Tuesday, January 31, 2006

BOTU for OpenSource with Christopher Lydon

Blog of the Union, January 31, 2006 for OpenSource

My fellow Americans…

Tonight the President will say the state of our Union is strong. That will be appropriate for the leader of an administration that has put such a high premium on loyalty (Colin Powell at the UN; Scooter Libby under indictment), secrecy (energy task force), and conformity (“You are either with us or you are with the terrorists”), and scorned dissent (Joe Wilson; Richard Clarke), debate (domestic spying program), negotiation (Iraq again) and power sharing (the imperial presidency). It may also be true. But while the state of the union may be strong, I fear the state of our democracy is not.

The opportunities for average citizens to participate in the decisions that impact their civic, social and economic lives are probably fewer and less meaningful today than they have been since the Gilded Age. At all levels, government is for sale. Millionaire candidates solicit donations from millionaire supporters and then create policy in partnership with millionaire lobbyists who represent multi-billion dollar corporate interests. Only in America could such a process be called free speech.

The prominence of money in our politics goes hand-in-hand with an equally worrisome phenomenon: the power of media. In the wake of the NSA scandal, there is much talk about Arthur Schlesinger’s “Imperial Presidency,” but more worrisome is the fact that the Bush years mark the inception of the first fully “Virtual Presidency.” (Although one could argue that Gary Trudeau was way ahead of the game during the Reagan administration with the “Ron Headrest,” series of strips.)

In virtual politics, the facts are simply irrelevant. What matters is a candidate’s ability to dominate the media that create and disseminate imagery: television, radio, the Internet and newspapers. With Bush, Karl Rove wove a candidate more or less out of whole cloth, creating identities for him to step into the way that you and I become, say, Lara Croft when we play Tomb Raider.

And so a child of privilege, a graduate of Phillip’s Academy, Yale University and Harvard Business School became a leather skinned rancher who clears his own sagebrush; a self-made oil man from dusty West Texas; a born again Christian loved by poor Southerners. A man who avoided service in Vietnam and fell two weeks short of the minimum requirements for Guard service from May 1972 through May 1973 becomes a great warrior who steps out of a fighter plane as though he has just flown in from Iraq and declares “Mission accomplished!”

Once elected, virtual politics becomes virtual policy. A horrible crime becomes an “act of war.” Invasion becomes liberation. A tax on the inheritances of the wealthy becomes a “death tax” on hard working farmers. Spying is “force.” And the answer to all criticism is “9-11, 9-11, 9-11.”

The apex of virtual politics and policy is the “war on terror.” Like a steroid pumped version of the war on drugs, the war on terror is frighteningly malleable and therefore corrosive to democracy. If the terrorists don’t attack, we’re winning and the war must go on. If they do attack, we’re in danger and the war must go on. When our nation commits itself to war without boundaries and without end, and when that war can be used as a justification for an extraordinary expansion of executive power, it calls into question whether or not we will continue as a democracy.

We are rapidly approaching the political version of Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping point.” The old political divisions are absurd. More and more the struggle isn’t between Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, left and right. It’s between those who believe in democracy and people who don’t. This calls for a new kind of politics, one that reaches across the political spectrum. It’s about freedom. It’s about popular government. It’s about whether we live up to the ideals that folks like Kanaan Makiya are always raving about, or whether we become a bigger and richer version of Singapore.


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