeatedly yields bad results, those behind the approach will be willing to try something different. It means evidence from carefully conducted studies will be weighed fairly and discussed sensibly, changing minds, votes and policy.

When the situation deviates as far from that ideal as is currently the case, politics becomes a war of wills, dirty tricks and power plays. There is constant warfare without bullets between people committed to serving the public interest and bullies who’ll say and do whatever it takes to get their way, regardless of the country’s needs. Ideology becomes a combination of cover story and sucker bait used to reel in the gullible, poorly educated and uninformed.

In such a political climate, one side always becomes adept at twisting truth and rejecting facts. The resulting nonsense is fashioned into propaganda with which to inundate the gullible, poorly educated and uninformed. Propaganda is also used to win the loyalty of people heavily motivated by resentment.

Inattention: Democracy is utterly dependent on an informed, interested and engaged public, if the people’s interests are to be well served. That doesn’t mean all Americans could or should become avid political junkies. It does mean millions who now mostly ignore government and politics between major elections, unless there’s big crisis, scandal or war, must make the effort to be reasonably well — and honestly — informed.

Keeping up with news and background stories on current events from ethical, independent sources is a requirement. Watching a (nominal) half-hour evening newscast full of infotainment, human-interest stories and fluff doesn’t suffice. Neither does scanning newspaper headlines, only rarely stopping to read the first paragraphs of a story before moving on. Relying on a broadcast extension of a political party for propaganda misrepresented as news is worse than worthless. So is listening to rantings of a misanthropic bully and greedmonger who’s grown rich on spewing lies, distortions, racism and anger.

Most employed Americans are busy people with limited free time. An incredible array of entertainment and diversions compete for a share of the little they get. Becoming honestly, factually well informed requires commitment and self-discipline.

Judging by developments such as the rise of Glenn Beck as a commentator, Sarah Palin becoming a vice presidential candidate and Sharron Angle’s getting traction as a major-party-backed Senate candidate, relying on legitimate news sources and digesting details as well as headlines isn’t standard operating procedure for millions. Widespread public willingness to buy into death-panels and “birther” propaganda indicates how incapable or unwilling many Americans are to exercise sound judgment and self-discipline.

Selfishness: Like the poor, the selfish will always be with us. That pernicious human failing takes many forms and can easily lapse into criminality. In politics, it’s sometimes vaunted as a virtue by conservative and libertarian extremists. Paradoxically, many of those justify their attitude and actions with self-servingly distorted notions about Christianity.

An amazing aspect of contemporary American politics is how efficiently people who’ve divorced themselves from basic honesty, responsibility and even reality have managed to meld greed, selfishness, authoritarianism and ruthlessness into a formula for winning and keeping political power.

A way up and out: Try to imagine a period of three presidential election cycles, 12 short years, wherein all the ridiculous, self-punishing nonsense we’ve highlighted is reversed. Try to imagine an electorate that overwhelmingly sets aside ideology, prejudice, regionalism and selfishness, instead concentrating on doing its homework, paying strict attention and holding elected officials accountable for any misleading and missteps.

Try to imagine “commentators” and politicians who pander to prejudice, suspicion and fear being roundly ignored, between elections and, especially, as most Americans cast their votes. Try to imagine our political landscape all but cleared of politicians and officeholders caught out in lies or spotlighted repeatedly for outrageous hypocrisy.

Try to imagine an America where truth trumps party loyalty and even the most costly and uncomfortable facts are accepted by virtually all Americans for what they are, and for what they mean.

If you can even imagine those things and encourage others to imagine them as well, they could become our way out of 30 years of division, disarray and decline.

14 Comments

  1. I am afraid it will not happen until big money is taken out of politics. The politicians will not do the work of the people until it is the people who pay for the elections. Until then, at best we get only lip service.

  2. Dave Dubya says:

    Unfortunately it will take a greater crisis and austerity to trigger any popular demand for more democracy. If media were journalistic instead of corporatist we’d all be hearing more about the efforts to constitutionally rescind corporate personhood and money as free speech. As it is, if just ten percent more Americans would understand the class warfare waged against them by the GOP, we could regain our democratic republic.

  3. Tom Harper says:

    Good rundown on the “Big Five” factors of our decline. Bigotry and inattention have created millions of useful idiots to do the dirty work for the corporate juggernaut.

  4. S.W. Anderson says:

    Jerry, if big money ever gets taken out of politics, it will be because the people elect the kind of office seekers who will take it out. This post is primarily about people’s responsibility for what our country has become because of how they conduct themselves, who they elect, and why they elect them.

    Dave, we have democracy now, though it’s being undermined more effectively by the year. Yes, much of the media aren’t doing the job they should be doing. But if enough people don’t pay attention to news and information that is readily available, we’re still sunk. It seems as though getting through to 10 percent of know nothings and the misinformed should be doable.

