By Mike Davis
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Great and Glorious Days

This article is over 22 years, 3 months old
George W nearly as popular as Abe Lincoln? Mike Davis looks at the strange twists of the US political scene.
Issue 262

‘On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.’
(H L Mencken, 1920)

Thanks to hanging ‘chads’, Republican goon squads and a corrupted Supreme Court, George W Bush–the consummation of Mencken’s mordant prophecy–has adorned 1800 Pennsylvania Avenue for 18 months. He is, of course, a preposterous marionette in every respect–lacking even the charisma of Calvin Coolidge or the mental agility of Ronald Reagan. Elsewhere in the world lights this dim only inherit power at the end of thoroughly dissipated aristocratic bloodlines. Their arrival in the palace usually signals that the peasants have already sharpened their pikes, and that the Bolsheviks are in session in Smolny.

Yet opinion polls confirm that since his anointment as crusader king on 9/11, his domestic popularity has soared higher (and for longer) than any president in US history. Indeed, the usually sober ‘National Journal’ believes there is simply ‘no historical parallel’–not even Franklin D Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor or Bush Sr during the Gulf War–for Shrub’s [Bush’s] currently stratospheric approval ratings from Mencken’s ‘plain folks’, including a staggering 76 percent of registered Democrats. Moreover, the 1960s-era generation gap has now been reportedly inverted–Generation X and Y voters rallying to the flag in higher percentages than their elders (should our new slogan be, ‘Don’t trust anyone under 30?’). Overall, the Democrats’ commanding 46 to 37 percent lead in partisan identification in June 2001 polls has collapsed–the two parties are now dead even.

Having stolen an election and then quickly become the second most popular president in all of US history (at least according to one recent poll, where George W tied with Franklin D Roosevelt, just behind Abe Lincoln) is no mean feat. In so many decisive senses, including the wholesale resort to government by executive order and presidential privilege, it has been the moral equivalent of a coup d’etat. It is also the kind of seeming historical paradox that once prompted an obscure London journalist to write a tract of almost Shakespearian grandeur known as The Eighteenth Brumaire. How we might relish Marx’s delicious treatment of the intrigues in Florida, the feeding frenzies among the oilmen and defence contractors, the secret government inaugurated on 9/11 (or was it earlier?), the craven obsequies of Murdoch and Blair, the stealthy night visits of Ashcroft and the tantrums of Wolfowitz, George W’s filial (or is it doglike?) obedience to his father’s consiglieri, his unblinking declaration that his ‘mission is saving the world’, etc. So much dialectical irony to savour.

But are we to believe, in the last instance, that the ‘plain folks’–the US working class–are simply a ‘sack of potatoes’ like the witless French peasants who endorsed the thuggish dictatorship of the lesser Napoleon? (If this is obscure, I leave it to readers to make their own acquaintance with Marx’s masterpiece.) Is human nature between the Mexican and Canadian borders now so Pavlovian that our rulers need only wave flags and bloody shirts to make us bay at the moon for tactical nukes and military courts? Are Americans (like French peasants stricken with nostalgia for Le Grand Armee) so cocooned within the mythology of ‘American century part two’ that they don’t see the widening circle of imperial carnage, not to mention the destruction of their own civil liberties?

Marx, I am sure, would have placed the emphasis elsewhere. He would have, so to speak, pinned the tail on the donkey. The true ‘miracle’ of this initially ill starred administration was not the punctual arrival of a made in Hollywood evil other to pump up the national testosterone, nor even another video arcade triumph of Pentagon technology, but the fact that all this has been politically managed without a scintilla of serious debate or opposition in Congress. If ordinary Americans seem to be fulfilling Mencken’s misanthropic prophecy, it is because they have been comprehensively betrayed by the Democratic Party.

Socialists, of course, have been pointing out for generations that the Democrats are a capitalist party with some social democratic camouflage. But the trade union and civil rights elites have always found new excuses for their old addiction, even after the sharp rightward turn of the Carter administration in 1978 and the consolidation of the power by the post-liberal Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) during the 1980s. There was always some scrap of lesser-evilism–labour law reform, Supreme Court appointments, defence of abortion rights, and so on–to justify turning another trick, buying another nickel bag of contaminated neo-conservative poison mislabelled as pure Old Roosevelt.

Corporate consensus

The tricks continue, but there are no longer any visible scraps. The Democratic Senate majority has sold out the Bill of Rights, endorsed military courts and concentration camps, and turned the other cheek as Bush jettisoned the Kyoto protocol and the ABM treaty. Without serious debate or traditional hearings, [Democrat] majority leader Dashle has licensed the administration to escalate its intervention in Colombia’s dirty war, while Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, supports the option to use ‘low yield’ nuclear weapons against the so called axis of evil. Likewise, Joe Lieberman, Gore’s former vice-president mate, has screeched louder than any Republican in the Senate for Saddam’s head, while Carl McCall, who as Democratic state controller in New York has invested millions of pension fund savings in Israel, promotes his current campaign for governor with lurid photos of himself firing an M-16 at an Israeli ‘anti-terrorist’ training camp.

