The Democratic victory has served a much needed defeat to one of the most destructive political movements in the West – the American conservative movement, a fractured alliance of corporate self-interest, racial resentment, neo-conservatism, and Christian fundamentalism.
After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the US came to be governed by an awkward consensus between an expansive American capitalism, a liberal establishment in the North,and an apartheid settlement in the South, all under the aegis of the Democratic Party. That lasted until the end of the 1960s. Lyndon Johnson’s overwhelming victory against the Republicans in 1964 (like George Bush’s victory in 2004) belied the major changes that were about to transform American politics.
The atrocious Vietnam War and the white backlash against the civil rights crippled the Democrats. With the American Left too small to replace a floundering liberal establishment, the Right had its opportunity.
Their new movement combined resentment toward black people, bitterness at a lost war in Vietnam and especially those who opposed it, opposition to taxation, and from the 1980s, wedded to Evangelical fundamentalism. They became the dominant force in American politics, succeeding in putting presidents who accepted their world view in the White House - Ronald Reagan, and to an even greater extent, George W. Bush.
Their ideology demands massive cuts in spending on services for the less well-off. It insists on cutting taxation for the rich and removing legal restrictions on the conduct of corporations. It vehemently rejects any questions about the value, application - or even limits - of American power overseas and allows absolutely no ethical obstacle to stand in the way of destroying its chosen enemies.
These positions are couched in moral terms – the commitment of America to promote liberty throughout the world, and a commitment to encouraging self-reliance, giving individuals freedom to pursue happiness in their own way with as little government interference as possible.
The reality of what that movement has wrought has been spectacularly different. The idealism in practice acted as poor cover for the outright self-interest of the rich. Both Reagan and Bush II enormously expanded the role of government at its authoritarian worst, while massively increasing the spending they claimed to be against, much of it in the form of corruptly allowing corporations to use the treasury as a teat. Their anti-tax philosophy demanded that this be paid for by creating a debt so huge that even if the Republicans lost power, it would be near impossible for the Democrats to find money for much-needed social spending, a side-effect that was not unintentional.
Like Nixon’s, both the Reagan and Bush II administrations have been marked by massive corruption and the criminal prosecution of its members. Their removal of necessary regulations on financial institutions permitted the rise of corporate criminality and recklessness. Ultimately, that led to the institutional collapses that cost many ordinary people hundreds of millions of dollars – the Savings and Loans scandals of the ‘80s (in which Senator John McCain was heavily implicated) and the huge crisis in the mortgage and banking sector we have faced in the last few weeks.
Representing the short-term profit interest of business allows no space for long-term decision-making or environmental concerns. Faced with the reality of environmental catastrophe, the conservative movement in the US (unlike the Right in Europe) simply opted for denial – pretending the problem does not exist and attacking the integrity of any independent source of expertise saying otherwise.
Governor Sarah Palin, who has yet to learn that Africa is not a country and proudly defended by the Republican Party base, represented the logical extension of an ideology that encouraged resentment of anyone with the expertise to expose its flaws – scientists, economists, academics, even school teachers. This is tediously presented as a courageous stand for the little guy of the American heartland with patriotic, good-hearted instincts against the supposed snobbery and contempt of East Coast intellectuals and bureaucrats.
These purposefully mindless instincts fired belief in the near-invulnerability of US military power and the virtue of war. It allowed strategists with the barest knowledge of the outside world to take the US into a situation where it now occupies a disintegrating Iraq, is losing ground in a war in Afghanistan, is entering into a war in northern Pakistan and still considers attacking Iran and facing off Russia in the Caucasus. Over a million Iraqis have died and the US army stretched to breaking point in a war of choice launched on a bogus prospectus.
The response of the American public is regret for a war they once supported and now see as a mistake. The response of the American conservative movement is to urge tired armies on to much, much more of the same. A position also taken by the supposedly moderate John McCain who sang, grinning, to Beach Boys’ tunes about bombing Iran.
The anti-Communism of and liberty-celebrating rhetoric of Reagan – and later Bush – was always part of a justification of a US policy of dominating the Third World through client states and force, supporting mass murderers from the twisted death squads of Central America to Apartheid South Africa (and even Pol Pot – US anti-Communism can be surprisingly flexible in its choice of allies). US attempts to dominate the political and economic life of poorer countries through ugly means will not cease under Democratic rule – the problems with US foreign policy go deeper than one party - but Democrats are less indifferent to human rights.
Finally, Hurricane Katrina brutally exposed decades of neglect in public infrastructure, a government uninterested in the role of rescuing its own citizens, and the reality of poverty and racism in the USA. The conservative movement responded by demanding greater self-reliance on the part of possession-less, homeless flood victims.
Pictures by Nromagna and Orange Acid under the Creative Commons Attribution License.