The Depressing Reality of America’s Political Scene

W.J. Astore

America’s Democratic Party, as it stands today, is essentially a pro-business and pro-war party. On the political spectrum, it’s a center-right party, roughly equivalent to the Republican Party of the 1970s but probably more conservative. Joe Biden, for example, is against Medicare for All, and he’s abandoned all talk of a single-payer option. He’s refused to fight for a $15 federal minimum wage. He’s most likely extending the war in Afghanistan well past the troop pullout date of May 1st as negotiated by the Trump administration. He’s keeping military spending high and is pursuing a hardline foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and China.

America’s Republican Party has become the party of Trump. It’s unapologetically far-right, evangelical, anti-immigrant, and openly contemptuous of Democratic calls for “diversity.” Like the Democratic Party, it’s militaristic, pro-business, and pro-war, but is even more in favor of blank checks for Wall Street and the major banks and corporations. Its strategy for future victories focuses on suppression of minority voters through various laws and restrictions (voter ID laws, closing polling places, restricting mail-in and early voting, and so on). The Republican Party’s version of “cancel culture” is canceling as much of the vote by minorities as it can.

You’ll notice what’s missing: any major political party that’s center-left or left; any party that has any allegiance to workers, i.e. most of America. There are new parties being created, like the People’s Party, that promise to fill a gaping hole on the left, but it may take decades before a new party can seriously challenge America’s two main parties.

What’s truly depressing is that the mainstream media, along with the Republicans, sell and support a narrative that the Democrats are radical leftists. That such a laughably false narrative is embraced by America’s talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the other major networks highlights their complicity in ensuring the triumph of business and war imperatives in America.

What this means for elections in 2022 and 2024 was brought home to me by Richard Dougherty’s book, “Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall” published in 1973.  Dougherty nailed it back then when he talked about the baneful influence of the Republican Party as led by Richard Nixon and its reaction to attempts at real reform by George McGovern.  Here’s an excerpt:

“McGovern saw something new emerging in American politics and saw that it was ugly and frightening not only because of its burglars and saboteurs, its insensitivity to the delicate mechanisms of freedom, but for its profound deceptions of a troubled people which, if successful, would reduce and debase them as a people.  Nixon offered no improvement in the life of the people but only empty and ersatz satisfactions to their angers and bewilderments.  It cost the rich Nixonian oligarchs nothing, yet it gratified the lumpenbourgeoisie to tell the poor to go out and get jobs, the black children to stay off the buses, the young draft evaders to stay out of the country, to make noises about permissive judges rather than hire more policeman.

Let ‘em eat revenge.

That was the gimmick.  Was not this sleaziness, this moral midgetry, this menace to the American character, proper stuff for a presidential candidate [like McGovern] to raise as an issue?” (246-7)

If only …

I thought this passage captured what we’re likely to see in the next four years: more sleaziness, more deceptions, more divisiveness, even as the plight of ordinary Americans worsens.

But it’s worse now than in 1973 because the oligarchs now own both parties, the Democratic as well as the Republican.

The challenge for us all is to look past the sleaze, the deceptions, the divisiveness and to focus on bettering the plight of ordinary Americans.  To free ourselves from the oligarchs and the narrative control they exercise via the major media networks.  To recapture the reformist spirit of the 1960s and early 1970s as embodied by a leader like George McGovern.

Much hinges on whether America can do this.

Cutting the War Budget

We need McGovern-size cuts to America’s bloated war budget

W.J. Astore

This week, Congress will attempt to override President Trump’s veto of the NDAA, the national defense authorization act, which in 2021 provides $740 billion to the Pentagon and its wars. As usual, there is strong bipartisan support for this massive war budget. Democrats will join Republicans in bowing and scraping before the military-industrial complex, even as they frame it in terms of “supporting” the troops and defending America. In short, Trump’s veto will not stand.

