by Robert Wrubel
(Swans - November 21, 2005) Michael Doliner's excellent article in the recent issue of Swans, "Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup", presents the game plan and balance of forces as seen by the neo-conservative cabal in the White House. Doliner considers their project in no way inevitable, but rather an opportunistic mutiny cobbling together several not wholly compatible interests (the rich, the military, the Christian right, portions of the befuddled middle). He likens the venture to a paper ship launched on an unstable sea (the witches brew of the title?) heading for a destination only dimly grasped by the mutineers (whom he derisively calls "the philosophers").
Doliner shows these disparate interests in dynamic relationship and creates a plausible image of the future. Still, it's just one scenario among many. What are some others?
The leading alternative, in the public mind at least, would be a revival of the opposition party, currently in a coma, but showing signs of life in the person of "Give 'Em Hell Harry." The number one item on the Democrats' new and improved national platform, "Honesty in Government," has the potential of evolving from a specific complaint about manipulation of intelligence (possibly too esoteric to be of real interest to the general public), to either an outright demand for impeachment or a broad attack on secrecy and cronyism in the current administration. Certainly there are multiple scandals ready to come clattering out of the closet, if the upstairs maids of the press ever dare to open the administration's doors a crack.
If the Democrats were to regain the Presidency in 2008 (assuming Bush doesn't stage some new emergency that frightens the electorate into submission), what would the new Democratic coalition look like? Presumably the position of the military would remain unchanged, relieved not to be pursuing the dangerous chimeras of the neocons and happy to return to its comfortable living as managers of digital warfare and cushy colonial satrapies. The military was well taken care of under the Democrats, given new overseas real estate in Eastern Europe and only asked to flex its muscles periodically in riskless wars like the one in Yugoslavia. It's hard to imagine that today's senior military officers really look forward to policing American cities, as Bush hints they will, or facing the challenge of making a respectable service from the new recruiting pool of non high school grads. The comfortable and privileged overseas bases that Chalmers Johnson describes in The Sorrows of Empire seem more like country clubs than military installations, marks of a bureaucratic caste more interested in living well than grubbing around in the desert.
Doliner sees the rich, symbolized by Bush Senior, as only half-hearted members of Junior's coalition, nervous about the rashness and messianism of the prince, but unwilling to openly challenge him. The rich, in the sense of idle managers of portfolios rather than active managers of corporate enterprise, often seem to play a comical role in affairs, as in the Hunt brothers' attempt to corner the silver market several decades ago. They tend to be cheap, too, serving discount wine when they don't need to, and are probably chafing at Junior's indifference to the value of their treasury notes. At the same time, the rich can actually look at gloomy scenarios like Peak Oil with a certain equanimity, confident that their multiple investments in multiple countries will protect them against the worst effects. So the rich will continue to look on from the sidelines, comfortably insulated from harm.
The hard-working corporate rich are also just as happy with Democrats as Republicans, having used both to escape the bonds of national law for the wide-open spaces of unregulated global trade. These in fact are the players who will drive the history of the next thirty years, using whichever party is in power to advance their agenda.
The role of political parties in the U.S. is to create coalitions of disparate parts of the electorate so that they can gain office and serve the interests of the powerful few. The current Republican coalition seems as improbable as any, combining Christian fundamentalism, the lumpen mass, the threatened middle class and the hedonistic rich, under the tutelage of empire-dreaming, elitist, Straussian philosopher kings. Traditional conservatives blanch at this unholy alliance, but so far it has worked. It works, according to Doliner, partly because of the skillful propaganda of arch-manipulators like Rove.
The Democrats have been weak of late, in the propaganda area, trying to fashion a stance in the middle that will still appeal to the left. It's interesting, if depressing, to speculate what the new Democratic platform might be. In the mouths of Senators Clinton, Biden, Bayh and the like, progressive rhetoric will only sound deeply cynical. Yet, there are possibilities. The Democrats could revive their Rooseveltian heritage of activism and idealism in government and rally significant segments of the population around a national renewable energy program, such as the Apollo Alliance, presenting it as a better response to terrorism, a true component of national security, a powerful initiative of global transformation, and a major jobs and economic stimulus program. They could tie it into action on global warming and climate change, and present themselves as enlightened rationalists after eight years of conservative do- and know-nothingism. Such a program would also have the hidden but important benefit of diverting some of the bloated military budget to constructive ends, without threatening the military contractors themselves (who will remain the suppliers of choice in any renewable energy program.)
