THE BLOG
01/23/2007 03:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is There Something Wrong with the System?

In the responses to my last post, several posters asked or suggested
that our experience with Bush and Cheney (and Baker and Rumsfeld and
the Republicans in general) suggests that there is something fatally
wrong with our system of government, especially if we have to go through the national convulsion known as impeachment just to get rid of a pack of criminals or prevent them from, at the least, compounding their horrendous record of errors and, at the most, wrecking the nation (and/or a couple of other nations). At this point, when we are looking
at a possible US attack on Iran, this is a question worth pondering. I
have been pondering this question off and on for years. I think the
answer is two-fold.

First off--in the US, the right is a constant and the left is
intermittent, and this has been the case since the beginning. I used to
think I knew why the American left in the 1960s and 1970s failed. As a
girlfriend of a 1960s leftist (SDS, Progressive Labor Party faction) I
could see that the leftists I knew had two things on their minds. One
was factory organizing and the other was free love. Usually they took
the easy way out (free love) and left the hard part (factory
organizing) for another day. As intellectuals, they couldn't really
relate to the working class, anyway, and once their personal needs were
met (sex, drugs, and rock and roll), their attachment to the cause
tended to waiver, or at least to lose focus. There were other things
wrong, too, but the main one was that what the leftists were doing and
thinking in San Francisco, Cambridge, and New Haven was unfathomable in
St. Louis, Denver, and Phoenix. What French philosopher Bernard
Henri-Levy refers to as "the mobilisation of civil society" took place
in the late-sixties US not as a response to labor conditions, poverty,
or inequality, but as a response to the draft and the Vietnam War, on
the one hand, and as a response to racial injustice in the south on the
other. They were two separate movements.

One of my theories about race in American is that Harper Lee's To Kill
A Mockingbird
(1961) defined the boundary of majority white liberal or
moderate opinion about relations between black and white in mid-century
US. The book was a best seller and the movie was a big hit and won
several Oscars, but in progressive terms, both were extremely cautious.
All the book said was that black men deserved equality under the
law--that is, that injustice should not be perpetrated. It did not say
that injustices already perpetrated could be or ought to be rectified.
It's no coincidence that in the 1960s, black leaders wrested control of
their own fate from even sympathetic and well-meaning white leftists.
Progress could only have been made in that way. But this did not mean
that the left as a whole was invigorated by the shift of its leadership
to black thinkers and activists. It was not--it was splintered. Civil
rights became a separate issue from other class issues, a uniquely
American issue that, it seemed, could be solved without any sort of
class conflict at all. I remember having this precise discussion with
my SDS friend in 1969--was the race problem in the US primarily about
class or about ethnicity? He said class, I said ethnicity. The nation
has opted since to resolve the issue in terms of ethnicity, and for
good reason--in America, class issues are more difficult to solve and
not so apparent on the surface; they are always confused by race
issues. European history until the last generation has been quite
different. In ethnically uniform nations, issues of class are always
evident, and the left is far better at formulating issues of class than
it is at formulating issues of race.

The movement against the Vietnam War was similarly anomalous, and owed
its life, I think, to the fact that all those boys from the hinterlands
who were swept up by the SATs in the mid-1960s and sent off to college
could not quite believe that they were actually required to serve in a
pointless, distant, and abstract war that was nonetheless frightening
and deadly. Here they were, gathered together at Harvard and Yale and
Berkeley, where they did, at least temporarily, stimulate one another,
and they got up a student movement that helped to end the war, but it
was a one-time thing. Bush, Cheney, and Co. know this. It was a smart
move, in the short run, for them to avoid reinstituting the draft,
because they got to have their war, but stupid, over all, because, of
course, they don't get to win it.

This pattern, the constancy of the right and the intermittence of the
left, is standard in American history, and applies to every
"progressive" era. Slavery, for example, was a fact of life;
Abolitionism was a movement. Same with labor relations and
environmental regulation. This is because in the US, the Constitution
defines the outermost left edge of what is possible--individual rights,
governmental checks and balances (especially on the power of the
executive), dispersal of federal power to the states, the rule of law
and the ideal of reasonableness. That edge isn't very far to the left
and it is also more of an ideal that a permanent reality, no matter how
often everyone on all sides invokes "the Constitution". That left edge
is, in fact, simple liberalism, not ideas of class equality, class
liberty, or class solidarity. Brotherhood is anathema to most
Americans, and so is equality. If the job of the left is to, first and
foremost, build a mass movement, then it can't be done on the principle
of liberty, because liberty is a slippery idea that is in America
called freedom and can as easily (or more easily) lead to the SUV than
to national parks, and it can't be done on the principle of equality,
because Amrericans don't really care for that principle. Compassion?
Justice? Humanity? Those work better, but they don't seem to work for
long.

