Andrew Bacevich: The 60-Year Decay of American Politics

By Andrew J. Bacevich, the author most recently of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Originally published at TomDispatch

My earliest recollection of national politics dates back exactly 60 years to the moment, in the summer of 1956, when I watched the political conventions in the company of that wondrous new addition to our family, television.  My parents were supporting President Dwight D. Eisenhower for a second term and that was good enough for me.  Even as a youngster, I sensed that Ike, the former supreme commander of allied forces in Europe in World War II, was someone of real stature.  In a troubled time, he exuded authority and self-confidence.  By comparison, Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson came across as vaguely suspect.  Next to the five-star incumbent, he seemed soft, even foppish, and therefore not up to the job.  So at least it appeared to a nine-year-old living in Chicagoland.

Of the seamy underside of politics I knew nothing, of course.  On the surface, all seemed reassuring.  As if by divine mandate, two parties vied for power.  The views they represented defined the allowable range of opinion.  The outcome of any election expressed the collective will of the people and was to be accepted as such.  That I was growing up in the best democracy the world had ever known — its very existence a daily rebuke to the enemies of freedom — was beyond question.

Naïve?  Embarrassingly so.  Yet how I wish that Election Day in November 2016 might present Americans with something even loosely approximating the alternatives available to them in November 1956.  Oh, to choose once more between an Ike and an Adlai.

Don’t for a second think that this is about nostalgia.  Today, Stevenson doesn’t qualify for anyone’s list of Great Americans.  If remembered at all, it’s for his sterling performance as President John F. Kennedy’s U.N. ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Interrogating his Soviet counterpart with cameras rolling, Stevenson barked that he was prepared to wait “until hell freezes over” to get his questions answered about Soviet military activities in Cuba. When the chips were down, Adlai proved anything but soft.  Yet in aspiring to the highest office in the land, he had come up well short.  In 1952, he came nowhere close to winning and in 1956 he proved no more successful.  Stevenson was to the Democratic Party what Thomas Dewey had been to the Republicans: a luckless two-time loser.

As for Eisenhower, although there is much in his presidency to admire, his errors of omission and commission were legion.  During his two terms, from Guatemala to Iran, the CIA overthrew governments, plotted assassinations, and embraced unsavory right-wing dictators — in effect, planting a series of IEDs destined eventually to blow up in the face of Ike’s various successors.  Meanwhile, binging on nuclear weapons, the Pentagon accumulated an arsenal far beyond what even Eisenhower as commander-in-chief considered prudent or necessary. 

In addition, during his tenure in office, the military-industrial complex became a rapacious juggernaut, an entity unto itself as Ike himself belatedly acknowledged.  By no means least of all, Eisenhower fecklessly committed the United States to an ill-fated project of nation-building in a country that just about no American had heard of at the time: South Vietnam.  Ike did give the nation eight years of relative peace and prosperity, but at a high price — most of the bills coming due long after he left office.

The Pathology of American Politics

And yet, and yet…

To contrast the virtues and shortcomings of Stevenson and Eisenhower with those of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump is both instructive and profoundly depressing.  Comparing the adversaries of 1956 with their 2016 counterparts reveals with startling clarity what the decades-long decay of American politics has wrought.

In 1956, each of the major political parties nominated a grown-up for the highest office in the land.  In 2016, only one has.

In 1956, both parties nominated likeable individuals who conveyed a basic sense of trustworthiness.  In 2016, neither party has done so.

In 1956, Americans could count on the election to render a definitive verdict, the vote count affirming the legitimacy of the system itself and allowing the business of governance to resume.  In 2016, that is unlikely to be the case.  Whether Trump or Clinton ultimately prevails, large numbers of Americans will view the result as further proof of “rigged” and irredeemably corrupt political arrangements.  Rather than inducing some semblance of reconciliation, the outcome is likely to deepen divisions.

How in the name of all that is holy did we get into such a mess?

How did the party of Eisenhower, an architect of victory in World War II, choose as its nominee a narcissistic TV celebrity who, with each successive Tweet and verbal outburst, offers further evidence that he is totally unequipped for high office?  Yes, the establishment media are ganging up on Trump, blatantly displaying the sort of bias normally kept at least nominally under wraps.  Yet never have such expressions of journalistic hostility toward a particular candidate been more justified.  Trump is a bozo of such monumental proportions as to tax the abilities of our most talented satirists.  Were he alive today, Mark Twain at his most scathing would be hard-pressed to do justice to The Donald’s blowhard pomposity.

Similarly, how did the party of Adlai Stevenson, but also of Stevenson’s hero Franklin Roosevelt, select as its candidate someone so widely disliked and mistrusted even by many of her fellow Democrats?  True, antipathy directed toward Hillary Clinton draws some of its energy from incorrigible sexists along with the “vast right wing conspiracy” whose members thoroughly loathe both Clintons.  Yet the antipathy is not without basis in fact.

Even by Washington standards, Secretary Clinton exudes a striking sense of entitlement combined with a nearly complete absence of accountability.  She shrugs off her misguided vote in support of invading Iraq back in 2003, while serving as senator from New York.  She neither explains nor apologizes for pressing to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, her most notable “accomplishment” as secretary of state.  “We came, we saw, he died,” she bragged back then, somewhat prematurely given that Libya has since fallen into anarchy and become a haven for ISIS.

She clings to the demonstrably false claim that her use of a private server for State Department business compromised no classified information.  Now opposed to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) that she once described as the “gold standard in trade agreements,” Clinton rejects charges of political opportunism.  That her change of heart occurred when attacking the TPP was helping Bernie Sanders win one Democratic primary after another is merely coincidental.  Oh, and the big money accepted from banks and Wall Street as well as the tech sector for minimal work and the bigger money still from leading figures in the Israel lobby?  Rest assured that her acceptance of such largesse won’t reduce by one iota her support for “working class families” or her commitment to a just peace settlement in the Middle East.

Let me be clear: none of these offer the slightest reason to vote for Donald Trump.  Yet together they make the point that Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, notably so in matters related to national security.  Clinton is surely correct that allowing Trump to make decisions related to war and peace would be the height of folly.  Yet her record in that regard does not exactly inspire confidence.

When it comes to foreign policy, Trump’s preference for off-the-cuff utterances finds him committing astonishing gaffes with metronomic regularity.  Spontaneity serves chiefly to expose his staggering ignorance.

By comparison, the carefully scripted Clinton commits few missteps, as she recites with practiced ease the pabulum that passes for right thinking in establishment circles. But fluency does not necessarily connote soundness.  Clinton, after all, adheres resolutely to the highly militarized “Washington playbook” that President Obama himself has disparaged — a faith-based belief in American global primacy to be pursued regardless of how the world may be changing and heedless of costs.

On the latter point, note that Clinton’s acceptance speech in Philadelphia included not a single mention of Afghanistan.  By Election Day, the war there will have passed its 15th anniversary.  One might think that a prospective commander-in-chief would have something to say about the longest conflict in American history, one that continues with no end in sight.  Yet, with the Washington playbook offering few answers, Mrs. Clinton chooses to remain silent on the subject.

