The president and his party have cooked up the ultimate recipe for keeping political power. A nation in a constant state of anxiety—over the threat of terrorism, or a potential war—is a nation off balance. And that insecurity is the perfect cover to divert public attention from the country’s serious domestic problems and the administration’s political agenda.
The “Bush doctrine” opens the door to a series of pre-emptive wars against “evil” regimes, ostensibly to protect the United States and bring security, stability, safety and democracy to the citizens of Damascus, Tehran and Pyongyang—as the president claims to be doing in Baghdad and Kabul. Meanwhile, the administration shows little or no concern for the security, stability and safety of the citizens of Los Angeles, New York, Cleveland or thousands of other cities and small towns across America, who are facing enormous economic and social difficulties.
Just like in the “The Wizard of Oz,” when we finally get to see who is operating the smoke-puffing machine, we find a consummate pitchman. In Bush’s case, the man behind the screen is a flag-waving, lapel-pin wearing, anti-terrorist fear monger who labels his opponents anti-patriotic. He has done a clever job of manipulating the mass media, but in reality his smooth imagery and charming personality are subtly undermining America’s values. While he composes hymns to individualism, Sunday piety, trickle-down economics and family values, he is trying to gut every program providing for social, economic and environmental justice. America’s families need less pious rhetoric, and more policies geared toward a healthy economy, secure jobs, decent health care, affordable housing, quality public education, renewable energy and a sustainable environment. Bush seems unable—or unwilling—to grasp that the government has an important leadership role in this. In fact, the only policy that Bush seems energized by is one of tax giveaways for the rich and for corporate America.
At present, there is an air of suspended belief over the radical changes of the past two years. That is because the layoffs, shutdowns, cutbacks and reduced paychecks have been obscured by the events of Sept. 11 and the nation’s subsequent focus on terrorist alerts and the Iraq war. But those changes are taking a huge toll. Bush’s economic policy, which in turn determines social policy, is much like the iceberg waiting in the path of a steaming Titanic.
Bush does not seem to understand that, while it is not a sin to be born to privilege, it is a sin to spend your life defending it. John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that. They knew the narrowness privilege can breed. This administration, despite its early pledges to provide a policy of “compassionate conservatism,” has in fact adopted policies that amount to a war against the poor and the middle class. The tax and budget cuts were not made in order to jumpstart the economy or balance the budget; they were simply massive cash transfers. Social programs are being slashed to pay for tax giveaways for the wealthy and new defense contracts for arms makers who just happen to be big campaign contributors. Moreover, this was accomplished in a policy vacuum. The administration has not provided the American people with a strategic vision as to how this excessive and bloated arms build-up fits into our larger defense, anti-terrorist, or foreign policy. Is it in the national interest to relegate our most precious assets—our human and natural resources—to the junk pile while we increase the pace of an arms race where overkill has long been achieved? Do we really need to spend $9 billion on a missile defense system that doesn’t work?
Thomas Jefferson warned us that we could be free or ignorant, but not both. We have not taken that warning to heart. We have not had a serious national debate about the Bush administration’s policies because the mass media have treated politics—as well as economic and social policy—as entertainment: a combination of hype and palliative. The political and economic life of the country has been reduced to little more that a struggle for partisan power, the results not unlike the score of a football game: Bush Wins Again or Senate Dems Beaten. There seems to be no sense of higher good, no question of national purpose, no hope for critical judgment. Hype has impoverished our political debate, undermining the very idea that public discourse can be educational and edifying—or that national public policy can grow out of reflective discussion and shared political values. We have sought simplistic answers to complex problems without even beginning to comprehend our loss.
Which brings us to the difficult and complex issue of the inter-relationship between America’s economic and social policy, and how these policies are shaped by politics in Washington. A fundamental assumption underlies the administration’s domestic approach—an assumption so ill-conceived that it seriously jeopardizes any prospects for solving our nation’s pressing domestic needs. It is the illusion that economic policy can be separated from social policy.
This is impossible, and the consequences of believing it are grave. By separating economic theory from social policy, and by pursuing the former at the expense of the latter, the administration has adopted a strategy of brinkmanship that could lead to social disaster. The drastic cuts being made in basic social and human service programs will exact painful and immediate social and human costs, and they will also appear as direct financial costs—in terms of illiteracy, incarceration and ill-health, among others—at future times in different ledgers.
