In his book, The Politics, Aristotle expressed a famous claim that political science textbooks have been quoting for generations: man is by nature a political animal. Less appreciated has been Aristotle’s follow-up assertion that “man is the only animal that nature has endowed with the gift of speech, [which gift] is intended to set forth the advantageous and disadvantageous, the just and the unjust.”
With these claims Aristotle is reminding us that speech counts for a lot in politics. One need only consider how the language of politics in the post-New Deal, post-Great Society U.S. shifted so that it became a matter of course for millions of modest income Americans to vote for politicians who promised to cut, eliminate, or privatize government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that have kept so many vulnerable Americans from going under. Foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation provided financial support for scholars and pundits willing to make the libertarian argument for an every-man-for-himself society for which, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address, government is the problem, not the solution.
Funded by wealthy interests and individuals, these foundations and think tanks developed the rhetoric (e.g., “death tax” instead of “estate tax”) and ideas (e.g., cutting taxes increases government revenues) that would be picked up and propagated by conservative politicians across the country. Reagan himself, who began his national political career on the pundit side of conservative politics as a paid spokesman of General Electric giving speeches at GE plants across the country, paid homage to the decades-long conservative struggle to change the political conversation when he said, “The American Enterprise Institute stands at the center of a revolution of ideas of which I too have been a part…”
While it is too early confidently to guess which of the democratic contenders for the presidential nomination will face off against Trump, it is not too early to appreciate how much the speech of a certain senator from Vermont has changed the national conversation. Every time Bernie Sanders appears in public and speaks, whether at a televised debate, on a union picket line, on the stump in Iowa or New Hampshire, or on a college campus, his words serve to enlarge and invigorate the space of political discourse in this country. His relentlessly on-message campaign in 2016 for a $15-dollar-minimum (“living”) wage, Medicare-for-All, tuition-free public colleges and universities, highlighting global warming as an existential threat, a political revolution against a corrupt system, had discernible impacts in local, state and national races in 2018. Consider as well the leftward policy positioning of several of his fellow candidates for the 2020 nomination; their language and positions often echo those of Sanders.
And while it is also too early to tell whether his recent speech at George Washington University successfully immunized the word, socialism, from the taboo status it has labored under in American political culture since at least the post-World War One Red Scare, Bernie Sanders’ evocation of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” and his enlargement of the notion of being free to encompass having adequate health insurance, for example, or having access to a college education without sinking into paralyzing debt continues his crucial efforts to change the language of U.S. politics.
In helping to reshape the language of American politics, Bernie Sanders may go down in U.S. history as the presidential candidate who did not need to win to get his most important work done.
M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.
I watched the two Democratic debates this week. Media outlets treat them as a horse race, announcing winners and losers. So perhaps you heard Kamala Harris scored big-time against Joe Biden. Or perhaps you heard Elizabeth Warren did well, or that Tulsi Gabbard generated lots of post-debate interest (Google searches and the like). I will say that Beto O’Rourke was clearly unprepared (or over-prepared) and unable to speak clearly and meaningfully, so count him as a “loser.”
All that said, the clear winner wasn’t on the stage; it wasn’t even among the 20 debate participants. The name of that clear winner: America’s military-industrial complex and its perpetual wars.
Sure, there was some criticism of the Afghan and Iraq wars, especially by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard. But there was no criticism of enormous “defense” budgets ($750 billion and rising, with true outlays exceeding a trillion a year), and virtually no mention of Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen. (Tulsi briefly mentioned the Saudis and was shut down; Bernie mentioned the war in Yemen and was ignored.)
The only direct mention of the military-industrial complex that I recall hearing was by Bernie Sanders. Otherwise, the tacit assumption was that soaring defense budgets are appropriate and, at least in these debates, unassailable.
Bernie and Tulsi also mentioned the threat of nuclear war, with Bernie making a passing reference to the estimated cost of nuclear forces modernization (possibly as high as $1.7 trillion). Again, he had no time to follow up on this point.
