In the midst of what passes for political discourse and policy debate in this country today, there is (perhaps not so strangely) little room left either for politics or policy.
What politics used to be was the art of the possible, the recognition that people of different values and interests represented legitimate American constituencies, and the necessity for creative compromise.
Today public, popular politics has become an existential, zero-sum-game war: winning and losing from an ideological perspective--even just scoring points--is more important than good outcomes, because outcomes can always be spun after the fact to have been good, or at least not to have been our fault.
[A digression: some people blame Rush Limbaugh and the rise of talk radio for this. I disagree: Rush and what he represents (as, in another incarnation the counterweight that the Daily Kos represents) are symptoms rather than causes. Personally, I blame Sixty Minutes and the introduction of Point/Counterpoint way back in the 1970s, which is the first MSM breakdown into Manichean dichotomies of good and evil that I can find. Just kidding. I think. But maybe not.]
We have now reached the point at which narrative trumps fact, not just occasionally, not just a lot of the time, but almost always.
We have now reached the point at which the two State-supported parties are both employing different--if equally corrosive--strategies designed to limn their political opponents as unAmerican and warnings of apocalyptic scenarios are proliferating.
I suspect [when wearing my historian's hat, stripped of the tin foil] that the aftermath of 9/11 did something that even Osama bin Laden could not have anticipate: ripped open the nascent fissures in American society at exactly the moment we descended even further into the "us versus them" pit on both the American and world stages.
But there are a lot of factors involved, including the general American denial of the fact that in a post-Cold-War, multipolar world our role had to change--was going to change no matter what we thought.
Somewhere in the mix both our government and our politics failed to keep control of the only other huge bureaucratic organization capable of threatening human freedom: not the Caliphate but the Corporate. Making a parody of "the free market," which--as Fernand Braudel amply explained in the language and theory of capitalism--was a definition that never should have been allowed to extend upward into the realm of super-concentrations of capital in the first place.
What we are witnessing now is not so much a struggle between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, progressives and reactionaries, but a sorting out of the power-sharing agreement between Corporate America and the Managerial State. It reminds me of a paper written over twenty years ago by one of my students (among the best thinkers and worst spellers I ever taught) regarding the disagreements between the Federalists and the Anti-federalists during the Ratification debates. This student refused to engage the assignment to discuss the different points raised by the two groups, and instead wrote a paper along the following thesis: The pseudo-debate between the Federalists and Anti-federalists represented nothing more and nothing less than an internal argument between two groups of white elites about how they would divided and share the power--to the exclusion of everyone else--in the new government.
Corporations now represent such gigantic concentrations of capital, personnel, and organization that they have become State-like entities, at least in regard to the extent that they menace human freedom. This does not, however, leave the State in a position of being the defender of human freedom, because the government and corporate elites are--in effect--interchangeable. Where do you think all the old Clinton appointees went when they got dumped out of the government in 2000? Back to Corporate America to await the return of the next Democratic administration....
I have pilloried the Obama administration for hiring so many lobbyists when it made repeated campaign promises to keep the out of government, but I have done that primarily to point out the hypocrisy of claiming to be a change agent when you are in fact the agent of the status quo.
The reality is that lobbyists--as the representatives of corporations and corporate sectors whose "GDP" rivals or exceeds that of many large cities or even states--have become extra-Constitutional representatives of the third constituency of the United States: the voters, the States, and the Corporations. They cannot be removed at this point because Corporate America has too many resources and too many ties with the government and both State-supported parties to ever excise them.
Back to that status quo reference. How do I categorize the Obama administration as an agent of the status quo after bail-outs, cap-and-trade, and health care reform? Aren't these major changes in the direction of the American way of life?