The right in the US is defined not by the Constitution, but by history
and tradition. The first principle of this tradition is "Don't tread on
me". It is a tradition of genocide, slavery, arms-bearing violence and
vigilantism, religious fanaticism, environmental exploitation, and
sheer greed; it is a "try and stop me" tradition that Bush and Cheney
epitomize. The right wing press in the US has, at one time or another,
vigorously defended just about every repugnant practice going,
including the death penalty, in part because every one of those
practices has made some people rich, and in part because the right
resents more than anything being told what to do. Even as genocide,
slavery, vigilantism, and a few of our other historical practices
have fallen by the wayside, the don't-tread-on-me principle has
remained in force because it is the first American principle--most
Americans understand and sympathize with it to such a degree that it
can be employed to justify such counter-intuitive concepts as a
fully-armed populace and preemptive nuclear war, as Bush and Cheney
have discovered. But don't-tread-on-me can work against the
conservatives, as we saw in the last election, and as we see all over
the blogosphere.

The other systemic flaw in the US is the untrammeled power of the
corporations, a power not given to corporations by the framers of the
Constitution, but inferred by corporations and their sympathizers from
the comments made about the Fourteenth Amendment by a judge in a case
(Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company) that went to
court in 1886. The precedents set by this case and subsequent ones
have increasingly stacked the deck against the voters and in favor the
corporations ever since. Our life is far more profoundly shaped by the
power of corporations than the Founders would have thought possible.
Not only do Americans eat corporate food, and grow obese and unhealthy
thereby, depend upon the oil companies and the car manufacturers, and
thereby destroy the Earth, demand cheap goods, and thereby wreck their
own manufacturing infrastructure and accumulate loads of unnecessary
possessions, they listen to canned and bottled hate-speech on corporate
radio and TV and thereby surrender their judgment and their rights;
they go to corporate churches and buy the ideas that accrue to the
power of those churches. The fatal difference between corporations and
people is that corporations are necessarily irresponsible. It's in the
charter. They have to profit, while people have to weigh monetary
profit against other forms of relationship and interaction. Individual
shareholders and executives can evade responsibility for"externalities"
like global warming in a way that they would not necessarily be able to
evade responsibility for running over the neighbor's dog--our country
is filled with people who do things at work that they would never do at
home. Their sense of responsibility can be lessened by the fear of
losing a job, or, more subtly, by the effect of company propaganda, or
the break-down of accountability because of long chains of command. One
thing incorporation does is separate the assets of the shareholders
from the assets of the corporation, so that no one has to be ruined by
his mistakes at work. Risk-taking comes to have no downside, especially
if the risks only effect those who are out of sight and out of mind. As
long as corporations can claim rights as persons while evading
regulation for business practices, the deck will be stacked against the
voters; the war machine, the oil machine, the food machine, and the
financial markets machine, among others, will continue to call the
shots.

The alliance between the corporations and the Republicans has meant
that not only is Washington for sale, not only does cronyism rule, but,
more importantly, there is no difference between the way corporate
executives think and the way the government thinks. Why does Dick
Cheney use the U.S. Army like his own band of mercenaries, and why does
he want to outsource most army functions? Because he's the boss and he
thinks he is entitled to not only do what he wants, but make a huge
profit from it. His history is not that of a public servant, but of a
corporate tyrant who engineers a take-over, does as he pleases with the
company, and then takes his golden parachute. His responsibility is not
to customers (voters) or labor (soldiers), but stockholders
(lobbyists). Are the Democrats any different? They have had the same
career paths and they owe the lobbyists just as much. The Democrats
surely believe that the corporations are not necessarily Republican,
that they, too, can have a part of the corporate pie.

Arguments for the left in America, as elsewhere, depend upon thought,
understanding, and reason. Since the Constitution presents the left
boundary, beyond which we cannot go (into socialism, for example),
liberals are always going to be perceived as weak because they have to
stick by the rules and use persuasion. More aggressive leftist
revolutionary-types are always going to be perceived as unAmerican.
That is just the way it is. While violence is considered acceptable in
the US if it is home-grown and in defense of never being told what to
do by outsiders or nerds, it is never accepted as a method of moving
the US past the liberal edge of the Constitution. And, unlike in
Europe, there is no battle of ideas--the right doesn't actually assert
ideas, it asserts rights and privileges in the guise of ideas, and it
asserts them aggressively and contemptuously.

Can the citizenry prevail? Possibly not. The structure, always against
progressives (and rigged against us by the southerners in the earliest
days of the Republic) is increasingly against us as ruling class
Republicans and Democrats divvy up the Congressional Districts by
jerrymandering, and the Democrats come more and more under the sway of
the same corporate donors as the Republicans. But the right is as
likely as not to over-reach and destroy themselves (along with us, of
course--is this actual grounds for hope?).

But most Americans do, after all, seem to have some kind of conscience
and to want to actually do as little harm as possible. Conservatives
and their "ideas" do get steadily left behind in spite of the
advantages they hold. Until the election, Cheney and Bush, at least
publicly, tried to walk the tightrope between appearing strong and
appearing ruthless. They fell off, and were reprimanded in the only way
the system allows. With "the Surge", it does seem that their
ruthlessness is being revealed for all to see. The real problem is the
Democrats, not because they are cowardly or weak, as most pundits
suggest, but because we don't know if the source of their weakness is
fear or corruption. If it is fear, they might wake up, enforce the
Constitutional checks and balances, and lead the country out of the
dangerous mess we are in, but if it is corruption, if they are only
just Big Corporation suck-ups, then there is no hope at all.