The Great Dismantling of American Democracy
I was still in college when Ronald Reagan was first elected as president. I barely knew anything about politics, but I did remember the feeling of powerlessness that permeated our country during the Iranian hostage crisis leading up to the election. Additionally, the failure to achieve our objectives in Vietnam was still fresh on everyone’s minds. We were desperate for strong and decisive leadership, and Reagan seemed to be a man made for the moment.
When Reagan took office, there were great expectations, and the new President delivered — within minutes. Literally. Within a few minutes of the inauguration, the hostages in Iran were freed. Within a few days, the President took a righteous victory lap on the south lawn of the White House as he promised “swift and effective retribution” for anyone foolish enough to mess with Americans. Our nation eagerly anticipated an exciting future.
But something struck me as being very much out of place during that time. During his inaugural address, President Reagan said something profound: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem.”
From my perspective, this was the beginning of what I now call the Great Dismantling of American Democracy.
Let me explain:
In the time period in which President Reagan was elected, the U.S. economy was the strongest in the world. If you were fortunate to be an American — and white — things seemed to be on the right track. But our great economic success was built on our ability to exploit people and resources from other nations. The hostage crisis in Iran, which in many ways set the stage for Reagan’s election, was the blow-back from our own CIA operations in that country two decades earlier. That operation, which resulted in a radical change from a democratically elected government to an autocracy, was fueled by propaganda. The power of artificial persuasion through propaganda should never be underestimated. It was used to help build and fortify western economies.
Read the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man from John Perkins, and you’ll get a taste of the raw ugliness that was used all over the world, not just Iran. It was used to build the western economies.
I’m not trying to throw dirt on the United States. Personally, I’m happy to have been born here, and I have lived a fairly successful life in this country. But I am deeply troubled about where this country is going. More urgently, I am concerned that the exploitation of humans has, since the 1980s, not been directed so much at people living in foreign nations; instead, it has become internalized. The weapons of propaganda that were used so successfully to wrestle natural resources and human capital from other countries have now been turned on our own citizens.
We’re witnessing a war on democracy, waged by the forces of an increasingly unrestrained form of capitalism. It sounds crazy, I know, because true capitalism very much depends on a democratic free society. This war will therefore have no winners. When democracy dies, true capitalism will die as well, and kleptocracy will step in and take its place. Whether he consciously realized it or not, President Reagan, when identifying government as the problem, essentially announced that capitalism had declared total war on democracy.
Having heard the call for war, several people in key positions all across the country now dedicated themselves to the destruction of all the artifacts of democracy that stood in the way of unrestrained capitalism. Leading the charge were people like Grover Norquist, who famously (or perhaps infamously) said, “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Norquist, who at the time had founded an organization known as the Americans for Tax Reform and was reportedly operating at the request of President Reagan, accomplished much of his goal. Over the years, he intimidated members of congress, pressuring them to sign a pledge to never increase taxes and, essentially, reduce taxes as much as possible. Not just personal income taxes, but corporate taxes and, most notably, taxes on the rich. The folly of “Trickle-Down Economics” was effectively used to help market this corrupt policy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to pin the dismantling of our democratic institutions on just one guy. On the contrary, Norquist was enthusiastically cheered on by a raft of conservative radio talk show hosts, who, at least on the surface, fought for truth, justice and the American Way, but in actuality spread poisonous propaganda and false truths regarding the function and value of our democratic institutions. They spread their propaganda to increasingly wider audiences, using people’s fear as leverage. They built massive echo chambers of half-truths, unresearched allegations and outright lies. They cleverly directed their fear toward anyone that stood in their way, including intellectuals, godless liberals, elitists or, in general, anyone who did not believe in an increasingly hyper conservative doctrine. They turned healthy debates into raging winner-take-all fight-to-the-death arguments, all to distract us from what was really going on behind the scenes. These debates included abortion, immigration, gun control, the war on Christmas, family values, flag burning, and on and on. And in the midst of all this manufactured mayhem, government institutions were quietly dismantled in the shadows while the conservative radio talk show hosts got filthy rich on advertisement dollars.
So as the institutions of democracy decayed, our protections from unrestrained capitalism evaporated. It’s well known that the financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by a tsunami of lawlessness within some very large financial institutions. The volume of money lost was exacerbated by the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act less than a decade before; The Glass-Steagall Act was conceived in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s and for many years did indeed mitigate just the sort of disaster that struck in 2008.
Who were the people responsible for this mess? We’ll never really have the complete picture because our government was not willing to prosecute individuals for many reasons, most notably was — here’s that word again — fear. Financial institutions managed to persuade government prosecutors that any investigation and attempt at prosecution would cause tremendous collateral damage throughout the financial world, resulting in a disastrous ripple effect on the economy. Remember the argument that the banks were too big to fail? Apparently, democracy was already intimidated by capitalism. So the government bailed out the financial institutions who, in turn, foreclosed on the homes of millions of American families, throwing people onto the street. I wonder if anyone really saw the irony of it all — we bailed out financial institutions run by crooks, and they paid us back by foreclosing on us. Over 30 trillion dollars of the world’s wealth disappeared. People lost their life savings. And still, to this day, no Wall Street executive served a single day in jail.
Was there outrage? Yes. But it amounted to a relatively small whimper, largely ignored by the press and ridiculed by those already in power. It could indeed be argued that by 2008, our government was already being drowned in a bathtub, and kleptocracy was on the march.
When the novel coronavirus struck, we were completely unprepared. Pandemic planning was severely undercut in recent years. Stockpiles of medical gear and supplies were allowed to wither. Distribution plans for critical supplies were discarded. Intelligence reports regarding the virus as early as November 2019 were ignored. Denial and wishful thinking replaced the smooth launching of a well thought-out nation-wide pandemic plan. Having no imagination and no well thought-out plans to draw from, our leaders shut down the economy in a last-minute ill-conceived rush to beat back the virus using a last-ditch effort of having everyone stay at home. They had no plan whatsoever to keep the economy going in this crippled environment. There was no plan at all. Period. Despite the claims of our leaders, they simply made it up as they went along, and now, because of a failing economy, people are being asked to risk their lives to go back to work, or be fired and lose all their benefits. It’s easy to see why people are upset on both sides of this issue.
It’s now 2020, and the bubbles in the bathwater have stopped rising to the surface.
Many of these pandemic problems were due to the lack of clear leadership from the beginning. You can blame that on certain individuals indeed. But looking deeper, we see that the maintenance of medical stockpiles and the army of scientists and epidemiologists that were ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice were not to be found. Most of these scientists, along with some valuable research into coronaviruses, were dismissed years earlier, all in the interest of shrinking down the government so that it could be drowned in a bathtub.
Unfortunately, the lungs of many infected people are now literally drowning. They’re not drowning on bathwater, but it might as well be. The dismantling of our government exacted a heavy price. I wonder if anyone really understands the slow motion disaster that started in the early 1980s, when our government of democracy was portrayed as a problem.
As we lean into the precipice of an all-out kleptocracy, I can only ask what our so-called “new normal” will look like. To me, the answer is obvious — we must now make a critical choice. Either we rebuild our democracy, or we drown in our bathtubs.