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The Disenchantment of American Politics — And the Coming Uproar

Just published on Chris Martenson’s Peak Prosperity site.
Read it there:

Considering the problems we face as a nation, the torpor and lassitude of current politics in America seems like a kind of offense against history. What other people have allowed circumstances to run over them like so many ‘possums sleeping on the highway?

The financial disturbances of recent years especially have trashed millions of households, yet the fat middle (no pun intended) of the broad public (ditto) seems strangely content with all the tawdry sideshows of the day — Black Thursday, the Kardashians, the NFL playoffs, Twitter, texting, twerking, side boobs — taking little-to-no interest in politics while their prospects for a habitable future swirl around the drain. How might we account for such supernatural passivity?

And, since human affairs don’t remain static indefinitely, in what direction might things go when the political mood finally heaves and shifts? The possibilities are unsettling.

A Failure to Lead

If you care about poll numbers, they tell a simple story of contempt for the current crop of US political leaders. Congress rates a 12 percent approval rating and President Obama, at 35 percent, scores lower than Richard Nixon did in the midst of the Watergate fiasco. I’m surprised that Obama’s numbers aren’t lower (and I voted for him, twice). After all, few American lives were actually touched by the lies and shenanigans that spun off of Watergate, and money was an inconsequential part of it. But a whole lot of people were affected by Obama’s dissimulations around the Affordable Care Act, while his tragic failure to reestablish the rule of law in banking from the get-go in 2009 probably amounts to impeachable malfeasance. Add to this the NSA domestic spying operations revealed by Edward Snowden plus the troops indefinitely garrisoned in Asian countries and you have a portrait of a creeping Orwellian contagion.

The only whiff of rebellion in the air lately has emanated from the so-called conservative end of the political spectrum: the Tea Party. Its complaints mainly range around the offenses of Big Government, though a certain incoherence pervades its agenda as a whole. (I will get to that presently.)  I am sympathetic to gripes against the size and reach of government but I’m convinced that the swerve of US politics in the not-distant future will hinge on the failure of government at this scale to conduct any business competently. Anyway, as a veteran of the hippie uprising of the 1960s, when the Left was insurgent against an obdurate “establishment,” it’s interesting to observe the perverse flip-flop of history that has now put the Tea Party in charge of rebellion central.

The failures of the Left these days are pretty obvious and awful. They got their storybook change-agent elected president and he hasn’t done a darn thing in five years to halt the wholesale racketeering that pervades our national life. Obama’s Department of Justice is home to more zombies than the Grand Cemetery of Port-Au-Prince. The Attorney General’s office essentially signed off on prosecuting bank fraud when Lanny Breuer, chief of the Criminal Division, declared some banks too big to jail. End of story, as Tony Soprano used to say.

Obama promised to brick up the revolving door between Wall Street and the federal agencies and he only added more turnstiles to the gate. Most of the government officials involved in the 2009 TARP program and related crisis management operations are now pulling in six figure salaries at the banks and hedge funds they formerly regulated, while a veteran fixer (Mary Jo White) from the whitest white shoe fixit law shop in the land (Debevoise & Plimpton) was appointed to head the SEC a year ago.

The Left, as represented by President Obama and a majority in the US Senate, did nothing to arrest the ongoing corporate hijacking of the USA. When the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case (2010) that corporations could buy elections via unlimited campaign contributions under the free speech clause of the constitution, Obama had the chance to propose new legislation or a constitutional amendment to redefine the distinction between human persons and corporate “persons.” You’d think that as a constitutional lawyer, he would have been eager to lead on this. But he just ignored the historic opportunity and, anyway, he was on the receiving end of gobs of corporate “free speech” money to run his reelection campaign.

Apart from its pitiful roll-out bugs, the Affordable Care Act has the odor of the biggest insurance scam in history. People joke these days about Obama serving George W. Bush’s fourth term. The internal contradictions of Democratic Party behavior under Obama have only driven political cynicism to new heights. The millennial generation must feel horribly swindled by it.

