Summary: Sometimes, as in depressions and wars, we recognize periods of great political change. But sometimes we keep the illusion of normalcy while the nation changes beneath our feet. This is America today, in the midst of a slow-motion revolution. We cannot manage these changes (or perhaps even cope with them) until we see them.
America has drastically changed since 2000. The buildings remain the same, as do its people. The forms of government remain the same. But it is vital that we understand the new trajectory of our politics set by our past two presidents. They deserve to be on Mount Rushmore in terms of their transformative effect on America. Only time will tell whether for good or ill.
Bush Jr., the transformative president
Bush Jr. earned a place on Mount Rushmore – or perhaps starting a new line of sculptures – because he undercut or outright reversed so much done by Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. The changes Bush made had precedents — as Hoover’s policies foreshadowed FDR’s. But like the bold measures of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, Bush’s effects on America are of breadth and scale that defy easy description. We’re too close to see the full range of these changes, to assess their relative importance, or do more than guess at their effects. But they’ve clearly set America on a new path.
Consider just a few of his major policy initiatives. The roots of these policy changes lie in the past, but he brought them to maturity.
- His tax laws shifted the burden of Federal taxes from the rich to the middle-class (only slightly rolled back by Obama; State and local taxes were already regressive). He boosted the deficit. Both continued the work of our previous transformative President – Ronald Reagan.
- He shifted the US from its post-WWII policy of containment and support for international law (largely a US-driven creation) to one of militaristic aggression – quite mad for a world in which new power centers are arising.
- He decisively broke with the New Deal patterns, weakening the regulatory apparatus’s ability to interfere with corporate profits – and diminishing the influence of contrary interests, such as unions and environmentalists.
- He decisively broke with generations-old legal prohibitions (e.g., torture, preemptive war, indefinite detention without trial) or centuries-old (e.g., use of mercenaries).
Let’s look at these revolutionary political changes in more detail, since journalists and pundits have forgotten them.
Homeland security, not national defense.
After his administration ignored eight months warnings about al Qaeda, 9-11 struck. He masterfully exploited American’s shock and fear – supercharging it during the next 7 years – to reshape America from one protected internally by law enforcement agencies to one subject to security services, as seen in the Stasi-like name and functions of the Homeland Security department. The immense expansion of the domestic armed forces and intelligence agencies — including those who, working with our allies, actually suppressed al Qaeda – in both size and power (including the numerous legal, borderline legal, and illegal domestic surveillance programs) continues today.
His programs affected all levels of the government, as in the accelerated militarization of police, with the expansion of their surveillance programs and increases in transfers to them of military equipment under the 1033 program. For a fuller picture of this see “The Militarization of U.S. Domestic Policing“ by Abigail R. Hall and Christopher J. Coyne in The Independent Review, Spring 2013.
Bush started the Long War (aka the bizarrely named “War on Terror”), with expeditions to fight in foreign civil wars on a scale without precedent in US history. We invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, sent troops and missiles and drones to participate in shadowy ways in insurgencies in other nations (e.g., Yemen, Pakistan, Philippines) – and laid the foundation for new wars by creating the Africa Command – building upon the Pan Sahel Initiative, which became the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. The disastrous Libyan intervention was its first fruits.
Bush didn’t build a new world order just by starting wars. He withdrew America from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Through his invasions and occupations he overthrew not just the international law established at such cost by America after WWII, but abrogated treaties prohibiting torture going back to 1906 and treaties restricting the use of mercs and preemptive attacks going back to Westphalia in 1648. These precedents will haunt us for decades, perhaps generations. We have embraced the evils of torture and mercs, with malign effects we cannot well imagine.
Perhaps the greatest effect on America has been on our national character. We have become a nation shaped by wars, internal distrust, wide surveillance, and militarized police. We watch the adventures of our stylish security police (NCIS, NCIS-LA, NCIS-New Orleans) – who treat laws as mild suggestions, and regard judges and juries as irritating formalities. We don’t just embrace torture as a useful tool, best done with a minimum of supervision or records, but applaud stories about torture at theaters. I’m not the only one to worry about our increasingly evident bloodlust.
Undercutting the solvency of our government.
Keynes said that we should run large deficits during recessions and reduce the debt during expansions. Clinton did this. He balanced the budget so that experts forecast a rapidly shrinking debt that would put the government in strong condition for the inevitable deficits from 2020 – 2040 (as the boomers retired). Like his Republican predecessor Reagan and Republican successor Trump, Bush Jr. did the opposite. All three worked with great success to demolish the solvency of the Federal government.
