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There They Go Again

By Andrew Levine / Counterpunch.

Photo by Coco Curranski | CC BY 2.0

The 2018 midterm elections are still more than a year away, but, according to press reports, Democratic “hopefuls” are already courting “the donor class” in anticipation of the presidential election in 2020.

It is the same old same old that got us a Trump-Clinton election in 2016 and, worse, that stifled or derailed many of the most promising progressive initiatives of the preceding years.

Something like that is on track for happening again, the difference being that the background conditions are worse this time around: the ravages brought on by increasing inequality are more acute, there is a greater likelihood of a nuclear Armageddon, and the inevitable ecological catastrophes caused by anthropogenic climate disruption are advancing at a greater pace.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but all credible solutions involve the (small-d) democratization of the political sphere and, ultimately, the end of capitalism or at least of anything like capitalism as the world has so far known it.  This would require restructuring our political economic system — from one dedicated to furthering what Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) called “private” interests to one geared towards discovering and implementing “the general will.”

Nowadays, anything like that seems utterly out of reach everywhere.  Timid versions of social democracy and New Deal-Great Society liberalism survive – in the United States, that’s what Bernie Sanders was about — but radical and revolutionary politics are, for all practical purposes, off the agenda.  This lamentable state of affairs is, at once, a consequence of objective conditions and a cause of them.

Meanwhile, “democracy deficits” — gaps between what majorities want and even vote for, and what they get – are everywhere on the rise.

There is and always has been too little real democracy – too little government of, by, and for the people.  But the situation has become qualitatively worse in recent years thanks mainly to economic exigencies in capitalism’s current neoliberal, globalizing phase.

The situation in the United States, at the national level especially, is exceptionally awful – in large part, for reasons peculiar to the American scene.

Fearing the demos, the “people” as distinct from social and economic elites, our “founding fathers” concocted undemocratic ways of electing Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Senators.  Some of the procedures they established were partially democratized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; some were not.

They also made it exceedingly difficult for democratic majorities to change the outcomes of presidential elections during the four-year span of a presidential term.

Other liberal democracies, and many American states, have easier mechanisms in place – recall elections, for example, or, in parliamentary systems, votes of no confidence.  For nearly two centuries, impeachment was the only way to unseat an American president.

With the passage of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment in 1967, removal on grounds of inability to serve, unfitness for office, became a second way.  But the intent behind the Twenty-Fifth Amendment was apolitical; its authors were thinking of certifiable cases of physical or mental impairment — not the kinds of unfitness for office that Donald Trump so conspicuously displays.  The Twenty-Fifth Amendment is about continuity of government, not enhancing popular control over the government’s executive branch.

Thus impeachment is still the only feasible, constitutionally permissible way to unseat a duly elected president.  It is a difficult and time-consuming process.

As we saw last year, our institutions do not guarantee majority rule in presidential elections.  Even so, “we, the people” do have some control over who becomes our president.  However, that control goes away after Election Day and stays missing for four long years.

Even if a president dies or is removed from office by impeachment or in the ways specified by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, we still don’t get a say.  The founders saw to it that were any of that to happen, we wouldn’t hold new elections; the Vice President would just move up a notch.

Another reason why our democracy is exceptionally undemocratic is our two party system.  Our laws, and the customs that have grown up around them, do not literally proscribe but do effectively marginalize independent and “third party” electoral activity.

Therefore, votes for candidates who are not running as Democrats or Republicans are, in effect, protest votes only.  In our present circumstances, party building is all but out of the question.  If the duopoly couldn’t be broken in 2016, the chances of breaking it any time soon are nil.

And so we have elections in which two highly polarized but ideologically like-minded political parties, differing mainly on “social” matters of little or no economic consequence, fight each other if not to the death, then to the next best thing.

Democrats are generally less odious than Republicans, but on matters of substance, they are not much better; they are not even all that different.  Ours is essentially a one-party state in which the ruling party has two right wings, each at odds with the other.

Also, thanks to wrong-headed Supreme Court rulings going back more than four decades and culminating in the infamous Citizens United case of 2010, American “democracy” legitimates political corruption by ruling “campaign contributions” constitutionally protected free speech.  Thus our laws, as currently understood, effectively mandate plutocratic rule.

Therefore, instead of democratic deliberation and debate of the sort that Rousseau and other democratic theorists envisioned, we have mindless political operatives, hucksters, selling candidates to target audiences.   And instead of leaders endeavoring collectively to do what is best for the polity they lead, we have politicians groveling for money.

And, as if all these structural and institutional factors weren’t bad enough, we are now bearing the brunt of the “perfect storm” of contingent circumstances that led to the presidency of a billionaire buffoon, with Mike Pence waiting in the wings.

***

The United States had more than its share of awful Presidents in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but two of the twenty-first century’s three Presidents are in a class by themselves.

The one who is not, Barack Obama, was a decent enough steward of the status quo – knowledgeable, thoughtful, and cautious.  He was also weak, and therefore easy prey for some of Washington’s most nefarious lobbies.  And like other Democrats nowadays, he became a flunky of the “economic royalists” FDR inveighed against.

