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The Work Cut Out for Us | The Nation

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The Work Cut Out for Us

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According to exit polls, the two issues that concerned voters most in the midterm elections, by a large margin, were the failure of the Iraq War and corruption in government. This raises the question: What if the Iraq War had been less spectacularly mismanaged and right-wing politicians had been less extravagantly corrupt? Suppose the Republicans had been just a little more prudent and restrained--if, say, Paul Bremer hadn't disbanded the Iraqi army and civil administration, and if the party leadership had prevailed on legislators and staffers to wait a little longer before cashing in or at least to do it a little less visibly--would they have taken another large step last November toward permanent one-party government?

About the Author

George Scialabba
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and, most recently, What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern...

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Irving Kristol was wrong about most things. So why was he one of the most politically influential intellectuals of his generation?

During war, John Dower explains, “the system filters out the thoughtful and replaces them with the faithful.”

Michael Kinsley wisely remarked that the real scandal is usually not what's illegal but rather what's legal. Likewise, the real danger to American democracy is not so much reckless misjudgment or flagrant lawlessness as the methodical hollowing out of regulatory and labor law enforcement, environmental protection, fiscal solvency, respect for international law, Congressional sovereignty, judicial integrity, a competent civil service, procedural transparency, the contemporary and historical record and the ideal of civic virtue. Since 1980 democratic governance in the United States has been steadily undermined, as though by termites. A generation's worth of damage won't be easily repaired. And it's not certain yet that the Democrats will even try.

If they do, there's plenty of guidance available from a spate of valuable books published last election season. Nearly all are both expository, cataloguing Republican depredations, and strategic, advising on how to make American elections fairer and on how Democrats can win more of them. There are useful lessons here, and not just for the next two years.

The first is: Don't take the New Deal for granted. Most Americans, even Republicans, do, which is why many former Democrats have felt free since 1980 or so to vote Republican. But American capitalism in the post-World War II decades was not fully mobile, constrained by financial regulation and ideological competition. Now, thanks to the collapse of pseudosocialism, the triumph of the IMF-enforced Washington Consensus and a great deal of covert and overt regime change in the Third World, American capitalism is mobile and mean. The fundamental purpose of American foreign policy has always been to prevent the spread of the New Deal to the developing world. Having largely succeeded there, the business elites are now determined to roll it back at home.

They've made great progress. Organized labor has been decimated. Unemployment benefits have been trimmed. Much of our regulatory structure has been dismantled, defunded or handed over to industry flacks. Persistent false alarms about Medicare and Social Security have led to proposals that they be replaced by riskier and less generous individual health and retirement accounts. Most insidious, many policy options have been foreclosed simply by insuring that there won't be enough money in the government's coffers to pay for them. By means of tax cuts, energy subsidies, defense expenditures and financial deregulation, Republicans have transferred a trillion dollars or so (and with Social Security privatization, they seek to transfer a couple of trillion more) to their principal constituents, who have no need for or interest in New Deal programs. Prying a significant fraction of that money out of those people's hands in order to pay for Medicare, Social Security, tuition assistance, earned-income tax credits, etc. will require a revolution or (what is almost as unlikely) a determined and unified Democratic Congressional majority.

The rhetorical leading edge of the assault on the New Deal is the phrase "personal responsibility." The economic troubles of the 1930s taught most Americans an obvious lesson: Sharing risk makes everyone more secure. Conservatives grumbled, but a more secure workforce was, after all, less susceptible to leftist rabble-rousing. Besides, jobs were less exportable then, the domestic market mattered more and unions were still a force to reckon with. All that has changed. As a result, business has engineered a less secure, more disposable workforce with drastically reduced overhead (i.e., benefits) and bargaining power. The risks and costs of unemployment, illness and other forms of bad luck are being shifted from government and business to individuals and families. The principle of shared risk--that we are collectively responsible for one another--is being replaced by the principle of personal responsibility--that each of us is on his own, not entitled to expect help and not obliged to offer it. How this ethos--a convenient one for the rich--has been sold, and what it portends for the nonrich, is very well described in Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift.

The environment, antitrust, civil liberties, executive power, science policy, the electoral system, the separation of church and state--here too the record of the Bush Administration has been one of nearly unbroken success. That is, they have implemented nearly all the policies they wanted to, with very much the results they intended, however unfortunate for the rest of us. Even their national security policies have largely accomplished their real goals: to channel tens of billions of dollars to corporate cronies, to further undercut international law and institutions, to demonstrate the United States' awesomely destructive military technology, to distract the electorate from the Administration's domestic policies. Permanent bases in Iraq and regime change in Iran may be unattainable for now, but the costs the United States is willing to impose on anyone threatening its energy dominance have been made starkly clear. Malevolent people inclined to propose changing the currency of the international oil market from the dollar to something else, as Saddam did, can't say they haven't been warned. The security of most Americans has not been enhanced, but that was never the point.

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