Like Reagan, Bush made irrational promises about the magic of tax cuts – without any basis in history or economic theory – which we believed a second time – to get Congress to approve the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. The resulting deficits and slow economic growth weakened America, setting us up for the great recession of Bush’s last two years in office.
That change in the trajectory of the Federal debt, a second push into the red, puts us on course for some difficult times ahead. Not the end times, as the deficit doomsters say, but we’ll need good policies and some good luck to get through the next several decades.
The 2007-08 crash was another fruit of Bush Jr.’s policies. The deregulation mania of Republican officials made it possible, with the support of Wall Street (e.g., the SEC’s 2004 regulatory scheme in 2004, that allowed a massive increase in leverage of investment banks). Just as Team Bush ignored the warnings about al Qaeda, they ignored the far louder warnings about the real estate lending bubble.
Obama continued America’s transformation
In most things, Obama continued the policies of Bush Jr. Obama did, however, make three great policy innovations. First, his assassination of US citizens violating not just the Constitution but breaking precedents going back to Magna Carta. Second, he implemented a treaty without Senate approval. Third – perhaps most momentous – Obama devised a way to expand the Federal government without limit, overcoming the public’s resistance to socialism, a rational resistance, given its horrific history.
But he did much more. As Nixon was one of America’s most liberal presidents, Obama was one of our most fascist presidents. (Just for fun, see the similarities between Obama and Trump.)
That we do not see these things shows our inability to clearly see our world.
Obama’s anti-liberal, even fascist, actions.
Obama’s fascist accomplishments are legion. He did many of the same things Liberals condemned Bush Jr for doing, and did things Bush did not even imagine: illegal surveillance programs, advocacy for broad NSA power, most aggressive-ever use of the Espionage Act of 1917, persecution of whistleblowers, mockery of his pledge to run the “most transparent administration ever“, continued use of Guantanamo Bay, and assassination programs (including US citizens).
The left’s pro-war president.
Obama decisively broke the Left’s anti-war tradition. Iraq kicked us out of Iraq (Bush negotiated it, Obama executed it). Obama offset it by deepening our wars in Afghanistan and Yemen, waged an illegal war in Libya (of the sort he specifically promised not to do) – with terrible results – and laid the foundation for future wars by expanding Africom. The Left loved him!
The Left’s new priorities.
Clinton forged the Left’s alliance with Wall Street, but Obama put it to work, justifying every dime they paid the Democrats. Obama prioritized the interests of banks, their executives, and their shareholders. Mortgage fraud by the banks was ignored. Hillary continued this grand tradition.
Who goes on Rushmore after Bush and Obama?
This is not just presidents leaving large footprints across America. This is a process of accelerated evolution. I doubt that it has ended. All of the leading Democratic candidates for president are far Left (ignore journalists labeling some as “moderates”). Sanders is very far Left. My guess is that the staff of these candidates is more Left than their candidates.
If the Democrats win in 2020, the age of transformation will leap ahead again.
There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.
— Paraphrase from Marx’s letter to Engels, 9 April 1863.
For more information
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Books about Bernie’s Revolution …
… but these describe only the mild first steps in Sanders’ program. Don’t scare the proles!
Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In by Bernie Sanders (2016).
Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution by Bernie Sanders (2017).
How Bernie Won: Inside the Revolution That’s Taking Back Our Country – and Where We Go from Here by Jeff Weaver (2018).
30 thoughts on “In 2020 America might resume the revolution”
I think you mean Keynes said we should run large deficits during recessions.
Good piece. I thought if I had anything meaningful to say — and I didn’t, and so I won’t! But I did see that error and wanted to let you know.
Obama was one of our most fascist presidents
Surely not ‘fascist’ in any useful sense? See Robert Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism for a careful analytical account of the phenomenon of fascism.
Yes, these Presidents made profound changes of very disturbing sorts. But I don’t think calling them fascist adds any understanding of what they did, why and how.
Congrats on the oddest comment of the day.
I don’t know who Paxton is, but every Political Science textbook defines “fascism” as a system with strong power by a leader (usually with some kind of adulation), forcible suppression of opposition, and regimentation of society and of the economy (see Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fascism). Obama shows all three characteristics.
Authoritarian leader: Ignoring the Constitution – implementing the Paris Agreement (treaty) and the Clean Power Plan (a law) without Congress, assassination without writ or trial.