I’m so fed up with Democrats serving the war party, denying health care to all Americans, and so on that I finally changed my political party designation in my home state. I am now a no-party independent instead of a registered Democrat. (My wife joined me as she’s no fan of “handsy” Joe Biden and the refusal of “centrist” Democrats to help people in meaningful ways.)

Perhaps that’s what we all need to do. Reject the Republican and Democratic parties and fight for a political establishment that would put people first rather than billionaires and corporations. Short of revolution, I don’t see other options that promise meaningful change.

To my knowledge, the last major party presidential candidate who called for meaningful reductions in war spending was George McGovern. For example, McGovern called for a defense budget in 1975 of $54.8 billion, roughly $32 billion less than what the Nixon administration had proposed. McGovern, of course, had to couch this in terms of America still being a superpower with a nuclear arsenal that would be second to none, but at least he had the courage to talk of peace and of new approaches to foreign policy that would put diplomacy first instead of weaponry and war. What a loser he was, right?

If we applied a McGovern-size cut to today’s NDAA, we’d be talking about a “defense” budget of roughly $470 billion a year, still plenty of money, one would think, for the Pentagon to defend America. The $270 billion in savings could and should be applied to stimulus checks for Americans desperate for help in these Covid-disturbed times.

Imagine Americans getting a check from the government — a rebate of sorts — as a peace dividend! What would Americans rather have: a bunch of expensive F-35 jet fighters; ultra-expensive newer nuclear weapons on top of the ultra-expensive older ones; or some cash in pocket to buy groceries and pay their rent? I don’t know about you, but more F-35s and more nuclear bombers and missiles are not helping my bottom line.

To return to my changed political party affiliation: When a Democratic president-elect nominates a retired general and board member of Raytheon as the best person to exercise civilian oversight over the Pentagon, you know the Democratic party is a toady to the military-industrial complex and devoid of integrity as well as fresh ideas.

War? What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Time for some peace dividends, America.

McGovern versus Nixon: Another Perspective

W.J. Astore

A loser in 1972 but a winner in life

In the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon destroyed George McGovern. McGovern won only one state, and it wasn’t even his home state. Of course, Nixon soon experienced his own destruction with Watergate, but the fact remains that McGovern and the Liberal/Left wing of the Democratic party never fully recovered from their drubbing in 1972.

And what a shame that was for America. I’ve been reading “The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party,” by Bruce Miroff, and the more I read, the more impressed I am by McGovern’s principled stance against the Vietnam War, and war in general.

Miroff cites a Senate speech McGovern made in September of 1970 that deeply impressed me. McGovern didn’t mince words as he called his fellow senators to account for their complicity in approving and continuing war in Southeast Asia:

Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval [hospitals] and all across our land–young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces, or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor, or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war, those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.

Blunt and powerful words! How refreshing they are compared to the weasel words that come from Congress today. Unsurprisingly, McGovern’s principled stance against the war, and his gutsy call for the Congress to do something to stop it, were unpopular among his fellow senators. He didn’t care about them. He cared about saving lives and ending war.

Now, what was Nixon up to? He’d hoped he’d be running against McGovern, expecting he’d be vulnerable to dirty tricks. Reading Miroff, I discovered that Nixon, among other dirty tricks, actually discussed planting McGovern campaign material in the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the man who’d tried to assassinate George Wallace in May of 1972. Nixon’s scheme was only abandoned when it was learned the FBI had already sealed Bremer’s apartment.

Think of Nixon’s scheme here. He was already well ahead of McGovern in the polls, his reelection a near-certainty, yet Nixon would stop at nothing to tear McGovern down. It was such dirty tricks, of course, that would lead to Nixon’s downfall with Watergate.

History shows that Nixon won the election of 1972, but McGovern was the real winner in life. Nixon continued to prosecute a war with devastating consequences; McGovern fought to stop it. Nixon ran a dishonorable campaign; McGovern a hopeful one, an idealistic one, one that called on Americans to live up to their rhetoric of freedom and self-determination and charity.

