Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Cult of Presidency

Andrew Bacevich revisits the train wreck of November 8, 2016 and its aftermath. From that point he charts a way forward for American redemption.

By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and -- last but hardly least -- celebrity-in-chief. In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.

In truth, influential American institutions -- investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national security apparatus and both major political parties -- have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod. By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.

Is Donald Trump the inevitable outcome of a failed post-Cold War era of neoliberalism and globalism?

Unfettered neoliberalism plus the unencumbered self plus unabashed American assertiveness: these defined the elements of the post-Cold-War consensus that formed during the first half of the 1990s -- plus what enthusiasts called the information revolution. The miracle of that “revolution,” gathering momentum just as the Soviet Union was going down for the count, provided the secret sauce that infused the emerging consensus with a sense of historical inevitability.

More immediately, in the eyes of the policy elite, the information revolution meshed with and reinforced the policy consensus. For those focused on the political economy, it greased the wheels of globalized capitalism, creating vast new opportunities for trade and investment. For those looking to shed constraints on personal freedom, information promised empowerment, making identity itself something to choose, discard, or modify. For members of the national security apparatus, the information revolution seemed certain to endow the United States with seemingly unassailable military capabilities. That these various enhancements would combine to improve the human condition was taken for granted; that they would, in due course, align everybody -- from Afghans to Zimbabweans -- with American values and the American way of life seemed more or less inevitable.

The three presidents of the post-Cold-War era -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama -- put these several propositions to the test. Politics-as-theater requires us to pretend that our 42nd, 43rd, and 44th presidents differed in fundamental ways. In practice, however, their similarities greatly outweighed any of those differences. Taken together, the administrations over which they presided collaborated in pursuing a common agenda, each intent on proving that the post-Cold-War consensus could work in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.
To be fair, it did work for some. “Globalization” made some people very rich indeed. In doing so, however, it greatly exacerbated inequality, while doing nothing to alleviate the condition of the American working class and underclass.

The Republican Party still clings to the notion that reducing taxes, cutting government red tape, restricting abortion, curbing immigration, prohibiting flag-burning, and increasing military spending will alleviate all that ails the country. Meanwhile, to judge by the promises contained in their recently unveiled (and instantly forgotten) program for a “Better Deal,” Democrats believe that raising the minimum wage, capping the cost of prescription drugs, and creating apprenticeship programs for the unemployed will return their party to the good graces of the American electorate.

In both parties embarrassingly small-bore thinking prevails, with Republicans and Democrats equally bereft of fresh ideas. Each party is led by aging hacks. Neither has devised an antidote to the crisis in American politics signified by the nomination and election of Donald Trump.

While our emperor tweets, Rome itself fiddles.

A retired US Army commander turned academic, Andrew Bacevich is an unlikely advocate of revolution and yet the changes he advocates can certainly be seen as revolutionary as they are vital to the survival of the American state.

The one good thing we can say about the election of Donald Trump -- to borrow an image from Thomas Jefferson -- is this: it ought to serve as a fire bell in the night. If Americans have an ounce of sense, the Trump presidency will cure them once and for all of the illusion that from the White House comes redemption. By now we ought to have had enough of de facto monarchy.

By extension, Americans should come to see as intolerable the meanness, corruption, and partisan dysfunction so much in evidence at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue. We need not wax sentimental over the days when Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen presided over the Senate to conclude that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer represent something other than progress. If Congress continues to behave as contemptibly as it has in recent years (and in recent weeks), it will, by default, allow the conditions that have produced Trump and his cronies to prevail.

So it’s time to take another stab at an approach to governance worthy of a democratic republic.

The colonel offers a 10-step recipe for reform:

First, abolish the Electoral College. Doing so will preclude any further occurrence of the circumstances that twice in recent decades cast doubt on the outcome of national elections and thereby did far more than any foreign interference to undermine the legitimacy of American politics.

Second, rollback gerrymandering. Doing so will help restore competitive elections and make incumbency more tenuous.

Third, limit the impact of corporate money on elections at all levels, if need be by amending the Constitution.

Fourth, mandate a balanced federal budget, thereby demolishing the pretense that Americans need not choose between guns and butter.

Fifth, implement a program of national service, thereby eliminating the All-Volunteer military and restoring the tradition of the citizen-soldier. Doing so will help close the gap between the military and society and enrich the prevailing conception of citizenship. It might even encourage members of Congress to think twice before signing off on wars that the commander-in-chief wants to fight.

Sixth, enact
tax policies that will promote greater income equality.

Seventh, increase public funding for public higher education, thereby ensuring that college remains an option for those who are not well-to-do.

Eighth, beyond mere “job” creation, attend to the growing challenges of providing meaningful work -- employment that is both rewarding and reasonably remunerative -- for those without advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)degrees.

Ninth, end the thumb-twiddling on climate change and start treating it as the first-order national security priority that it is.

Tenth, absent evident progress on the above, create a new party system, breaking the current duopoly in which Republicans and Democrats tacitly collaborate to dictate the policy agenda and restrict the range of policy options deemed permissible.

These are not particularly original proposals and I do not offer them as a panacea. They may, however, represent preliminary steps toward devising some new paradigm to replace a post-Cold-War consensus that, in promoting transnational corporate greed, mistaking libertinism for liberty, and embracing militarized neo-imperialism as the essence of statecraft, has paved the way for the presidency of Donald Trump.


rumleyfips said...

National service is not limited to the military.

The Mound of Sound said...

Bacevich has been championing the return of a draft-based, "citizen army" for many years. His experience commanding ground forces in Desert Storm and the loss of his son killed during the occupation of Iraq seem to have forged his thinking on ending America's "all volunteer" army. His argument is that the volunteer force came from a relatively narrow spectrum of the civilian population. The fact that the rest, particularly the better off, had no "skin in the game" skewed their willingness to support wars without end provided their kids weren't called to serve. In the context of his remarks he's not talking about the Peace Corps.

Ben Burd said...

The sooner the gullibillies realise that the post of Presidency IS a defacto monarchy, even a member of Congress admitted that "perhaps too much power has been allocated to the Executive!" the better of the Americans will be and try to get the power back.

The Mound of Sound said...

I worry, Ben, that the three branches of American government have become too atrophied and, to some extent, corrupt for the vaunted "checks and balances" to continue to function. There's been a sea change in public attitudes that set in over the decades since Carter was given his pink slip. Liberal democracy has been supplanted by a low grade form of oligarchy. My sense of it is that the public has been conditioned, groomed to acquiesce to this transformation through a powerful interaction of a corporate media cartel, fear mongering, energized consumerism and appeals to the basest of instincts. I think this makes it difficult, perhaps even impossible to achieve the critical mass without which democratic restoration has very little chance.