Wednesday, October 01, 2008


The always worthwhile Glenn Greenwald is just one of many today to comment on the bailout situation. In “The simultaneous rejection of the bailout and a corrupt ruling class” posted on Sept. 30 on Salon he notes that the Democrats seem to have had – as they did for a few months in the Spring of this year – a bit of the old spirit. But, he continues, the “corporate donor class and political establishment … own and control the political battlefield”. (

I just finished a book that speaks to that, and fleshes out a point I’d been working with for quite some time now: that the Democrats somewhere along the line abandoned the New Deal and the ‘little people’ and got in bed with the rich.

The book, published in 1988, is Walter Karp’s “Liberty under Siege”. It’s a collection of essays, one for each year, from 1976 through 1988, covering the Presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. This, of course, means that Karp is not giving Us history of ‘then’ as seen through the lenses of ‘now’, but rather is giving Us contemporaneous observations and reports. And an acute Washington reporter he is.

The gist of his insight is this, and it stunned me. When the Democratic Party radically altered its nominating structures following 1968, it resulted in a formal, structural lurch away from the control of the ‘Establishment’ insiders – the ‘smoke-filled room folks – and toward ‘the people’, thus toward a more ‘democratic’ operating base.

We recall here – as prelude – that the Founders were torn between two conflicting anxieties: on the one hand they wanted to avoid ‘tyranny’ through monarchy or an all-powerful Executive; on the other hand they wanted to avoid ‘mobocracy’, the direct rule of the citizenry, many of whom would be – they felt – too uninformed and too politically undeveloped to choose wisely. This double-anxiety has not survived in the ‘classic’ telling of the Constitutional Convention, but it’s built into the Constitution, most clearly in the bicameral Legislature: a House made up of those elected more or less directly by ‘the people’ (or at least those who were white and male) and a Senate – fixed at two per State – composed of more substantial and presumably more serious and responsible gentlemen selected (until 1913) by the governing elements in each State.

Further, We recall that with the foundation of the National Security State laid in 1948 by the document known as “NSC 68”, the complexity of the government as it had evolved to meet the challenges of a large military and war establishment (We would now call it a ‘security’ and ‘defense’ establishment) was enshrined as national policy. This was for the purpose – ostensibly and to a lesser extent actually – to wage what had become ‘the Cold War’ against a nasty, but more cogently, expansionist foe: the USSR, presumed to be bent on ‘world domination’ as had the Nazi and Imperial Japanese regimes so recently defeated.

Over time, the Washington ‘establishment’ came to shape itself comprehensively around this ‘military-industrial complex’, as Eisenhower noted – sadly so late – in his farewell remarks as President in 1961. This ‘complex’ had come to serve as a trellis around and upon and toward which all else in the Beltway began to shape and orient itself.

Then came 1968, when that Washington ‘establishment’ had mired itself in Vietnam which by then was a demonstrably losing game. In that year, under the impetus of the Boomers and the old 1930s radicals still full of steam, the Democratic Party was put under sufficient pressure so as to conform itself back toward ‘the people’ and away from its now entrenched Party bosses and ‘elites’.

Back to Karp: Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was the first President nominated and then elected under the auspices of this ‘democratic’ process. This – and here is his stunning take on matters – enraged the Party elites and its ruling establishment, the ‘professional’ politicians, embodied in the ostensible, shaggy-headed mountain of ‘the people’, Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, condign Speaker of the House, who presided over a ‘Dailey-Dixie’, ‘Boston-Austin’ axis of Democratic pols who, though from the Northeast and the South, were allies in the defense of their prerogatives and influence. Carter, a Democrat, came into his Presidency in the face of Tip O’Neill’s implacable opposition to what Carter stood for. And for the next four years – in a battle that raged over the heads and mostly out of sight of the electorate – O’Neill worked with the Republicans to gut Carter’s every initiative.

As the Republicans – looking to their own political possibilities – began to merge their traditional affection for the rich and the propertied with a sudden burning concern for national security and military prowess (supplied lavishly at taxpayer expense by that ‘military-industrial complex’), O’Neill refused to endanger his frontal campaign against the President of his own Party by risking any conflict with his ‘right flank’; Carter, thus, was stymied in divers ways by a Congress (and certain of his own Cabinet) that sought to block him , especially in his concern about Our dependence on ‘foreign oil’ and in his foreign policy efforts (SALT II, the Panama Canal, a nascent ‘détente’). Time and again, Democratic legislators who still thought everything was on the level were dismayed as O’Neill blocked their efforts .