Obama’s inveterate cautiousness was reinforced by an intuitive understanding of the shallowness of the blather about a “post-racial” America that his election set off.  He therefore went out of his way not to rattle the cages of the kinds of miscreants who now comprise the Trump base.  This made him even more ineffectual.

He also empowered, or let his fist Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, empower, a gaggle of liberal imperialists who, for their own reasons, made the situations they inherited from their predecessors worse.  Whether deliberately or only by happenstance, Obama became their willing accomplice.  With his kill lists and drones, the Nobel laureate quickly morphed into an aficionado of murder and mayhem.

His war of choice against Libya epitomized all that was wrong with his foreign and military policies.  Of course, that misadventure was mainly Clinton’s doing; but, ultimately, the responsibility lies where the buck stops.

As the doomed Arab Spring unfolded, the attack on Libya, along with other clueless Clinton-led machinations in Syria and elsewhere, unleashed a continuing refugee crisis across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The human, economic, and geopolitical costs have been staggering.

Obama and the people around him also reinforced the obviously sound idea that, for countries in the empire’s crosshairs, nuclear disarmament is a losing strategy.  The North Koreans have taken that lesson to heart – with consequences that could soon become devastating.

Obama did sometimes try to do good, but he was blocked at every turn by Republican obstructionists.   Even after he had squandered the political capital he acquired from the 2008 election, he still had a strong hand to play, and he did the best he could to play it.  But very little came of it.  Republicans are not good at much, and they are certainly not the brightest bulbs on the tree, but when it comes to sheer obstinacy, nobody does it better.  Obama tried, but, in the end, he was just too damn reasonable to prevail.

It would therefore be a gross understatement to say that Obama disappointed the hopes that arose out of his election.  Compared to other modern presidents, however, he wasn’t unusually awful.

Indeed, some good came out of his electoral victories in 2008 and 2012.  Although he governed as if ours was in fact a post-racial society, doing almost nothing aimed specifically at improving the lot of African Americans and other persons of color, he did advance the cause of racial equality.  He did it just by being there.

With Trump in the White House, he is and will continue to be sorely missed.  He would have been missed too had Clinton not blown a sure victory in 2016, though not to the same degree, inasmuch as she is just a more hawkish, less thoughtful, and more incompetent version of him.

However that may be, Obama was a paragon of excellence compared to his predecessor, George W. Bush, the worst president ever – before Trump.

Aided, abetted and guided by Dick Cheney, Bush broke the Middle East.  The harm he did there was monumental.  It spilled over too – to the larger Muslim world and beyond.

Indeed, the Bush-Cheney Global War on Terror made real or imagined terrorism a fact of life for people around the world, including the United States.  It also served, and continues to serve, as a recruiting tool for terrorists, with consequences that will reverberate far into the future.

Moreover, in the name of that war, Bush and Cheney and their underlings diminished Americans’ rights and liberties to a degree that seemed unthinkable before.

They also presided over economic policies that contributed to global warming, exacerbated inequality, and that very nearly set off a major worldwide depression.

But Trump is worse, worse by far.

He has not yet done has much harm as Bush and Cheney did; ironically, what has prevented him so far is his own incompetence.  It keeps him from getting much of anything done.

But the man is psychologically unhinged and in way over his head.  A world in which someone of his caliber controls a nuclear arsenal capable of ending life on earth “as we know it” is in grave and constant peril.

Additionally, because he needs them to govern or at least to seem to be trying to get things done, and because he knows little and cares less about public policy except insofar as it affects his and his family’s bottom line and his vanity, he has turned his administration over to some of the most execrable cabinet officers and agency heads that Republican operatives hell bent on “deconstructing” the affirmative state and undoing the advances of the past hundred years could dig up.

How pathetic that we must rely on “mad dog” military men to be what media pundits call “the adults in the room.”

Whether they can hold Trump in line remains to be seen.  Liberals welcome their presence because they and the liberal imperialists of the Obama years are essentially of one mind.  But their influence puts civilian rule in peril.

With Trump’s unwitting cooperation, the United States has undergone something very much like a military coup.  Defenders of the status quo, along with those of us who see the need to change the status quo radically for the better, ought vehemently to object.  The sad fact, though, is that the more power Mattis, McMaster and Kelly assume, the less we are at his the mercy of a Commander-in-Chief capable of lashing out uncontrollably at any moment, leaving only death and destruction in his wake.  Compared to that, who would not go with the generals?

Generals!  Trump plainly has a thing for them, just as he does for outlaw sheriffs and tough cops.

Like many troubled boys with rich parents, the young Donald was sent to a Military School to chill.  Then, becoming eligible for the draft and with service in the Vietnam War looming, he, like many another in similar circumstances — George W, for example – found ways to keep himself out of harm’s way.  Despite this, or because of it, his days at the New York Military Academy seem to live on in the dark recesses of his mind.

Why else would a billionaire whose ego knows no bounds and who feels entitled to do pretty much anything he wants kowtow to military men with stars?   If the world survives Trump, this is a question people will be pondering for years to come.

