Last summer, I saw a sizable rift between the Democratic party as I’d envisioned it and as it actually existed. This meant I’d either imagined my own version of the Democratic party forever, or that it had once been–but no longer was–what I’d envisioned.
I dove into reading, and found confirmation as I read. Usually I found little kernels of confirmation in any one book; Winner-Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, on the other hand, provided a wealth of information and details. It also gave me a name for the phenomenon whereby a political body (whether a party or a country) is still perceived as one thing while having become quite another: drift.
“Since around 1980, we have drifted away from that mixed-economy cluster and traveled a considerable distance toward another: the capitalist oligarchies, like Brazil, Mexico and Russia,” write its authors. Later, they define “drift” as “systematic, prolonged failures of government to respond to the shifting realities of a dynamic economy.” In the U.S., drift is a tool intentionally–not accidentally–wielded by politicians to satisfy their owners’ needs.
(The authors don’t describe lobbyists and their funders as politicians’ “owners.” That’s a designation I find more and more fitting with each page I read.)
A concept like drift is central to Sheldon S. Wolin’s 2008 Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Early on, he asks, “how would we go about detecting the signs of totalitarianism? how would we know what we are becoming? how, as a citizenry, would we set about separating what we are from the illusions we may have about who we are?” Envisioning the U.S. as a democracy, we instead live in “a system that legitimates the economic oppression and culturally stunted lives of millions of citizens while, for all practical purposes, excluding them from political power.”
If what exists today could be called a democracy, what does “democracy” even mean? Wolin engages compellingly with questions like these in a book I wish all Americans would read.
While Winner-Take-All Politics points to drift beginning around 1980, Wolin points to its roots in the 1940s and 1950s:
After 1945 “[cold] war” was akin to a tabula rasa on which opinion-makers and governmental decision-makers were free to constitute its meaning in terms that pretty much suited their purposes, allowing them to set the character of public debate and to acquire a vastly enlarged range of governmental powers … The meaning of war was given plasticity that allowed the new image-makers to set its parameters as they pleased.
By Wolin’s accounting, the War on Terror proclaimed by “George II” (aka George W. Bush) had much, much deeper roots. As those roots grew, they crowded out room to fund things that benefited most Americans, starving of sustenance anything socially democratic in favor of building a bloated military that economically benefits very few people. With what impacts? “imperialism undercuts democracy by furthering inequalities among its citizens. Resources that might be used to improve health care, education, and environmental protection are instead directed to defense spending, which, by far, consumes the largest percentage of the nation’s annual budget.”
(Chalmers Johnson summed this up in his book Dismantling the Empire:
What opportunities we have lost!)
Why does Wolin call this system “inverted totalitarianism”? The system Wolin watched unfolding blatantly with George II had some outcomes similar to totalitarian ones, achieved by dramatically different means: a political system “driven by totalizing powers, not by personal rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, that relies more on ‘private’ media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.”
I can hardly do this 292-page book justice in 800 words. What I can say is that it was refreshing to see Trump’s presidency put in context. To read most “private media,” you’d think that Trump sprang straight from some evil god’s brain, instead of from a system that’s long failed (to represent) ordinary people. In the margins on page 205, I wrote “2016 the 1st!” next to this text:
during the winter and spring presidential primaries the Democratic Party was galvanized by the deep antagonism toward the Iraqi war. Moreover, as a side effect, the growing antiwar sentiments threatened to activate segments of the population that had become resigned to the impotence of the Democratic Party. Yet the party organization and its centrists, abetted by a Dean-hostile media, succeeded in squelching the bid of the antiwar candidates and threw their resources behind Kerry. Kerry’s nomination and subsequent meandering campaign furnished no focus for debate over the decision to go to war, the tactics of the administration in misleading the public about the threat posed by Saddam, the need to rethink the terms on which the “war on terrorism” was to be waged, and not least the terms by which “homeland security” had been cast into opposition with civil liberties.
A couple dozen pages later, I noted “2016’s precursor, truly” next to the following text:
Following the 2004 elections the political and media establishment discovered or invented the notion that the salient issue had been “values”–not an endless and increasingly bloody war, nor a faltering economy, burgeoning deficits, and widening class differences.
What was the value of “values”? To obscure more fundamental issues and to divide society along ideological lines rather than class conflicts: the religiously obedient Catholic worker, the evangelical African American, the church- and family-oriented Hispanic, the struggling white family with a son in the military because he aspired to go to college: all vote for the party trumpeting values that impose virtually no cost on its affluent and corporate beneficiaries and their heirs.
In the 2016 election, the “value” that turned the election was–to hear Democratic officials tell it!–racism, not “a faltering economy, burgeoning deficits, and [, still, dramatically] widening class differences.”
Fortunately, by reading about the past, I’m increasingly able to discard powerful others’ self-serving versions of history … and to see for myself how today is indeed, deeply a product of specific sequences of decision and action spanning not just days, but decades.