Forcible suppression of opposition: persecution of whistleblowers, using the 1918 Espionage Act (a dead letter before Obama), defending and expanding the surveillance state (both Patriot Act and extra-legal), the assassination of citizen opponents.
Regimentation of society – Setting up kangaroo courts to try men on campuses, encouraging speech codes (punishment for heterodox jokes).
I would recommend getting and reading Paxton’s book. Its full of real insights. Fascism is a very specific phenomenon. There are many authoritarian regimes that are not fascist.
Fascism. a very specific thing, came to power in Europe in the 20C in some very specific ways. It also failed to come to power, and those cases are as interesting, when considering the aetiology, as those in which it succeeded.
I do agree that there was an increase in the power of the executive under Bush and Obama, and that the increased powers were abused. But I don’t agree that this is usefully clarified by characterizing it as fascism.
It was something distinctive and different, distinctively American. No better for that. But different. Understanding the difference, understanding the distinctive thing that happened, is critical to figuring out what a solution would be. It wasn’t at all like Europe in the early 20C.
Umberto Eco? Best regarded as a very intelligent and learned guy who decided to have some fun and make money by writing an absurd semi-parodic novel incorporating lots of the crazier elements of Euro fantasy culture, like the Grail, the Templars and Heaven knows what else. You are not missing anything by not having read him!
Obama fascist? he contains none of the characteristics of fascism, at least according to Umberto Eco’s Ur fascism.
“In most things, Obama continued the policies of Bush Jr. Obama made three great policy innovations. First, his assassination of US citizens (violating not just the Constitution but breaking precedents going back to Magna Carta). Second, he implemented a treaty without Senate approval. Third – perhaps most momentous – Obama devised a way to expand the Federal government without limit, overcoming the public’s resistance to socialism (rational resistance, given its horrific history).”
Obama would be easier to characterize as the evolution of an Imperial Executive. The rolling of the courts and congress into the person of the President. Considering the lack of push back on the assassination by either the courts or congress, this is a pleasing development to both parties.
Am I wrong in thinking there are a whole host of international treaties which have been signed but not ratified dating back to the 60’s? and even ratified but not signed. I’m not sure you could say this as an Obama innovation.
You’re missing the point. The Senate has not ratified many treaties, such as joining the League of Nations. But those presidents respected the Constitution (ie, Wilson didn’t say “screw you” and put the US into the League).
I doubt there have been treaties ratified by the Senate but not signed by the President. Perhaps you can find a list of those “host” of treaties.
I understand the worship of St. Obama – and the desire to justify his many instances of ripping up the Constitution. That’s a major indication that, as I’ve written so often, the Constitution has died in our hearts – and our journey to a post-Constitutional regime. I doubt you’ll enjoy it when we get it.
I don’t know who Umberto Eco is, but Obama meets the characteristics of a fascist-type leader given in every Political Science textbook. See my reply to Henrik’s comment earlier.
“Considering the lack of push back on the assassination by either the courts or congress”
That’s how fascist states work.
I doubt there have been treaties ratified by the Senate but not signed by the President.
Yes your right, I dont know why I thought that, I must have confused that with something else.
Perhaps you can find a list of those “host” of treaties.
1977 – American Convention on Human Rights, signed but not ratified
1969 – Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, signed but not ratified
1966 – International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, signed but not ratified
962 – Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, signed but not ratified
1979 – Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, signed but not ratified
1989 – Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed but not ratified
1989 – Basel Convention, signed but not ratified
1992 – Convention on Biological Diversity, signed but not ratified
1994 – Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel, signed but not ratified
1996 – Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed but not ratified
1997 – Kyoto Protocol, signed with no intention to ratify
1999 – Criminal Law Convention on Corruption, signed but not ratified
2007 – Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, signed but not ratified
2011 – Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, signed but not ratified
2013 – Arms Trade Treaty, signed but not ratified
2016 – Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed but not ratified
2017 – Paris Agreement, signed but not ratified
I agree with you on Obama as regards his assassination program, and i certainly don’t agree with signing ratified treaties, unless there was a clear and present need to. Its just to me Fascist is a technical term, to be used with care, lest we become like the left.
Reading his definition of fascism it is clear to me how many elements of fascism are present on both the identity politics of the left and the populist right.
(1) You misunderstood both what you wrote AND my reply. Your list is not relevant. I have repeated the threat, and bolded key terms to make it clearer.