Actually, not so much. Take health care. A century ago, except for a tiny fraction of the indigent, Americans paid for their own health care or did without. Given that in 1909 there wasn't actually a hell of a lot beyond basic treatment and some public health measures that medical science could do, this wasn't surprising. The rise of medicine as a science and serious leaps in medical technology changed the whole dynamic. Given that we have continually increased the percentage and real number of Americans who draw their medical care directly through government-controlled programs over the past six to eight decades (Medicare, Medicaid, military health care, the VA), it is not surprising that we are poised on the brink of universal health care: both the government and the corporations actually want it to happen (which is why single-payer advocates are due to be disappointed again), and the tipping point in terms of the percentage of the population already acclimated to the proposition was passed well over a decade ago.
Dirty little secret: whether you like it or not, if you go back and read the evidence you will discover that had the Clintons not mis-played their hand, universal care would have passed in the early 1990s. It's back because it was never going away....
The insurance companies know this and are busily reinventing themselves the same way the tobacco companies did in the wake of the great tobacco settlements. Why did the tobacco companies pay billions of dollars to the State and the states, accepting the inevitable decline of their domestic market? Simple: the State agreed not to interfere with their 21st-Century agenda for marketing tobacco products in China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangla Desh, where literally 40% of the world's population lives and the market is wide open....
The times are changing, and not in ways that either of our political parties actually controls any more. Some of us have railed against America's military-industrial complex and our interventionist foreign policy. Over the next twenty years that's going to change. Has to. The so-called "Defense Industry" has been internationalizing for several decades; it is only a matter of time before one of our larger contractors picks up and moves its corporate headquarters into a neutral country that doesn't pretend to exercise control over who it can sell tanks or fighter jets to. America's last real hold on any fleeting military hegemony exists in our technological edge, and--as we should have realized in the 1940s--military/technological advantages are among the most ephermeral.
Economically, we will cease to dominate world markets. There will be a non-dollar-based international world reserve currency within the next 10 years or so, whether we like it or not. Why? Ironically due to market forces. With no single country or even bloc capable of being more than first among equals, there is going to be a move toward a seemingly non-aligned reserve currency. Going to happen. Mechanism already being set in place to deal with it.
Immigration? The reality, folks, is that there is major south-to-north mobility demographic working all across the world. Muslims from from North Africa and Turkey entering France and Eastern Europe are part of the same geographic process directly Latino immigrants toward the United States, and simultaneously causing disruptive internal movements in China.
Population growth (and potential crash) on a world scale is going to have more to do with the shape of our children's future than who we elect to Congress or the Presidency on the next go-round.
For those of us who are advocates of human freedom, success will not lie in attempting to recover a mythic past of independent yeoman farmers (whose economy was generally subsidized through massive slave labor), but in accepting the challenge of re-negotiating new parameters of human freedom under the conditions that are going to pertain whether we like it or not.
Reality: information technology and the rise of the surveillance culture has rendered old notions of privacy as functionally obsolete as the development of the internal combustion engine consigned buggy whip factories to the past. Live with it. Find ways to spoof it or reorient your life around it.
Reality: traditional notions of religion, sexuality, and even science are about to undergo a massive paradigm shift. Nobody living when Martin Luther was a teenager imagined the Reformation. Nobody living [except maybe Paul Dirac] when Albert Einstein was failing math imagined the relativistic universe. The very notion of a straight-line heterosexual-homosexual-men-in-tights-and-women-smoking-cigars continuum that some people are trying to maintain on life support had a beginning in late-16th Century England ... and it will have an ending as well.
Reality: liberal and conservative as political identifiers [and, yes, libertarian, as well] are the endangered species of political referrents. While both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama represent, in their respective eras, the epitomy of what can be achieved through the mastery of the media and message of the day, Max Headroom, Neo, and Harlie are already our future.
We already have computers that can pass the Turing test--any computer than can be hooked up to the Internet.
There remains the obvious need to continue fighting many of the political battles of today.
But sometimes I think we really need to step back and think about the inconsequentiality of our own efforts in trying to adapt the greater geo-political world to our own ends, and to worry about adapting to the rapidly changing realities in order for our families and our children to survive and prosper.
OK--enough of this metaphysical shit. Back to partisan politics.