NBC’s talking heads asked the questions, so blame them in part for no questions on the MI Complex and the enormous costs of building world-ending nuclear weapons. Indeed, the talking heads were much more concerned with “gotcha” questions against Bernie, which attempted to paint him as a tax-and-spend socialist who doesn’t care about diversity. Yes, that really was NBC’s agenda.
Always, Democrats are asked, “How will you pay for that?” You know: “extravagances” like more affordable education, better health care, a tax cut that helps workers, or investments in job training programs and infrastructure. But when it comes to wars and weapons, there are never any questions about money. The sky’s the limit.
A reminder to Democrats: Donald Trump won in 2016 in part because he was willing to denounce America’s wasteful wars and to challenge defense spending (even though he’s done nothing as president to back up his campaign critique). We need true Peace Democrats with spine, so I remain bullish on candidates like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard.
Hopefully, in future debates Bernie, Tulsi, and others will call for major reforms of our military and major cuts to our bloated Pentagon budget. But don’t count on that issue being raised by the mainstream media’s talking heads.
Bonus Winner: I can’t recall a single mention of Israel and the Palestinians, not even in the context of framing a peace plan. No mention of America’s role in Venezuela either. The imperial and aggressive neo-con agenda on foreign policy went almost unchallenged, but kudos to Tulsi Gabbard for calling out the “chickenhawks” (her word, and the right one) in the Trump administration.
It’s amazing how often America’s politicians dismiss proposals that would benefit workers as “too expensive” (such as a higher minimum wage, or more affordable college education, or single-payer health care) versus how much they’re willing to approve for new weapons and wars. With little debate, this year’s “defense” budget will be roughly $750 billion, although the real number exceeds a trillion dollars, as Bill Hartung notes here for TomDispatch. Meanwhile, spending on education, infrastructure improvements, and so on withers.
It’s almost as if the impoverishment of America’s workers is deliberate (some would say it is). Four decades ago, I remember reading Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution” in AP Modern European History. Brinton noted how rising expectations among the lower orders can lead to revolutionary fervor. But if you keep people down, keep them busy working two or three jobs, keep them distracted with “circuses” like unending sports coverage and Trump’s every twitch and tweet, you can control them.
Thus the establishment sees a true populist politician like Bernie Sanders as the real enemy. Bernie raises hopes; he wants to help workers; but that’s not the point of the American system. So, Bernie must be dismissed as “crazy,” or marginalized as a dangerous socialist, even though he’s just an old-fashioned New Dealer who wants government to work for the people.
Related to keeping people under control (by keeping them divided, distracted, and downtrodden) is to keep them fearful. A foreign bogeyman is always helpful here, hence the demonization of Vladimir Putin. An old friend of mine sent me an article this past weekend about Putin’s strategy in reviving Russia. I confess I don’t follow Russia and Putin that closely. But it strikes me that Putin has played a weak hand well, whereas U.S. leaders have played a strong hand poorly.
In the article I noted the following quote by Putin:
[we] need to build our home and make it strong and well protected … The wolf knows how to eat … and is not about to listen to anyone … How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests come to the fore.
Putin’s words are from a decade ago, when the U.S. still talked about fighting for “human rights and democracy.” Under Trump, “one’s own interests” are naked again in U.S. foreign policy under men like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Is this progress?
Overall, Russia has learned (or been forced) to limit its foreign burdens, whereas the U.S. is continuing to expand its “global reach.” Russia learned from the Cold War and is spending far less on its military, whereas the U.S. continues to spend more and more. It’s ironic indeed if Russia is the country cashing in on its peace dividend, even as the U.S. still seems to believe that peace is impossible and that war pays.
I wonder if Russia (joined by China) spends just enough on its military to present a threat to the U.S. for those who are so eager to see and exaggerate it. For example, China builds an aircraft carrier, or Russia builds a nuclear cruise missile, not because they’re planning unprovoked attacks against the U.S., but as a stimulus to America’s military-industrial complex. Because America’s reaction is always eminently predictable. The national security state seizes on any move by China or Russia as dangerous, destabilizing, and as justification for yet more military spending. The result is a hollowing out of the U.S. (poorer education, fewer factories, weaker economy, collapsing infrastructure), even as China and Russia grow comparatively stronger by spending more money in non-military sectors.
