I knew a young woman in the early 1980s who was a Trotskyite, or so she said. Even then, at the dawn of the Age of Reagan, a real political spectrum existed in America. The remains of the New Left were there. Both parties had conservatives, centrists and liberals. Compromise and rationality still produced legislation that got the people's business done. The quiet coup of the oligarchy was in its infancy.
Where we stand today? I had finished my regular stint on the local public radio station and heard the NPR program To The Point begin. It was all about the budget deficit and federal debt. And not really about that, but concern over whether President Obama's "charm offensive" to reach out to Republicans would succeed. That the GOP has been captured entirely by extremists was never mentioned, nor that the House members in safe seats would never compromise no matter how much Mr. Obama tried to "meet them halfway," the holy grail of our opinion makers and elites. That the deficit and debt are far from our most pressing issues was never debated. Didn't we just have an election that supposedly settled this matter? And this is the intelligent media.
I can understand most Americans tuning out. The nation is asleep, being date-raped after imbibing a cocktail of plutocratic-engineered ignorance, reactionary dogma, economic hard times, media malpractice and electronic distractions. The "center" is far to the right. "Progressives" are largely trying to conserve the basic social compact from the 20th century, once embraced by the mainstream of both parties. Few of them are seeking real change. The Occupy "movement" — who? Totskyites are all gone, too, but reality is sneaking into our national Arizona Room carrying an ice axe much more potent than the one that did in Leon Davidovich.
Future historians will most marvel at how America slept through the unarguable emergence of climate change as the clear and present danger. When it was still possible to prevent its worst consequences, establish profitable new industries doing so, and provide world leadership. People with debt hysteria keep lecturing us about the burden we're leaving our grandchildren. Yet it's petty cash compared with the catastrophe today's very deliberate policies are setting for future generations. Interestingly, the debt hysteriacs are usually the same people who are quaintly called "climate-change deniers." They are the same ones who strut about shouting "American exceptionalism." But that exceptionalism does not extend to literally saving the world from this avoidable disaster.
While America slept the planet's population closed in on 7 billion. A century ago, it was not even 2 billion. This strain on the planet's carrying capacity is behind so many fundamental challenges: War, extremism, resource scarcity, environmental degradation, economic entropy, etc. We spend more on "national security" now than during the Cold War and claim to be all powerful. Wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III and his colleagues make endless demands that we intervene hither, thither and yon. Interestingly, these tend to be the same people who oppose American efforts to aid nations in family planning. They're also not so sure "the gals" shouldn't be home with "the kids" (baby goats?), so they are hardly supportive of empowering women in developing countries, which would give them control over their bodies. They want to take away that control here at home.
While America slept, our most cherished and important institutions were bought, compromised and destroyed. Combine all the "national security" laws and signing statements, from the Orwellian-named Patriot Act through the latest Obama drone justification, with Citizens United and the voting rights waiting for the Roberts court to eviscerate — and our Constitution is becoming inoperative. Liberal capitalism doesn't exist without the rule of law and yet it doesn't apply to the class of oligarchs that has grown up over the past three decades. Mary Jo White, a shameful example of the revolving door between D.C. and Wall Street passed congressional approval to be head of the Securities and Exchange Commission despite numerous red flags and conflicts of interest. Curiously, the lawmakers in such a temper over Chuck Hagel raised no objections at all. Curious, too, how the same people who support all the threats to the Constitution listed above believe there is really only one: That unlimited gun rights might be even slightly restrained.
I could go on, but you get the idea. While we sleep, really bad things are happening. I don't believe in the Demographic Fairy saving the Democratic Party — not without some fighting Democrats now. And I don't believe the extremists operating under the name of Republicans will go the way of the Whigs. The powerlessness that Mr. Obama complains of is reminiscent of Jimmy Carter. The presidency was not powerless once Mr. Carter left the White House. And he was not replaced by a liberal. We have entire generations that don't even know what liberalism is.
At least some people sense how much we have changed, and not for the better. Last Sunday, I wrote a column on income inequality that became the most read and most commented article on the entire newspaper Web site. Yes, many of the comments were from right-wingers typing talking points, but many others were from people who are actually paying attention. I would like to believe that there is a large number of citizens waiting for the lever that will allow them to rise up and prevent our national, and planetary, suicide.
I want to believe that. But so many are asleep. They can't imagine a world different from the one of the recent past, without even realizing how long our national nap has lasted, how the world has been shifting while we were texting and the moment of history that even allowed for such a self-deluded society is rapidly closing.