Two facts should have guided political activity in 2011. Both stem from our recession of a lifetime, the Great Economic Meltdown. They are:
- The economy cannot recover without demand.
- Our shrunken, beaten-up, beaten-down middle class cannot supply that demand at the moment.
These are the realities of life in our so-called post-recession. While we fiddle with the dials on our reality-show-only TVs, we fail to notice that four years of recession and stagnation have passed. The middle class is on its way to irretrievable reduction. Opportunities for investments in green energy, infrastructure renewal and onshoring of manufacturing pass like advertorials for primary candidates on their way to oblivion while we fixate on the rhetoric of toxic populism. This is not the lost decade. This is the decade of lost opportunity.
In its stead, we have created a circus of unreality, which less about governance in gridlock as it is governance in the midst of demolition. Brick by brick, the discourse of one side and one side only, proceeds as if to dismantle the public house. Today we have Newt Gingrich advising that the executive branch under his watch would work to dismantle the judiciary.
Okay, Newt, Mr. Faux Historian, here’s my take: The truth is, we have in office a centrist president of modest to reasonable talents in the arena of day-to-day governance confronting the worst excesses of obstructionism since that of three gargantuan crises of American history: the Great Depression, the pre-Civil War gridlock and Reconstruction. Under each of these categories there is a subtext—state’s rights. Robert Reich highlighted that dynamic in a remarkably blunt piece in Salon.
States rights, the Southern Cross of religion’s intersection of the White Right and and desperate attempts to hold on to the political capture of the entire machine—accomplished to a substantial degree under the watch of George W—lead us to a point where words begin to lose their meanings, the machinations of governance lose all moorings to conditions on the ground, and the symbolic warfare of competing sound bites eat up the airwaves and cyberspace like a plague of locusts.
How the rhetoric of “job creators,” Islamaphobes, nativists, immigrant bashing, Keystone Pipelining, flat tax, drill baby drill, and so on became the lingua franca of our “debate” is not so much impossible to imagine as is predictable, because underneath it all people are desperate to blame someone.
In times of recession divorce recedes while domestic rage and assault increases. Women are beaten in the kitchen. Men, even, die in their beds at the hands of women they have terrorized. The increase in the rates of these domestic tragedies is an empirical fact. Why then? People can’t afford to get out of bad marriages ripped to shreds by financial despair. Rage. Rage and financial despair. That’s what Iraq vet Alan J. Sylte Jr. of Lake City, Minnesota was feeling on Monday when he went on a verbal rampage against a woman living in his home at 8:30 a.m. Police were called and Sylte shot officer Shawn Schneider, 32, in the head before taking his own life. Schneider, a father of three, is fighting for his life as I write this. These are the smaller moments of history that you may have missed, Newt.
What was the topic of the argument between Sylte and the woman? He was headed for an unwanted discharge from the National Guard. He wrote on Facebook that he was a “wreck.” He had no prospects, no job, little money. Financial despair. That, and rage.
The despair and the rage rises from the bedroom and kitchen table but it spreads to the public sphere to overwhelm like a toxic cloud the discourse that should revolve around what the government can do to simulate, stimulate and supplant private economic demand. This is what the sanest of our economists have told us for a couple of generations.
And the job hemorrhaging that began long before our meltdown has now imbedded itself into the very DNA of our economy. From the macro to the micro we are in crisis, but we misidentify it at every turn. Surely, we might think, our politicians will be working 24/7 to devise strategies to at least begin to address the issue…
Well, no. What we got in 2011 was the dumbest reality show ever. Something like, “Who Wants to Stomp on the Public Good for Sake of Narrow Advantage? I Do!’ We got Michele Bachmann’s parade of Pants-on-Fire lies. We got Newt Gingrich’s incandescent attacks on the news media, Fox even! We got Herman Cain’s ignorance of the world and his own brand of pants-on-fire shenanigans. This list could go to 50,000 words. We got dismantle the government. We got gridlock.
A nation at war with itself cannot advance against intractable problems. It just drifts—downstream toward the falls, presumably. But there should be no question of what is going on here: a radicalization toward the right, fueled by loss of a place to be in the world on the parts of millions who used to have lives, credit cards and mortgages, however shaky and leveraged they may have been. And so, as John Lennon said, this is Christmas. And what have we done? In this season of embedded discontent the hope we need does not so much come from a religious awakening, but rather from a civil awakening, a sense that we better finally finish some business—together—before it finishes us.