There are complicated forces at work here. Of course, Ike’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is always involved. But there’s also a weird addiction to militarism and violence in the USA. War, gun violence, and other forms of killing have become the background noise to our lives, so much so that we barely perceive the latest mass killing, or the latest overseas bombing gone wrong. (I’d also add here the violence we’re doing to our environment, our earth, our true “homeland.”)
I mentioned violence to my old friend, and he sent me this note:
On violence and American cultural DNA one place to start is Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation… The gist of what I have gotten about Slotkin’s thesis is that America’s frontier past trained settlers to think of violence (against natives and against each other) as forms of rebirth both for the individual and for the community.
My friend’s comment about violence and rebirth made me think of the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the infamous scene of the KKK riding to the rescue. We in America have this notion that, in one form or another, a heavily armed cavalry will ride to the rescue and save us (from savage Indians, violent immigrants, etc.). In a strange way, Trump’s campaign tapped this notion of rebirth through violence. Think of his threats against immigrants – and his promises to build a wall to keep them out – and his threats to torture terrorists and even to kill their families.
Trump tapped a rich seam of redemption through violence in the USA, this yearning for some sort of violent apocalypse followed by a “second coming,” notably in conservative evangelical circles. For when you look at “end times” scenarios in evangelical settings, peaceful bliss is not the focus. Suffering of the unredeemed is what it’s all about. Christ is not bringing peace but a sword to smite all the evildoers.
For people who suffer toil and trouble daily, such apocalyptic visions are a powerful distraction and may serve as a potent reactionary tonic. Why fight for Bernie’s political revolution when Christ’s return is imminent?
That’s enough musing for one Monday morning. Readers, what say you?
A good friend of mine, a Kiwi, sent me an update on Jacinda Ardern’s priorities for action in New Zealand. It’s known there as a “Wellbeing Budget.”
* Creating opportunities for productive businesses, regions, iwi and others to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.
* Supporting a thriving nation in the digital age through innovation, social and economic opportunities.
* Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing, including addressing family violence.
* Supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders, with a special focus on under 24-year-olds.
* Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities.
I know: New Zealand is a small country on the other side of the world; a superpower like the United States has nothing to learn from Kiwis, right?
What struck me about these priorities is, well, that New Zealand has some. That they’re clear and concise and focused on well-being for children and teenagers and families. That they address poverty. And that climate change isn’t forgotten (“sustainable” and “low-emissions” economy).
What about America’s great leader, Donald Trump? What are his priorities for national well-being? Near as I can tell, these are Trump’s priorities:
1. Enriching himself and his family.
2. Avoiding impeachment, or exploiting it if he is impeached.
3. Getting reelected.
4. More golf.
5. Screwing anyone who resists him.
What about issues like “build the wall”? I don’t think Trump cares whether the wall is built; it’s merely a convenient issue to exploit as he rallies his base. What about ending access to abortion? Again, I don’t think Trump cares about this issue, except as it energizes a key component of his base. What about appointing lots of conservative justices and judges? Again, Trump cares only in the sense that such judges and justices will rule in a way that upholds his privileges.
My Kiwi friend’s list got me to reflect on the lack of consensus for action in the USA today among our “leaders”/politicians. (Well, there is bipartisan support for enormous military budgets, but that’s about it.) Put differently, most Americans express support for single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the richest Americans, climate-friendly policies, and so on, but our bought-and-paid-for politicians act against the people’s wishes.
Various power brokers may laugh at Trump’s vanities and object to his vulgarity and his selfishness and greed, but they also abet him because he serves to divide people while protecting elite privileges against reformers like Bernie Sanders.
