jimsleeper.com » Debt-crisis Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, Airheads, and the Rest of Us

Debt-crisis Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, Airheads, and the Rest of Us


By Jim Sleeper – July 21, 2011, 12:51PM

Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981 marked the debut of a strategy to “starve the beast” of big government by ballooning its deficits and the national debt. That would generate a crisis severe enough to force drastic rollbacks of Social Security, Medicaid, and other programs that most Americans had come to regard as foundational to a healthy society. Conservatives were determined to uproot that consensus, which Franklin D. Roosevelt had consolidated half a century earlier, in ways that had come to seem irreversible; “We have come to a clear realization,” FDR had said in 1944, “that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.” Quoting an English common-law dictum that “‘Necessitous men are not free men,’” Roosevelt warned that “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

But people who only fear becoming hungry and unemployed can become that “stuff, “too, as supporters of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, Glenn Beck, and other demagogues who’ve been sprouting like mushrooms make clear. They’re a godsend to conservatives who’ve dreamed since 1932 of “starving the beast,” as the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist reminded us by quipping that he’d like to shrink government “to a size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

But why has this strategy won so many millions of reasonably intelligent people’s support, or at least acquiescence? Let’s sideline for a moment the familiar explanations of class warfare or false consciousness and consider two others:

First, certain personality types are drawn to such appeals, even though they’re fairly prosperous and smart. Second, deep undercurrents in America’s political culture have always inclined even political moderates to share conservative aspirations, as Reagan showed by striking those mystic chords so effectively for so many.

The Gipper and his successors also transformed their Republican Party from a champion of fiscal restraint into a pusher of fiscal profligacy. They displaced despised Democrats’ “tax and tax, spend and spend” policies with “borrow and borrow, spend and spend” policies, accelerated by crowd-pleasing tax cuts, all to create the emergency that would require us to do drastically to the administrative state what we wouldn’t do rationally and moderately.

By the time George W. Bush left office, any new taxation was verboten and the country had embarked — with collaboration from market-chastened Democrats — on expensive new tax cuts, unnecessary wars, a huge Medicare prescription boondoggle for Big Pharma, and the virtual de-regulation of finance that has ballooned public deficits, too.

All this was accelerated by an intimidatingly strong conservative noise-machine that, thanks to the deregulation of media ownership and of corporate “speech” which the First Amendment was never intended to protect, became adroit at touching the raw, jangling chords in stressed, angry citizens. So we’ve had Tea Party eruptions, stagey rollbacks of public and private workers’ security, and the elections of dozens of members of Congress who’ve held the federal debt ceiling hostage to more rollbacks. They have neither the intention nor the civic courage to resolve the crisis they’ve created by substituting more balanced approaches, as Barack Obama, one of their hostages, and Joe Biden have been importuning them to do.

What kind of people have made themselves impervious to Obama’s and Biden’s appeals? Here are some of the types they represent, although I should emphasize that any politician who seems to incarnate a particular one of these types, he or she probably shifts back and forth among more than one of them.

Greedheads and Opportunists. Most obvious (and, to me, the least interesting) are people who’ve become rich or richer dishonestly and destructively but legally, thanks to the deregulation of finance, war-profiteering and other public boondoggles, and to massive tax cuts. They’ve been reenacting the Gilded Age, constructing gargantuan, arboreal castles and estates and funding lavish, elitist preparatory schools, some of which were founded in the 1880s to secure the prerogatives and graces of a plutocracy that fancied its sons Platonic Guardians of the republic.

“To serve is to rule,” reads the motto of the Groton School, whose alumni loathed fellow graduate Franklin D. Roosevelt as a traitor to his class. Today, the Koch brothers, graduates of the kindred Deerfield Academy, are among many who’d have loathed FDR, too. (That these schools, sometimes despite themselves, also did produce Roosevelts, Harrimans, Kennedys, and Vances is an irony that I’ve assessed here but that few care to hear anymore, much less ponder.)

It’s hardly necessary to name current exemplars of the Greedhead/opportunist strain — the Goldman-Sachsers and Citi-Groupers and hedge-fund hustlers who are in and out of government management posts — or to identify the cash-and-carry lawmakers who take these people’s instructions even when they’re giving them or forging grand bargains.

Fountainheads. This group is named for The Fountainhead, the perennial best-selling novel by the libertarian zealot, Ayn Rand. They aren’t in it just for the money. From Margaret Thatcher and Alan Greenspan to Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and Eric Cantor, they’ve been true believers in Rand’s doctrine that human dignity is a lonely, Lockean-in-the-wilderness achievement and that “society” must constantly be pared back to liberate it.