A Paucity of Good Options

As for the rebellious conservative Tea Party faction, it is hard for me to square their umbrage at Big Government with their avidity for foreign wars (and support for the military-industrial rackets behind them), their failure to oppose the security-state activities of the NSA (while branding whistleblower Snowden “a traitor”), their love of corporate commercial tyranny a la Wal-Mart, their devotion to economically suicidal suburban sprawl, their zeal to control the social and sexual conduct of their fellow citizens, and their efforts to impose religion in civic affairs — all of which is to ask, what do they mean when they shout about “liberty?”

These contradictions probably seem abstruse compared to the gritty plight of ordinary citizens getting monkey-hammered in an economy that can provide neither decent incomes nor dignified, meaningful social roles for classes of people who could be earnest, honest, and enterprising given the chance. This gets to a more general failure across the political spectrum to apprehend the larger changing dynamics of our time — resource scarcity, capital impairment, contraction, environmental collapse, population overshoot — and to frame a coherent response to these developments. In short, the politicians seem to have no idea where history is taking us, and no road-map to prepare for the journey to get there.

There will probably always be some alignment of Left and Right in politics, but from time to time the packages they come in and the ideologies they contain are in desperate need of either rehabilitation or dissolution. I’d bet that we may soon see the demise of both the Democratic and Republican parties as they are currently structured. They’ve been around an awful long time now, and their presence probably provides a certain reassuring familiarity, but that is also the same growth medium as contempt. The useless and tiresome public quarrels they spawn these days, the kabuki theater debt ceiling showdowns, the can-kickings, and other evasions of responsibility, erode basic institutional trust to a dangerous degree; the people lose faith in the courts, the news media, the banks, the value of their money, and eventually all authority. The two major parties function as mere conduits for all the racketeering operations that define life in this nation today. The mature two-party system may prove to have been a transient product of America’s industrial heyday, which is now over despite the euphoria over stock bubbles, shale oil, computers and other new technology. If the two old parties dry up and blow away, will anyone shed a tear for them? When that happens, there may not be enough political vitality left at the federal level to reconstitute them in new packaging.

Trouble Brewing

If party politics are weak, muddled, and contradictory, the divisions between Americans are starkly clear: wealth in America has never been so unevenly distributed — the fabled one percent versus everyone else. Despite the election of a mixed-race president, and the wish-fulfillment fantasies of Hollywood, race relations in the USA remain tense. 2013 was the year of the “knockout” game for black teenagers randomly targeting “woods” (i.e. non-black “peckerwoods”), some of whom died. It was the year of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case and the echoing recriminations.

Divisions between men and women are tragically compounded by the dangerous dynamics of work in America that leave many men (especially men) in a vacuum of purpose, meaning, and potency. It is almost impossible these days for low-skilled men to support a family. The indignity of this thunders through broken communities and the penitentiary cellblocks. But the anomie is also expressed in the higher ranks of an economy where office work can be done by anybody, and gender confusion lately has been valorized as a compensating mechanism for the marginalization of men and the failure of manhood. The political blowback from this, when it comes, is apt to be fierce. Look no further than Duck Dynasty.

The ongoing national culture war pits the “traditional values” faction against the sexual libertarians; the red states against the blue states; urban against the conflated suburban and rural; the Christian fundamentalists against an array of other positions and belief groups; the entitlement “socialists” against the “free market” conservatives.

Perhaps most divisive of all will be the schism between the young and the old over the table scraps of the dying industrial economy.

These tensions will not remain unresolved indefinitely.

In Part II: Get Ready For Strange Days, we’ll forecast the direction that this resolution may follow. The last time the USA faced a comparable political convulsion was the decade leading into the Civil War, but this time it will be more complex and confusing and it will have a different ending. A dominant theme will be a continued loss of faith in the Federal government to solve our ills, and a re-emergence of reliance on local support networks at the state, municipal, community and family levels.

This devolution will likely play out very differently across the major regions of the US. And most will follow this course unwillingly.

Strange days are coming.

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

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About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

14 Responses to “The Disenchantment of American Politics — And the Coming Uproar” Subscribe

  1. K-Dog January 13, 2014 at 12:52 am #

    “Obama had the chance to propose new legislation or a constitutional amendment to redefine the distinction between human persons and corporate “persons. You’d think that as a constitutional lawyer, he would have been eager to lead on this.”

