America the Impossible
Today is the Fourth of July, America’s national holiday. Longtime readers of this site will know that every day on this year, I post a little sermon about the state of the country, always trying to follow the advice of the late, great Paul Fussell, who wrote, in BAD, or, the Dumbing of America: “There is one day of the year when America should receive nothing but praise. That’s July Fourth. On all other occasions, those who wish the United States well will vigorously distinguish the good from the bad.”
This year, it seems like distinguishing the good from the bad is harder work than ever, both more difficult and more vital. It’s not only an election year, but also the dreariest election year in recent memory; every day seems to bring a dismayingly stupid new headline, no matter which party you identify with. In a very real sense, the bad decisions made by both the Democrats and the Republicans are coming back to haunt them like never before; everywhere you look, chickens are coming home to roost.
For the Republicans, decades of pandering to the lowest common denominator, courting the votes of white supremacists and religious fanatics, heightening the cultural grievances of angry white men while doing nothing to address the economic factors that actually keep them down, and pushing plutocracy as the only solution to the problems that America faces has resulted in the ascendency of none other than American protein disaster Donald Trump as their candidate for president. Trump, the sort of candidate of whom the best it can be said is that his flirtations with racist and anti-Semites is probably accidental and incoherent rather than the markers of genuine belief, is not only likely to lose by an unprecedented margin, but also set back his party in ways it will take them decades to recover from. This catastrophe of their own making has its hilarious aspects for fans of political schadenfreude, but lest we become too gleeful, we should remember how dizzying low the bar has been set, and think about the kind of dregs that will follow in Trump’s footsteps before one of them actually manages to win.
The Democratic side, meanwhile, is only marginally better. 25 years of pursuing a neoliberal politics of money over all, where the market is the final arbiter of what can and will be done to help the people of America, has been an utter disaster for most of us, with wealth concentrated almost entirely at the top and the number of people who struggle to survive from one payday to the next growing astronomically. The Democrats, once the party of unions, farmers, and ordinary people, have completely embraced the neoliberal approach, and are now a party of technocrats, professionals, investors, and elites; nowhere is this more clear than in their choice of candidates. Hillary Clinton has followed in the footsteps of her husband, the first Democrat to abandon the old principles of the liberal consensus to pursue a ‘Third Way” that fattened the wallets of the rich while leaving the poor to fend for themselves, and her positions on labor, trade, investment, and social policy make it clear that she intends to walk the same path.
America’s problems go far beyond the domestic, however. Our trade policy favors oppressive private power, and so-called ‘free trade’, despite the positive spin placed on it by centrist pundits, weakens rather than empowers working people in foreign countries, breaking the unions at home and making them a fantasy overseas. Our foreign policy, especially in terms of the Middle East, continues to be reckless and dangerous; our commitment to the ever-more-reactionary government of Israel — and despite the high-flown rhetoric, it is still largely a matter of economics and politics, and not of principle — leads us to deny the essential humanity of one of the most oppressed peoples on Earth. Worst of all, we face unthinkable repercussions from the damage wrought on the environment by big business interests, to the extent that we are making critical parts of the world incompatible with life. The Republican position is to deny this; the Democratic position is to fret about it, but to do nothing about it if it costs them big-money donations.
But what is most disheartening in all of this isn’t how hopeless things are: it’s how hopeless things are painted to be, by the very same people upon whom we should be relying to fix them. Both parties play the game of re-election, spending all their time, money, and political capital on trying to win the next election rather than on solving the problems they were elected to solve; both have bought in to the dismal games of triangulation, of polling, of targeted marketing, of nibbling around the edges to gain the slightest advantage in a numbers game that means everything and solves nothing. They are so obsessed with winning that they no longer care what the point of winning is, so they tell us that everything is impossible. We cannot do this, because it would offend this or that bloc of voters; we cannot do that, because it conflicts with this or that money interest; we cannot do the other, because we can’t afford it. Governing the greatest and richest country on Earth is no longer an exercise in maximizing human potential, but of tempering expectations.
Here’s the thing, though: America specializes in the impossible. It is our particular genius. The American experiment began by throwing off the rule of the most powerful empire in existence, and self-creating a country founded on the idea that a nation ought to be run according to the wishes of the people who live there. America went to war against itself to end the unconscionable practice of black slavery, and won. America separated church and state in the most religious country in the West; America embraced unionism and worker’s rights in the most capitalist country in the world. Americans were the deciding factor in the war against fascism. Americans set human beings to walk on another world. Americans built an interstate highway system and a rural electrification system and a wireless Internet network across a vast country; all of these were accomplished in a single presidential administration. Americans legalized abortion, passed civil rights legislation, broke up the trusts, instituted gay marriage, and preserved freedom of speech for 200 years amongst the most contentious people on the planet. America absorbed endless ethnic, racial, and religious groups and turned them into Americans. America created a national parks system that is the envy of the world, innovated industry and culture and technology that was exported to every country on the globe, and constructed a retirement plan for the aged in which anyone can participate.
These are not activities accomplished by a country afraid of its own shadow, terrified of offending its voters and corporate masters, obsessed with opinion polls and numbers-gaming. A country that can do all of these things cannot tell me it is impossible to devise a workable universal health care system, or that it is a pipe dream to demand environmental stewardship from the companies that make billions off its largesse, or that there can be no election reform, or that affordable college education is a goal that is simply beyond its reach. A country that can end slavery can make the rich pay their fair share of its operating costs. It will not be easy; none of America’s many miraculous achievements have been easy. It will require us to take a close interest in affairs that we find boring or frustrating. It will demand that we hold our politicians, our journalists, and ourselves much more accountable. But it can be done, it should be done, and it must be done. America is good at doing the impossible, and the impossible is what we need right now.