If it plays well in the 2008 elections, the Democrats could ride their new campaign against corruption in government to several showcase initiatives aimed at revolving door employment, no-bid contracts, stricter auditing of government contracts and better electoral and voting procedures. Now that Bush's attempt to kill Social Security has been soundly rejected by the electorate, and the reality of its Medicare Drug benefit is plain for all to see, it would seem good politics for the Dems to propose something that actually strengthened Social Security, along with a real drug benefit aimed particularly at seniors.
Finally, to mollify the left, they could reverse most of the provisions of the Patriot Act, undo some of the grosser attacks on the environment and the tax code, and re-re-organize FEMA, Homeland Security and the national intelligence apparatus, to make everyone feel more secure.
On the international scene, the Democrats are stuck with the tar baby of Israel, but it's conceivable that they could loosen the grip of the right on Israeli politics and forge some kind of center/left coalition that would allow the creation of a real Palestinian state. On that basis they might lay the foundations for a somewhat stable Middle East. On the other hand, it is unlikely they will do anything about the war in Iraq, whatever is left of it, except support whatever client state, or states, have emerged after eight years of neocon bungling.
The Democrats could put together a platform and ideology to answer the termite-riddled one of the Republicans, and rally a large enough constituency to regain power. But their power will be limited by three realities: control of the economy will still be in corporate hands, or beyond anyone's control, if Peak Oil arrives as predicted; Democratic programs will still be middle-class programs, at a time when the middle class is crumbling, and the needs of the poor will continue to be unaddressed; and the weakness of the economy, after eight years of profligate Bush management, will put the funding of any major government programs out of reach, except for perhaps some mainly symbolic initiatives.
There's nothing theoretically wrong with basing a platform on the needs of the middle class; the middle class is, after all, the main bank of accumulated skills and political energy in the society. But any party that depends on the middle class will also have to embrace its anxieties about loss of status and security as suburban lifestyles slowly crumble. Republicans have pandered to those anxieties; Democrats, if they wish to be more than Tweedledum to the Republicans' Tweedledee, need to transform them into something bigger and more creative by incorporating them into a broader vision of the nation's resources and challenges.
As observed above, the real actors of the coming years, the ones who will create the realities to which political parties have to respond, will be global corporate capital. The rest of us are essentially spectators, watching by the side of the road as the corporate behemoth hurtles down the highway toward who-knows-what global collision. While global capital writes the plot, political parties are merely stagehands awaiting their assignments, changing trade policies, devaluing currencies, sending armies here and there, easing out governments who aren't cooperative, in the tried and true patterns of the past.
Unlike the threat of terror, more exploited than understood by the Bush administration, the threat of rebellion from the south, by states like Venezuela, will be serious and undeniable, and no political party will be able to ignore it without being hammered by the opposition. The Democrats will continue to be co-drivers of the national security state, wasting a large part of our national treasure on its maintenance.
After global capital, the other possible scenario-creators are Peak Oil and global warming. As James Howard Kunstler observes in The Long Emergency, these, when they come, are likely to tear apart the social fabric and far exceed any government's ability to deal with them. Economic collapse, accompanied by food, power, and water shortage, will spawn all kinds of nativist, fear-based, apocalyptic ideologies that could drown democracy in a flood of irrationalism. Some see this condition as already present and label it an early stage of fascism. In Kunstler's extreme scenario, it's not even clear there will be a strong central state to embody it.
Will a Democratic ship make the passage through these perilous waters smoother than the Republican one? It's hard to say. At least we can hope a Democratic administration will smother the creepy marriage of rapturist thinking with the military embodied in characters like General Boykin, whose finger is awfully close to the nuclear trigger already. If they don't, Bush's real crime against humanity would be to have let that particular genie out of the bottle.
Now, go back and read Doliner again, and decide which scenario you believe! Or make up your own!