So while a Trump presidency holds the prospect of the United States driving off a cliff, a Clinton presidency promises to be the equivalent of banging one’s head against a brick wall without evident effect, wondering all the while why it hurts so much. 

Pseudo-Politics for an Ersatz Era

But let’s not just blame the candidates.  Trump and Clinton are also the product of circumstances that neither created.  As candidates, they are merely exploiting a situation — one relying on intuition and vast stores of brashness, the other putting to work skills gained during a life spent studying how to acquire and employ power.  The success both have achieved in securing the nominations of their parties is evidence of far more fundamental forces at work.

In the pairing of Trump and Clinton, we confront symptoms of something pathological.  Unless Americans identify the sources of this disease, it will inevitably worsen, with dire consequences in the realm of national security.  After all, back in Eisenhower’s day, the IEDs planted thanks to reckless presidential decisions tended to blow up only years — or even decades — later.  For example, between the 1953 U.S.-engineered coup that restored the Shah to his throne and the 1979 revolution that converted Iran overnight from ally to adversary, more than a quarter of a century elapsed.  In our own day, however, detonation occurs so much more quickly — witness the almost instantaneous and explosively unhappy consequences of Washington’s post-9/11 military interventions in the Greater Middle East.

So here’s a matter worth pondering: How is it that all the months of intensive fundraising, the debates and speeches, the caucuses and primaries, the avalanche of TV ads and annoying robocalls have produced two presidential candidates who tend to elicit from a surprisingly large number of rank-and-file citizens disdain, indifference, or at best hold-your-nose-and-pull-the-lever acquiescence?

Here, then, is a preliminary diagnosis of three of the factors contributing to the erosion of American politics, offered from the conviction that, for Americans to have better choices next time around, fundamental change must occur — and soon.

First, and most important, the evil effects of money: Need chapter and verse?  For a tutorial, see this essential 2015 book by Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard: Republic Lost, Version 2.0.  Those with no time for books might spare 18 minutes for Lessig’s brilliant and deeply disturbing TED talk.  Professor Lessig argues persuasively that unless the United States radically changes the way it finances political campaigns, we’re pretty much doomed to see our democracy wither and die.

Needless to say, moneyed interests and incumbents who benefit from existing arrangements take a different view and collaborate to maintain the status quo.  As a result, political life has increasingly become a pursuit reserved for those like Trump who possess vast personal wealth or for those like Clinton who display an aptitude for persuading the well to do to open their purses, with all that implies by way of compromise, accommodation, and the subsequent repayment of favors.

Second, the perverse impact of identity politics on policy:  Observers make much of the fact that, in capturing the presidential nomination of a major party, Hillary Clinton has shattered yet another glass ceiling.  They are right to do so.  Yet the novelty of her candidacy starts and ends with gender.  When it comes to fresh thinking, Donald Trump has far more to offer than Clinton — even if his version of “fresh” tends to be synonymous with wacky, off-the-wall, ridiculous, or altogether hair-raising.

The essential point here is that, in the realm of national security, Hillary Clinton is utterly conventional.  She subscribes to a worldview (and view of America’s role in the world) that originated during the Cold War, reached its zenith in the 1990s when the United States proclaimed itself the planet’s “sole superpower,” and persists today remarkably unaffected by actual events.  On the campaign trail, Clinton attests to her bona fides by routinely reaffirming her belief in American exceptionalism, paying fervent tribute to “the world’s greatest military,” swearing that she’ll be “listening to our generals and admirals,” and vowing to get tough on America’s adversaries.  These are, of course, the mandatory rituals of the contemporary Washington stump speech, amplified if anything by the perceived need for the first female candidate for president to emphasize her pugnacity.

A Clinton presidency, therefore, offers the prospect of more of the same — muscle-flexing and armed intervention to demonstrate American global leadership — albeit marketed with a garnish of diversity.  Instead of different policies, Clinton will offer an administration that has a different look, touting this as evidence of positive change.

Yet while diversity may be a good thing, we should not confuse it with effectiveness.  A national security team that “looks like America” (to use the phrase originally coined by Bill Clinton) does not necessarily govern more effectively than one that looks like President Eisenhower’s.  What matters is getting the job done.

Since the 1990s women have found plentiful opportunities to fill positions in the upper echelons of the national security apparatus.  Although we have not yet had a female commander-in-chief, three women have served as secretary of state and two as national security adviser.  Several have filled Adlai Stevenson’s old post at the United Nations.  Undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries of like gender abound, along with a passel of female admirals and generals. 

So the question needs be asked: Has the quality of national security policy improved compared to the bad old days when men exclusively called the shots?  Using as criteria the promotion of stability and the avoidance of armed conflict (along with the successful prosecution of wars deemed unavoidable), the answer would, of course, have to be no.  Although Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Clinton herself might entertain a different view, actually existing conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries across the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa tell a different story. 

The abysmal record of American statecraft in recent years is not remotely the fault of women; yet neither have women made a perceptibly positive difference.  It turns out that identity does not necessarily signify wisdom or assure insight.  Allocating positions of influence in the State Department or the Pentagon based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation — as Clinton will assuredly do — may well gratify previously disenfranchised groups.  Little evidence exists to suggest that doing so will produce more enlightened approaches to statecraft, at least not so long as adherence to the Washington playbook figures as a precondition to employment. (Should Clinton win in November, don’t expect the redoubtable ladies of Code Pink to be tapped for jobs at the Pentagon and State Department.)

In the end, it’s not identity that matters but ideas and their implementation.  To contemplate the ideas that might guide a President Trump along with those he will recruit to act on them — Ivanka as national security adviser? — is enough to elicit shudders from any sane person.  Yet the prospect of Madam President surrounding herself with an impeccably diverse team of advisers who share her own outmoded views is hardly cause for celebration. 

Putting a woman in charge of national security policy will not in itself amend the defects exhibited in recent years.  For that, the obsolete principles with which Clinton along with the rest of Washington remains enamored will have to be jettisoned.  In his own bizarre way (albeit without a clue as to a plausible alternative), Donald Trump seems to get that; Hillary Clinton does not.

Third, the substitution of “reality” for reality: Back in 1962, a young historian by the name of Daniel Boorstin published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in AmericaIn an age in which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton vie to determine the nation’s destiny, it should be mandatory reading.  The Image remains, as when it first appeared, a fire bell ringing in the night.

According to Boorstin, more than five decades ago the American people were already living in a “thicket of unreality.”  By relentlessly indulging in ever more “extravagant expectations,” they were forfeiting their capacity to distinguish between what was real and what was illusory.  Indeed, Boorstin wrote, “We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality.” 

While ad agencies and PR firms had indeed vigorously promoted a world of illusions, Americans themselves had become willing accomplices in the process.

“The American citizen lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original.  We hardly dare to face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real.  We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age.  These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.”

This, of course, was decades before the nation succumbed to the iridescent allure of Facebook, Google, fantasy football, “Real Housewives of _________,” selfies, smartphone apps, Game of Thrones, Pokémon GO — and, yes, the vehicle that vaulted Donald Trump to stardom, The Apprentice.

“The making of the illusions which flood our experience has become the business of America,” wrote Boorstin.  It’s also become the essence of American politics, long since transformed into theater, or rather into some sort of (un)reality show.

