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Apocalypse Now: Seriously, It’s Time for a Major Rethink About Liberal and Progressive Politics

An interesting article from AlterNet.org:  As the editor of AlterNet for 20 years, I have read and seen the entire range of horrendous and growing problems we face as a society and a planet virtually every day. It is not just climate change, or ISIL, or Ferguson, or poverty and homelessness, or more misogynistic murdering of women, or the Democrats about to lose the Senate as Obama gets more unpopular. It is much, much more. Every day, it passes by before my eyes. At AlterNet, there are no issue silos—there is just the open faucet of depressing political information coming and going every hour of every day (with the occasional story of success and inspiration).

So I am sorry to share my deep-seated opinion, which should jibe with anyone who is paying attention. After decades of engagement in progressive politics and media, it is very clear to me: we progressives, liberals, common-sense people, are losing badly to the conservative business state, the tyranny of massively expanding tech companies, theocratic right-wing forces and pervasive militarism, home and abroad. By virtually every measure, things are getting worse. And things are trending much, much worse in ways we can easily measure, like inequality, climate, militarization of police forces, etc., and in ways that are more psychological and emotional.

Americans are very pessimistic: 76 percent of respondents in a Wall Street Journal poll did not feel confident that their children’s generation will have a better life than theirs. That’s up from 60 percent in 2007. Optimism for Americans peaked in 2001. The percentage of American adults who believe the country is on the wrong track jumped eight percentage points just this summer, to 71 percent, the WSJ poll found.

And Americans’ dark views of the future are rational, as their lives have become so much more difficult and depressing. People are working longer hours, working far past previous retirement age—if they can retire at all. Many Americans do not take vacations. And many Americans of all ages can’t find good jobs, or can only find low-paying and often part-time work, which causes their lifestyles to plummet. College graduates are burdened with heavy debt.

Younger generations know that the perhaps romantic notion of the American Dream, for most people, lies in the trash bin. Over the past 15 years there was more than a 50 percent increase in people thinking there is a lack of opportunity in America (it is now just about half of all Americans). And 59 percent of Americans believe the American Dream is impossible to achieve for most people.

In terms of inequality, the Huffington Postwrote: “more than 45 million people, or 14.5 percent of all Americans, lived below the poverty line last year, the Census Bureau reported.…The annual income threshold for being counted as living in poverty was $11,490 last year for a person and $23,550 for a family of four.”

Poverty is particularly dire for single mothers: A third of all families headed by single women were in poverty last year—that’s 15.6 million such households. The black poverty rate was 27.2 percent.… More than 11 million black Americans lived below the poverty level last year. About 42.5 percent of the households headed by single black women were in poverty. The Hispanic poverty rate was 23.5 percent.”

The Long March Toward Conservative Corporate Dominance

The relentless push for the conservative anti-government business agenda, that has created most of the reality described above, has been underway for more than 40 years, since the age of Reagan. The infamous Koch brothers, and dozens of very conservative, superrich allies, joined the right-wing corporate bandwagon post-Reagan, when their Libertarian electoral efforts fell flat. They used their massive money, infrastructure and energy to turn the existing propaganda, political and business lobbying machine into a juggernaut.

So now the corporate, business-state power nexus, which includes the political arms that have a range of conservative political entities—from fundamentalist religious groups to the Tea Party—has it all. There are large numbers of organizers, highly visible gatherings of the faithful, and a powerful media and online presence—complemented too often by an eagerly compliant corporate media which repeats reactionary and business state talking points like stenographers (as often even does progressive media). There are thousands of paid conservative talking heads on all the news shows, lavishly funded think-tanks, and the omnipresent Fox which dominates cable news and influences public attitudes more than any other media. And the leaders of this conservative colossus really hate to lose. Thus they hold people accountable to get results. They are relentless, not unlike many other fundamentalists across the globe, who are intent on imposing their will and crushing their enemies.

Sure, the torch-keepers of the corporate agenda may lose elections along the way, but they now can pretty much stop any major laws from passing in America on the national level. They have tilted our politics far enough in their direction, that the public at large lacks the leverage to regain the balance, to protect most things we believe in. It is not clear when, or even if we can regain the balance.

