POLITICS: Catching Up To History

There have been multiple times this past week when I’ve wanted to write a post but, with other pressing obligations looming, waited until the weekend, when things slow down, when kids soccer is the focus of Saturday mornings, when coffee and eggs with habanero hot sauce on them, all with the papers is a welcome start to the morning.  It isn’t as though there still aren’t many obligations hovering menacingly, but the events of the past week or so demand some discourse, and most of it is not good–at least from my end.  If you’re looking to get cheered up, at least from various political perspectives, this post might leave you disappointed.  Certainly the coming discussion of the economic crisis upon us should cause most of us to keep vomit buckets handy.  But ultimately, there is hope–not a faint, meaningless, or ethereal idea as some on the right portray it in these uncertain, dangerous times–and make no mistake that they are.  Rather, the possibility of a better future through change, which is upon us and is moving through our richest institutions and the very notion of “free-market” economics that has governed the last 30 years, brings us the greatest possibility of realizing hope, of translating hope into something positive.  Some may consider this an endorsement of Obama, but it’s really intended as a wider endorsement of changing various governing institutions and, importantly, mindsets, that have for far too long governed American life, culture, and politics.  The times and our current malaise demand it.

For starters, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been at least worried if not outright panicked by recent economic events that have seen the Dow absolutely plummet in the biggest crash since October 19, 1987.  But in psychological and political ways, the October 2008 crash more closely resembles Black Thursday, Monday, and Tuesday in October 1929.  I think there’s no question about its seriousness but, in actuality, much more is at work than the superficial recognition that much of the world, beginning this time in the US, is in a deep financial crisis.  Indeed, there is the sense and, with policies, the reality that the events of this past week plus have started to sound the death knell of free market capitalism run amok as we know it.

In particular, this comes with recent government discussion and actions that will result in direct government, and by extension taxpayer, infusion of money into banks that will provide the government, and by extension us, some stake in the nation’s banking system.  This has been deemed necessary in order to shore up the credit crunch that, even more than affecting individuals right now, is impinging upon businesses and threatens not only the ability of small businesses, but also big businesses and even more menacingly banks, to obtain loans to finance credit that has been the life blood of capitalism.  Businesses from corner stores to shops to factories rely on networks of credit for everything from expenses to cover payroll, utilities, goods, and shipping.  Without that, businesses can and might go belly-up, making government action–unlike what the unrepentant free marketers such as gasbag Rush Limbaugh and others espouse which is leaving the market (as if it were an entity onto itself like Hal-9000, or operated as Smith’s “invisible hand,” about whom my views shall appear some other time) to run its course and issue its own corrective–necessary for people to avoid running the risk of a late 1929 and early 1930s-like calamity.  Make no mistake about it folks, and I have said repeatedly, I am not a believer that history repeats itself.  History just doesn’t work like that.  Circumstances, historical actors, and catalytic events change every time.  Yet there are times when the essence of historical events is similar to other epochs and, in ours, there are frightening similarities to October 1929 and its aftermath.  One is the galvanizing event of the stock market collapse in both instances.  Another is–and might be less in small businesses nowadays compared to 1929, especially with the massive infusion of cash into the banking system–the ability of everyday people to consume.  The real earnings of everyday working people have fallen over most of the last 40 years (with a brief exception the late 1990s under President Clinton), that is, they have not kept pace with inflationary pressures so, as wages and prices have risen, people’s wages, purchasing power by extension them, their families, and their prospects for the future have fallen and have suffered.  This condition also existed throughout the 1920s, a period not unlike ours characterized by pervasive anti-union animus and (especially in the 1920s) violence, corporate efforts to prevent raises (though now through the globalization of work and labor markets in a way that didn’t exist to anything close to the same degree in 1929)–that is, pressures of under-consumption in a consumer-driven economy such as ours.  Whether or not this will lead to the same socioeconomic disaster that was The Great Depression is yet to be determined, and early government actions to stanch the crisis (to which I’ll get) are somewhat encouraging.  However, this historical similarity between now and 79 years ago is more than a little disconcerting.

What the government has done is to enact a radically different policy that will see the government use taxpayer assets to buttress banks (which ones seem to be an issue–the most needy or the steadiest, no small question) to provide for the continued circulation of lending for businesses. In a radically new step, members of the G-7 nations (the most industrialized nations and therefore by and large the most culpable for the current economic crisis, to be honest) have met to discuss ways to address and reverse the economic crisis that has unfolded.  Among other proposals, they have agreed to coordinate government infusions of cash into their respective lending systems to help shore up a globalized economy, but have yet to agree on ways to coordinate inter-bank lending, a serious indication that it’s not only everyday people, but banks themselves, that are concerned about the prospects for the immediate future in large part because, since they have taken on such large amounts of debt, they want to know that they will be repaid.