And – in my schematic – as the various revolutions of the various Identities began to cast their vivid and confusing miasms across the domestic political landscape – O’Neill, realizing that there wasn’t going to be enough reliable cash to be raised from so disparate and agitated a conglomeration of ‘voters’, hit upon the idea of PACs; he actually had to send out emissaries to convince the reluctant corporations to sign on. They eventually did, and with a gusto. What prompted them to make such large investments in the uncertainties of politics? The Democratic assurance that the corporations would get what they paid for. And the floodgates were opened, long before any levees were ever breached or over-topped.

When Reagan came along – masking the Republican fondness for the rich and for the ‘business’ elites (not, as so often piously declaimed, ‘business’ and free enterprise itself) – O’Neill (and many of the Democrats in Congress) then found himself in the position of being dependent upon the corporations as much as the Republicans. Better that, though, than to submit to a ‘populist’ control of his Party. And so ‘bipartisanship’ became the watchword, and Reagan – even as his awefull policies began to bear their poisonous fruit – rarely found himself confronted resolutely and substantively by a hostile Congress, controlled by Democrats though it was.

And for those who would imagine that Bush and Cheney invented Our present Unitary Executive out of their own fetid imaginations, Karp shows us the beginnings of government secrecy (the watering down of the Freedom of Information Act, among other things), enhanced and more intrusive police powers of warrantless and even un-grounded investigation, the relaxing of regulatory requirements that had been put into place in the prior decades, and the de facto independence of government bureaucrats – and especially of the Executive branch – from public scrutiny. Oh, and the deliberately increased ‘deficits’.

And all accepted in a spirit of ‘bipartisanship’ by Tip O’Neill and the Democratic bosses.

If you think about it, it was a corporate boss’s dampdream: undo the regulatory requirements of both the New Deal and – yes – the Nixon years, undo the financial basis for the New Deal’s ‘welfare state’, enhance the military-corporate complex. And all of it in the guise of a ‘patriotism’ that had been apparently – and, alas too often actually – flung in the mud by America-hating radicals, hippies (then starting to get their first gray hairs), and the entire menagerie of Identities, each of which loudly trumpeted its outrage and victimization and demanded the widest and most immediate change. And all of it under the cover of a concern for ‘morality’ and ‘virtue’ that – alas, all too really – was being flung aside by Identities that accepted no higher dimension than their own political visions and agendas.

And so – I would say – the Democrats spent the Reagan years playing a double-game: indulging the Identities, while hewing to the military-corporate complex that quietly infused them richly with funds through PACs. In the same bed as the Republicans. You wanna worry about sex-offenses?

Even the media gave up, after a while.

Good frakking grief.

Meanwhile, the economy and the entire national posture relative to the rest of the world’s economies (Japan and West Germany had recovered and started to steam along by the mid-‘60s) was ignored. Reagan continually expected that money would somehow ‘appear’ (you know, the way it did for good guys in the movies), and if it didn’t – well, how could that happen, with all these honchos who knew ‘business’ calling the shots? How indeed?

So it goes back beyond Bush & Co., to Reagan. But it goes back even further, to the Democratic Congressional leadership in the ‘70s. And a monstrous, sustained treachery it was – that course chosen by Tip O’Neill. Treachery to his President, his Party, and all the citizens who assumed that the craggy old mountain was in their corner, a regular guy for the little guy. Not hardly.
And it explains a bit more about how the hell We have come to the present situation. And how with all the warning signs, a Congress could roll over – not only for corporate money (at least there was precedent for that in the First Gilded Age) but in the face of increasing assault on civil liberties and the checks-and-balances and oversight intended by the Founders. A treachery, thus, to the Constitution and to The People.

No wonder there’s so much sleazy and even cocky cynicism in the Beltway. They know, as they knew then, that no opposition party would hold anybody responsible for anything; nobody would be brought to account. Even when the Reagan era’s most floridly baaad things came (with decreasing frequency) to light, nobody was held to account. That – in addition to the average person’s skepticism as to the noxiousness of identity-politics – was why Reagan was ‘teflon’; even when citizens finally realized what he and his well-heeled posse was up to, the bhoys in the backroom knew that no Sheriff ‘Tip’ was going to be coming after them. ‘Tip’ was an ally; bipartisan was his cover. Or, I would say, ‘Tip’ participated in the Beltway ‘Blutbund’: the old SS term for ‘I killed somebody and you know it; you killed somebody and I know it – let’s do lunch!’ The meal prepared for them in the Upper Room of this or that corporate headquarters was not one for angels. History – if not some other High Power Who shall remain as yet unnamed – may now be preparing something else for them and all their cohorts.