I know one thing: the answer isn’t Joe Biden or any other DNC-approved candidate. The answer is a movement that unites behind a candidate that actually cares for people like us, someone like Bernie Sanders. Short of that, well-being will be in very short supply in America’s future.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned Americans about the military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in 1961. He had wanted to add Congress as a key player in and contributor to the Complex, but why alienate Congress, he decided, when he was already taking on the military, industry, and universities/research labs. Ike did his best to rein in the Complex while he was president, but since then it has galloped freely under the not-so-steady hands of subsequent presidents.
Recently, I re-read a diatribe about the Complex that appeared a decade after Ike’s farewell speech. “Playing Soldier” is its title, written by Frank Getlein, a journalist for the Washington Star (1961-76). His critique, sadly, is even more relevant today than it was in 1971.
Here are six insights from Getlein:
Military veterans, Getlein suggests, are not “pushovers for the panic approach from the Pentagon” because “They have seen it all from the inside. They know that the military machine is a fraud, that the military mind is deliberately deluded most of the time, that the military capacity for incompetence is infinite. They know all these things and they have suffered because of them.”
Getlein says America’s wars are “Like the amoeba, they go on forever because they have no form.” To illustrate this argument, he tackles the war of his day, Vietnam:
“Like soap opera, the Vietnam war is endless and hard to follow … Characters come and go, like joint chiefs moving in from the field and out to retirement, or like commanders in chief, for that matter, explaining that their only desire is to get our boys back but we have to keep our boys over there in order to protect our boys who are over there. It’s the same language, the same incredibly circular reasoning that follows doomed heroines every day from career triumphs to mysterious ailments to adulterous temptations. There is no more reason to imagine the war in Indochina will end than ‘Edge of Night’ or ‘The Secret Storm’ will end. All three have within them the seeds of immortality.”
Noting America’s linguistic turn to deny wars, referring to them instead as “police actions” (Korea), “advisory services” (Vietnam), and “incursions” (Cambodia), Getlein notes “We have thus eliminated wars completely except for the people who have to fight them and the people who have to suffer them being fought across their fields, through their villages, and over their dead bodies.”
Getlein notes the emergence of a national security state as a fourth branch of government, one characterized by a hidebound bureaucracy that wages war ineffectively due to its inherent inflexibility, but one that is also deeply socialistic. Indeed, he cites “the biggest triumph of Creeping Socialism yet [is] its all but complete takeover of military procurement.” The national security state represents a “vast” system of “socialist disbursement of federal funds,” all in the nebulous cause of “defense” rather than for the older, more focused, cause of war. From this rigged socialistic process, predictable results ensue, including “shoddy” quality of materiel and “amazing escalation” in costs.
Worst of all, according to Getlein, is that “The purposes of the state have been subsumed in the purposes of the military establishment.” While the military is supposed to exist to defend the state, defending the military and its power and prerogatives has become the new priority, synonymous with the health of the state in a process that is antithetical to democracy.
In an amusing passage, Getlein suggests America has “become a military state out of the sheer [selective] incompetence of the military”:
“They [the generals] come before us … and confess, more or less annually, that the problems they are paid to handle are beyond their handling and therefore they need more of everything: more men, more rank, more science, more research, more think tankers, more paper condottiere, and, always and everywhere, more money. Like some hopeless, drunken uncle, they seduce us by their inability to make anything work and come around every year to pick up the handout and blackmail us into raising the ante. The American soul has always been a soft touch for a hard luck story, but surely this is the first time … when the panhandler, down on his luck, was invited in to run the show.”
“War may be hell, but peace is no bargain either, from the point of view of a military man,” Getlein wittily notes. The solution is “Permawar,” or permanent war, of which Vietnam was an early example. Whereas many Americans saw Vietnam as an “utter failure,” it was a telling success for the military-industrial complex, Getlein argues, given its vast expenditures and long duration for what was advertised initially as a “brush-fire war.” “Future possibilities of Permawar exist,” Getlein notes, “in the Middle East, in Africa, and, most of all at the moment, in Latin America.” (He mentions Chile; today we’d say Venezuela. And who can ignore the Trump administration’s saber-rattling with Iran and across the Middle East today?)
