The saddest part about the period of sleepwalking that the U.S. has experienced over the past eight years is that we don't have to return to the status quo before Bush was elected. History can move forward to the benefit of America, but only if we recognize that some uneasy trends cannot be reversed. The reactionary backlash that allowed the neocon vision to take hold has been disastrous. Since it was based on cherished illusions, there's a strong chance that the voting public might be seduced by McCain's promise of "no surrender" and the promotion of old-fashioned nationalism backed up with overwhelming military threat.
Those illusions need to die, and with them another that prevails on the economic front.
5. The illusion that America and the free market are synonymous. Fifty years ago the slogan "What's good for GM is good for America" was at best a half truth (was it good for women, blacks, and immigrants?), but today, in the guise of the free market, the same shibboleth lives on. Capitalism prevails as a system that once vied, supposedly, with Communism for world dominance, yet its deep flaws remain. Three come to mind. Capitalism discourages equal access to wealth, leading to enormous gaps between rich and poor. The free market lacks a conscience, giving rise to inequalities of education, health care, and job opportunities. Finally, capitalism if unchecked promotes corruption, both economic and political. In the wake of Tom DeLay's corrupt selling of Congress to the highest bidder, the collapse of Enron, and the untrammeled greed that led to the current subprime mortgage crisis, these flaws should be glaringly obvious. They always existed, and yet the illusion of the free market as a godsend and purveyor of all good things persists.
A wealthy society isn't automatically a society without a conscience. The free market's flaws -- which are more than its excesses, the usual term for it -- can be ameliorated. By promoting socialism and Communism as the twin evils that keep the goodness of free markets from flowing, the right wing deals in sheer illusion. Social planning exists in many countries and many beneficial forms, from successful mass transit in Europe to Brazil's independence from fossil fuels. The U.S. is addicted to overconsumption and the ethos of unregulated wealth. It's the robber baron philosophy, with some amendments, all over again. One does not have to claim that the chickens came home to roost in the current economic crunch. In good times and bad society needs to distribute its benefits fairly, to treat every citizen in good conscience, and to promote general well-being, not just the indulgence of the wealthiest.
Under the spell of free market virtue, this country has seen stagnation in benefits, economic and social, even to the middle class, not to mention the poor, whose interests have largely been ignored. Without returning to the welfare state, we need to devise a modified capitalism that encourages humane attitudes over selfish ones. There are many signs that all of the illusions I've recounted are weakening, but choices remain open. The best any citizen can do is to promote the new realism that wants to emerge. Reversing history is a toxic dream. Moving ahead is the only option that favors everyone's well-being in the long run.
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