August, die she must. The town hall freak show is winding down, the media circus is packing the cameras and satellite dishes and hairspray back into the vans, and Congress is soon heading back to the relative safety of DC. Yet, after all the fuss and bother, they’re probably no more or less resolved to pass health care reform than they were back in June, when those first delirious fevers rose like clouds of infectious mosquito nymphs hatched from a thick, overheated carpet of soggy astroturf.
Let’s hope they succeed at getting it done. But, win or lose, we’re crazy to think that the goon squads formed and trained to instigate this summer’s health care wars will pack it in just because the silly season is over. Those folks have tasted power, graduated from their introductory courses in Political Bullying 101, shared some camraderie and beer, and felt the heft of their own political muscle. That was fun. Now, what do we do next? Paralyze the school board over evolution in the textbooks? Intimidate the city council into shutting down the immigrants’ services center — or beat up some immigrants, so they’ll just stop using it? Vandalize the cars and houses of known liberals? Get one of our own elected sheriff, so he can deputize the rest of us and make our posse official?
Nothin’ but good times ahead. Now that they’re organized up and had a little practice, the possibilities for further mayhem are limited only by the boundless paranoia and unfettered fantasies of the right-wing mind. Out at our local county fair this past weekend, the GOP booth was festooned with a wide array of buttons, tees, and bumper stickers proclaiming the owner’s status as a “Proud Member of the Right-Wing Mob,” and other similarly, um, assertively empowered sentiments. Judging from the general belligerence of the collection on offer, that seems to be the GOP’s whole political identity now. They’re determined to move boldly into 2010 as the party of America’s union-, immigrant-, democracy-, and (if necessary) head-busting squadristi — and they’re damn proud of it all, you betcha.
* * *
How in the hell did we get here? And more to the point: how do we get back out?
The first question is depressingly easy. This is precisely where 40 years wandering in the right-wing moral, cultural, and economic wilderness has left us — and, in fact, where it was always intended to lead us. A liberal democratic society is a complex system that’s designed to be very resilient and self-correcting in the face of all kinds of extremism. But the health of that system — especially its natural immunity to would-be attackers — ultimately depends on just one factor. It cannot survive without people’s ongoing confidence in a functioning political contract.
When it’s working right, this contract guarantees the upper classes predictable, reliable wealth in return for their investments. It promises the middle class mobility, comfort, and security. It ensures the working classes fair reward for fair work, chances to move ahead, and protection against very real risk that they’ll be forced into poverty if they can’t work any more. Generally, as long as everybody gets their piece of this constantly re-negotiated deal, everybody stays invested in keeping the system going — and a democratic society will remain upright, healthy, and moving mostly forward.
For the past four decades, conservatives have done everything in their power to dismantle that essential contract, and thus destroy our mutual confidence in the fundamental agreements that allow any democratic system to function. (None dare call it treason — but a solid case could be made.) This isn’t news: by now, most of us can recite the litany, chapter and verse, of the all the many ways they hacked away at America’s essential ability to function as the Constitution intended.
But the biggest loser, as always, has been the working class — the people whose only real power lies in their sweat and their numbers. Their faith in the promise of democratic self-government has been shattered through years of union-busting, farm foreclosures, factory exports, college grant cuts, subprime mortgage scams, and all manner of betrayal, treachery, neglect, and abuse. Over in the comments threads at Orcinus, we hear from these furious folks almost every day. The way they see it, representative democracy has repeatedly failed to deliver on anything it might have once promised them. At this point, the disgust runs so deep that anybody who’s got other ideas — theocracy, corporatocracy, anarchy, whaddaya got? — has a fair shot at getting their attention.
And their outrage is so total that any target they’re offered looks about as good as any other. Without that reason-strangling sense of betrayal and paralyzing fear of further loss already in place, it’s hard to see how Fox News’ windbags or Dick Armey’s checkbook would have been able to convince these people to turn on the best chance at real government help they’ve been offered in decades. But with it, they’re about ready to shoot at anything they’re told to aim at.