Aristotle considered humans the noblest of animals with politics and the most depraved of beasts without it, but Fountainheads think that government, with its rational social engineering, is the beast. They think that society’s foundations are pre-political — divine or ordained in Natural Law — and that much of what passes for democratic and republican politics violates those foundations and is depraved. Their vociferous populism disguises their conviction that most people are barely fit to govern themselves as individuals, let alone one another: Only Nietzschean, or at least Randian, generators and facilitators of wealth are fit to govern them.

Godheads. Close to Randians in some ways, but not as assuredly libertarian, are religious conservatives who emphasize the divine inspiration behind individual materialism. Listen to James Lucier, an assistant to conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms in 1980, talking to Elizabeth Drew just after Ronald Regan’s election:

“The liberal leadership groups that run the country — not just the media but also the politicians, corporate executives … have been trained in an intellectual tradition that is … highly rationalistic. That training excludes most of the things that are important to the people who are selling cars and digging ditches. The principles that we’re espousing, have been around for thousands of years: The family …, faith that … there is a higher meaning than materialism. Property as a fundamental human right … and that a government should not be based on deficit financing and economic redistribution … . It’s not the ‘new right’ – people are groping for a new term. It’s pre-political.”

To keep on believing this, you really need to have God at your elbow, or you’ll need beliefs in ethno-racial destiny on sacred soil that were potent and wildly popular in the deranged Europe of the 1930s, when Woodrow Wilson’s liberal-nationalist imaginings had collapsed into capitalist exploitation and when godless Communism was baring the ugly underside of a universalism that hadn’t reckoned deeply enough with nationalist and religious yearnings.

When Americans curb such fantasies of ethno-racial or dialectical materialist destiny, it’s quite often by turning to God; even Martin Luther King did that, as Glenn Beck reminded everyone at his big rally at the Lincoln Memorial. But this religious turn can become idolatry, as too many Republican candidates demonstrate every day. Who’s to decide? The only way out is to diffuse and displace such currents. But how? And with what?

The Liberal Conundrum. FDR’s answer was that a healthy society, like a healthy person, walks on two feet: The left one is the foot of social provision (public education, health care, retirement insurance), without which the values that conservatives say they cherish couldn’t flourish: It does take a village to raise a child. The right one is the foot of irreducibly personal responsibility without which even the most assiduous social engineering (and, indeed, especially that) would turn persons in to cogs, clients, or worse.

The problem with this dichotomy is that each side emphasizes its favored foot until it swells, hobbling the other foot’s and, with it, the society’s stride. Fountainhead Paul Ryan thought that our safety net had become a hammock, lulling people into complacency and dependency. Yet he and other true believers, and the Greedheads and opportunists who back them, can’t reconcile their calls for individual and family virtue with their obeisance to every whim and riptide of capitalism that’s dissolving everything they mean to defend. (“All that is solid melts into air, everything holy is profaned,” as an observer of capital put many years ago, but never mind….)

Faith in God or Rand can’t deliver anyone from the growing irreconcilability of spiritual and material values in our present dispensation. Nor can the targeting of scapegoats that always accompanies conservatives’ failures to deliver. Their course becomes so hard and confused that Greedheads, Fountainheads, and Godheads become Airheads, or they’re supported by airheads — by the Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmans (and an astonishingly large number of other women, such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Linda McMahon, and Marjorie Taylor Greene), who’ve been standard-bearers for the Absurd in several elections.)

One of the saddest truths of human history is that delusional escapes become stampedes, in ways that some conservative zealots who foment them anticipate more clearly and cynically than liberals who are caught by surprise and rendered speechless by surges of Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, and Airheads, whether in Monkey trials, McCarthyism, “Bomb ’em Back Into the Stone Age” war-mongering, or sanctimonious authoritarian, “pre-political” pronouncements.

A republic depends on citizens resisting such impositions and rising above the rats-in-a maze scramble for individual security and distinction into which they’ve been driven by a casino-finance, corporate welfare, consumer-marketing juggernaut that presses them to buy more guns and burglar alarms and to hire more private tutors, leaving them clueless about how to cultivate public safety and wisdom. A republic depends on citizens who know how to advance enlightened self-interest and achieve their highest and best selves by finding their personal advantage in pursuing a common good.