Who was the “winner” again?

Black and Blue in America

I started writing for TomDispatch.com in 2007. I really thought I had one article to write, focusing on the disastrous Iraq War and the way in which the Bush/Cheney administration was hiding its worst results behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus. Here we are, in 2020, and my latest article is my 75th contribution to the site, which truly amazes me. Special thanks to Tom Engelhardt for publishing my first piece back in 2007 and for setting a stellar example of what alternative freethinking media can be.

We Could Use A Leader Like George McGovern Again
By William J. Astore

As I lived through the nightmare of the election campaign just past, I often found myself dreaming of another American world entirely. Anything but this one.

In that spirit, I also found myself looking at a photo of my fourth-grade class, vintage 1972. Tacked to the wall behind our heads was a collage, a tapestry of sorts that I could make out fairly clearly. It evoked the promise and the chaos of a turbulent year so long ago. The promise lay in a segment that read “peace” and included a green ecology flag, a black baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, who had died that year), and a clenched fist inside the outline of the symbol for female (standing in for the new feminism of that moment and the push for equal rights for women).

Representing the chaos of that era were images of B-52s dropping bombs in Vietnam (a war that was still ongoing) and a demonstration for racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace (probably because he had been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt that May). A rocket labeled “USA” reminded me that this country was then still launching triumphant Apollo missions to the moon.

How far we’ve come in not quite half a century! In 2020, “peace” isn’t even a word in the American political dictionary; despite Greta Thunberg, a growing climate-change movement, and Joe Biden’s two-trillion-dollar climate plan, ecology was largely a foreign concept in the election just past as both political parties embraced fracking and fossil fuels (even if Biden’s embrace was less tight); Major League Baseball has actually suffered a decline in African-American players in recent years; and the quest for women’s equality remains distinctly unfulfilled.

Bombing continues, of course, though those bombs and missiles are now aimed mostly at various Islamist insurgencies rather than communist ones, and it’s often done by drones, not B-52s, although those venerable planes are still used to threaten Moscow and Beijing with nuclear carnage. George Wallace has, of course, been replaced by Donald Trump, a racist who turned President Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of my grade school years into a national presidential victory in 2016 and who, as president, regularly nodded in the direction ofwhite supremacists.

Progress, anyone? Indeed, that class photo of mine even featured the flag of China, a reminder that Nixon had broken new ground that very year by traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and de-escalate the Cold War tensions of the era. Nowadays, Americans only hear that China is a military and economic threat; that Joe Biden and some Democrats are allegedly far too China-friendly (they aren’t); and that Covid-19 (aka the “Wuhan Flu” or “Kung Flu”) was — at least to Donald Trump and his followers — a plague sent by the Chinese to kill us.

Another symbol from that tapestry, a chess piece, reminded me that in 1972 we witnessed the famous Cold War meeting between the youthful, brilliant, if mercurial Bobby Fischer and Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in a match that evoked all the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War. Inspired by Fischer, I started playing the game myself and became a card-carrying member of the U.S. Chess Federation until I realized my talent was limited indeed.

The year 1972 ended with Republican Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over Democratic Senator George McGovern, who carried only my home state of Massachusetts. After Nixon’s landslide victory, I remember bumper stickers that said: “Don’t blame me for Nixon, I’m from Massachusetts.”

Eighteen years later, in 1990, I would briefly meet the former senator. He was attending a history symposium on the Vietnam War at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, as a young Air Force captain, I chased down a book for him in the Academy’s library. I don’t think I knew then of McGovern’s stellar combat record in World War II. A skilled pilot, he had flown 35 combat missions in a B-24 bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for, at one point, successfully landing a plane heavily damaged by enemy fire and saving his crew. Nixon, who had served in the Navy during that war, never saw combat. But he did see lots of time at the poker table, winning a tidy sum of money, which he would funnel into his first political campaign.