Even without actual shooting wars, however, Getlein notes how Permawar will continue “without respite or truce in the think tanks, the executive offices and the congressional hearing rooms. The real Permawar is the one of ever-new, more elaborate, more lethal, more expensive, more absolutely essential, weapons systems.”
The result of militarized socialism, socialized militarism, and Permawar? “Our country has become a military dictatorship in its own peculiar American way.” Frank Getlein wrote that sentence toward the end of the Vietnam war. What he said back then is even more accurate today.
Addendum 1: From the Kirkus Review of Getlein’s “Playing Soldier” in 1971:
An entertaining blitzkrieg on creeping or galloping militarism in America. According to journalist-commentator Getlein it began after World War II when the “cheery and modest, honest and limited” War Department was rebaptized the Defense Department thereby acquiring “a permanent all-season hunting license with no place out of bounds.” The inventive Americans outdid themselves acquiring a “nonprofit empire” just as the colony biz was becoming obsolete. Learn how Vietnam is a spectacular success as a “permawar” designed not to work. Meet the paper condottieri, the “contemplative military” (Kahn and Kissinger) who subsist on hypotheses. (“What if the Russians or the Chinese . . . come up with the incredible new weapon of knocking off edges of the moon and so timing the knockoffs that the eastern half of the United States can be thickly covered with moondust?”) Getlein is here to show you how the Pentagon has ‘gone Red’ via non-competitive, no-bidding contract letting under the insufficiently vigilant nose of Reverend Carl MacIntyre, yet. But don’t be fooled by the author’s avowal that Vietnam is “not moral tragedy but slapstick farce.” His true mentors are C. Wright Mills and George Orwell and the caricature, through a glass darkly, of a hardening “crypto-military dictatorship,” is razor-edged.
Addendum 2: A Recent Description of the Pentagon and the Complex (MIC)
“The Pentagon Syndrome,” Harper’s, May 15, 2019 (“The Military-Industrial Virus:
How bloated defense budgets gut our armed forces,” by Andrew Cockburn)
“This entire process, whereby spending growth slows and is then seemingly automatically regenerated, raises an intriguing possibility: that our military-industrial complex has become, in [Chuck] Spinney’s words, a “living organic system” with a built-in self-defense reflex that reacts forcefully whenever a threat to its food supply—our money—hits a particular trigger point. The implications are profound, suggesting that the MIC is embedded in our society to such a degree that it cannot be dislodged, and also that it could be said to be concerned, exclusively, with self-preservation and expansion, like a giant, malignant virus.”
Addendum 3: Every Democratic Senator Supported Trump’s Vast Military Budget in 2018
Senators voted 93-7 for the Pentagon’s $674 billion spending bill in 2018. The seven Senators who voted against: six Republicans and Bernie Sanders (Independent). Military dictatorship is bipartisan in America.
Now that Joe Biden is officially in the race, the dream Democratic ticket has emerged: Biden and Kamala Harris.
By “dream,” I don’t mean the Progressive dream. I don’t mean the dream of working-class voters who are hurting. I don’t mean the dream of Americans who are tired of never-ending wars that enfeeble our economy (and kill lots of people, mainly foreigners). Those “dream” candidates are true Progressives like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard. A Sanders/Gabbard ticket would truly shake things up, which is why it’s not going to happen, as much as I’d like to see it.
No — the corporate-loving DNC wants to preserve the status quo, wants to feed the military-industrial complex, wants big funding from Wall Street, and therefore favors status quo candidates like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
A likely scenario in 2020: Bernie Sanders wins the most votes and delegates, but Joe Biden emerges as a close second. With all the other candidates (roughly 20 now) splitting the vote, no candidate has enough delegates to win in the first round at the national convention. So the super-delegates (remember them?), the corporate tools, spring into action in the second and subsequent rounds of voting and throw their support to the “sensible, electable” candidate, in this case Biden. But of course they can’t let an old white guy represent the “new” Democratic Party, and that’s where Kamala Harris comes in. She’s black! And a woman! And makes noises that sound slightly progressive. The perfect balanced ticket! Shut up and color, liberals and Progressives.