    Tom, right, we’re clear on that. Now, what are those of us on the left going to do about it? We’ve got to reach some people and change some minds.

  5. Jolly Roger says:

    The Klanservative Kabal of Kooks are fueled by nothing as much as they are fueled by hate. They hate the idea that anyone that they deem “inferior” might get a break. That’s why they hate the Federal Government so much, and their hatred has made them completely irrational. They’ll happily slash their own throats to spill someone else’s blood.

  6. rightsaidfred says:

    Oh my. It looks like SW and his barrel fire crowd are feeling sorry for themselves, so we got some scapegoating and projection going on.

    So what’s the deal here, are you admitting defeat? Liberalism: defeated by ignorance and prejudice. Looks like your fundamental values aren’t quite so apparent to most of the human race. Maybe you should rethink your model, that one about paying more taxes and the political leaders will build a better world. I’m still waiting to see it work anywhere for any length of time.

    I find your post drearily risible, a beta/omega female whine that people can’t see your good intentions.

    Your implication is that the country would be wealthier if we had elected Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale. Exactly what policies did the country miss with their election loss, besides the elan of their good intentions? Are you telling me Al Gore and John Kerry were sent from above, and we must now suffer from rejecting their leadership? Is our thread to the future so tenuous?

    Also telling is your focus on White racism as the root of your unhappiness, which is, of course, merely self hatred. So carry on. The good news here is that the demographic trend of your ilk is for extinction.

  7. The mind is a terrible thing to taste.

    1. rightsaidfred says:

      I get that vibe here.

  8. S.W. Anderson says:

    J.R., sadly, there is indeed a strain of hate running through the radical right. I believe among most of them it’s more a matter of resentment. Either way, it’s wrong and counterproductive for them and for the rest of us. It’s distorting and damaging our politics as it cripples our government.

    Randal, you want fries with that?

    rightsaidfred, liberalism hasn’t been defeated by ignorance and prejudice. One side of the political equation is exploiting the ignorant, poorly educated, underinformed and prejudiced for political advantage, causing great harm to the whole country, not least many of the people radical-conservative Republicans are exploiting.

    Thanks for again overstating the obvious. Which is that you’re part of the problem.

    1. rightsaidfred says:

      Claiming the other side exploits the ” ignorant, poorly educated, underinformed and prejudiced” is pretty lame. What evidence do you have, besides your own projection of your fears onto others? All you are saying is that you don’t like the way things are, so the other side must have done some kind of evil.

      Things are pretty good in this day and age, yet all we get from you is a depressive blog because someone, somewhere, is not being given enough stuff by the government. What problem have you ever solved?

      Blaming southern Whites for your problems is pretty low. We’ve seen it before: Bolshevik Russia blamed the Kulaks, Nazi Germany blamed the Jews, the Hutus in Rwanda blamed the Tutsis.

      What I see on this blog is not good, such as that comment by Jolly Roger. It doesn’t seem to bother you that you give voice to such projective tripe.

      1. S.W. Anderson says:

        rightsaidfred wrote, “All you are saying is that you don’t like the way things are, so the other side must have done some kind of evil.”

        That’s only a small part of what I said. If you think that’s all I said, you’re either cherry picking, which is likely, or need to read my post and think about it before commenting further.

  9. Dave Dubya says:

    What other description can there be for the ignorant, poorly educated, underinformed and prejudiced dupes of the Right who think Obama is a foreign born Muslim socialist. What other description can there be for the ignorant, poorly educated, underinformed and prejudiced dupes of the Right who think there are “Death panels” and “Death taxes”? What other description can there be for the ignorant, poorly educated, underinformed and prejudiced dupes of the Right who think liberals are to blame for the collapse of our economy when it was caused by the unaccountable Wall Street banksters? What other description can there be for the ignorant, poorly educated, underinformed and prejudiced dupes of the Right who think Saddam had “nukular aluminum tubes” and al-Qaeda buddies?

    1. rightsaidfred says:

      Dave, if you think you have described your political opponents, you better reflect a little more on what encompasses an ignorant, poorly educated, underinformed and prejudiced dupe.

      Since Dave wants to give IQ tests, and SW wants to give out civic tests, lets incorporate that with voting. For example, we could have a five question, multiple choice, civic/IQ test at the top of each ballet, question randomly drawn from a pool approved by the participating parties, computer coded and scored, ballots counted only if above a certain score.

      Thus the stupid, mouth breathing conservative Republicans will still have the franchise to vote, but their inherent low intelligence will limit their influence. Liberal Democrats will get the meritocratic power they so richly deserve.

  10. S.W. Anderson says:

    Dave, there you go with facts again. Sometimes, doing that is like trying to run while waist deep in mud.