The administration’s contention that renewed economic growth as a consequence of tax cuts for the rich will eventually “trickle down” to the poor flies in the face of everything we know about poverty today. The best research indicates the opposite. Growth in the private economy has had a declining role in reducing poverty, and virtually all of the reduction in poverty since the mid-1960s has been brought about by the expansion of national social insurance and income-transfer programs of the kind now under attack by the Bush administration.
In addition to the massive tax cuts, the administration proposes to privatize or turn over to the states vast portions of the nation’s social, education, housing and health programs—a move that amounts to reneging on our social and moral commitments as a nation. The real issue is not public versus private or federal versus state; rather, it is the diminution or avoidance of any national standards of responsibility and accountability. Worse than that, Mr. Bush seems to be denying that this responsibility even exists. Successful and effective national programs are being replaced with an inequitable, inconsistent patchwork of systems run by states—a patchwork that is restrictively financed, more bureaucratic, less accountable and subject to intense local, political and fiscal pressures. Instead of the more efficient government that Bush promises, we will have 50 bureaucratic and anachronistic messes: government by provisional catastrophe. The question becomes whether basic human services will be provided at all.
For true conservatives, the ideological implications behind Bush’s economic policies must be disturbing, in that they depart from the genuine conservative philosophies that have played such an important role in American history. Historically, conservatives have not promised lower taxes or economic privatism. Traditionally, conservative leaders have focused on the underlying problems of the human community—issues of leadership, of equality of opportunity, of continuity and order, of the obligations of the strong to the weak, and of the safeguards needed to keep the privileged from abusing their power.
By contrast, the Bush administration encourages us to revert to our basest inclinations: Look out for number one; write off those who can’t make it as shiftless, a drag on the economy. Our moral decline deepens as we condone the sheer political power of special and self-serving private economic interests—wealthy campaign contributors and corporate powers—over the legitimate moral authority that represents our nation’s best public interests. Rather than opportunity, equality, justice and vitality, the Bush prescription for economic stimulus amounts to inequality, economic cronyism and acquiescence. People programs are out and tax avoidance schemes are in. Human needs are made subordinated to political and technical arrogance.
Recently, I took the opportunity to reread Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and the Federalist Papers, and recalled that our founding fathers were well aware that politics and economics were interrelated faces of power, each necessitating its own checks and balances. What impressed me most, though, was their mature leadership, one that was based on a genuine commitment to the struggle for social, political, and environmental justice as well as economic opportunity. A commitment to this sense of public interest is just as important today.
Only those people have a future, and only those people can be called humane and historic, who have an intuitive sense of what is significant in both their national and public institutions, and who value them. It is this conviction and the continuing belief in the common-sense vision of the American promise that demand that we begin a serious national dialogue over our country’s economic and social policies. The Bush administration’s radical and dangerous changes have occurred without any serious national debate. Mr. Bush seems to think that his electoral “mandate,” as suspect as it was, has changed our government from a representative democracy to economic royalism.
The Bush economic policies—and the overtly antisocial political priorities driving them—are not based on a commitment to any high principles such as freedom, liberty, equality, justice or opportunity, although such pieties are mouthed at the swivel of a camera. The administration’s policies instead are based on the very narrow personal prejudices and biases of a group of men who have been motivated by the acquisition of money and power. Bush and Cheney have constructed a hypothesis to fit a simple notion: “The plutocracy is good to me, so I’ll be good to the plutocracy.”
For the past two years I have listened carefully to the president, his chief advisers, and the neo-conservative right. All of it has reminded me of a passage in “The Heart of Darkness.” Joseph Conrad put it this way:
“Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight ... in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world.”
Conrad’s words capture the radical frenzy in Washington; they reflect the mood and the moral nullity of the reactionary enterprise that seeks to tear apart the public good. The Bush administration just doesn’t get it. No country can sustain itself, much less grow, on a fare of smooth one-liners, rerun ideas, hot-house theories, paranoia and official policy pronouncements borrowed from Orwell’s 1984; where recession is recovery, war is peace and a social policy based on aggressive hostility is compassion.