    Enough of this nonsense. There are two kinds of lawyers that concern themselves with the constitution. One is called a constitutional lawyer and that kind of lawyer canoodles any corporation or silver spoon who hires them. The other kind is called a civil rights attorney, and this kind concerns themself with human persons.

    Assuming brand Obama would be of the second kind was a case of wishful thinking; there being no evidence to support that fantasy.

    After Obama’s first election in 2008, he was visited by a group of African American women. When they finished meeting him they were asked what he was like.

    “And their answer was that this man has no moral center.”

    Normally Noam Chomsky is linked to this quote and I don’t know why. I suspect a case of spin knowing that America suffers from short term memory loss and such things can be spun to soften the edge.

    But I myself heard that exact answer; on the radio in a news report shortly after Obama began his first term. On the day it happened.

    African American women often do not mince words and often say it like it is. The ones I have know sure have. I imagine he was asked some serious and direct questions behind closed doors by some serious and direct women which he mistook to be sycophants and he did not have his bullshit ready. Perhaps he was asked about black poverty, education and unemployment and what he was going to do about these issues. I’m only guessing here, but since these issues have not been seriously addressed in the intervening five years I’d say that had he been asked about those issues his answers might have been found lacking.

    Noam Chomsky entered the picture later on. Noam says things many people find outrageous but it is OK if he does. He is a respectable dissident. A good man to hang and hide truth on.

    • Neon Vincent January 13, 2014 at 9:20 am #

      K-Dog, I’m not surprised you beat me to commenting here. You’re more persistent than I am. That written, that’s a good trait to have in a canine–that, and loyalty. I like both in you.

      As for Obama, he’s been governing about where Clinton wanted to govern, at least during his first term, which is still to the right of Richard Nixon. By today’s standards, Tricky Dick was a Commie.

      An example of that occurred during his convention speech. He and Clinton got a bunch of left-leaning convention delegates to cheer for Simpson-Bowles and entitlement reform, two topics they really don’t care for. He did make one promise in that speech, which was that he wouldn’t reduce entitlements in combination with lowering taxes. He’s kept that promise. Note, however, that he didn’t say that he wouldn’t reduce benefits in combination with raising taxes. That’s the “Grand Bargain” he wants, but the GOP won’t give him.

      As for the GOP, they’re an undead party. They’re not zombies, they’re vampires. As Bela Lugosi’s Dracula said, “There are far worse things awaiting Man than Death.” Yeah, and one of them has happened to the GOP.

      http://crazyeddiethemotie.blogspot.com/2012/09/national-review-ironically-reveals.html

  2. Neon Vincent January 13, 2014 at 9:47 am #

    “The mature two-party system may prove to have been a transient product of America’s industrial heyday, which is now over despite the euphoria over stock bubbles, shale oil, computers and other new technology. If the two old parties dry up and blow away, will anyone shed a tear for them?”

    The current two-party system has lasted since the end of the Civil War, which predates the U.S.’s industrial heyday, but does coincide with the rise of American Industrialism. Before that, the country had other two-party systems, first the Democrats (then calling themselves the Republicans, but the party of Jefferson is still today’s Democratic Party) and the Federalists, then the Democrats and the Whigs. Now it’s the Democrats and the Republicans. As you can see, it’s always the Democrats, who are the oldest continuously active organized political party on the planet, and an economically conservative rival. The Democrats survived being on the wrong side of the Civil War, while the Whigs, as you pointed out, disintegrated over slavery, failing to renominate their own sitting President. The Federalists got on the wrong side of a war, too, supporting the British in the War of 1812. Unlike the Democrats, that killed them. Based on that history, I’d put my money on the current GOP disintegrating first. Hey, they’re vampires–throw them out into the sunlight and they’ll burn up by themselves.