Presidential campaigns today are themselves, to use Boorstin’s famous term, “pseudo-events” that stretch from months into years.  By now, most Americans know better than to take at face value anything candidates say or promise along the way.  We’re in on the joke — or at least we think we are.  Reinforcing that perception on a daily basis are media outlets that have abandoned mere reporting in favor of enhancing the spectacle of the moment.  This is especially true of the cable news networks, where talking heads serve up a snide and cynical complement to the smarmy fakery that is the office-seeker’s stock in trade.  And we lap it up.  It matters little that we know it’s all staged and contrived, as long as — a preening Megyn Kelly getting under Trump’s skin, Trump himself denouncing “lyin’ Ted” Cruz, etc., etc. — it’s entertaining.

This emphasis on spectacle has drained national politics of whatever substance it still had back when Ike and Adlai commanded the scene.  It hardly need be said that Donald Trump has demonstrated an extraordinary knack — a sort of post-modern genius — for turning this phenomenon to his advantage.  Yet in her own way Clinton plays the same game.  How else to explain a national convention organized around the idea of “reintroducing to the American people” someone who served eight years as First Lady, was elected to the Senate, failed in a previous high-profile run for the presidency, and completed a term as secretary of state?  The just-ended conclave in Philadelphia was, like the Republican one that preceded it, a pseudo-event par excellence, the object of the exercise being to fashion a new “image” for the Democratic candidate.

The thicket of unreality that is American politics has now become all-enveloping.  The problem is not Trump and Clinton, per se.  It’s an identifiable set of arrangements  — laws, habits, cultural predispositions — that have evolved over time and promoted the rot that now pervades American politics.  As a direct consequence, the very concept of self-government is increasingly a fantasy, even if surprisingly few Americans seem to mind.

At an earlier juncture back in 1956, out of a population of 168 million, we got Ike and Adlai.  Today, with almost double the population, we get — well, we get what we’ve got.  This does not represent progress.  And don’t kid yourself that things really can’t get much worse.  Unless Americans rouse themselves to act, count on it, they will.

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  1. Binky

    sure seems AB is indulging in some “nostalgia for a golden age that never was.” Politics was never the ideal he cites, and even what he cites as “good old days” weren’t really the candy floss he seems to describe.
    Another data point when critically evaluating his other work. FDR coup? Truman and the Mob? Chicago voting scandals? Tammany Hall?

    1. Dave

      If I may, I think the driving point of his article was the eventual party production of two sane and reasonable candidates. Yes they are flawed in some ways, but still palatable.

      Then he goes on to compare what we have today……. which needs no explanation.

      So AB did a fine job conveying this. “nostalgia for a golden age that never was”, nope, more like we were semi sane back then, now we are bat sh1t crazy.

      As for me I refuse to vote for either, and I will suffer the consequences nonetheless.

      1. James Levy

        Americans are annoying chest-thumpers but the average Jane or Joe has no power in their own lives. In contrast, the Washington foreign policy elite has power, the power of life and death, over billions across the globe, and they exercise it regularly. This power has utterly corrupted the elite and gone to their heads. That is why any defiance is met with such rage. They are used to getting their own way, and woe to the country that acts or even thinks otherwise.

        I know Clinton is one of this gang. And I am sure that given his personality, Trump will succumb to this madness almost at once. Give a narcissistic jerk that much power and good luck to all of us (of course, give that much power to a rabid insider like Clinton and good luck to all of us). Of course, their partisans will say, “Trump will just ignore the entire vast apparatus of the permanent government and the security state and do whatever he likes” or “Nixon went to China, and Clinton can metaphorically do the same when she realizes she’s no longer a cheerleader at State and the buck stops at her desk”, but I don’t believe either of those assertions.

        Good luck to all of us.

        1. DJG

          James Levy: Thanks for the diagnosis. I’d say, though, that the Thicket of Unreality has turned Americans into an easily panicked mob of candy-asses, everyone from “liberals” browbeating Sanders supporters to flag-bandana guys showing up at mosques to yell at Muslims. “Annoying chest-thumpers” is too kind to the fear-ridden populace in this summer of 2016.

          None of this bodes well. And, yet, like Lambert, I do not want to see a catastrophe, because the poor and weak and marginal and meek will be trampled by the mob and by those in power.

          1. av av

            ” the poor and weak and marginal and meek will be trampled by the mob and by those in power” for only so long and then they will revolt.
            And then calamity.

        2. tegnost

          Thanks james, to the annoying chest thumpers the image of dems chanting USA USA to drown out No More Wars really signals an alternate reality. I think AB went way too easy on clinton, and the misogyny claim was one cheap shot…(True, antipathy directed toward Hillary Clinton draws some of its energy from incorrigible sexists along with the “vast right wing conspiracy” whose members thoroughly loathe both Clintons. Yet the antipathy is not without basis in fact.) but I think he retakes that ground when he labels her “utterly conventional”, On balance a good article but as with many prominent figures he can make a laundry list of her downsides and still come out sounding like a supporter of hers. I share your conclusion, good luck

    2. Elizabeth Burton

      Re: the author indulging in nostalgia, I think you may have misread. He specifies that the image he describes in his opening was that of a 9-year-old. It’s been my observation far too many people eligible to vote still hold that 9-year-old version as being reality, which could add to the reasons they continue to vote against their own best interests again and again.

      As I’m about the author’s same age, much of this resonated. I, too, usually voted for whatever candidate my party offered because I trusted the system would work. Since the media were already “deciphering” what we needed to know, and since we grew up listening to Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley and reading Woodward/Bernstein, we believed we were getting the facts. Now I know we weren’t, but far too many, especially in my age group, are conditioned to believe the media are telling us everything we should know.

      It was also enlightening engaging with Sanders supporters, so many of whom had never engaged in politics and who quickly (and still) revealed how little they understood about either the political process or how government operates—as opposed to how it’s supposed to operate. People only ten years younger than I am don’t even have the same level of education in history and civics I graduated with, and I now know how sadly lacking (and slanted) mine was.

      It’s going to be a long and bumpy ride if we’re to fix this mess.

    3. myshkin

      Bacevich doen’t note that in 1952 and to a lesser extent 56 the Stevenson ticket was a product of the Democratic machine as Hillary was in 2016.
      Estes Kefauver defeated Truman in the New Hampshire primary forcing him from the race and then proceeded to win most of the primaries and over 95 percent of the popular vote but was denied the presidential slot at the convention by the bosses who wanted Stevenson.

    1. sd

      Why would Clinton, whose surrogates just rigged the outcome of a primary, implement voting reforms?

      1. Arizona Slim

        The change wouldn’t come from Clinton & Company. It would be driven by us.

        Recall FDR and “make me do it.” Let’s make ’em do it.

        1. hunkerdown

          lol @ “Make them do it” And how will you compel and verify that they have done the whole job, and (as is malignantly unaddressed by the oxymoronically sadistic joke that is “liberal democracy”) how will you prevent and disable them from doing otherwise in your name?

          You clearly overestimate the powers of citizens to set and enact policy. They presume themselves superior to us, and that’s what needs to be reversed.

