Essay for a symposium on “What’s Happening to America?”
Published in CUNY Graduate Center Advocate.
Over the past year, the writer Naomi Wolf scored a significant hit with her book The End of America. On October 31, just days before our recent presidential elections, The Independent of London published a commentary by Wolf reiterating the book’s argument that our country was descending into fascism. She wrote, “If you look at history, you can see that there are ten steps for turning an open society into a dictatorship.” She contended that the U.S. government under Bush, with its warrantless wiretaps and extraordinary renditions, was well on its way toward completing each of these steps. Despite the strongly positive signs given by all available polling evidence at the time, Wolf doubted that an Obama victory could ever happen, saying that it would be “a miracle.”
The notion that America is in a state of decay, whether moral or political, was a popular trope long before Naomi Wolf ever took it up, yet it grew ever more prevalent during the Bush years. Especially in recent times the question, “What is happening to America?”—the topic of this symposium—has invited the knee-jerk response that our country is going to hell in a hand-basket. Last summer, my large extended family gathered in Wisconsin for a reunion. A younger cousin of mine, an eighth-grader with a precocious interest in politics, recruited me to help him survey the political beliefs of our relatives. When asked whether America was heading in the right direction, everyone in the family, whether right or left, answered “No.” It was the one question in the poll that everyone could agree on.
Wolf’s argument, however, always seemed profoundly flawed to me. No doubt, the Bush administration perpetuated some frightening violations of civil liberties and undertook a troubling centralization of state power. But the idea that this represented a unique stroll down the path toward totalitarianism relied on an ahistorical nostalgia for a past United States, vigilantly lawful and democratic, that never existed. Stolen elections are nothing new in American history—and, as conservatives who ruefully remember Kennedy’s victory in Chicago in 1960 will remind us, they have not always gone to the Republicans. Although activists of past decades may not have been hindered by Bush’s “no-fly lists,” they all too often faced Pinkerton goons, Jim Crow lynchings, and COINTELPRO raids.
If the victory of Barack Obama does anything, I hope that it will bring an end to the idea of “The End of America”—at least in this most facile form—and force us to reckon both with our country’s troubled history and with the more subtle challenges that remain ahead.
Amid the current financial crisis and the disastrous war in Iraq, we are now hearing a fresher set of doubts about America’s future. These predict an end of empire. They suggest that our country’s superpower will falter, for better or for worse, and that we will be overtaken by rising rivals such as China and India.
These concerns are closer to the mark. But they, too, echo familiar choruses of the past. From the left we have heard persistent intimations that each new economic panic might be capitalism’s last. From the center and the right we heard in the 1980s the fear that Tokyo was buying up America, and that we would soon be made to bow down, at least in an economic sense, before our Japanese overlords.
I worry that today’s talk of the loss of imperial power might form another type of “end of America” rhetoric that does little to advance progressive efforts. It contributes neither to shaping a long-term vision of what our society might become nor to addressing the political demands of the moment. The decline of an empire is usually a decades-long process. Even if this is truly the fate of the United States, we cannot afford to remain spectators during that span.
In the short term, our challenge today is to prevent the Obama administration from following the same path as the last Democratic White House. Social movements must mobilize to ensure that the new president not only repudiates those brutish aspects of the Bush administration that led some liberals to cry fascism. We must also work to see that President Obama rejects the strategies of corporate globalization and domestic neoliberalism—the rule of the market over ever-greater swaths of public life—that flourished even during the Clinton years. We must make sure that putting Wall Street at ease is not the sole preoccupation of his public policy—especially considering that it was Wall Street at its easiest and most free-wheeling that created the economic crisis we are now experiencing.
In the longer term, we must question whether a New New Deal is the best future that we can hope for. Because, ultimately, we have good reason to believe that it is not enough.
In response to the editors’ question, “What is the biggest open secret in American life?” another writer in this series argued that the sprawling, high-consumption form of American life that we have known in past decades “is absolutely unsustainable.” I agree. A neo-Keynesian strategy that uses government spending to revive the American people’s appetite for spending and consumption might well succeed, pulling us from what could have been a much deeper economic downturn. We should hope that it does. But then we will have to reckon with the fact that this very hunger is exactly what has been driving us toward collective destruction by route of global warming.
The hope that a future of complete tragedy might be averted does not need to be based in a vision of a past America that was pure and good. On the contrary, our best hope is in recognizing the deep national flaws that previous generations have already confronted and overcome—in acknowledging the work of movements that successfully brought about an end to slavery and poll taxes, the widespread elimination of domestic sweatshops and the creation of the weekend.
At their best, these movements have shown the ability both to adapt to new troubles and to envision a country better than what ever existed before. That, rather than yearning for a mythical early America or satisfaction with a return to more recent economic comfort, is what our future will demand.
Photo credit: Warren K. Leffler / Wikimedia Commons.