Blips on the Screen, But the Larger Truth

Of course, there are a few blips of good news here and there. We live in a complex society with some contradictions. But often when the occasional success gets appropriately celebrated, like gay marriage, it is often seen as proof of how things are going to change, and not as the anomaly it is with very particular ingredients. Public opinion has shifted on gay marriage, and obviously among leaders like Hillary Clinton, and even some conservatives. That is progress. But we would have no gay marriage if there wasn’t huge money in favor of it, if powerful people didn’t have skin in the game, and if it threatened corporate power and profit, which it doesn’t, since gay marriage has been somewhat of a boon for the business sector, and many corporations support it.

At this point, it is a basic tenet of American politics that corporate power rules the roost. Nothing significant will become law in America if corporate power, profits, global competitive advantage, military might, national security and privatization are in any significant way threatened. And while I personally understand the motivation in a situation of dire straits, I am weary of what is often knee-jerk optimism among some progressive cheerleaders, about how things are going to change, something better is right around the corner, the pendulum is going to swing back, what goes around comes around, etc. People: it is not going to happen. Every indicator signals that things are going to get worse; perhaps much worse.

Another favorite line many smart people utter, almost every day out of some kind of unmoored hope is: “If only the American people knew how bad these things are, like children’s hunger, the wage gap or how rich the .001 percent is, they would get angry and do something about it.” Well, no. First, most people know how bad things are—they don’t need to have the exact statistic to understand it. They live it every day.

The bigger problem is that people don’t know what to do. They are overwhelmed on the Internet, asked to sign dozens of petitions a week, give money to a myriad of uncoordinated, stand-alone causes. But the truth is, the political system is blocked in almost every way, as never before. There is voter suppression to the extremely conservative Supreme Court and the Citizen’s United decision. There is massive lobbying budgets (analyst James Thurber estimated that the actual number of working lobbyists in Washington was close to 100,000 and the industry brings in $9 billion annually) and corruption on many levels. There is often what seems like police-state repression and the criminalization of poverty, homelessness, drug use, and of immigrants, people of color, and often those who venture to protest and express their constitutional rights.

Things may feel relatively fine for many educated white folks living on the coasts and in cities and university towns, but this will not last. Sooner or later, the rising tides of massive inequality and increased repression will affect most of us.

Who to Vote for?

For most people, federal elections change nothing. Rarely is there someone to vote for who might even try to shake up the system. As research has shown, the entire elected apparatus in America serves the wealthy almost exclusively—and especially those who pay for their campaigns.

In New York, for instance, Senator Chuck Schumer, perhaps the second or third most powerful person in the Senate, is a staunch advocate of protecting the special tax status of hugely wealthy hedge funders. He is strongly resistant to even modest reforms, like a tiny transaction tax on stock trading advocated by the United Nurses and many others that would bring more money for much-needed programs and infrastructure. But come election time, if you don’t vote for Chuck, your option is likely a conservative Republican who is even worse. What an option.

Sorry to say, but the “arc of history” is not bending toward justice—and hasn’t for the last 50 years, since shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached it, was assassinated. Maybe some time in the future, people will be able to claim that beautiful phrase for truth. But will it be in our lifetime? I don’t think I would take that bet. But then, I am older than many of you reading this. So I do hope you all will figure it out.

We Can’t Keep Doing the Same Thing

It’s my observation that many people, often comfortable, highly educated people, who control the progressive establishment (the foundations, the wealthy individuals, the think-tanks, the large, heavily funded Washington groups) continue to do the same thing over and over as if things will actually change by continuing the same path. People are fond of calling that repetitive compulsion “insanity,” and they have a point. There are notable exceptions to every one of my general statements throughout this article, but I’m talking about the big picture.

Sure, every once in a while there is an incremental change. Some positive things have happened internally within the Obama administration, despite the rabid right-wing opposition. But the Obama administration deported a record 438,421 unauthorized immigrants in fiscal year 2013, continuing a streak of stepped-up enforcement that has resulted in more than two million deportations since Obama took office, newly released Department of Homeland Security data show.