          1. PhilU

            I share your cynicism. I just see too many people advocating ranked choice. I want this out in the zeitgeist, it’s far superior.

            1. hunkerdown

              PhilU, to be sure, range voting is a more expressive tool than ranked choice, and somewhat easier to comprehend than the fairer alternatives. However, it is my considered opinion that vested rulership, with the rights and privileges and structures that attach to it, constitutes the root cause of human ills; I’m aware that most people don’t want to be seen agreeing with that statement for fear of rulers taking action against them. In the same sense that being able to halt and change course in the middle of a bad idea is superior to choosing the right course in the first place, a robust popular right of recall seems a more effective way of minimizing public corruption and maximizing broad public welfare than any particular selection system, and further puts paid to the smarmy sadomasochistic “government we deserve” homily so beloved by small-L small-D “liberal democrats” and other Loyalists. And that recall vote merely requires a two-box ballot. Imagine if those 33.1% approval ratings automatically transsubstantiated into “You’re fired” in the voting booth or the blockchain or wherever.

              At-will employment is sauce for goose or gander, and they would have far, far more to lose than we would.

    2. JTMcPhee

      Good old “we” is going to “implement voting reforms.” Who is this “we” of which you speak? And what other important tasks is “we” going to undertake and implement? In the face of “they” who have all the money and power and have so many of “us” busily working away to support “them” in “our” many jobs and careers and activities that “we” undertake and perform daily, like my cousins with their feet in the Crystal City trough, or my other relatives who used to be high in the organizations of Sneaky-Pete-Rey in another arc of the Empire’s bland geography? And of myself, as a wage slave nurse, or before that as an assistant retail store manager enforcing “management by intimidation” and staffing “policies” that he’d me and my fellow “associates” trading paid-time-off hours toward the minimum 32 paid hours decreed by corporate scum as necessary to qualify for shrinking “benefits…” Or before that, a stint as a lawyer in a big law firm, currently #3 on the West Coast, making the way smooth for one corporate scam after another, overcoming regulatory hurdles and constraints to enrich the privileged, sharing a secretary with Bill Gates, Senior, with a devil-may-care insouciance (and troubled dreams, but hey, a really nice house with a great view of my Japanese Garden…)

      Too many of “we” have our pay checks and world views as derivatives from a simplex system of feedback loops that can only end up at one energy state…

      A basic characteristic driver of too many humans (able to effectuate it via fortuity or intelligence or application) is gluttony. Nothing going to change the substrate until maybe some pimple-faced innovator applies his CRISPR toys to the human genome or some virus particle and brings it all to a screeching, bleeding halt…

  2. ex-PFC Chuck

    It’s depressing to see Andrew Bacevich, one of our country’s most astute observers of the national security scene and a retired military officer, come down on the side of Hilary Clinton as the lesser evil candidate. He can only do so by totally ignoring her central role in the ignition of Cold War 2.0 in his litany of her liabilities.

    1. EndOfTheWorld

      Hillary Clinton offers more of the same bad news, only worse. Trump scares everybody from the MIC, which includes Bacevich, who after all draws a hefty monthly pension from the Defense Dept., because he indicates he actually wants to be the boss, to call the shots, to shake things up, to rattle some cages. The last prez who actually tried to boss around the MIC was JFK, and he had his brain tissue splattered onto the Dallas street in broad daylight. Trump was kind of a stealth candidate in the primaries, in that the bigwigs were unable to take him seriously, even after he won some primaries. By the time they marshaled enough opposition to stop him, it was too late. Obama, for his part, has indicated the republican party was negligent in its duties by letting the people vote this guy into the nomination. The people, in the eyes of miscreants like Obama, are mere pawns to be manipulated, stolen from, etc. He’s implying the GOP should have had a superdelegate fix, like the dems, to overcome any spurt of independent thinking from the electorate.

      1. Betina

        No, Trump is scary because he’s a half-witted narcissist who has little knowledge of policy or current affairs, and whose greatest accomplishment is his inheritance.

          1. John Wright

            Clinton may be a non-introspective narcissist who has an poor understanding of the historical results of policy and current affairs, who never admits mistakes/grievous wrongs (“Libya needs more time”) and whose most significant personal decision was to recognize that, after failing the bar exam in Washington DC, it was time to go to Arkansas and hitch her wagon to Bill Clinton’s career.

        1. EndOfTheWorld

          Trump is a novice at government, yes, but he has experienced dealing with foreign countries as a businessman. HRC is much scarier—she is capable of rattling off the neocon doctrine as it pertains to a lot of countries. Great. I’d much prefer the novice. I would love to have the neocons and neolibs destroyed.
          As Bacevich says, Ike was not a bad president, and he had no gov’t experience before he was elected. My dad was a democrat, I guess, but the one thing I remember hearing him utter regarding politics was praise of Ike: ” Things were good in the 50’s—we had General Motors, General Electric, and General Eisenhower!”

        2. Kathleen Smith

          Hillary is scary because I think she and Victory Nuland are going to push us into a war with Putin – Trump is an idiot, but we already know that Hillary has a taste for blood.
          Libya and Iraq are two prime examples.

          1. redleg

            Roots Radio published an impromptu interview with Robert Kagan where Kagan says exactly that. Except that the word “nuclear” appears before “war”.

      2. Procopius

        Please note that Bacevich’s pension is not subject to the whims of the military leadership, nor, indeed, the national government, unless they are going to change the rules for everybody, so that’s not really an incentive for him. In fact, his experiences on active duty are the source of his expertise and his original motivation. I applaud considering every source’s motives and agenda, but if you are suggesting he has a conflict of interest here I disagree.

    2. DJG

      ex-PFC Chuck: The essay by Bacevich damns her with faint praise. But he does damn her. I don’t see an endorsement in the essay by him.

      1. ex-PFC Chuck

        I took the following sentence to imply a back-handed endorsement of Clinton as the lesser evil candidate:

        In 1956, each of the major political parties nominated a grown-up for the highest office in the land. In 2016, only one has.

        1. Eclair

          I may be wrong, Chuck, but AB probably considers Hitler and Stalin to have been ‘grown-ups.’

          His criteria for grown-upness would be a reasonable demeanor before the public, a certain predictability of action, and an ability to hold a consistent thought for more than a minute or two.

          Grown-ups can be evil, immoral sociopaths. And thus, more destructive and to-be-feared than children.

          1. hunkerdown

            “Grownup” = soulless, sycophantic walking automaton. Perhaps that whole concept of “grownup” is exactly the reason that this permanent melodrama of arrogance and privilege keeps on. Maybe it’s time to go full Menendez Brothers on the entire lot of them if they can’t find a soul and quickly.

        2. FluffytheObeseCat

          “Endorsement” is far too positive a term. This piece by Bacevich is in no way an endorsement of Clinton. But, it seems he has resigned himself to voting for her – unhappily and with misgivings. I’m with him on this. I will vote for her, despite her very evident rottenness, because Trump is a clownish, possibly demented, vile human being. Voting for the LOTE is not something new for me, but these 2 make it more painfully obvious than ever before.

