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Don’t Just Hold Your Nose and Give Way

Talking Points Memo Café

October 2, 2008, 12:00 PM

By Jim Sleeper

I’ve read all the sober explanations of why we must hold our noses and support the bailout. I’ve watched Barack Obama intone the same explanations on the Senate floor. Sorry, but it all fits into a neoliberal paradigm whose adherents haven’t noticed that it’s over. Watching the Senate’s pompous porkers play populist with the package was like watching Hapsburgs greet their subjects in July, 1914.

True, we’re all tethered into the dance: We love our cars; couldn’t imagine reconfiguring our lives to save energy, enhance walking, reduce obesity, end road rage. Yet the car culture is only a sample of what an increasingly manic, drugged, violent, and stupid America of sovereign consumers has been choreographed into “choosing.”

Wait till January, they say, and we’ll straighten things out. Sorry, but with this package America has lost its legitimacy and morale. Its decline will accelerate, even with an uptick in the markets in which, yes, we are all invested.

Unless the populist indignation is translated into a more thorough reform of the consumer-marketing juggernaut that has dissolved our civic culture, this package, coming atop so much else in the Bush years, will be just another a nail in the coffin of the American republic. Stop a minute and consider why.

I’ve recycled John Adams a few times too many, but you can’t be reminded too often that

“[W]hen the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching. … The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, and every day increases the circles of their dependants and expectants, until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.” :

Why did he say this in 1787? As soon as King George III was gone, even the most triumphant of the founders took a long look at the American people and found themselves worrying about how a republic ends. History showed them it can happen not with a coup but a smile, a sweetener, and a friendly swagger — as soon as the people tire of the burdens of self-government and can be jollied along into servitude, or scared into it, when they’ve become soft enough to intimidate.

Sound hyperbolic? Even that conservative banker Alexander Hamilton sketched the stakes by writing in the Federalist that history had destined Americans, “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

And Ben Franklin sketched the odds, warning that the Constitution “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

How might that happen? “History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty, to a state of slavish subjection, have been brought to this unhappy condition, by gradual paces,” wrote Founder Richard Henry Lee.

The Founders were all reading Edward Gibbon’s then-new account of how the Roman republic had slipped, degree by self-deluding degree, into an imperial tyranny. Leaders could bedazzle citizens out of their liberties by titillating, intimidating, and stampeding them into becoming bread-and-circus mobs that “no longer possessed that public courage which is nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the presence of danger, and the habit of command. They received laws and governors from the will of their sovereign and trusted for their defense to a mercenary army … .”

Gibbon added pointedly that Augustus, the first real emperor, “wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty, and the armies by an image of civil government” and that he knew that “the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”

Campaigning in an open shirt, as it were, “that artful prince … humbly solicited their suffrages for himself, for his friends and scrupulously practiced all the duties of an ordinary candidate … . The emperors … disdained that pomp and ceremony which might offend their countrymen but could add nothing to their real power…..”

And so Rome became what Gibbon called “an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth,” not by conspiracy but thanks to a confluence of deeper currents that had enervated people’s republican virtues and beliefs.

But isn’t this what Bush and the Republicans vowed to save us from, with the help of God and martial valor? Isn’t it big-government liberals who would coddle us into servitude and decadence?

Plenty of liberal big-government folly has reinforced that perception, but so has Americans’ reluctance to admit that the propaganda, seductions, and contractual strangleholds of corporations, driven by anomic finance, have become ever more confining, intrusive, and degrading in our work lives, our entertainments, and even our public discourse controlled as so much of it is by conglomerate-hired editors and op-ed savants.

The founders understood that the people can’t enhance freedom by handing themselves over from their elected officials to their paymasters. Some honorable American conservatives — diplomats, retired generals, even some pundits — want to spare us that fate, but they have found themselves as outnumbered and marginalized as Dennis Kucinich.

So great and justified is the public anger, though, that even the bailout’s apologists are scrambling to acknowledge that something better will have to follow. A Los Angeles Times editorial today knocks proponents of the bailout for trying to buy off the rage

“by larding it with tax breaks, handouts and pet projects. …Others… just seem frivolous. The message, though, was that supporters of the financial industry bailout had given up trying to convince voters that it was in their interests too, and not just Wall Street’s. Instead, they coated the bitter bailout pill with a bunch of end-of-session sweeteners to make it easier to swallow.”

And the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof acknowledges that “…..[C]ritics of the bailout have reason to be furious. It is profoundly unfair that working-class American families lose their homes, their jobs, their savings, while plutocrats who caused the problem get rescued. If the Congressional critics of the bailout want to do some lasting good, they should come back in January — after approving the bailout now — with a series of tough measures to improve governance and inject more fairness in the economy.”

But former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich was more candid, right here in TPM, noting that the bailout

“will be funded by additional federal debt, issued mostly to foreign governments especially the Chinese and in the Middle East. And, strictly speaking, it’s not even a bailout: The Treasury will buy and hold mortgage-backed securities whose value is now unknown because there’s no market for them, until housing prices start rising again…..

“But whatever it’s called and however it’s financed,” Reich continues, “it’s still an outrage. America’s foreign policy is made no more flexible by going into deeper hock to the Chinese and the Middle East. And the deal still subjects American taxpayers to some risk, especially if the housing market doesn’t bounce back for many years. Worse, the bill can’t help but prop up the earnings of many Wall Street executives whose malfeasance, greed, and stupidity got us into this mess in the first place. And it does nothing for average Americans except avoid economic calamity. (The provision ostensibly helping distressed homeowners is to be used at the discretion of the Treasury Department, so it’s mostly a sham.)”

Writer and editor Paul Bass, whose New Haven Independent is running fascinating stories of how people in that medium-sized city are experiencing and responding to the crisis, notes that “In those precious hours after the House bill defeat,” those who had defeated it, including conservative “Republicans, the Congressional Black Caucus, and some progressive white Democrats, should have met for an hour and drawn up the bill they would have supported on commonly agreed upon provisions. It would have been awesome. They had 20 hours or so when they were in the driver’s seat.”

Would-be builders of a serious coalition against the corporatist-statist consolidation of a post-republican America now have not 20 hours, but three months. Let good leaders step forward and help serious republicans convene. One of those leaders may be Barack Obama — if he’s elected, if the crisis worsens, and if populist anger keeps rising and seeking direction.