Dan Froomkin, writing at the Intercept, insists that in terms of the building of an excessive national security state, “in a lot of ways, we’re worse off today than we were under George W. Bush….There will be no snapping back to a pre-Bush-era respect for basic human dignity and civil rights. Thanks to Obama, it’s going to be a hard, long fight. In some cases, Obama has set even darker precedents than his predecessor. Massively invasive bulk surveillance of Americans and others has been expanded, not constrained. This president secretly condemns people to death without any checks or balances, and shrugs as his errant drones massacre innocent civilians. Whistleblowers and journalists who expose national security wrongdoing face unprecedented criminal prosecution.”

As for Obama and the climate crisis, take a look at Mark Hertsgaard’s comprehensive review in Harpers of the Obama environmental record. It is a depressing read. And there’s every indication that the presumed next Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, is a big advocate of fracking and would be worse on climate.

Yes, we do have Obamacare and that will help millions of poor people, as long as they don’t live in most red states. But Obamacare, for the most part, made the healthcare and drug companies happy because there are no cost controls. There is no public option, or single-payer model, and our government still can’t negotiate with drug companies for more fair prices on our behalf.

So it is quite bad. Yet year in and year out, we in the progressive universe write essentially the same books and articles (though the story does get worse), advocate for the same policies, go after the same grants, and meet with each other at the same think-tanks and conferences, because that is what we have always done.

However, and I think this is crucial, very little brain power, funding and large-scale energy is invested in serious organizing, and in thinking how political power can be leveraged to even remotely move toward the sensible or sometimes grandiose ideas the progressive establishment spends its time thinking up. We don’t have to read Thomas Piketty’s dense prose to understand how much worse the currently unacceptable inequality is going to be 10 years from now, or even to try and guess how many trillions of dollars of wealth are sitting hidden offshore, or in countries like Ireland, where one of our “favorite” corporations, Apple, keeps billions to avoid paying taxes.

We all can easily imagine many ways our world could be better. That is the really easy part. We also have all the analysis we need. We have access to a tremendous amount of information from the data-producing establishment to understand and prove the existence and cause of virtually every social problem. But we do not have a clue how to address these myriad of problems in a hardcore, political way and defend our values of fairness, inclusion and responsibility.

This is in stark contrast to the conservative corporate state that dominates in order to relentlessly cut social programs, lower taxes, privatize government, erode women’s rights, and on and on. Too often, all we have is the progressive religion of eternal hope and sometimes magical thinking, that change will come in some way and at some point. Yes, change will come, but it might not be the change we want. It might make things quite a bit worse than they are right now.

Is There Any Organizing?

There has been both a sharp decline in union membership and influence, as anti-union campaigns from Reagan to the present day have decimated a chunk of the union movement. The state of Michigan, the birthplace of the autoworkers and the labor vision, is now a “right-to-work” state. Some unions spend many millions of dollars fighting each other over decreasing numbers of members.

The same can be said of community organizing. Over the past 40 years, organizing has shrunk dramatically. Part of the blame is that large foundations, which represent individual and corporate wealth, have given billions of dollars to organizations with the end result of moving away from efforts to exercise power, to make trouble and push for change. Instead, they study things and become calm advocates for policy shifts. Often progressives have their own revolving doors between non-profits and foundation jobs. The result is a philanthropic non-profit establishment that appears to fit in too comfortably with the status quo, despite thousands of people within it who are unhappy with their feelings of impotence and lack of change.

There is still some semblance of organizing going on in America—in California, Kentucky and Minnesota—and by groups like PICO, the Domestic Workers Alliance, Partnership for Working Families, National People’s Alliance and U.S. Action, to name some of the key players. But indicative of how modest this organizing is, the overall budgets of the largest national groups combined is $130-$150 million, roughly in the range of one year of the budget for mainstream environmental group National Resources Defense Council and for the ACLU. And this is the same ACLU that supports the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision, treating money as speech, corporations as people—one of the truly horrendous developments in American politics in the last decade.

Many progressives, myself included, have the luxury of letting our imaginations play because our lives, our lifestyles, our families, our futures, are not dependent on having most of the major and intractable problems solved, at least in the short term. In this sense, climate change could finally be the great game-changer, since it directly affects families and generations to come. But there is little evidence, at this point, that the wealthy elites and corporate leaders in America are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to protect the future.

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Royce Christyn
About Royce Christyn (3467 Articles)
Documentarian, Writer, Producer, Director, Author.