          Clinton is unlikely to start WWIII; her history is one of excessive, dull adherence to the status quo, not risk-taking. Clinton as an Armageddon maker is a chemtrails concept favored by bullshitters with too much time on their hands. One that crops up regularly in the same venues where commenters refer to her as “Shillary” or “Hildabeest”…….. and then claim with straight faces that there is no sexism in their frenzied, hysteria-ridden dislike of her.

          Yeah right.

          1. Lambert Strether

            I dunno. Clinton tipped the balance in the administration toward war in Libya. Now, she may not have seen that as risk-taking, but it surely was.

            NOTE Shillary isn’t gendered; a shill can be any gender. Hildabeast, by contrast, is, via “Hilda,” Brunhilde, and Broomhilda, all female.

            1. Seamus Padraig

              I always thought of ‘Hildabeast’ as being a kind of portmanteau of ‘Hillary’ and ‘wildebeest’, but I could be wrong, of course.

          2. bluedog

            Have to love that old excuse “why I voted for the lessor of two evils” the next question is WHY do you vote that all except to perpetuate the same rotten system.!!!

          3. Pat

            Please read up on why a no fly zone in Syria is problematic before deciding that Clinton is not a risk taking hawk hell bent on war. Please look beyond the US media’s reporting on the Ukrainian coup and the actual events in Crimea with a fine eye to the US meddling in a situation that needed no meddling and why they might have done so. Pay particular attention to State’s actions including deputy Victoria Nuland (who with her husband Robert Kagan are enthusiastic Clinton supporters). Please note the ridiculous claims that the DNC was hacked by Russia, not Russian hackers, Russia.

            After looking at all this, along with the true history of Libya AND the quotes from Gates and various military about Clinton being more interventionist then they are, get back to us about Clinton and risk taking and estimates of her willingness to start WWIII. Or rather I should say her well documented hawkish lack of common sense and history that would lead her to make yet another disastrous ‘regime change’ choice for military intervention that could very well lead to WWIII, because she is yes, that careless, unthinking, and apparently either unaware or unfazed by history.

      1. redleg

        Some of my best soldiers never rose above PFC- they did great work but questioned everything, refusing to do the BS like the rest of the Army.

        So as a former artillery officer, I don’t necessarily see that as a negative.
        Drive on, PFC.

  3. jrs

    “Yes, the establishment media are ganging up on Trump, blatantly displaying the sort of bias normally kept at least nominally under wraps. Yet never have such expressions of journalistic hostility toward a particular candidate been more justified”

    yes well what about Sanders? No matter how justified they may be about Trump, the only conclusion looking at the whole election is that it isn’t about some kind of justification at all and who could trust them anyway?

    Money in politics. Ok how does anyone propose to change this? Honestly those calling for revolution in the streets are more realistic. Because what is involved to get money out of politics? 1) Would it involve a constitutional amendment? 2) Does the author have any idea of how impossible the process of getting a constitutional amendment passed is? It is why few are anymore in the lifetime of most people voting (except congress people raising their own pay). The system actually very near CAN NOT BE CHANGED. Massive super-majorities as are necessary to pass a constitutional amendment are nearly impossible even in the best possible scenario and even more so as they often involve people benefiting from the corrupt system. So solutions like this are hand-waving. Yea sure if you still believe the American government was ever meant to work beyond the capture of the oligarchs they might make sense.

    Sense of unreality. Noone ever asks their opinion on reality. Noone asks the 99s opinion on what they know. Their work lives, their lives in this economic system that is not run for them, in fact is run AGAINST them by frankly sadists (I know no other term to describe capitalism but sadism, it ruins nearly everyone’s life, some more than others, for the benefit of a very few). The things they really truly know first hand. Some may try the best they can to understand the world and know much more than first hand, but they have no voice in even what they do know first hand. Instead they are asked to form opinions on the Ukraine or climate change or something, opinions that are sometimes better than the elites, but which opinions will also have no effect on the government either! But the economic reality of jobs being lost etc.., the longer and longer hours at work where they already spend too many hours, the sometimes insufficient pay, the precarity, noone asks their opinion of what they without a doubt know.

    I propose a 4th cause instead of just “lack of reality” etc. and it’s the limits of discourse in the mainstream, when noone is even exposed to ANY alternatives …

    1. Roger Smith

      He is completely wrong about media bias and the fact that he would even defend such a corrupt practice (“beacuse it is okay this time”–who the hell is he or anyone else to say?) should immediately throw the value of the rest of this into suspect.

      Of course “opinions” of Trump will be more negative but the news is [supposed to be] more than OP-EDs. And that isn’t even the only method of tainting objectivity. Look at the type of and quality of stories… Releasing (and stigmatizing sex even more–go feminism!) nude photos of his wife, making up stories of a collapsing campaign, funding problems, and nuclear oblvisiousness, blowing non-issues out of proportion (KHAAAN!), etc… etc… (all the while ignoring select Clinton stories and constantly promoting her as obvious).

      The Media is absolutely out of control and destroying what little electoral freedom we had leftover from two corrupt parties laying waste to the landscape. But I guess it is okay beecause Trump right?

      1. sharonsj

        I consider the mainstream media (and much of local media) to be completely worthless. If you want to find out about actual issues (not to mention what’s really happening), you need to read numerous independent web sites. The problem is the millions of people who listen to conservative radio and TV and who really know nothing because no one is going to tell them.

        1. Carla

          “The problem is the millions of people who listen to conservative radio and TV and who really know nothing because no one is going to tell them.”

          I agree. Well, that is half of the problem. The other half is the millions of people who listen to “liberal” radio and TV and who really know nothing because no one is going to tell them.

          1. John F Taylor

            We are ALL to blame for this, left, right, liberal & conservative. We sat ideally by while our Nation lied to us & economically took over the world. Each side of the isle has good & bad, doesnt matter anymore. We are being presented in 2016 two horrible presidential candidates, the future does not look good (hasnt since JFK was taken from us.). Id pray if anyone was listening…

    2. Will

      The corporate media serve the interests of corporations, They’re engaged in purveying propaganda to control the public’s perceptions and understanding of economic and social realities. This manipulation is geared to deter the formation of organized resistance among the working class to the criminal, anti-social behavior and exploitation perpetrated by the corporate elite. This is necessary from their point of view, because we are many, and they are few. If we came together, We the People could wield enormous power.

      1. Procopius

        Yes. Noam Chomsky explained it very well in “Manufacturing Consent.” There is not a conspiracy, like Judge Gary’s “little dinners.” There is no meeting of media CEOs to decide what will be on tomorrow’s news, but there is a common understanding, developed through a lifetime of working with and against each other and also from socializing with the very rich. They know what is acceptable and what is not. Nobody has to tell them from day to day. The purpose of the infotainment media is to make money. They make money by selling advertising. They entice people to buy advertising time from them by broadcasting stuff the advertisers want the suckers to see all the time. Mostly what they broadcast is intentionally distracting from what is important, because the people who direct money to the broadcasters want it that way.

    3. Jay

      And remember, as shitty as the Crapstitution was from its elitist “cave men” beginnings, it was competely invalidated by the the US Civil War where the US went from a decentralized entity (the States could tell the US Supreme Court to go fuck themselves) to a centralized state enforced by the barrel of a gun. Sort of like expecting greatness from a state of the art smartphone that you run with MSDOS 1.0.