America’s best (and perhaps only) chance to keep the shreds of its tattered democracy intact is to get serious about cutting working Americans back into the democratic contract — and repair their broken trust by making damn sure those promises are actually kept. Once they’re back on board, the system will begin to work again for everyone. Until then, the accelerating breakdown is just going to continue.
It’s not going to be easy. Right-wing populism is riding so high among the middle and working classes right now that there’s nothing progressives can say right now that they’re likely to believe. So we need to let our actions do the talking — and there are five solid places we can start that will get their attention.
First: Ironically, passing health care reform would be a colossal trust-builder, as I’ve argued before. The right wing knows this, which is precisely why it’s recruited the very people most likely to benefit from reform to fight as their shock troops against it. Simply seeing the government working to provide such an essential common good for everyone would shift the entire American conversation about the purposes and capabilities of government. It would go a long way toward restoring our confidence in the very idea of democracy, and make it much harder for anti-democratic arguments to get traction.
Second: We need to re-establish the rule of law. You cannot have a credible democracy as long as there’s so obviously one standard of economic and civil justice for the rich and well-connected, and a very different one that’s designed to make victims out of everybody else. Nobody seriously believes any more that rich or powerful people can ever be held accountable by an American court. Prosecuting the Bush Administration for their assorted crimes against America and the world would make an unforgettable, inarguable statement — both to our own citizens, and the rest of the planet — about our renewed commitment to justice.
That would be a great start. But we’d need to follow it up with a whole series of reforms, including holding corporations fully accountable for actions that destroy the commons; ending the catastrophic “war on drugs;” giving people back their access to the courts; and restoring some proportionality to our sentencing laws, which have put millions of lower-class families into the permanent thrall of the justice system.
Third: We need to get serious about investing in education. It’s well understood now that our broken health care system is right on the bottom of the barrel among industrialized countries; but most of us don’t realize that our schools are in the same comparatively wretched shape. Thomas Jefferson understood that liberal democracy is impossible without a literate, well-informed populace; and the endless parade of teabagger loonitude is precisely the kind of know-nothing nightmare he most feared.
Conservative “tax revolt” politics have been undermining American education since California’s Proposition 13 passed in 1977 — and we should draw a clear, bright line between decades of systematic defunding and the monumental failures of reason we’re seeing all around us now. Don’t know much about history — so the Christian Right is busily rewriting it to argue that there’s no such thing as a wall between church and state. Don’t know much biology — so fewer than half of all Americans think the theory of evolution explains our origins. Don’t know much about the science book — so we’re ready to believe whatever junk science the corporate PR folks can conjure up. Don’t know much about the French I took — which has left the country insular, parochial, and unable to work and play well with others in a world it purports to lead.
But the worst failure is that we went through a decades-long patch where we didn’t teach civics — and still don’t much, especially in states where it’s not part of the standardized tests. Which means that there are tens of millions among us who have absolutely no idea what’s in the Bill of Rights, or how a law gets made, or where the limits of state power lie. It’s quite possible that if the conservatives hadn’t undermined universal civics education, the right-wing talking heads would have never found an audience. Instead, what we have is a country where most people are getting their basic political education from Rush Limbaugh and FOX News.
If we want our democracy back, that has to change.
Fourth: No democracy in history has ever survived with our current levels of inequality. There’s no reason for the middle and working classes to trust anything about a system that’s so clearly rigged to suck money straight out of their pockets into the tax-free offshore bank accounts of the wealthy — who, of course, turn right around and use that money to buy off our government, so they can suck up even more of our economy for themselves.
This has gone on so long that we’ve arrived at the endpoint where every single civic function you can name — health care, defense, law enforcement, prisons, infrastructure development, research, media, and (increasingly) education — makes decisions not on the basis of what will best serve the common good or give taxpayers or consumers the biggest bang for the buck, but whether and how much it will pay off some well-connected corporation. Doesn’t matter what the public wants, or what makes sense, or what will save money in the long run. The bottom line is: if Haliburton or Wackenhut or United Health isn’t getting their cut, it ain’t happening, period. And that’s pretty much the definition of a corporatized state — which, as we’ve seen, is one of the two necessary ingredients required for full-on fascism.