    The Democrats can be killed, but not as long as the current GOP is around to keep the members in line. Take away their opposition, and the party will splinter, just as it did during the time between the fall of the Federalists and the rise of the Whigs, and again between the fall of the Whigs and rise of the Republicans. Even then, the party survived enough to maintain continuity. Right now, that could happen, as the GOP is like the old Democratic Party when Will Rogers observed that he was “not a member of any organized political party; he was a Democrat” and “Democrats never agree on anything, that’s why they’re Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they’d be Republicans.” The GOP is fractious, while the Democrats are united.

    http://crazyeddiethemotie.blogspot.com/2012/09/examinercom-article-on-michigan.html

    • Neon Vincent January 13, 2014 at 10:05 am #

      As for what has kept the two-party system going, it’s called Duverger’s law, which “asserts that plurality rule elections structured within single-member districts tend to favor a two-party system,” according to Wikipedia. One of the predictions that can be made by this is that if one of the major parties is ideologically out of step with an area, then one of the minor parties will step up to fill the void. I’ve observed that happening twice, first in Louisiana, where the Democratic Party only contested one seat out of six in the state’s congressional delegation and again in the City of Ann Arbor, where there were no Republican candidates in a city that elected a Republican Mayor 20 years ago.

      So, who took over as the opposition? In Louisiana, it was the Libertarians, who were more in line with the state’s conservative leanings.

      http://crazyeddiethemotie.blogspot.com/2012/12/libertarians-as-opposition-in-louisiana.html

      In Ann Arbor, a “Green Tea” party calling itself the Mixed-Use Party arose. It employed Libertarian means to Green ends. They were also more in line with that city’s environmentalist ethic than the current GOP.

      http://crazyeddiethemotie.blogspot.com/2013/09/examinercom-article-on-mixed-use-party.html

      Duverger’s Law works, which means that as long as the U.S. is a representative democracy operating within a republic, with first-past-the-post elections, there will be two major parties, and therefore a two-party system. Of course, that condition won’t last forever.

  3. JRM January 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    “How might we account for such supernatural passivity?”

    I think Sheldon Wolin’s terms “inverted totalitarianism” and “managed democracy” goes the greatest explanatory distance here. These feed in to an existing–and growing–lethargy / passivity / cynicism / self-fulfilling prophesy… — for those who know how the game is rigged. And for those who don’t know? Most of them prefer to imagine that ignorance is bliss — or maybe they’re just not that thoughtful about it, what with the football game being on and the beer cold.

    What we need about now is a renewal of the the Occupy movement under another name and brand.

    And everyone — everyone! — should read David Graeber’s “The Democracy Project,” starting with Chapter Three: “The mob begin to think and reason.”

    • K-Dog January 16, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

      My impression is that we have managed democracy because people are apathetic and ignorant. If there was not widespread apathy and ignorance managed democracy would not be tolerated.

      An unquestioned belief that life always gets better and that civilization inexorably advances forward has produced a self reinforcing feedback loop of ignorance and apathy. A religion of positive thinking combined with a bedazzlement with technology has dummed down society making it impossible to question the foundations on which modern life is based. An inability to question the foundations on what modern life is built is the root of our problem. All dissent is considered an attack on ‘American Values’ and simply not tolerated. With deliberate calculation the slogan ‘American Values’ is never defined but exists as a slogan against which any dissent is interpreted as an attack and thus not tolerated.

      Perhaps the answer is to demand clarification of what ‘American Values’ are is a solution but the root of the problem is that a religion of endless growth combined with the belief that ever more technology always makes the world better remains and creates an environment where any dissent is seen as a loss of faith regardless of intellectual content. Solidarity in ignorance is perceived to be better than any challenge to the ‘American Way of Life’ regardless of how well intentioned or sound.

      And this consequence of inverted totalitarianism will be the ruin of us all. I see the horror of advertising and public relations cutting through rational thought, action, and true progress like a buzz saw.

      I read (skimmed) a preview of chapter 3 of “The Democracy Project” through Amazon. It looks pretty good and I’d like a real copy to digest.

  4. JRM January 14, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    “This gets to a more general failure across the political spectrum to apprehend the larger changing dynamics of our time — resource scarcity, capital impairment, contraction, environmental collapse, population overshoot — and to frame a coherent response to these developments.”