All of this sounds wonky but really isn’t, I don’t think.  What’s most significant is that the US, following the lead of Britain, has decided that it is necessary at this early but crucial stage of the economic crisis to try to forestall it through the massive influx of cash that would make, in the US non-voting, government and the taxpayers direct investors in the biggest lending institutions we know.  Whether or not this would be permanent, I have yet to determine from my perusal of news stories and blogs.  Regardless, it is a significant and in all likelihood necessary step to keep the capitalist system working for as many (though not enough, ever) as possible.  It does represent a nationalization, however small, of the banking industry.  At least as importantly, it represents a large, early effort to forestall the historical precedent that 1929 presents, making it already different from that earlier period in which President Herbert Hoover and financial leaders tried vapidly to assuage people that the market would rebound and correct itself.  Indeed, October 2008 represents a concerted effort, regardless of its eventual success, of the federal government–the same people who in the Bush administration (and to be fair something they shared with the Clinton administration) have continually touted the virtues of the free market–to reverse the unaccountable structures of the free market to provide support from an institution–government–that self-professed free-marketeers revile.  Some such as economist Brad Delong have argued that it could stand to go as far as Sweden did in the 1990s, when its banking system was for all practical purposes insolvent, by forcing shareholders to pony up cash to taxpayers, i.e. the government.  We’ll see if that happens, but regardless, this recent action represents an enormous step, and a fundamental reversion from free-market zealots such as Limbaugh, for the government–which helped cause this mess in the first place.  There is just no other way to see the events of the past week other than, in good measure, as a rejection of the always specious notion that the allegedly free market, left on its own, will provide what people need and make everyone prosperous.  It’s always been narrowly focused, and downright class-based, anti-working-class economics.  The crisis of today and the government’s response represents nothing short of a compromise, if not an outright rejection, of free-market principles.  Good.

All this leads me to the second part of this post, which is on our economic and political future.  To be frank and briefly bipartisan in a critical manner, both the Democratic (not “Democrat,” as the Limbaugh wing of the right-wing party likes to slur the Democrats in the fashion of postwar racist Strom Thurmond) Party and the Republican Party deserve blame, for it’s apparent that both parties favored deregulation of banking and lending to a significant degree in the last decade, with both alternating in power (though the GOP more than Democrats) and therefore having chances to rectify the situation that many, including savant economist Paul Krugman, long saw coming.  They didn’t, they failed, and they each deserve blame for exacerbating the current financial crisis.  I’ll leave it to you to determine which side is more culpable but, if people are not engaging in a rare “pox-on-both-houses” perspective on this, they’re missing that both parties had chances to do something about a pending economic meltdown.  I’m far from bipartisan, but now is a justifiable time for bipartisan criticism.

Although it’s worth pointing out as both sides jockey to assign blame and claim credit, it’s also not the point, which is that the country is in a dangerous economic crisis and period, made all the worse from decades of both deregulation and a mindset that touted deregulation as an economic cure rather than an economic ill, which I believe it largely is.  Among current campaigning, we’ve had remarkably little focus on the particulars on economic solutions, including in media coverage much to my chagrin (though a product of politicians and advisers who have not been forthcoming about them).  Rather, we’ve entered a new period in modern politics–not entirely new in American politics but new in this recent era–in which extreme racial hatred and invoking baseless, fear-inspired notions of ‘othering’ among the radical right have galvanized the Republican party’s extreme right-wing over their obvious revulsion about the potential of a person of color at long last becoming president of the United States of America.

This surfaced in numerous rallies and not just for McCain and Palin but has spilled over into state races, with anti-Obama sentiment and downright racism expressed in some subtle but often in naked terms.  Now, before any McCain supporters argue that I’m painting them all as racist, this clearly isn’t so.  While I’d question how it is that everyday people especially could possibly vote for the GOP, the party of deregulation, of an unfettered market in practice as well as in theory, in this day and age and especially after the last seven and three-quarter years of mostly unabated malfeasance, wars, unaccountability, criminality, and stupidity (and well as any other applicable “-itys” that people can concoct), I am not of the opinion that right-wing people and voters are necessarily racist.  That just isn’t so.

However, the recent McCain-Palin campaign themes have done much to reveal racist themes that echo with various everyday people in frightening ways that overlap with the anti-Catholic sentiments that surfaced with John F. Kennedy’s successful run for the presidency in 1960.  It has seen the obvious portrayal in McCain and Palin rhetoric of Obama as untrustworthy, anti/un-American, terrorist (with the specious connections to Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers), Muslim (although Obama is Christian), and in all ways foreign, not “one of us”–whatever the hell that means today.  It has also witnessed the frightening resurgence of outright hatred and racism among many voters, not the least of whom live in the North, against Obama based not on his policies, not on his vision for the future, but on his race, his persona, his being construed as ‘other,’ outside the boundaries of the rest of America.