Like so many combat veterans of the “greatest generation,” McGovern never bragged about his wartime exploits. Over the years, however, that sensible, honorable, courageous American patriot became far too strongly associated with peace, love, and understanding. A staunch defender of civil rights, a believer in progressive government, a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, he would find himself smeared by Republicans as weak, almost cowardly, on military matters and an anti-capitalist (the rough equivalent today of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders).

Apparently, this country couldn’t then and still can’t accept any major-party candidate who doesn’t believe in a colossal military establishment and a government that serves business and industry first and foremost or else our choice in 2020 wouldn’t have been Trump-Pence versus Biden-Harris.

Channeling Lloyd Bentsen

As I began writing this piece in late October, I didn’t yet know that Joe Biden would indeed win the most embattled election of our lifetime. What I did know was that the country that once produced (and then rejected) thoughtful patriots like George McGovern was in serious decline. Most Americans desperately want change, so the pollsters tell us, whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or socialists. Both election campaigns, however, essentially promised us little but their own versions of the status quo, however bizarre Donald Trump’s may have been.

In truth, Trump didn’t even bother to present a plan for anything, including bringing the pandemic under control. He just promised four more years of Keeping America Trumpish Again with yet another capital gains tax cut thrown in. Biden ran on a revival of Barack Obama’s legacy with the “hope and change” idealism largely left out. Faced with such a choice in an increasingly desperate country, with spiking Covid-19 cases in state after state and hospitals increasingly overwhelmed, too many of us sought relief in opioids or gun purchases, bad habits like fatty foods and lack of exercise, and wanton carelessness with regard to the most obvious pandemic safety measures.

Since the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and especially since September 11, 2001, it’s amazing what Americans have come to accept as normal. Forget about peace, love, and understanding. What we now see on America’s streets aren’t antiwar protesters or even beat cops, but Robocops armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry committing indefensible acts of violence. Extremist “militias” like the Proud Boys are celebrated (by some) as “patriots.” Ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories are taken all too seriously with political candidates on the Republican side of the aisle lining up to endorse them.

Even six-figure death tolls from a raging pandemic were normalized as President Trump barnstormed the country, applauding himself to maskless crowds at super-spreader rallies for keeping Covid-19 deaths under the mythical figure of 2.2 million. Meanwhile, the rest of us found nothing to celebrate in what — in Vietnam terms — could be thought of as a new body count, this time right here in the homeland.

And speaking of potential future body counts, consider again the Proud Boys whom our president in that first presidential debate asked to “stand back and stand by.” Obviously not a militia, they might better be described as a gang. Close your eyes and imagine that all the Proud Boys were black. What would they be called then by those on the right? A menace, to say the least, and probably far worse.

A real militia would, of course, be under local, state, or federal authority with a chain of command and a code of discipline, not just a bunch of alienated guys playing at military dress-up and spoiling for a fight. Yet too many Americans see them through a militarized lens, applauding those “boys” as they wave blue-line pro-police flags and shout “all lives matter.” Whatever flags they may wrap themselves in, they are, in truth, nothing more than nationalist bully boys.

Groups like the Proud Boys are only the most extreme example of the “patriotic” poseurs, parades, and pageantry in the U.S.A. of 2020. And collectively all of it, including our lost and embattled president, add up to a red-white-and-blue distraction (and what a distraction it’s been!) from an essential reality: that America is in serious trouble — and you can take that “America” to mean ordinary people working hard to make a living (or not working at all right now), desperate to maintain roofs over their heads and feed their kids.

It’s a distraction as well from the reality that America hasn’t decisively won a war since the time George McGovern flew all those combat missions in a B-24. It’s a distraction from some ordinary Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake being not just manipulated and exploited, but murdered, hence the need for a Black Lives Matter movement to begin with. It’s a distraction from the fact that we don’t even debate gargantuan national security budgets that now swell annually above a trillion dollars, while no one in a position of power blinks.