Restoring equality also means meaningful immigration reform. As long as there’s a two-tiered employment system that lets employers sidestep wage, discrimination, and safety laws by hiring undocumented workers without penalty, there’s going to be a permanent trap door under the feet of American workers. To close that door, we need to shore up the border, completely revamp our utterly dysfunctional immigration process, enforce existing workplace laws and prosecute employers who violate them, and get our current crop of undocumented immigrants on the books so the laws can be applied to them, too. Until we do this, nobody is going to get a fair shake in the job market — and there’s no reason for working-class Americans to have any trust at all in the system’s ability to deliver for them.
Finally: we need to focus on restoring our basic liberal institutions. Back in 2005, Chris Bowers noted that progressive ideology has always been disseminated through four major cultural drivers: the universities (and related intellectual infrastructure); unions; the media; and liberal religious organizations. Knowing this, conservatives set out back in the 1970s to undermine all four of these institutions — and over time, they’ve largely succeeded in blunting their historic capacity to disseminate and perpetuate the progressive worldview.
But change is on the way. The new GI Bill, like the previous one, is likely to create an expansive renaissance in American university education, restoring vigor and diversity to our academic and intellectual community. The Employee Free Choice Act, if passed, will help unions regain their role as the voice and political muscle of the working and middle class. Bloggers have formed the core of a new progressive media that’s calling the corporate media to account, and slowly forcing it to change its one-sided ways.
On the other hand, there’s still considerable misunderstanding and confusion within our own camp about the essential role liberal religion should play in lending heart and spirit to the progressive resurgence. With a few notable exceptions (Tom Paine, Robert Ingersoll), American progressivism has always drawn its most compelling moral voices from the ranks of Catholics, Jews, Quakers, Unitarians and Universalists, and a wide collection of social gospel Evangelicals. And even now, the vast majority of Americans — on both ends of the spectrum — still draw their political ethics straight out of their personal religious beliefs. As Bowers points out: we need those voices if we’re going to succeed.
Fascism is so dangerous precisely because it speaks to its believers in the language of emotion, populism, purity, redemption, and enduring values. Nobody on the progressive side knows how to speak that language — and match that moral force and energy — better than our own native faith groups. Secular progressives may wish it weren’t true, but it is: there’s simply no way we can rebuild a strong democratic system without holding up our end of a broad new culture-wide discussion about morality, meaning, priorities, passion, and values. And those conversations begin most naturally in our houses of worship.
* * *
I’m well aware that this reads like a liberal wish list. And that’s really my entire point. Progressive democracy is a self-reinforcing system. Wherever you have educated citizens, thriving progressive institutions, a solid public infrastructure, fair courts, and a relatively level economic and social playing field, you’ve got prime growing conditions that lead to an expanding economy, increased rights and freedoms, and a strong collective sense of investment and confidence in the system. Progressivism fosters the conditions that make a nation secure, peaceful, stable, and virtually impervious to revolutions of all kinds. In particular, it creates a natural resistance that recognizes fascism as a mortal enemy, and never fails to raise effective immune antibodies against it.
Almost every conservative policy going back to Nixon has, in one way or another, undermined our ability to mount this kind of resistance. The emergence of corporate-backed brownshirts is a clear warning sign of that the system that keeps America progressive and free is now hitting its point of fatal breakdown. And we don’t have much time: if their behavior succeeds and escalates in the coming months, we could be done for in a matter of months. By next August, this one may be remembered as the last moment of calm before the revolution.
Doing nothing is not an option. The only long-term antidote to our current wave of emergent fascism is a big, strong dose of trust-building progressive culture and politics, administered daily until the system’s basic democratic functions come back on line. If we want to build a fascist-proof America for the long haul, we must stand up now for everything we believe, and everything we are.