Again, many people have deep philosophical disagreements with Obama, and I respect those.  I have my own, not insignificant, philosophical disagreements with Obama and my own reticence about his political prospects for the future, probable political control from the Democratic Party after the 2008 elections notwithstanding.  That said, there is no denying the overtly racist elements that pervade the right wing that is the Republican Party that demand denunciation from the sane, responsible, non-racist electorate.  For example, you have a woman describing Barack Obama as an “Arab” in a crowd openly recalcitrant to the notion that people needn’t be afraid of an Obama presidency, you have, among others at an Ohio McCain-Palin rally, a man who baselessly describes Barack Obama as a “one-man terror cell,” another who said he “could be a terrorist,” still another who claimed Obama “has the blood lines” and “connections” to be a terrorist, a man who entered a McCain rally with a stuffed animal monkey with an “Obama” headband who, upon being caught on film with this racist visage, took off the headband and handed the stuffed animal to a child he didn’t know, others in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania describing Obama as a ‘Muslim,” a “terrorist,” a “socialist and communist” (as if they were the same thing), and others shouting to describe their political opposition as “commie faggots.”  By the way, all of this has been aided and abetted by pseudo-populists such as Limbaugh, who have done so much to characterize Obama as ‘other’ and, recently, has gone so far as to speculate that alleged and unsupported fears of an Obama presidency have caused the stock market to slide.

These people are responsible for their own actions, to be sure.  They have also been incited by the McCain-Palin ticket, with those candidates at every turn in the last week asking “who is the real Barack Obama?” as people in the audience cried “Terrorist!” “Kill him!” (though unbeknownst if in reference to Obama or former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, with whom Obama served on the Annenberg Foundation Challenge–with Republicans and funded by a conservative Republican who endorsed John McCain for president).  In the last week, the McCain-Palin ticket, one of the worst in modern history and rendered a punch line with their actions and statements, has fanned the flames of racism among some of their supporters, who gleefully responded with baseless, overtly racist sentiments and statements at and outside political rallies for the political right.  McCain was then forced to respond to these bilious fulminations at a rally yesterday, stating that he “respected Senator Obama and his accomplishments, and I will respect him,” interrupting some in the crowd who booed that pronouncement, that “he [Obama] is a decent person and not a person you need to be scared [of] as president of the United States.”  That is, during the last month when Obama has surged ahead in all polls and is very likely to be the next president of the United States, and under widespread public scrutiny and criticism for the hate-mongering and pandering to fear and loathing that they propagated in the last week, McCain has been forced to publicly backtrack from the very racism that, among some of his supporters, his desperate attempts to be president have fomented.

It’s been an embarrassing episode and a very revealing one in recent political memory.  On the one hand, you have a presidential candidate who has supported (if tentatively) plans for changes in policies regarding taxation, government oversight of finance, the War on Iraq, and other issues.  On the other, you have a candidate who has largely ceded the policy ground to Obama, subjected the American electorate to outright fear-mongering regarding the identity, patriotism, intentions and by inference trustworthiness of a candidate that while not overtly, has stoked the racist fires of some of his supporters based on nothing more than the color of his skin–all the while himself avoiding crafting concrete solutions to the crises we face.  Tell me, after watching the video links above, that for a good many this presidential race doesn’t come right down to the color of the candidates’ skin.  In the meantime, too many have lost sight of the fact that one candidate expresses well and clearly policies that might well enact important changes that many, including I, would contend are necessary, and another candidate touts nothing more than what Frank the Sage characterizes as “Better Living Through Fear.”

Pick your own side; I’ve chosen mine and stand by it, faults though Obama does have.  What is becoming more apparent is that McCain is unable to stanch the flow of history against him for which people are stridently clamoring, and that will very likely come in the next three-plus weeks despite some overt pandering to fear and loathing.  It’s long overdue in contemporary politics, in American history and in its racial, and unfortunately racist, aspects.  The face of American politics is changing, and it’s high time that McCain and some of his supporters caught up to it.