You said “Am I wrong in thinking there are a whole host of international treaties which have been signed but not ratified dating back to the 60’s? and even ratified but not signed. I’m not sure you could say this as an Obama innovation.”
(a) RE: signed by not ratified:
(b) Re: ratified but not signed
“I doubt there have been treaties ratified by the Senate but not signed by the President. Perhaps you can find a list of those “host” of treaties.”
That is the list you mentioned that I wanted to see.
(2) Why do I can what Umberto Eco says about fascism? He is not a political scientist. He is not a historian. Terms are used in conversation based on their standard meaning, not what some Italian philosopher-novelist defines them.
Apologies for my mis-statement.
“You misunderstood both what you wrote AND my reply.”
Obviously I don’t know that. I meant that your comment did not seem to be a reply to what I said. I’m trying to be more careful – avoiding guesses about people’s thinking.
I wrote this at the top of the post, in regards to the senate ratification,
“Yes your right, I don’t know why I thought that, I must have confused that with something else.”
But as I said there is a host of unratified treaties stretching back to the 1960s that have been signed by many Presidents, just like Obama did. I just don’t see that as “fascist”.
Signing an unratified treaty is not a fascist act, its not even unconstitutional is it?
His assassination of US citizens is wrong, evil, brutal, a trampling of due process I am completely opposed to, yes, but what makes it uniquely Fascist? Extra judicial state murder has not been uncommon in the west since records began, its a recorded first for the US, yes.
He decided this guy and family had forfeited his rights when he joined Al Qaeda, congress and the courts agreed, so did broadly the media, if this is the bar for fascism, the US is already a fascist state.
In this you would be in agreement with the far left.
There is not much more to say.
He has none of the characteristics of fascism.
There is no other enemy, ie no bolshevik, no jew, no international finance.
There is no nationalistic impulse, quite the opposite, he was an internationalist.
There is no paramilitary formation.
There was no deification of the Military, police.
There is no machismo
No blood and soil
No cult of tradition.
No rejection of the enlightenment
No distrust of intellectualism
I do believe there has been a drift to fascism in America since the second world war, but this is broad based, not just within politics. This is in the sense of America as a chosen people, with a special destiny, that rest of the world is conspiring against the native born, often in cahoots with Wall Street, in a fetishisation of the Police and Military, in a fascination with nationalist pageantry(fighter jets at ball games). In a disparaging of other peoples, the Arabs as rag heads, Vietnamise as zipperheads, while at the same time ascribing them super powers that make them uniquely powerful and dangerous. There is also a cult of the superhero, US super soldiers, special Ops, Navy seals, Superman, Captain America, Wonder women ect.
In the growth of New speak with its self censorship, the cults of anti reason on the left and right, the dismissing of experts.
This coupled with the legal precedent Assassination of US citizens makes for a worrying picture.
Perhaps fascism is coming, but it has not arrived yet, the stage is still being set, if it does arrive, our current fears will seem quaint.
“(2) Why do I care what Umberto Eco says about fascism? He is not a political scientist. He is not a historian. Terms are used in conversation based on their standard meaning, not what some Italian philosopher-novelist defines them.”
His essay is considered seminal, and is useful as a way to identify fascism in the modern world, he, having grown up in fascist Italy was disturbed that the phase fascist was being ill used, he provides a method for identifying fascist tendencies in the modern world, and in that respect is useful and important, that’s why you should care.
Many of the framers of the Constitution were Philosophers, thankfully they were listened too.
Apologies for my mis-statement.
No worries, thank you for taking the time to rely in the first place.
Sometimes the format loads replys out of order anyway
“Who goes on Rushmore after Bush and Obama?”
Johnson goes first…that war.
Why was the Vietnam War a structural change in the US government, on the scale of those done by those on the Mount R – or by Bush and Obama?
I guess I missed your point. I was thinking in terms of worse Presidents in my lifetime. You can’t put a price on a human life.
Overall another excellent piece of work, Larry. A few comments and questions:
You correctly identify the Bush Jr. administration as the primary actor in much of what happened. My undocumented understanding is that this was caused by Bush Jr. hiring so many of the big guns from the Reagan administration for his cabinet (particularly Dick Cheney), who fed him some really bad ideas (but, at the same time, the President MUST take responsibility for the actions of his administration). Thoughts?
Larry: “Mortgage fraud by the banks was ignored. Hillary continued this grand tradition.”
