In a compelling analysis, one scribe reflects back on the days of real economic ‘growth’ and wonders: What the hell happened?
Your dearest wish is for our state structure and ideological system never to change, to remain as they are for centuries. But history is not like that. Every system either finds a way to develop or else collapses.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that in 1974, in his famous “Letter to the Soviet Leaders.” But it could just as easily be addressed to President Barack Obama, Congress, members of the media, corporate chiefs, and others who lead and maintain the power structure in the United States.
The United States is as ossified as the USSR was before its collapse.
Shortly after the start of the financial meltdown, which began in 2009, polls found American citizens disgusted with the capitalist system. Tens of millions said they would prefer socialism. When the Occupy Wall Street movement took off in 2011, mainstream pundits began using the “R” word: Revolution, but only to ask a question with a predetermined answer. Regime change, they said, was neither desirable nor possible.
We used to be a growing country. Not any more. We used to welcome new states into the Union. It’s been 53 years since we added a star to Old Glory; Puerto Rican statehood isn’t a subject of serious consideration. We used to amend the Constitution to suit changing mores. The last major amendment, granting the vote to 18-year-olds, was ratified in 1971. Apparently equal rights for women is too much to ask.
We don’t build anymore. Think about infrastructure. The last major public works project in U.S. history was the Interstate Highway System, built in the 1950s—not coincidentally when the economy was booming.
According to Mike Rotkin, a former Santa Cruz mayor and professor of the now disbanded UC Santa Cruz Community Studies program, in many ways the overall structure of institutionalized America and the U.S. Constitution worked well when the country was brand new. There were fewer people, the majority of whom were predominantly self-sufficient, but, he points out, the needs of people have vastly changed to collective dependence.
“I think that life has simply gotten more complex,” Rotkin says. “The choices that people had in the past about a variety of things were both simpler and more subject to solution at the individual level. Our needs as a society are becoming increasingly collective. We live in a modern, industrial, information society, which requires these new kinds of collective institutions, and we haven’t really developed them.”
Hindering that development is people’s common unwillingness to question established ways of doing things and looking at the world. “There’s an ideology engrained to never challenge the logic of the whole system,” he adds. “Those institutions are structured the way they are, and people who live in that world feel it’s the only possible world they could have.”
Rotkin goes on to note that the resistance to accepting new kinds of institutions is very much structured by modern institutions’ efforts to retain the status quo, often as a means to maintain the economic hierarchy. For example: the auto industry preventing the development of mass public transit systems in the U.S. and private health insurance companies fighting to prevent a collective public healthcare option.
“It’s not rational that we have crumbling infrastructure on the highways. Our road system is in horrible condition,” Rotkin says. “When you’re stuck in a traffic jam on your way to work, that’s not something you can fix by yourself no matter how clever you are. It requires some new mass transportation system and a collective effort.”
The political system may be ossified too.
The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut (and, on the local front, the recent deaths of officers Loran “Butch” Baker and Elizabeth Butler), prompted calls for tighter gun control. But nobody, not even liberals, the traditional enemies of gun rights, argued for getting rid of the Second Amendment which, depending on your interpretation of the prefatory comma, allows us to join a militia or carry guns in our waistbands. “I have no intention of taking away folks’ guns,” President Obama has said.
Well, why not? Personally, I’m against gun control and I’m glad that very little is going to change. Yet I find it disturbing that the Second Amendment is considered sacrosanct, even by the 24 percent of Americans who want to ban handguns. Pointing out that the country is very different now than it was in 1789 seems reasonable. Maybe we don’t need guns anymore. A smart country, one willing to weigh the alternatives when trying to solve a problem, should be able to discuss the possibility of repealing the Second Amendment.
Look at our national political dialogue, which ranges from center-right (Democrat) to right (Republican). Whole strains of ideology— communist, socialist, nationalist, libertarian— are off the table. We pretend most of the ideological spectrum doesn’t exist. Not smart.
Rotkin notes that the political system in the U.S. “makes people think they have only two choices: between the center right and the far right, instead of the option to vote for someone who shares their actual world view.”
Contributing to that limited source of options on the table is people’s disconnect with how the political system functions. Most people are relatively divorced from the root ideologies of the political party they most identify with. They tend to register Democratic or Republican and vote Democrat or Republican. “There are exceptions,” Rotkin says, “but often they don’t actually have the ability to sit around with their neighbors and discuss how the world should develop.”
A national unwillingness and/or inability to have a wide-ranging debate reminds me of New York City, where I have lived for many years. There are no public restrooms. Restaurants and other businesses post “Restrooms for Customers Only” signs on their doors. Yet peeing outside is against the law; in fact, it’s public exposure, a sex offense that can land you on a Megan’s Law-style pervert registry. So where are you supposed to go?
A child could tell you this is insane. You know what’s even more insane? That New Yorkers don’t even talk about it. Like Germans on their way to work in the early 1940s,
wondering what that funny smell
coming from the camp down the road might be, we pretend that this is all perfectly normal.
As a recent New York Times article by Louis Seidman pointed out, we have foolishly elevated the Constitution to the status of a sacred text, fetishizing a supposedly “living document” that in truth has been dead for years. (Congress, for example, has the sole right to start wars. President Bush ignored the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions concerning POWs at Guantanamo. And so on.) The result, Seidman argues, is endless petty bickering about what the meaning of “is” is and what that stupid comma was supposed to be for.
The question for any society is not how to figure out how to conform ourselves to rules and assumptions laid down by our forebears, but to come up with the smartest solutions to our problems and the best systems to make things run smoothly now and in the future. If we were revolutionaries, if we were inventing the United States from scratch, would we create the Electoral College? Doubtful.
The people of the United States are changing all the time, but the United States government and power structure are stuck. The political “culture wars” date to the 1960s and 1980s. Our military thinks the Cold War is still going on.
Our economy reflects our national congealing.
Once a “land of opportunity,” the U.S. is now anything but. If you’re born into a poor family, your chances of elevating yourself into the middle or upper class are lower in America than in other industrialized countries. “It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” says economist Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.”
Aside from the unfairness and the instability caused by inequality and lack of social mobility, we’re losing the talents of tens of millions of Americans who will never be able to live up to their potential, share their ideas and contribute to the making of a more perfect union.
We haven’t had a major social or political revolution since the 1960s. It’s been too long. Like the Soviet Union, we must develop scrapping long-held assumptions and reconsidering everything from scratch—or collapse.
Joel Hersch also contributed to this article. Ted Rall’s most recent book is “Wake Up, You’re Liberal! How We Can Take America Back from the Right” (Soft Skull Press).