But that won’t necessarily do Us any good right here and right now. I hold no brief for any Republican victory in the upcoming election. There is not enough of the old center of that Party. But I also realize that almost all of the Democratic ‘players’ currently roaming the halls of Congress have been part of this decades-long racket. Mr. Obama, to the extent that he has not been corrupted by it all, will still have to work with a Party that pretty much has. He will need all the help he can get. And I mean Us. And not just leading up to the election, but after it. Especially after it. Carter’s ruin – almost from day one of his Administration – must stand as a bloody warning to Us all.

That’s why I see some ray of hope – hardly unalloyed – in the rejection of the bailout as originally proposed. But one ray does not a sunny day make.

It seems to me, as well, that a huge opportunity was lost in 1968. There was indeed a ‘democratizing’ of the Party; and in light of the incursions of incumbent entrenchment and the baleful influences of the ‘military industrial complex’ and the National Security State even in their relatively infant forms of that era … then ’68 was to that extent a ‘Moment’ of no small possibility.

But the ‘democratizing’ thread was quickly lost. The Identities and their ‘politics’ provided a handy cover for the forces of “Reaction” (Karp’s term and capital) to seek to re-impose a rule of the elites that over the course of time became, under Reagan, a genuine “Oligarchy” (again, Karp’s term and capital). Because at least in the Founders’ time the ‘responsible men of substance’ were still in touch with the vast body of The People; there was some proportion to their roles and substance relative to the citizens in general. No more. And certainly not in the past 25 years.

It stuns to realize that whereas forty years ago ‘elitism’ would refer to entrenched political forces threatening democracy from within, nowadays it refers to knowledge and checking with folks who might know something to advise on matters of huge – perhaps ultimate – public import. This is not your grandfather’s ‘America’ – and that’s not meant as consolation, much less as indicative of achievement.

Nor can We simply say that identity-politics was itself ‘democratizing’. In method and content it was not; it was simultaneously much less than that and much more than that – and it knew that, and thus sought to short-circuit a democratic politics in order to establish itself and propagate, and cut away a place at the table so as to get a piece of the pie. And the dusty miasm raised by that Long March choked vision and new growth, and the energies We should have been investing in a common effort to realign Ourselves and Our nation to the changing realities of the post-postwar world … those energies were dissipated on other things.

And We have come to this. But then here We must stand. And make Our stand. Stand tall.

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Blogger David said...

Carter has made a lifetime profession of fulfilling (honorably) the role of Quixote. Yet, as you say, he was no luftmensch. He saw quite clearly that we were circling the drain even then. His message - like that of the prophets - was too depressing to be borne by the comfortable and their corruptors.

The avuncular O'Neil was but one of many Sancho Panzas in this operatic production. Like all machine politicians, he was just adjusting to the reality of corporate control. To those who would oppose the power elite at home or abroad the only offer was one they could not refuse: "Plata o plomo?"

Carter, banished from the national stage, has gone on to become the greatest ex-president we have ever had. He has been covered with ignominy for his interventions and pronouncements - most recently by the Israel Lobby - but he continues to soldier on. After fifty years of public life, his remains the most honorable lance aloft in the field.

What is to be done when we have reached a state where the clear-eyed 'realists' are all gangsters?

12:59 PM  
Blogger publion said...

Yes about Carter. But I wouldn’t be so upbeat about O’Neill. Sancho was still likable, because even though Cervantes did not ‘idealize’ him as a ‘realistic peasant’ and showed some of the less-lovely sides of actual peasant-mindedness, still Panza as foil to Quixote demonstrates some likable qualities for our emulation. O’Neill was not a foil to Reaganism; he was a collaborator, and worse, a collaborator who kept surfing on the public’s trust in him as a Democrat (at that time automatically presuming dedication to the FDR legacy) and duplicitously passing himself off as an ‘opposition’ when he was no such thing, but rather was helping to betray not only his working-class constituents but also The People and the very core dynamics of Constitutional democracy. Keep an eye on my next few Posts, as well as my last couple, as I try to expand on this brute and brutal fact.

10:22 AM  

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