Not all citizens need to do this, and not even a majority need to. Some will always commit their energies to generating wealth or contributing to religion, art, entertainment, and recreation. But in a healthy republic, a critical mass of citizens will indeed advance a common good by setting standards, a tone, and an idiom of mutual obligation, respect, and reasoned deliberation that dampens the allure of empty rhetoric and brutal actions.

Republics need citizens who are committed to exercise public virtues, because, unlike monarchies, theocracies, or ethno-racial tribal societies, republics have “no other adhesives, no bonds holding themselves together, except their citizens’ voluntary patriotism and willingness to uphold some public authority,” as the historian Gordon Wood put it.

American Quirks. Conservatives are quite right to insist on the importance of that right foot of irreducibly personal autonomy responsibility: The voluntarism in republican self-sacrifice can’t be coerced by the state or incentivized by markets. It’s what makes a republic free. An American republican ethos has embodied such voluntarism well enough at times to inspire and sustain it with a mix of pragmatism, faith, and fakery that’s better exemplified by Jack Nicholson than by John Roberts. Some of its voluntarism came originally from Protestantism, common-sense moral reasoning, and Enlightenment affirmations of Natural Law. The American, wrote the early 20th Century philosopher George Santayana, is “an idealist working on matter…. There is an enthusiasm in his sympathetic handling of material forces which goes far to cancel the illiberal character it might otherwise assume.” Such an American was “successful in invention, conservative in reform, and quick in emergencies.”

Santayana added that because the American is an individualist, “his goodwill is not officious. His instinct is to think well of everybody, and to wish everybody well, but in a spirit of rough comradeship, expecting every man to stand on his own legs and to be helpful in his turn. When he has given his neighbor a chance, he thinks he has done enough for him; but he feels it is an absolute duty to do that. It will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.”

Santayana’s American — like many Americans I grew up with in an old, residually Puritan, western Massachusetts town — favored not much redistribution of the material but lots of inner renewal of the spiritual to temper self-aggrandizement with social obligation and to re-centering oneself in commitments to society. “This linkage of American material productivity with an outpouring of the spirit over the whole world, of material with spiritual blessings, is and remains the key to American self-justification,” wrote Sacvan Bercovitch, a scholar of the Puritan mission.

The very fragility of republican voluntarism’s reliance on cooperative rather than coercive power is its strength, as Jonathan Schell shows in his book The Unconquerable World: Because cooperative power grows from give-and-take in everyday interactions that organize and reorganize themselves informally, it’s too elusive for enemy armies to destroy, too independent of markets for their wealth to buy off.

A Hunger for Myths. A society enhances its capacity to sustain trust by generating strong, shared ideas and story lines that sift the deluge of infotainment and inspire citizens to find themselves in an ever-evolving common good. A gnawing hunger for spiritually deep myths has driven young Americans to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, which teach courage and loyalty to friends and to a higher, common good in adversity. But both of these were literary creations, first as novels whose creators drew some of their inspiration from English mythic wellsprings whose pre-market depths and expressions were still widely, intimately shared. Even as they became corporate investments in publishing and then in films, they held power for myth-starved young American moviegoers,

But “Symbols control sentiment and thought, and the new age has no symbols consonant with its activities,” as John Dewey warned in the roaring 1920s, a decade whose widespread frenzy, disorientation, and loss we’re recapitulating. The story lines or myths of a shocked and stressed society may sour and metastasize into something alien and frightening to citizens who are still trying to keep the civic faith. If such a society loses its humane consensus, its words and deeds part company, as Hannah Arendt warned, leaving words empty and deeds to become unguided missiles, advancing no commitments a people can trust enough to trust anyone to be faithful to them.

Without a more wholesome consensus and trust, a polity is vulnerable to manipulation by the few who are filled with passionate, factional intensities. The left as well as the right flirt with the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt’s expectation of decisive, sovereign actions that cut through liberal democratic dithering. Widening gyres of violent, directionless infotainment unleash more shouts and undercurrents, driving public deliberation into a vortex from which ever-starker mis-leadership springs, promising clarity and security and reaping millions of people’s swooning desperation to obey it.

The more demagoguery, surveillance, police and prisons a society deploys, the less civic oxygen it has and the weaker it is, because it can’t depend any longer on commitments that people feel motivated to keep even when no one’s looking, motivated by irreducibly personal responsibility and by a love of society cultivated in a way of life that seeds and nourishes trust, thereby eliciting it.

