We often hear the USA is the richest, most powerful, most advanced, nation in the world. We also hear much talk about freedom and democracy in America, and how exceptional our country is. Given all these riches, all this power, and all this freedom, shouldn’t we have high expectations about what our government is able to accomplish for us?
Yet I’ve run across the opposite of this. I’ve come to think of it as the tyranny of low expectations. I see it most often when I criticize Joe Biden and the Democrats. I’m told that I expect too much, that Joe is doing his best but that his power is limited as president, and that I should wait patiently for party insiders to move the Biden administration ever so slightly toward the left. And if I keep criticizing Joe and Company, I’m dismissed as an unreasonable leftist who’s helping Trump and his followers, so the effect of my criticism is bizarrely equated to far-right Trumpism.
Here are a few items that I believe the richest, most powerful, most advanced nation in the world should do for its citizens in the cause of greater freedom and democracy:
A living wage of at least $15 an hour for workers.
Affordable single-payer health care for all.
A firm commitment to ending child poverty.
A firm commitment to affordable housing for all.
A firm commitment to affordable education and major reductions in student debt.
A Covid aid package dedicated to helping workers and small businesses.
A government that is transparent to the people and accountable to them rather than one cloaked in secrecy and open for business only to the rich.
These items seem reasonable to me. They don’t seem “left” or “right.” They’re not too much to expect from the richest, most powerful, nation, the one that boasts of its exceptional freedom and its strong commitment to democracy.
The money is there. A trillion dollars a year is spent in the name of national defense. Trillions have been spent to bailout Wall Street and to wage wasteful wars overseas. Why is the money always there for Wall Street and wars and weapons but it’s rarely if ever there for workers and students and children?
Why do we persist in setting our expectations so low for “our” government, whether the POTUS of the moment is Trump or Biden or someone allegedly more competent and focused on “ordinary folk,” like Obama?
Warning to ideological warriors: This is not about Trump, or Biden, or your particular party allegiance. This is about creating a government that actually listens and responds to the needs of everyone, but especially to the weakest among us, those needing the most help in their pursuit of happiness.
Too simplistic? Too idealistic? I don’t think so. Not once we overthrow the tyranny of low expectations.
Somewhere I’ve read about a government of the people, by the people, for the people. We had better find it or reinvigorate it before it perishes from the earth.
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?
The ink hasn’t yet dried on Trump’s victory and we’re already hearing about how his campaign promises are being “modified,” i.e. reneged on. Trump’s infamous wall along the border with Mexico is already becoming more virtual than real, with admissions that Mexico will not pay for it. Trump himself has suggested he favors certain features of Obamacare (no denial of coverage based on preexisting conditions, and coverage extended to “children” until the age of 26), so there’ll be no wholesale “repeal and replace,” as he promised. He also promised to appoint a special prosecutor to go after Hillary Clinton, to “lock her up,” as his followers chanted, but he’s backtracked on that as well. Talk about draining the swamps of government, of bringing in fresh faces and new ideas, has produced tired old faces like Pence, Gingrich, Giuliani, and Christie. In a classic case of nepotism, the “fresh” faces are those in his own family, his two sons and daughter Ivanka (she seems to be the one with the most smarts).
Many Trump voters appear to have voted for him because he represented “change,” a rejection of the usual suspects in the establishment. Yes, the Clintons and their fellow travelers are out, but the hardline Republican establishment is back in, complete with the usual corporate hacks and think tanks. And if you think these “conservatives” are going to start embracing the working classes and helping them financially with higher wages and better job prospects, I have a Chris Christie bridge for you that’s named after our first president.
These events are hardly surprising. Trump is a con man. For him, “the art of the deal” is basically the art of the con. Consider his promise of bringing back American jobs. How is that supposed to happen? Simply through higher tariffs against foreign goods? Who’s going to replace those with American-made goods at an affordable price to the working classes?
Here’s an example. I got dressed this morning with no thought about using my clothes as an illustration for this article. My jeans are made in Mexico (of fabric from the USA, so why weren’t they made here?). My shirt is from Thailand. My leather belt is from China, and so too are my shoes. We all know why. Labor costs in those countries are much cheaper than those in the USA. Profits to corporations are thus much higher. How is Trump going to change this dynamic?
I actually try to buy clothes that are made in America. I got a nice pair of shoes that are made in Maine. I got them on sale for a great price, but they retail for over $300. If they were made in China, they’d probably retail for about $100. How many members of the working classes are able to spend roughly triple the price for the privilege of wearing shoes and clothes “Made in the USA”?
Here’s one thing Trump could do: Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour so that Americans can afford the up-charge for domestic goods. Any chance that Trump’s regime is going to do this?
It’s great to talk about bringing back American manufacturing jobs that pay well. It’s possible to raise barriers to foreign trade to make American goods more competitive. But who’s going to build the new factories? And where are the skilled workers with the requisite knowledge base? With the right advanced tools and technologies?
Speaking of technology, there’s an ever greater push in America to automate everything, even long-haul driving jobs, a job that provides a decent living for many Americans. Is Trump going to reverse this push? Is he going to preserve American blue-collar jobs against the pressure applied by multinational corporations to cut costs and maximize profits, workers be damned? Given Trump’s own record of using cheaper foreign labor and goods, this doesn’t seem bloody likely.
Believe me, I hope I’m wrong, but the early signs are that America’s working classes, along with a lot of Trump enthusiasts, are already getting conned.
Last night’s town hall in Nevada revealed a crucial difference between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Bernie came out strongly for a $15 per hour minimum wage. A living wage, as he called it. Hillary demurred, suggesting that $12 per hour was sufficient, though she mentioned municipalities with higher minimums (places like San Francisco, which have a very high cost of living).
An extra $3.00 and hour, for 40 hours a week, for 50 weeks a year, is an extra $6000 in the pockets of workers (before taxes, of course). For many working families, that’s the difference between struggling in poverty and making enough to live with a modicum of security.
Hillary went unchallenged on her $12 per hour figure. But let’s remind ourselves that Hillary made $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs. A person working for Hillary’s “generous” $12 wage would need 28 years to match what she made in three speeches that took her all of a few hours to make.
Indeed, Hillary’s “minimum wage” for her speeches to big banks and Wall Street is in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $200,000 per hour. “Hey, that’s what they offered,” Hillary said. And so Hillary is offering you, sales associate at Walmart, $12 per hour. Are you not entertained?
When asked if she’d release transcripts of her speeches to the Wall Street banks and investment houses, Hillary essentially said no. Of course, she didn’t say “no” because that would be honest. Instead, she said she’d release her transcripts if all the other candidates did the same. She knows that’s not happening, so her answer is no.
Perhaps Hillary could contact Goldman Sachs and ask them to start inviting workers to give speeches at her going rate. A lot of American working families would deeply appreciate making $225,000 for a couple of hours of sharing their hard-won experiences with Wall Street bankers and investors.