  4. Arizona Slim

    Diversity and effectiveness aren’t the same thing. There’s a concept that needs to go viral.

    1. pretzelattack

      clinton’s effective at starting wars and running a grift with bill, but i see precious little diversity of class.

  5. stefan

    Thank you for continuing to re-publish articles by Andrew Bacevich, one of the few cogent voices left in our ever-expanding realm of blather.

  6. Watt4Bob

    The following, from H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Sun (26 July 1920)

    When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand.

    W4B; dread is another word for fear, right?

    So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.

    W4B; the ‘leaders‘ we ‘choose‘, reflect poorly on us as a people, giving lie to our groundless belief that we are ‘exceptional

    We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

    W4B; An exceptionally credulous people, whose elites have been brazenly raping and pillaging the planet for over a hundred years, are none the less convinced it is they who are under attack, it is they who are aggrieved, are about to elect as president, a perfect representative, a perfect avatar.

    1. Watt4Bob

      Upon further consideration, “avatar” is perhaps too weighty a word.

      We’re about to elect an emoji, an ignorant, angry, greedy emoji.

      Which ever party should prevail.

    2. Enquiring Mind

      Boorstin’s pseudo-events are a type of Bernays sauce.

      Mencken is often credited with the term booboisie, used in part to describe the great unwashed.

      Blend the two concepts and you get a populace that can’t get enough distraction from reality, good and hard.

    3. Will

      Mencken’s comment buttresses the bourgeois dislike of democracy, the notion that common people are unable to effectively rule themselves. The authors of the U.S. Constitution felt similarly and feared that the masses (what they called the mob), if free to self-govern, would turn against the wealthy, propertied class. They wrote in provisions, such as the (at the time) non-democratically elected senate, to protect their interests. Read Madison’s words on the subject.

      Disparaging the intellectual and temperamental ability of common people to arrange their own affairs so as to meet their needs is a canard spread by the ruling class, which likes to see itself as the sole reservoir of the competence and wisdom required to govern society. They see their self-serving biases as self-evident truths.

      Slashing spending on public education, turning the people into a brow-beaten precariat afraid to stand up against employers to demand higher wages and needed benefits, feeding them lies and “fantasies” to obscure their understanding of the class warfare that accounts for their suffering are some of the means by which the ruling class maintains its ascendancy.

      The people aren’t stupid. They’ve been misled and duped, but show signs of catching on to the con.

      1. Watt4Bob

        They’ve been misled and duped, but show signs of catching on to the con.

        Yes they have, and yes they are.

        However, I’d point out that it only took thirty years, 1935-1965 for people to forget it was their ‘betters’ who caused the great depression, and to start believing all the propaganda about ‘rugged individualism’ the evils of organized labor, and the dangerous, and costly ‘nanny state’.

        Nixon had no problem getting union men to attack anti-war demonstrators, at the same time he was selling the myth that union wages were pricing Americans out of their jobs.

        Reagan had no problem convincing half the country that it wasn’t piss threatening to fall on them but trickle-down of prosperity.

        And you know that old saying, “fool me once…”

    4. fresno dan

      August 5, 2016 at 8:08 am


      “We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

      Alas, if we could only elevate our politics to reach the towering heights of a downright moron, to acclaim the imbecile, to anoint an Anencephalic as our leader – how much better off we would be….
      Woefully, we are damned to be governed by the best and the brightest….

  7. Tony Wikrent

    AB’s central issue: “Unless Americans identify the sources of this disease, it will inevitably worsen…” He the offers three sources, none of which I believe are sufficient explanations for the devolution of USA politics. However, his first, the role of money in politics, comes close to what I believe is the source of our political dysfunction.

    The United States was designed as a republic, but it has become an oligarchy.

    Obviously, if the USA is no longer a republic, it cannot function as the republic it was designed to be. The crucial feature of republicanism was public virtue, which simply meant that an individual citizen was willing to suppress his or her own self-interest when the greater good of society required it. This feature is embodied in the Constitution as the mandate to promote the General Welfare.

    In my Introduction to my annotated abridgement of The Power to Govern: The Constitution — Then and Now, by Douglass Adair and Walton H. Hamilton (W.W. Norton & Co., New York, NY, 1937, available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook, here), “By specifying in the Constitution that government powers are used to promote a state’s economic powers in promotion of the general welfare, the American republic made a sharp break from European mercantilism, in which the welfare of a sole monarch or small group of oligarchs was often conflated with the general welfare of a state or nation….”

    The promotion and advance of laissez faire economic liberalism directly undermines the public virtue that is essential to the proper functioning a republic. As I wrote in The Historical Context of Mercantilism, Republicanism, Liberalism and Neoliberalism:

    In fact, the leading philosophers of neoliberalsim are explicit in their attack on the Constitutional mandate to promote the general welfare,
    arguing it is “the slippery slope to the tyranny of the nanny state.”
    As Friedrich von Hayek titled his 1944 paean to neo-liberalism, the
    republican insistence of promoting the general welfare is The Road to Serfdom.

    So, the underlying source of our political maladies is the encroachment of economic liberalism on our intended political system of republicanism.

    1. Watt4Bob

      In fact, the leading philosophers of neoliberalsim are explicit in their attack on the Constitutional mandate to promote the general welfare

      Yes, exactly!

      The tragedy being there is nothing that says we can’t have both general welfare, and a healthy economy at the same time.

      Neoliberalism deserves to be on history’s scrap heap, like feudalism, and slavery.

  8. Jim A.

    “It matters little that we know it’s all staged and contrived, as long as — a preening Megyn Kelly getting under Trump’s skin, Trump himself denouncing “lyin’ Ted” Cruz, etc., etc. — it’s entertaining.”
    –That reminds me of nothing so much as professional wrestling…Should we call it “kayfarbe” politics?

  9. EoinW

    We live in a political system in which elections are nothing more than popularity contests. This is the case throughout the western “democracies”, not just in America. In fact, the people running the EU aren’t even elected! As correctly stated in the comment section, the problem is the system, not the people in it. Furthermore the system cannot be changed because it exists for itself. Average people lost a say in running their societies a long time ago(if they have ever had much of a say at all). For the sake of uber-materialism, convenience and the need for instant gratification, this deal with the devil has been perfectly acceptable to the majority of westerners. It is only now, when people begin to feel they aren’t getting their fair share, that there is alarm and anger.

    How do you fix this? That’s like a senior citizen suddenly confronted with their own mortality asking how they avoid dying. Certainly the idea of getting back to 1956 will fix nothing when you consider that we got here from 1956. That’s simply the senior wanting to buy 60 more years before being confronted with the exact same problem again. There is no fix. We either destroy the system or live with it. I did find the idea that 2016 is a new low rather curious. Lower than 2008 or 2012? At least 2016 presents Americans with an actual choice on a rather important issue. Do they vote for the status quo and continued confrontation with nuclear armed Russia and China? or do they vote for someone who – if he survives to January – might step back from such confrontations.