Can you document this? Particularly the part about Hillary? I suspect your accusation about Obama comes from the actions he took during 2008-10 in the aftermath of the Great Recession but I want to make sure. The accusation against Hillary is new to me.
My single biggest concern about the current US government inflection point is that it is increasingly hard to find news sources that try to provide an accurate set of facts. It is hard to react correctly to a crisis when your information sources are co-opted by people who do not have your best interests at heart.
Just in the last few weeks, several of my news sources have set up paywalls and/or want to know too much information about me for me to be comfortable sharing with them. At the current rate, by the election my only direct news source will be NPR radio (to which I contribute). I am extremely uncomfortable with that thought and it has given me an increasing appreciation of the work you do every day.
“Can you document this?”
No, I’m not going to document the subject of thousands of articles in the major media during the Crash. You might search “Naked Capitalism” during that period, as their daily links well covered this. It’s what built Yves Smith website.
“Hillary continued this grand tradition.”
I referred to the alliance between Wall Street and the Dem’s begun by Bill Clinton. Goldman and others didn’t give her all that money because they liked her hair. They want a return on their investment.
She lost the election, so their bet failed.
“several of my news sources have set up paywalls”
Good for them! The Declaration does not promise “life liberty, and free news.”
Larry: “Good for them! The Declaration does not promise “life liberty, and free news.”
True but I value my privacy highly and having news sources request personal information that could be used to empty my bank accounts or require automatic payment directly from my bank account for inadequately researched news grinds hard on my sensibilities.
I’m willing to accept inadequately researched news for free because I could cross-check it and get at something resembling an accurate understanding of what happened, paying for bad news is another matter.
The humorous thing is that I can still get free (and more reliable) information on Tech, Sports, and Science. Just the political news sources are behind the pay walls.
They have probably recognized that “political junkies” are to a certain extent just that, and that a lot of people are looking to do something they feel will be supportive. They also have money to spend. Why not bolster your offerings in that direction and profit from them?
Excellent post Larry. I am reminded of W. B. Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming
Comparing Obama to Trump: You wrote, As we start a new era, see the similarities between Obama and Trump By Larry Kummer, Editor, 22 January 2017 “Trump won the presidency (with a minority in the popular vote) making a wide range of big populist promises — many of which will be difficult or impossible to fulfill (e.g., boosting employment in manufacturing, and rebalancing trade with China). Neither entered office with a plan to fulfill their promises.”
Unlike Obama, Trump Fulfilled his promises and has done much much more.
Once again, your smug, left leaning bias stands out like a sore thumb! MAGA!
I was one of those lone nuts out there campaigning for Bush II to be impeached. I didn’t really have a specific offense but rather a list pretty much like yours here of ways he’d violated the Constitution. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that. When all my “peacenik” friends ran off from peace work and the impeachment campaign to instead campaign for Obama, I fell into a serious depression that lasted for years because it seemed so simple to me — a cursory internet search of Obama’s record told me he’d become Bush III, only the names and skin tones had changed. And I was right, dangerously depressed, but I was right.
I appreciate your website and this post in particular. It pulls together all the cold hard facts behind my despair.
I understand your depression! I don’t know if this is any help, but remember the master expiation for all things in our era: It’s ClownWorld!
Low expectations, with no expectation for rationality, should be our guide. The “Alice” books are our bibles.
Nicely stated. One comment reference Johnson / Kennedy. I had a similar conversation with Bacevich years ago. He led with this argument,
In the 1960’s, we had the NSC created, external interventions in Iran / Vietnam, and domestic suppression with policies like Cointelpro. On the tactical level, even in Vietnam and Iran (again), the San Tay raid and failed Embassy Hostage rescue paved the way for strategic policies after 9/11.
One possible distinction that you’re making is that Bush onward was more overt and more normalized.
I think there’s convergence with your thoughts and Bacevich’s. Years from now, one may argue that the 1960’s were the beta pilots for the later transformations.
As Bacevich said, everything has prior roots in history. Nothing big comes from the void.
What makes Bush Jr transformative is the breath and depth of the changes he made – and that he boldly stated them as innovations.
LBJ was a continuation of policies already well-established inIS history. He just took them another step or two farther!
Agreed. That was my point. See last line above,
“Years from now, one may argue that the 1960’s were the beta pilots for the later transformations.”
Apologies, my comment was unclear. I was attempting to provide further color to your comment.
I’m commenting on my 15-minute breaks at work, between gulping coffee.
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