Published in: on October 11, 2008 at 6:28 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I must say this is a great article i enjoyed reading it keep the good work 🙂

  2. very impressive jason- indeed as much as i despise and detest the current criminal administration it is clear that even they knew that going back to hoover’s old “prosperity is just around the corner” adage just wouldn’t cut it. i trust none of them, but in this case inaction probably would have led to a situation resembling 1930-31. it still may- we seem to be in uncharted waters- at least bush seems to be completely marginalized.

    mc cain seems to be fighting a war with himself, but in the end he IS to blame for the scurrilous and desperate acts his campaign is committing. he gets no credit from me for his hypocrisy at his “town halls”. sarah palin has proved herself not only to be be an ignorant ambitious parvenu, but a dangerous rabble rouser-

    anyway–i’m really glad you weighed in on this –

  3. First off, I know nothing about politics 🙂

    But I like how you admit to Obama having faults. I don’t know if you will explain what they are to us, I’d like to know if you do want to. But it seems that a lot of a candidates supporters tend to ignore a candidates flaws. And it seems that every person will have some stuff to disagree with, with whatever candidate they support. Those people don’t always want to admit to the flaws though, not to others anyway.


  4. Thanks Jamie and Mike. I view things the same way regarding not doing anything, Mike. It seems government action, and quickly, was necessary. What gets me is the quick turnaround of the Bush administration and in particular Paulson to on the one hand insist upon a $700 billion bailout, then on the other to return to the taxpayers not a week later and say, Oops, that wasn’t sufficient or the right course of action. Some Democrats and lots of economists, including Brad Delong and Krugman, proposed exactly what the government is doing now. Nor do I give McCain credit for urging people to tamp down their hatred–his campaign asked for it, that unqualified, power-abusing Palin included. That’s why she was selected–fire up the base in any way possible. She sure did, Ms. “palling around with terrorists.”

    Hi Joe. I hope all’s been well with you. On Obama, I am not a fan of how his health care plan is structured, which while looking to extend health care to all Americans, is not a single-payer plan to which he has recently signed on (in a pending bill)–and single-payer health care would be less expensive especially in keeping down bureaucratic costs, would be more expansive, and is more efficient. Other industrialized countries such as France, Canada and Britain like theirs just fine, and what Obama currently proposes is closer to what the Clintons proposed in 1993 (which despite what critics said was NOT “socialized medicine”), an expanded corporate-provided plan. This would be better than what many Americans have now but is far from the best remedy, in my opinion. It’s an expansion of free market health care, and I’m in favor of bifurcating health care from free market principles. I was encouraged, however, to hear Obama say in the second presidential debate that he considered health care “a right” and not “a responsibility,” as McCain considers it. I agree, health care is a right.

    I also think that Obama shouldn’t be so willing to tout war in Afghanistan. He is proffering an idea of a “good war” versus a “bad war” (Iraq), and should the US transfer much of its forces to Afghanistan, I doubt Americans would like them to stay there ad infinitum, either, which they probably would. I also think that there have been times, especially in the debates, when Obama is too willing to “talk tough,” to espouse hawkism to prove a toughness to his critics. hawkism has routinely proven a problem among American foreign-policy people and Americans generally, such as in Vietnam, Central America, and now (again, actually) the Middle East. War should not be an aggressive policy instrument but rather a last resort. It’s not been even close to that under Bush/Cheney. What concerns me about some of Obama’s foreign-policy proposals is that he may end up supporting and expanding America’s vast network of bases and military stations around the world. I’m against that. The War on Iraq is not about freedom and democracy, as the post facto rationalizations of the Bush/Cheney administration would have us believe. I believe it is essentially about control over a vital strategic and resource-rich region and its political powers therein, an essential part of which is the establishment of Iraq as an American base. While Obama might or might not end the War on Iraq, and we’ll see about that, I’m not convinced that there won’t be an American base in Iraq for a long time. I don’t consider the thousands of American and Iraqi lives lost thus far as having been worth that by any means.

    Lastly, there have been times when Obama has hung back politically in the last year that concerns me. Part of me thinks that this might be because the Democrats have not wanted him out in front of issues on which he’ll have to take a stand, although the Democrats did have him as the point person in the meeting at the White House on the Wall St. bailout, the meeting into which McCain threw a wrench. I hope that Obama proves not just a competent leader, and I’m sure he will be, but an active, forward-thinking one right out of the gate. These times demand it.

    In all, I see Obama as much better all around than McCain and infinitely better and more qualified that Bush, who has been a national disgrace from day one.

  5. Before I forget Mike, your point about the Bush/Cheney administration’s realization about not revisiting Hoover is a good one. This week has been one of the few times in the Bush/Cheney presidency that I could actually stomach listening to Bush. In part, the times and situation demand it. And while I am more than a little annoyed as to why Paulson is now coming back with his hat in his hand for a new form of taxpayer-funded bailout after the $700 billion was granted, it isn’t as though many Democrats have been forthcoming on details of that package, either. That is, Bush hasn’t handled this any dopier than he has other issues such as war and his illegalities, and I’ll take it in all its lame-duck “glory.”

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