    This is my simplistic conclusion. Vote Clinton and risk a possible nuclear war or vote Trump and risk trade wars(which might be exactly what we need). The scary thing about all this, including this article, is the usual failure to point out that the obvious course of the status quo leads to nuclear war. It’s the sort of thing one ignores at their own peril – and all of humanity’s.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Wasn’t 1952 just a popularity contest? “I like Ike” The slogan said it all. Adlai was a lamb offered up to not embarrass the Democrats. In 1956, the DNC wrangling was over who would be Stevenson’s running mate to grab national attention. Johnson really wanted it, knowing full well a Southern Democrat wouldn’t win on his own in 1960 with the third rail of American politics bubbling under the surface. Joe Kennedy even tried to get a Johnson-Kennedy ticket going to set Jack up for 1960.

  10. hemeantwell

    I may be overstating Bacevich’s shortcoming, but he appears to completely miss what other articles linked here have been pointing out for some time, and which recent articles at Jacobin — the current “Rank and File” issue — have been stressing: the deterioration of labor’s position as an independent bargainer with capital to one of being subject to manipulative administration by the state.

    Fake politics is politics done by free-floating, opportunistic party organizations that assemble coalitions of incompatible interests while denying that they are incompatible. The salience, or truth, of incompatibility is suppressed by highlighting other issues — e.g. identity politics, and NB that in this frame noble causes, like civil rights, can be perverted — along with, as we have often noted here, TINA talk. As Ferguson, Mair and others have argued, the party organization tilts more and more in the direction of its paymasters, elites who help the party drown out analyses at odds with its own. Party staffers and candidates become elite hirelings (Clinton Cash is an obvious illustration). In periods of crisis, as the electorate — masses? — have to formulate a map of political economic reality to save themselves, the parties insist on the maps and strategies that brought electoral success and political power for the party organizations. A “crisis of confidence” ensues.

    The devolution of the labor movement to allowing its political horizons to be defined by the Democratic party is central to this. It alone was in the position of being both obliged to and organizationally capable of offering a comprehensive alternative to a political economic mirage offered by coalition-building party drones. Instead, it accepted TINA-think and, as the Jacobin articles do a good job of setting out, effectively demobilized, losing its ability, or will, to define and criticize the development of neoliberalism.

    In this light, Bacevich’s article comes across as a simple ethical lament and fails to acknowledge that good politics depends on adequate representation of interests that are recognized as being in conflict. It’s very telling that he focuses on Eisenhower, who was at times adamant in his acknowledgement of the status of labor as a political actor, but largely does so to bring out aspects of his character. Eisenhower’s political character was a product of what we can call an acceptance that class struggle inevitably exists under capitalism and that it must be frankly addressed, instead of being dissolved away in fake, derivative politics. Until Bacevich gets this, his analytic efforts may end up contributing to what he criticizes.

    Here’s one of the Jacobin articles, I think Lambert recently linked it as well.

    1. hemeantwell

      The Sigmar Gabriel article in Links is a great illustration of a what I’m talking about.

      There’s a Hyman Minsky-like quality to the way that labor parties become more and more disoriented to class interests as they cobble together coalitions and then, when things go south, the inertia of their compromised policy agenda — especially its narrowness and inability to compete with the dominant elite austerity narrative — leaves them with inadequate policies and a dispirited base.

  11. Carolinian

    Yes the analogue for today would be the 20s when Sinclair Lewis wrote Babbit and Main Street, books which depict ordinary people as easy prey to the propaganda of newspaper editorials. The presidents of the time, Harding and Coolidge, were not all that adult and distinguished compared to our current choices.

    That said you can probably blame television for the baroque quality of our current political landscape. In particular television seems to have destroyed the news business. Once reporters started standing in front of cameras and becoming celebrities themselves–not to mention making millions of dollars doing so–integrity has taken a back seat to career. The reporters of the Front Page era were often hacks but didn’t have so much at stake financially.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uniformed. If you do read them, you are misinformed.” -Mark Twain

      “It’s easier to fool people than convince them they have been fooled.” -Mark Twain

      TV is certainly flashy. No one drops Obama quotes to make points because the great orator of our day is an empty suit, but the media has always been garbage. Obama in the “Audacity of Hope” noted people project their values onto him, but I assume most fans of Obama didn’t get past the cover.

      Reading definitely puts anything, really into perspective versus hearing which is fleeting as we move onto the next stunt. The newspapers from an earlier era were sensational garbage, but it was easier to tell.

      I do wonder about how TV versus say the Internet as a media source will alter our minds. Young voters seem to be better informed in recent years, but they don’t watch cable or even network news. When they are looking at their phones, they are reading. With TV, people are just waiting for a truth bomb which disappears in an instant.

      On TV, an Elena Kagan type is a deputy secretary of state who has “served” (she was paid and not part of the military where she could be arrested for not obeying the boss; I hate this phrase) three Presidents. Wow.

      On the Internet, we can see she is a neoconservative who has been linked to all kinds of foreign policy blunders and rank thuggery.

      1. Carolinian

        The internet is a great medium for learning things if you use it properly. The jury is still out on whether it’s a vehicle for political change. So far tv still rules.

        Should also be said that television is a big reason campaigns cost so much. So it has indirectly corrupted our politics that way as well.

    2. Jim Haygood

      Interesting that television was a late 1920s invention. Bell Labs demonstrated an early television system to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in 1927, and GE began broadcasting in Schenectady in 1928. But for the Depression and WW II, network television likely would have been rolled out almost a decade sooner.

      By the time network TV did debut in 1949, the war had been over for four years. But the U.S. never demobilized. Wartime intelligence agencies stayed on, allegedly to spy on Cold War enemies. Of course, they quickly expanded their role to overthrowing leftist regimes worldwide.

      Bacevich could have stated his thesis with his sentence, “During [Ike’s] two terms, from Guatemala to Iran, the CIA overthrew governments, plotted assassinations, and embraced unsavory right-wing dictators.” That’s the political decay, right there. And it’s still here, bigger and badder.

      Apparently, one of the rules of the Deep State is that it’s okay to criticize it (mildly) when you’re leaving office and no longer can do anything about it.

      Bacevich’s “three factors contributing to the erosion of American politics” are mere diversions, compared to the ugly reality of an illegitimate state which has slipped the fetters of democratic control. Money and identity politics are largely irrelevant to the Deep State. “Reality” is not, but the Mighty Wurlitzer has served up its alternate “reality” since the era of broadcast images began.

      1. Carolinian

        I’m with you–blame it on Empire. Ike was no hero. Bacevich reels off Ike’s misdeeds and then says at least he was an adult. Perhaps one thing we need is for our Masters of the Universe to stop taking themselves so seriously. They love war talk because it allows them to pose as extra serious.

        Gore Vidal said the turning point was after–or he would have said during–WW2 when the country changed from a Republic into an Empire. This was a deliberate choice of all those adults.

        1. Jim Haygood

          Vidal was right. The postwar Pax Americana empire bears no resemblance to the prewar U.S. Nor does its federal government.

          Despite the recent cautionary tale of Britain’s decayed empire, the “adults” of the day evidently believed the U.S. empire would pay for itself and confer escalating prosperity.

          We now know that “investing” five percent of GDP in global policing starves domestic investment by an equal amount. Compounded over 70 years, you get a heavily-armed, hollowed-out, elite-ruled economy with a sullen precariat.

