Why Nations Fail
From The American Conservative; By Ron Unz | April 18, 2012; Original Article.
So far at least, these extra-constitutional and often brutal methods have not been directed toward controlling America’s own political system; we remain a democracy rather than a dictatorship. But does our current system actually possess the central feature of a true democracy, namely a high degree of popular influence over major government policies? Here the evidence seems more ambiguous.
Consider the pattern of the last decade. With two ruinous wars and a financial collapse to his record, George W. Bush was widely regarded as one of the most disastrous presidents in American history, and at times his public approval numbers sank to the lowest levels ever measured.
The sweeping victory of his successor, Barack Obama, represented more a repudiation of Bush and his policies than anything else, and leading political activists, left and right alike, characterized Obama as Bush’s absolute antithesis, both in background and in ideology.
This sentiment was certainly shared abroad, with Obama being selected for the Nobel Peace Prize just months after entering office, based on the widespread assumption that he was certain to reverse most of the policies of his detested predecessor and restore America to sanity.
Yet almost none of these reversals took place. Instead, the continuity of administration policy has been so complete and so obvious that many critics now routinely speak of the Bush/Obama administration.
The harsh violations of constitutional principles and civil liberties which Bush pioneered following the 9/11 attacks have only further intensified under Obama, the heralded Harvard constitutional scholar and ardent civil libertarian, and this has occurred without the excuse of any major new terrorist attacks.
During his Democratic primary campaign, Obama promised that he would move to end Bush’s futile Iraq War immediately upon taking office, but instead large American forces remained in place for years until heavy pressure from the Iraqi government finally forced their removal; meanwhile, America’s occupation army in Afghanistan actually tripled in size.
The government bailout of the hated financial manipulators of Wall Street, begun under Bush, continued apace under Obama, with no serious attempts at either government prosecution or drastic reform. Americans are still mostly suffering through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, but Wall Street profits and multimillion-dollar bonuses soon returned to record levels.
In particular, the continuity of top officials has been remarkable. As Bush’s second defense secretary, Robert Gates had been responsible for the ongoing management of America’s foreign wars and military occupations since 2006; Obama kept him on, and he continued to play the same role in the new administration.
Similarly, Timothy Geithner had been one of Bush’s most senior financial appointments, playing a crucial role in the widely unpopular financial bailout of Wall Street; Obama promoted him to Treasury secretary and authorized continuation of those same policies. Ben Bernanke had been appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve by Bush and was reappointed by Obama.
Bush wars and bailouts became Obama wars and bailouts. The American public voted for an anti-Bush, but got Bush’s third term instead.
During the Cold War, Soviet propagandists routinely characterized our democracy as a sham, with the American public merely selecting which of the two intertwined branches of their single political party should alternate in office, while the actual underlying policies remained essentially unchanged, being decided and implemented by the same corrupt ruling class. This accusation may have been mostly false at the time it was made but seems disturbingly accurate today.
When times are hard and government policies are widely unpopular, but voters are only offered a choice between the rival slick marketing campaigns of Coke and Pepsi, cynicism can reach extreme proportions. Over the last year, surveys have shown that the public non-approval of Congress - representing Washington’s political establishment - has ranged as high as 90–95 percent, which is completely unprecedented.
But if our government policies are so broadly unpopular, why are we unable to change them through the sacred power of the vote? The answer is that America’s system of government has increasingly morphed from being a representative democracy to becoming something closer to a mixture of plutocracy and mediacracy, with elections almost entirely determined by money and media, not necessarily in that order. Political leaders are made or broken depending on whether they receive the cash and visibility needed to win office.
National campaigns increasingly seem sordid reality shows for second-rate political celebrities, while our country continues along its path toward multiple looming calamities. Candidates who depart from the script or deviate from the elite D.C. consensus regarding wars or bailouts - notably a principled ideologue such as Ron Paul - are routinely stigmatized in the media as dangerous extremists or even entirely airbrushed out of campaign news coverage, as has been humorously highlighted by comedian Jon Stewart.
We know from the collapsed communist states of Eastern Europe that control over the media may determine public perceptions of reality, but it does not change the underlying reality itself, and reality usually has the last laugh.
Economics Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and his colleagues have conservatively estimated the total long-term cost of our disastrous Iraq War at $3 trillion, representing over one-fifth of our entire accumulated national debt, or almost $30,000 per American household. And even now the direct ongoing costs of our Afghanistan War still run $120 billion per year, many times the size of Afghanistan’s total GDP.
Meanwhile, during these same years the international price of oil has risen from $25 to $125 per barrel—partly as a consequence of these past military disruptions and growing fears of future ones—thereby imposing gigantic economic costs upon our society.
And we suffer other costs as well. A recent New York Times story described the morale-building visit of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to our forces in Afghanistan and noted that all American troops had been required to surrender their weapons before attending his speech and none were allowed to remain armed in his vicinity. Such a command decision seems almost unprecedented in American history and does not reflect well upon the perceived state of our military morale.
Future historians may eventually regard these two failed wars, fought for entirely irrational reasons, as the proximate cause of America’s financial and political collapse, representing the historical bookend to our World War II victory, which originally established American global dominance.
This is a six-part article:
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