Of course, if gaffe-prone Biden implodes, a distinct possibility, there are other safe white guys waiting in the wings to headline the ticket. Mayor Pete? Beto O’Rourke?
It’s all so sadly predictable. And so too is Biden’s loss to Trump in 2020.
P.S. To state the obvious, I hope I’m wrong about this.
Give me five minutes, and I can tell you exactly what Bernie Sanders believes in. Single-payer health care for all. A $15 minimum wage. Higher taxes on the richest Americans. College education that doesn’t bankrupt families and leave students with crushing debt. Criminal justice reform. Investment in infrastructure and renewable energy. He gives specifics, and he’s walked a principled walk for decades.
But what does the Democratic Partly leadership believe in? As this article at Truthdig put it, “Nancy Pelosi Believes In Nothing.” Of course, she does believe in something: her own power and privilege, which she seeks to maintain and expand. But principles like those held by Bernie Sanders? Forget about it.
I’ve been reading Matt Taibbi’s “The Great Derangement,” a terrific book that came out in 2008, and Taibbi nails it in this passage (pages 243-4):
The Democrats’ error was in believing that people wouldn’t notice this basic truth [that the party’s ideology is driven by power and nothing more] about their priorities. They were wrong on that score. In fact, a Quinnipiac poll taken around that time  found the approval rating of Congress had fallen to 23 percent. Other polls saw the number plummet to the teens. The rating of the Democratic Congress was even lower than [George W.] Bush’s, and it was not hard to see why. Bush was wrong and insane, but he stood for something. It was a fucked-up something, but it was something. The Democrats stood for nothing; they viewed their own constituents as problems to be handled, and even casual voters were beginning to see this.
If you substitute Trump’s name for Bush’s in the above quotation, it makes even more sense. “[Trump] was wrong and insane, but he stood for something. It was a fucked-up something, but it was something.”
This is the biggest issue for corporate Democrats: What do you stand for? For so many in the establishment, what they stand for is themselves. The perpetuation of their own power and privilege. This is the biggest reason why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. It was always all about her.
Another quotation from Matt Taibbi made me laugh out loud even as I winced at the harsh truth of it (page 190):
You don’t elect politicians to commit crimes; you elect politicians to make your crimes legal. That is the whole purpose of the racket of government.
In this case, the “you” in question are all the banks, corporations, and other vested interests that essentially buy our politicians. Until we get big money out of politics, this corruption will persist.
Bernie Sanders doesn’t take corporate money. Neither does Tulsi Gabbard. But most of the current batch of Democratic candidates for president in 2020 do take money from big corporate and financial donors. And that should tell you what they believe in: their own power and privilege, and little else.
Speaking of Bernie Sanders, I recently read a depressing article in the Nation by Eric Alterman who argued Bernie can’t win in 2020. Why? Supposedly because Americans won’t elect a socialist, and also because Trump and the Republican attack machine will convince Americans he’s simply too radical.
WTF? Americans are desperate for leaders who believe in something rather than nothing. That’s why Trump won in 2016. Again, in the spirit of Taibbi, Trump may be batshit crazy, but he does take a stand, e.g. “Build the wall.” The best way to defeat Trump in 2020 is to go bold: to nominate a candidate with strong core beliefs. A candidate who connects with young and old and who inspires enthusiastic participation. That’s Bernie.
But perhaps Jimmy Dore, the comedian/political commentator, is right: establishment Democrats like Pelosi would rather defeat Progressives like Bernie Sanders than win the presidential election against Trump in 2020. Because if Trump wins, they can continue to serve (and profit from) corporate interests while posing as being anti-Trump, i.e. they can continue life as they know it, with all the power and privilege that comes with it.
As my wife quipped today, “They don’t let their beliefs get in their way, do they?” Which is another way of saying they really have no beliefs at all.