Henry A. Giroux, writing in Truthout, has summarized the outcome expected when people in a democracy lack “public time,” a period during which citizens stand outside of the daily routines of their employment (like during a six week vacation which many Europeans enjoy) and develop a more robust understanding of their democracy, including a more intellectually derived skepticism and critique about the substance of their culture. Public time encourages a more knowledgeable and sophisticated attitude about the social value of public institutions: the process of an intermittent break from work promotes a more introspective examination of self, citizenship and social responsibilities. Under such conditions, threats to established institutional policies are met with stiff resistance because the loyalty derived from the social benefits of public institutions have been internalized and motivate public reactions. It’s why the French can take to the streets overnight on detecting any proposed change in public policy support or services. It keeps a social democracy functional. If anything, “public time” helps develop a much sharper willingness to engage in improving institutions, taking part in their administration or organizing actions that insure continuity and stability. Europeans don’t carry an image of a doomsday event around the corner or “end times” such as we see among Tea Party members in America. According to Harper’s Index (December, 2010), 40% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ will return to earth by 2050. Europeans are more willing to reach farther out on the ice, because they are more secure about the ice they stand on. This progressively expands the cultural range and depth of a society. But, it’s an evolutionary process and, as we are proving in the United States, it is fully reversible. Tea Party members in America support the idea that we, as a culture, stand only on thin ice and their daily attitude towards our public institutions confirms the uncertainty of their winter foundation. Nevertheless, I have been struck by many interviews with Tea Party members, particularly those in southern states, like Kentucky, where Tea Party advocates don’t want to see their own benefits, such as social security or retirement reduced, they just don’t want other, “less deserving” people to get them; this is the new way in which racism is expressed and at least partially reveals how much the election of a black man to the presidency has sent prejudice into absurdity. These are people who have inflexibly made up their mind and, despite all attempts to engage them in debate or dialogue, they refuse to participate in in a dialogue about their own hypocrisy. For them, the Socratic dialogue was never took root within their personal engram. This is human devolution.
The apparent willingness of the Tea Party members to destroy public institutions, including social security, the recent medical care bill and just about everything else but the military, is astonishing and alarming. But, as Noam Chomsky points out, we had better make sure we understand the mechanisms by which the Republican Party has co-opted the Tea Party to support the destruction of whatever middle class tangibles they themselves continue to enjoy. How is it that the Tea Party is almost solidly in favor of policies that are entrenched against their own interests? Ignorance is certainly one key, but the other is a failure to understand the historical mechanisms of their class instability. Yes, they should be pissed off, but to become bassoon players within the Right Wing marching band requires an act of supreme amnesia of our recent economic history, including the last thirty years of undoing the New Deal. To be sure, it was not just the Republicans who gave us our current state of economic misery, even though they played a disproportionately large role in generating the worst recession since the Great Depression and, for the 18-29 year old group, we have reached the full equivalent of the Great Depression. I seem to recall, that as a young man, I enjoyed a country that was a lot more like that of today’s Europeans, a country far more committed to the recognition and value of social institutions, including government itself, compared to the grand hostility we see among Tea Party members towards the government today. But isn’t that part of the Republican makeover: don’t analyze where you have been in the past–it didn’t really exist and besides, it’s dangerous to be overly analytical. Social amnesia is one of the tools that favors the advancement of Republican values.
People like my parents, who came through the Great Depression, deeply appreciated the support mechanisms generated by the New Deal. Until Social Security was passed in the 1930s, the majority of senior citizens lived in poverty. In contrast, the last election seems to indicate that Americans are in a destructive mood, with the aim of tearing down government and then what? No one seems to know. Given the need for “public time” to make public institutions more robust, it becomes easier to understand why Tea Party members are angry about their government, but express it with a kind of random walk down the blame isle. But, it began with the hollowing out of good-paying manufacturing jobs and a government that seemed to lie to the public by telling them that the development of a financial service economy would be good for everyone. It was the Republican hostility towards labor unions, their bias against America’s auto makers and Reagan’s destruction of the airline controller’s union that played a big role in reducing wage control mechanisms. As it turns out, the financial service economy is only good for people at the very top. As job losses mounted and good-paying jobs were replaced with minimum wage positions and debt mounted to cover the cost of maintaining a middle class existence, Democratic workers became Reagan Democrats and the resurgent Republican Party parlayed a new majority by converting southern Democrats into Republicans. And, people had to work harder and harder and longer and longer to make ends meet–the middle class life was slowly slipping away and becoming out of reach. Public time all but disappeared.
Nixon’s southern strategy, initiated by the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, cemented the ruling political oligarchy of the last 40 years. It was as if the Civil War had reversed its political alignment, with the Republicans joining southern elected politicians, leaving the Democrats on the outside looking in. Today’s Republican Party is not the party of Lincoln. They lost that distinction, when they promptly abandoned Reconstruction and began supporting business instead. A critical election in the conversion process related to the Vietnam War, when Hubert Humphrey was kept tethered to the war by Lyndon Johnson, except for the last month of the campaign. But, it was too late and Nixon won a very close election. Had Humphrey won, he intended to strengthen the social contract–he ran as a progressive. That was really the last opportunity we had to elect a President who understood the New Deal and knew how to further implement it. Humphrey was far more liberal than Kennedy and he was far more committed to a progressive course for the evolution of government. Johnson was equally committed to a progressive program, but was too naive to prevent the Vietnam catastrophe.