Today’s never-ending wars and rumors of more to come remind me that George McGovern was not only against the Vietnam conflict, but the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Joe Biden, meanwhile, voted for the Iraq War, which Donald Trump also spoke in favor of, then, only to campaign on ending this country’s wars in 2016, even if by 2020 he hadn’t done so — though he had set up a new military service, the Space Force. Feeling the need to sharpen his own pro-war bona fides, Biden recently said he’d raise “defense” spending over and above what even Trump wanted.

If you’ll indulge my fantasy self for a moment, I’d like to channel Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee who, in a debate with his Republican opposite Dan Quayle, dismissed him as “no Jack Kennedy.” In that same spirit, I’d like to say this to both Trump and Biden in the wake of the recent Covid-19 nightmare of a campaign: “I met George McGovern. George McGovern, in a different reality, could have been my friend. You, Joe and Donald, are no George McGovern.”

Prior military service is not essential to being president and commander-in-chief, but whose finger would you rather have on America’s nuclear button: that of Trump, who dodged the draft with heel spurs; Biden, who dodged the draft with asthma; or a leader like McGovern, who served heroically in combat, a leader who was willing to look for peaceful paths because he knew so intimately the blood-spattered ones of war?

A Historical Tapestry for Fourth Graders as 2020 Ends

What about a class photo for fourth graders today? What collage of images would be behind their heads to represent the promise and chaos of our days? Surely, Covid-19 would be represented, perhaps by a mountain of body bags in portable morgues. Surely, a “Blue Lives Matter” flag would be there canceling out a Black Lives Matter flag. Surely, a drone launching Hellfire missiles, perhaps in Somalia or Yemen or some other distant front in America’s endless war of (not on) terror, would make an appearance.

And here are some others: surely, the flag of China, this time representing the growing tensions, not rapprochement, between the two great powers; surely, a Trump super-spreader rally filled with the unmasked expressing what I like to think of as the all-too-American “ideal” of “live free and die”; surely, a vast firenado rising from California and the West, joined perhaps by a hurricane flag to represent another record-breaking year of such storms, especially on the Gulf Coast; surely, some peaceful protesters being maced or tased or assaulted by heavily armed and unidentified federal agents just because they cared about the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.

And I suppose we could add something about sports into that collage, maybe an image of football players in empty stadiums, kneeling as one for racial equality. Look, sports used to unite us across race and class lines, but in his woebegone presidency, Donald Trump, among others, used sports only to divide us. Complex racial relations and legacies have been reduced to slogans, Black Lives Matter versus blue lives matter, but what’s ended up being black and blue is America. We’ve beaten ourselves to a pulp and it’s the fight promoters, Donald Trump above all, who have profited most. If we are to make any racial progress in America, that kind of self-inflicted bludgeoning has to end.

And what would be missing from the 2020 collage that was in my 1972 one? Notably, clear references to peace, ecology, and equal rights for women. Assuming that, on January 20th, Joe Biden really does take his place in the Oval Office, despite the angriest and most vengeful man in the world sitting there now, those three issues would be an ideal place for him to start in his first 100 days as president (along, of course, with creating a genuine plan to curb Covid-19): (1) seek peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere by ending America’s disastrous wars; (2) put the planet first and act to abate climate change and preserve all living things; (3) revive the Equal Rights Amendment and treat women with dignity, respect, and justice.

One final image from my fourth-grade collage: an elephant is shown on top of a somewhat flattened donkey. It was meant, of course, to capture Richard Nixon’s resounding victory over George McGovern in 1972. Yet, even with Joe Biden’s victory last week, can we say with any confidence that the donkey is now on top? Certainly not the one of McGovern’s day, given that Biden has already been talking about austerity at home and even higher military spending.

Sadly, it’s long past time to reclaim American idealism and take a stand for a lot less war and a lot more help for the most vulnerable among us, including the very planet itself. How sad that we don’t have a leader like George McGovern in the White House as a daunting new year looms.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular. His personal blog is Bracing Views.