On the domestic front, Dashle has kept his party–those reformed spenders–on the straight and narrow path of fiscal rectitude that Herbert Hoover once practised so famously. Dashle scolds naughty Republicans for proposing to spend their way out of the recession with ‘guns and caviare’ (a huge weapons build-up combined with a $1.3 trillion tax cut targeted at the rich), but offers no alternative stimulus programme of ‘jobs and schools’. Yet, at the same time, he and his House counterpart, minority leader Richard Gephardt, refused to support Teddy Kennedy’s attempt to repeal Bush’s egregious upper bracket tax cuts. (In a recent speech to the DLC, Gephardt has dramatically embraced the same corporate centrism he used to scorn in the Clinton administration.)

Writing in tandem in the ‘American Prospect’ (the journal of nearly extinct ‘progressive Democrats’), Robert Kuttner and Jeff Faux remind us that the current anti-Keynesianism is in the truest spirit of ‘Clintonism without Clinton’. ‘Ever since economic adviser Charles L Schultze sold Democrat Jimmy Carter on deregulation,’ explains Kuttner, ‘the resurrection of the invisible hand has been a bipartisan project.’ ‘Urged on by Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan,’ adds Faux, ‘Bill Clinton had made eliminating the national debt more important than expanding investment in health, education and other programmes.’ But then Greenspan, after convincing them that deficits were the root of all evil, did the dirty on the Democrats by turning around and endorsing Bush’s huge tax cut.

The Democrats, of course, are also the more fanatical free traders. Because Bill Clinton didn’t ‘feel your pain’ in the coal and steel valleys of West Virginia, he lost Gore the critical electoral votes of a normally rock solid Democratic state. As leading Democrats continue to fret about ‘fiscal deterioration’ and trade barriers, Bush is on television talking jobs to heartland Teamsters and steel workers. His 30 percent tariff on foreign steel–an inconceivable violation of globalist dogma in the days of Clinton and Rubin–may well ensure continuing Republican control of the House, if not the recapture of the Senate.

Indeed, the escalation of the ‘war on terrorism’ is shrewdly designed to strengthen the Republicans’ current domestic advantages. In addition to the obvious functions of legitimising military Keynesianism and rule by executive order, the war without end aims to divide the Democrats. As Lott’s pitbull like attack on Dashle demonstrated, the Republicans are dying to ‘Saddamise’ any Democrat who wavers in unconditional commitment to the commander in chief. Indeed (Ryan Lizzie writes in ‘The New Republic’), ‘For Bush, leveraging the war knows no bounds. He has repackaged his entire domestic agenda in the garb of security.’

Does this mean, as Kuttner suggests, that the Democrats are rapidly losing ‘their raison d’être as a party’? Probably not. But what materially grounds partisan difference in the early 21st century is radically different from the idealised image most trade union bureaucrats and black Democrats retain of the former party of Roosevelt. Thanks to watchdog groups that monitor and analyse campaign financing, the macro-economic power structures of the two parties have become more fully visible than ever before.

In the 2000 election cycle, for example, Republican Congressional candidates received three quarters of all contributions from energy and agribusiness, 70 percent of all manufacturing, and two thirds of all prime defence contractors (the presidential contributions are much more skewed–Bush getting 93 percent of oil and gas and 87 percent of agribusiness). On the other hand, the Democrats received a slight majority of contributions from the communications, electronics, entertainment and gaming sectors that constitute the new engine of the US economy. The so called Fire sector (financial services and insurance) was split 58 percent Republican and 41 percent Democrat, with the former dominating commercial banking and the latter venture capital.

The Republicans, in other words, remain solidly grounded in the old economy sectors (indeed, the Bush administration is virtually an executive committee of the energy and defence industries), while the Democrats, primarily in the Clinton/Rubin years, have made spectacular gains in the new economy. Meanwhile Wall Street old money veers Republican while the new money is marginally Democratic.

It is always wise, of course, to ‘follow the money’, and the current alignment of capital fractions explains much about the Democrats’ current timidity and Republicans’ overweening aggressiveness. Clinton’s historic achievement was to bring the new economy into the Democratic fold, and the Dashle/Gephardt/Gore leadership will do nothing that might scare away Hollywood or Silicon Valley (including pushing too hard on the Enron scandal). Conversely, the Republicans have seized the opportunity to revive the flagging fortunes of oil and war, as well as raid the alienated Democratic heartlands.

Bush may be a moron but, sure, it’s a fool’s paradise.

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