The faith, arts, and disciplines of such cooperative power are being undermined by conservatives and liberals alike who confuse today’s casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-marketing juggernaut with the Lockean capitalism and free markets they imagine they’re defending. The more often they get this wrong, the more they become Greedheads, Fountainheads, or Godheads, ending as Airheads in the public forum, which they destroy as their numbers grow. That’s the real cost of the three-decade-long campaign that conservatives waged and that liberals accommodated and often abetted.

The people who’ve seeded and deepened this crisis haven’t the intention or the civic courage to resolve it through the “balanced approach” which most Americans would support decisively if only they had a chance to see it in action and to think about it. But how can they think about it in any decisive way if the court of public opinion has been disbanded and is no longer capable of reaching consensus and decisions?

The Capitalization of Communication is critical here. The determined minority that I’ve mentioned has deprived Americans of chances to think by trading shrewdly on many people’s disinclination to think much in the first place. The real scandal in Rupert Murdoch’s communications empire isn’t its obvious political and moral corruption; it’s his news outlets’ relentless drive to make citizens fear and mistrust one another, drip by drip, deploying excellent “production values,” that disassociate increasingly empty slogans about self-governance from increasingly brutal images of mob-like behavior. This willful, systematic degradation of public discourse, which turns a society from cultivating cooperative power to legitimizing and glorifying coercive power, hasn’t been seen on a scale like Murdoch’s since the 1930s, except, perhaps, in the worst excesses of Cold War anti-Communism.

Essential to this transformation has been deregulation of the massive invasion of the republican deliberative processes by the supposedly protected “speech” of incorporeal (and, increasingly, un-American) “speakers” in election campaigns, in legislative drafting sessions, and, of course, in every television commercial and virtually every highly visible debate forum, including those staged by media conglomerates themselves. News organizations break “news” as bread-and-circus entertainment for audiences assembled and re-assembled on any pretext whatever – erotic, ethno-racial, ideological, nihilist — solely for the production of maximum profit. See this website’s section, “News Media, Chattering Classes, and the Phantom Public.”

Although the digital revolution has expanded everyone’s ability to break news, as in the video of George Floyd’s murder, it has also deranged our capacity to break and sustain ideas that are good enough and shared widely enough to make sense of the deluge of “news” and entertainment that’s separating us from one another and thereby plunging us into ourselves in troubling ways.

During the Iraq War, the columnist Paul Krugman noted that although 60 percent of Americans believed wrongly that Iraq and Al Qaeda were linked, that W.M. D. had actually been found, or that world public opinion favored the war with Iraq, only 23 percent of PBS and NPR audiences “believed any of these untrue things, but the number was 80 percent among those relying primarily on Fox News…. [T]wo-thirds of Fox devotees believed that the U.S. had ‘found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.’”

When deliberative democracy is sidelined like this, it won’t be long before the determined, powerful few can administer more shocks and palliatives to an atomized body politic that’s too frightened to challenge them and that, indeed, becomes disposed to embrace them.

In a moment of pique, Obama called the debt-crisis mongers of 2011 “hostage takers” for refusing to approve even six months of unemployment benefits in exchange for extending the Bush tax cuts. But Obama himself exhibited a hostage’s Stockholm syndrome by praising his captors’ patriotism even though, in their own mystical confusion, they are actually serving powers and patrons foreign to any republican polity or moral code.

A civic republican alternative? For decades after Roosevelt’s 1944 speech about what is required for “necessitous men” to achieve freedom, the non-rational, “pre-political” currents in American political life that James Lucier characterized were sublimated, and even elevated, by liberal education and assiduous civic-republican pedagogy. Against the darker currents of McCarthyism and Cold-War anti-Communist hysteria, they became something worth cherishing but seldom understood or appreciated by Marxist or post-modernist leftists any more than it is by Paleolithic, religious, and proto-fascist conservatives.

Can the small-“r” republican center hold? The conservative strategy to direct the capitalization of irrational undercurrents that too many liberals have dismissed has become the context or straight-jacket within which Obama has been trying to renew FDR’s reasonable, evolving balance between a left foot of social provision and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility and dignity.

If liberals don’t acknowledge the right foot, they’ll never regain power or deserve to regain it. And if conservatives can’t sideline their Greedheads, Fountainheads, Godheads, and Airheads enough to give the left foot its turn, they’ll keep turning the right foot into a staggering, suppurating limb that drags the republic to its doom.