Here in America, we are losing our sophistication about public functions and our sense of a nation-state that provides benefits and services. We have lost our faith and commitment to public works and institutions, created by a form of amnesia that makes us wonder what previous iterations of our government were really like, while at the same time, we are incapable of acting to restore and embellish the kind of public institutional health that is demanded by a complex modern society. Many people besides the members of the Tea Party now believe that government works only for the wealthy and not for them. And this problem no longer has a simple fix. It’s too late for more “public time.” We are allowing neighborhoods to be destroyed through foreclosures and with loss of home, goes the loss of a sense of place within our culture. A more robust program that provided tangible relief to homeowners that need help to stay in their home, as we begin to slowly recover from our worst-ever recession, would go a long way in demonstrating that a functional government can touch the lives of ordinary citizens. The image of a government that helps bankers stay rich with bonuses, while allowing homeowners to sink into foreclosure is still vivid among Americans, myself included. These are the people we should be helping and the neighborhoods they live in need to be stabilized. We don’t have much public time in America, as we work more and more not only to make ends meet but also to fulfill the demands and competition from our fellow workers. As jobs become scarce and people fear losing their homes, employees feel compelled to conform to the increasingly rigorous demands of their employers. You can find jobs on CraigsList in which the employer is asking for virtually 24/7 access to future employees (on call and otherwise accessible).
As I mentioned in a previous posting, I find the Hibbs predictions for midterm elections to be compellingly accurate. Sufficiently so that, despite the emergence of the weird Tea party movement, the election results of 2010 have more to do with lost jobs than any other single factor, including the appeal of attributing the election results to another iteration of our culture wars. For the Democrats to be successful in 2012, the country needs lots of jobs, even though it is not possible to erase the current deficit of 17 million unemployed in such a short period of time. Where are the green jobs that Obama talked about and when will the discussion of a second badly needed stimulus begin–a real one this time? We need a stimulus plan to simply provide for what the Europeans are providing for in their normal, everyday society. But we also need one that gives us a national sense that a new economy is beginning its early phase of construction.
In the distant past, as the electorate oscillated between putting Democrats or Republicans in charge, the two parties were not all that different, especially after Ronald Reagan. Party convergence seemed to characterize the politics of the right and left over the last half of the twentieth century. Communism, socialism, progressivism and liberalism all became jaded words which harbored unhealthy social images, as the country moved towards the right. It was Jimmy Carter who really started the deregulation fever by unhinging the airline industry. You can argue that Bill Clinton was a pretty good Republican and helped to remove things like the Glass-Steagall Act, which was the hard right turn that eventually led to our current economic meltdown: but that was not the only precipitating event. Credit default swaps, an unregulated financial instrument used for investments, was started in the early 1990s and reached a total investment value of more than $62 trillion at the end of 2007. Brooksley Born, the head of the CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) warned about the risk of the OTC trading of derivatives which were gaining in their financial magnitude; she made recommendations for more regulatory control of derivatives. But her suggestions were strongly opposed by Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers. She was forced out as the head of the CFTC in 1999. An excellent Frontline documentary “The Warning” appeared in 2009. To this day, Brooksley warns of future financial disasters through these same, now only partially regulated, OTC derivatives.
The 1990s changed the character of the two party system. The Republican Party that once stood for business, was gradually transformed into a party of and for financialists and they began to do the bidding of giant corporations and investment bankers, rather then small and medium-sized businesses which they previously claimed as their bedrock. It was in the 1990s that corporate income from the financial sector began to outstrip that from manufacturing. And, these were different financialists than the bankers we grew up with. The new investment bankers acquired an international, global sense of wealth, as they got past the leveraged buyout and created high risks in derivatives and sub-prime mortgage securities that almost no one really understood. The Tea Party members of today are angry and confused about what government should be doing for a healthy society and they can point to examples, in lost jobs, a hollowed out economy, costly education and lost homes as the substantive evidence for their anger. Wasn’t government supposed to be looking out for them in these areas? The answer is yes, except that the country has been moving in the wrong direction: instead of stripping away government support and regulation, we needed to move towards a more robust form of a social democracy and we should have started to strip away our militaristic posture towards the outside world. Inspirational leadership that might have moved us in this direction, came in the form of the 2008 election of Barack Obama. But Obama quickly established that his form of leadership was straight down the middle and, though some things have changed, he has not turned out to be the inspirational progressive that many people had hoped. If we ever get this more progressive, socially aware country that many of us see as essential for facing future problems, it appears now that we will look back on Obama as a transitional figure and because of that, in the next two years, he will face a major challenge in getting re-elected and passing legislation. Republicans believe they have Obama on the ropes and they certainly have the electoral success of 2010 to bolster their conclusion. But, this is also a party that is capable of its own self-destructive behavior and within a few months from now, I expect to see Obama’s popularity balloon begin to be elevated with warmer air.
Print This Post