    It seems to me that ALL of the major / influential institutions of our “culture” (USA), e.g., the major political parties and politicians, media/journalism, academia/schooling, churches… fail to acknowledge the reality of the predicament you aptly describe here, James. And so it seems to me that the crux of our situation amounts to a near total collapse of education, by which I do not just mean what happens in schools.

    How does one educate a society which simmers and stews in utter nonsense and ignorance?

  5. Karah January 14, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    “…I’m convinced that the swerve of US politics in the not-distant future will hinge on the failure of government at this scale to conduct any business competently.”

    At what scale will governing become competent as it struggles to regulate the vicissitudes of the teaming masses of humans who flow in and out of the various gates, ports and borders of our Union? At what point will the sheer bulk of humanity outweigh any and all attempts at leadership to try and control it? What form will “democracy” take when the majority gets so big that voting and all the rituals that surround politics will be an unnecessary nuisance? It seems to me we’ve come to a point in the early part of the 21st century where an individual can throw a dart at a spinning globe and resettle there without any major quarrels with the way that part of the world is “governed” just as long as they do not interfere with the necessary business of working, eating and playing. What else IS there for people to do with no ambitions whatsoever?

    • K-Dog January 16, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

      Unchecked the sheer bulk of humanity will make the necessary business of working, eating and playing impossible. By neglecting democracy and politics we seal our doom and leadership will then maintain control through the barrel of a gun. Leadership never goes away. Leaders will change and there may be periods of horrible anarchy while new leaders climb to the top of the pile but the vacuum is always filled.

      • Karah January 16, 2014 at 11:32 pm #

        My question is at what point does the vacuum become the most anarchical. One writer says that the mayoral tier of government is the most directly accountable to the people. Mayors are the most knowledgeable and practical leaders in the world. Therefore, they should carry more weight in general assemblies.

        Joseph P. Riley, Jr. of Charleston, South Carolina, has been in office longer than any other sitting city mayor in the United States. His city has 125,000 people.

        NYC is the largest city in the U.S.A. with over 8 million people. The state of New York is almost (not quite) equal to the Metropolis of Tokyo in population with 10 times the land mass. — Wikipedia.org

        Tokyo is the largest city in the world and the model for our future according to JHK. The heart of Tokyo is divided into 23 wards (cities) carrying a total of 9 Million people. Each ward (borough) has its own mayor and is designated as an independent city.

        Tokyo’s latest governor was elected by landslide and resigned in Dec 2013 due to a financial scandal.

        • K-Dog January 17, 2014 at 2:21 am #

          Mayors do seem to be held accountable more often than other politicians. I’d guess that is because they are closer to the people than other politicians are and thus an easier target for anger. Those deft at passing the buck and pointing the finger uphill may have an advantage over others.

          When does the vacuum become intolerable? Not many bloggers are comfortable making doomsday predictions these days. The machine continues to limp along with unexpected resilience.

          When will apathy condense to rage? I think things will get much worse before a majority gives up their convenient scapegoats of choice and starts to demand action and answers from leaders.

          We seem to be a country where the average man does not care about tent cities until they become a citizen of one themself. This may may not be from lack of compassion entirely; ignorance and personal bias can be very stubborn. But regardless I’m thinking things will deteriorate to a point we would think very embarrassing right now before any organized resistance to the current arrangement emerges.

          • Karah January 17, 2014 at 9:45 pm #

            For those people in Manhattan that have lived there all their life, unlike JHK, and are still able to come up with the 1200 – 1500 dollars a month rent, maintenance is never a problem for them. The buildings they inhabit are very well built and have stood the test of time. As for all the latest construction, JHK is pointing out their vulnerabilities due to having no established tenants nor having owners (HOA) who are able to support a building and all the tremendous maintenance costs over the next 50 years. The cycle of life will continue to play out as it always does everywhere, with highs and lows. These newer buildings will be left to sit vacant until someone comes along with capital and the will to make them habitable. I will assume NYC is like everywhere else where an organization will have to come and partner with the city to make some kind of permanent arrangement for unoccupied/dormant structures. People have this amazing ability to avoid embarrassment and anger as we’ve seen during the recent housing bubble. They just peacefully pick up and move somewhere else more affordable.

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