But even with those generals doing their best to rein him in, the danger he poses is clear and present.

Therefore, even if he is not yet the most lethal president ever, he is certainly the worst.

Poor George W!  He lost that title after only eight years.

***

The Atlantic hurricane season is a metaphor for life in Trump’s America.

Hurricane Harvey and then Hurricane Irma arose seemingly out of nowhere, the one following close upon the heels of the other, each made fiercer and deadlier by the exigencies of an overripe and fundamentally irrational political economic system.

Almost until they actually made landfall, no one was entirely sure where the storms would go; the computer models offered too many possibilities.  And even after they did reach land, their trajectories were impossible to establish with precision.  The only sure thing was that, wherever they would end up, the devastation would be terrible.

With revolutionary institutional change out of the question – not forever perhaps, but certainly in the time remaining in Trump’s term in office — the current state of affairs, awful as it is, may be as good as it can get.

The prospects wouldn’t be quite so bad if Democrats were less useless than they have become since the Clintons and their co-thinkers turned the party of the milquetoast center-left into a party of kinder-gentler (Trumpians would say “more politically correct”) Eisenhower or Rockefeller era Republicans.  One would think that they’d have learned their lesson after getting schlonged (Trump’s word again) last November.  However, they seem to have learned nothing at all.

It seems that since she was involuntarily retired from politics, Clinton has been cashing in on her defeat by writing a book — or, rather, by working with ghostwriters, editors, and publicists who are composing a book under her name.   If reports of its contents are any indication, she, at least, has learned nothing.  Indeed, her misperceptions seem to have hardened.

Many, maybe most, Democrats are in a similar frame of mind.

Nevertheless, a disorganized “resistance” is scurrying back under the Democratic tent — either out of conviction, hard as that may be to conceive, or on lesser evil grounds.  They comprise a timid opposition with no program and no leader.  The only thing they have going for them is Trump himself.

It does not follow that the Democrats’ fortunes will continue to decline.  Quite to the contrary, Trump is such an embarrassment and such a menace – and Republicans are so utterly execrable — that Democrats will probably do well in next year’s midterm elections.

But then all we will get out of those elections will be a restoration of the conditions that brought about a Trump-Clinton electoral contest, and a Trump victory, two years before.

This could change in an instant if a real resistance were to arise; an aroused citizenry, as dedicated to smashing the Democratic Party — to replacing it or changing it beyond recognition — as it is to ridding the world of the Trumpian menace.  Unfortunately, there is no sign of anything like that developing any time soon.

There are, of course, extraordinary initiatives taking place at the local level within the framework of the Democratic Party; and, if the bigwigs don’t succeed in quashing them, some good might come of them.  For the time being, though, Trump faces no real opposition.  Democrats are still, almost without exception, part of the problem.

And so, unless he has the good sense to cut and run, which he so far shows no sign of doing, Trump continues to be the specter haunting our future – unless and until the weight of impeachable offenses forces him out.   If and when that happens, thanks to those damn founding fathers, he will be replaced by Mike Pence.

Trump or Pence.  Which is worse?  It is a close call.

Pence isn’t erratic like Trump and, if only because he has no personality, he isn’t nearly as likely to rile up neo-Nazis and the Klan.  But he is a theocrat and a bona fide reactionary, while Trump has no views at all, only animosities towards people of color and pathological attitudes directed at women and immigrants.

Pence is a lame brain, who will restore serenity to the ruling classes.  Trump goes wherever his bloated ego leads him, and whichever way he thinks will best serve his brand.

He can’t get much done, however; this has been demonstrated time and again over the past eight months.

But Pence can.  Because he isn’t scary, and because the country will breathe a sigh of relief once Trump is gone, he will have a field day, at least for a long enough span of time to do grave and irreparable harm.

I would therefore say that, but for the bomb, it would be better to have Trump in place and hamstrung than to have Pence calling the shots.   Needless to say, that is one colossal “but for…”

But inasmuch as ours is such a poor approximation of a real democracy, it hardly matters what I or anyone else, outside a small circle of “donors” and political operatives, think.  It doesn’t even matter what Robert Mueller and his investigators discover.  All that matters is what the GOP’s grandees do about it.

What a prospect!  And to make matters worse, elections are again gearing up. Soon they will be sucking up all the oxygen in the room.

Unless “we, the people” break down the encumbrances that have for so long kept democratic rule at bay, we are about to go from extremely bad to even worse.

We are not in a position at this point to deal with the structural and institutional encumbrances; for that, we need to embark on a protracted struggle to build a twenty-first century version of the currently defunct historical Left.

But the problems posed by more contingent factors are more immediately tractable.  High on the list of those is the Democratic Party itself – in its present, Clintonized form.

The actually existing Democratic Party, enfeebled as it is, still commands powerful resources – in corporate media above all.  This makes it hard for people even to see what the problems with that wretched party are.

But before the same old same old gets too far ensconced in the months ahead, dealing with those problems is or ought to be as high a priority, or nearly so, as dealing with Republicans, and with Trump and Pence.

More articles by:Andrew Levine

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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