          Astonishing that this phenomenon — arguably the most important thing happening on the planet — is of zero interest to mainstream eclownomists. They aren’t paid to study it, and likely wouldn’t get published if they did.

  12. Pat

    I beg to differ with Mr. Bacevich, Clinton is not “banging one’s head against a brick wall without evident effect, wondering all the while why it hurts so much” . There has been a great deal of ‘effect’ from her advice and policies of choice. Not the least of which is the continued destabilization of the Middle East, the refugee crisis in and from that region, much of the craziness in Turkey, the civil war in the Ukraine, problems in Latin America, and by extension many of the political and financial problems in Europe. Choosing to continue that is indeed choosing the person determined to drive the car off the cliff – not just Trump. And ignoring that list of ‘effects’ is as great or greater an omission than ignoring our continued war in Afghanistan.

    And that doesn’t even take into account the obvious desire of Clinton and her cohorts to try to isolate Russia despite all indications that Putin and Russia will not take this imperialistic interference with a bow and an ‘of course, your majesty’. Trying to bait Russia into war is the height of CRAZY, and these people are straightforward in wanting to do that.

    So personally I’ll take the guy with no record of crazy over the cliff destruction decisions for our country and the world. Politicians might actually work to stop the worst from that guy, rather than the alternative indulging Clinton’s, Kagan’s, Nuland’s, et al crazy destructive megalomania because it somewhat matches their own delusions of exceptionalism.

    1. shinola

      Pat, I think you have a point there. It is not just the LOTE this time – we need to consider who may be more EFFECTIVELY evil.

      Who is really more dangerous to “we the people” – P.T. Barnum or Dick Cheney-in-a-pantsuit?

  13. Otis B Driftwood

    Think our system isn’t broken? Here’s a link to an article about a chronic homeless encampment down the street from my home. I pass by it every day on my way to work.

    Gilman Street Homeless Camp

    Not long after these people are removed, they come back because they have nowhere else to go. Their sicknesses remain untreated. Their squalor unmediated. Soon their tents and shopping carts and trash will again spill over from the curbs of the freeway on/off ramps into the street. It is a sickening spectacle of human misery and institutional neglect.

    This place is situated within a few stone throws of homes now selling for close $1M. Not a fancy neighborhood, by any means, but one that has been juiced by the general Bay Area housing shortage. This is what fuels my anger and leads me to despair that this election will have no impact on changing the systemic forces that have caused this to happen. I expect it to get worse.

    1. tegnost

      yes I agree, and feel the homelessness situation is the elephant in the room in this and the economic drivers article. The recovery wasn’t a recovery they just chose who would win and look down on the rest of us as inconvenient details that will eventually die, hopefully soon, but only after voting for clinton because trump

  14. Denis Drew

    ” First, and most important, the evil effects of money: Need chapter and verse? ”

    Need labor unions. Late dean of the Washington press corps responded to a new reporter’s question of what was the big difference when he came to D.C. 50 years ago with: the lobbyists were all union.

    As long as nobody else talks about re-unionization (as the beginning and the end of re-constituting the American dream) — nobody thinks it is possible to talk about …
    … or something.

    Easy as pie to make union busting a felony in our most progressive states f(WA, OR, CA, NV, IL, NY, MD) — and then get out of the way as the first 2000 people in the many telephone directories re-define our future.

    1. Anonymous

      Edward Conand, ‘Unintended Consequences’:

      ‘The higher pay of union jobs represents nothing more than an unfair tax on consumers. Higher priced goods that cover the higher cost of union labor transfer money from poorer nonunion consumers to highly paid union labor….The United States only lost high paying union jobs because unions lost the ability to tax consumers.’

      The unions brought us the Vega and the Pinto. Free trade brought us the Accord.

        1. Anonymous

          I don’t mean to suggest that shoddy workmanship in the ’70s was all the fault of the unions in the US. Management bears a lot of the blame. But competition from overseas forced American manufacturers to raise quality. Japanese autos are the best examples of that process at work.

      1. pretzelattack

        free trade is bringing ruin to the middle class. financialization is an unfair tax on everybody but the elites.

        so called “free” trade is a huge boon to capital.

      2. Charles Peterson

        Very selective list of what the unions brought us. The Vega and Pinto come from the dawn of the neoliberal era, and car designs come from the ibgybg management anyway. Mainly what unions brought was a temporary era of increasing prosperity for most, a golden age rise 1932-1970, whose end coincided with the beginning of their decline. But we would probably have done much better if worker unions shared a role in actual corporate governance. I think that puts a damper on some offshoring, and ultimately promotes a culture of excellence rather than drop to the bottom. Our corporate concept–it’s all about shareholder value–is killing us.

        Meanwhile the Accord sold in the USA has been mostly made in the USA, thanks to a nationalistic trade deal (the opposite of free trade) with Japan signed by Ronald Reagan. If not, it would cost as much as an Accura Legend, a similar car which has generally if not entirely been made in Japan.

  15. Will

    The thicket of unreality that is American politics has now become all-enveloping. The problem is not Trump and Clinton, per se. It’s an identifiable set of arrangements — laws, habits, cultural predispositions — that have evolved over time and promoted the rot that now pervades American politics. As a direct consequence, the very concept of self-government is increasingly a fantasy, even if surprisingly few Americans seem to mind.

    Col. Bacevitch identifies the symptoms but not the disease. The “laws, habits, [and] cultural predispositions” to which he attributes the decline in American politics flow from long-standing economic relations that exist in our society. Identity politics is part and parcel of an intentional PR-promoted “fantasy” that seeks to divide the working class into warring factions, to prevent the growth of solidarity and cooperation among those who suffer from the depredations of an economic system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

    I have not read Boorstin’s 1962 book, but Noam Chomsky has written extensively on the subject of how the media controls public opinion (i.e., purveys useful myths, lies, or “fantasies”). His most well-known book on the subject is Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Another is Media Control, Second Edition: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (Open Media Series). There are more.

    The disintegration of our body politic is no accident. It’s not mysterious. It is the product of deliberate acts performed in the service of the ruling class, those who command wealth and power at the peak of the unjust and inegalitarian social pyramid formed by capitalistic economic relations.

  16. JEHR

    I was disappointed when Lessig did not mention one act that citizens could take right now to defeat the “Lesters:” only Bernie Sanders did not depend on lester-funding so if a majority of Americans wrote his name on their ballots, Bernie Sanders, then the needed country-wide discussion might take place. Just imagine all those people writing in one name on their ballots. It is mind blowing!

    1. jrs

      Many places write-ins aren’t counted, so while I really have no problem with people writing in Bernie as the choices are bad anyway (Jill Stein has a chance of being counted at least, so might be better – but I don’t think it makes that much difference, so if it is cathartic ok).

      What I do care about is that we start devising strategies that actually have a chance to work. We need to talk tactics and what would actually work. Voting Jill Stein as president – not likely to work but nothing wrong with it. Constitutional amendment to get money out of politics, would be nice, could work however odds are VERY LOW just considering how high that obstacle of getting an amendment is. We need to talk seriously about what has a decent chance of actually working.

      Changing the voting system and unions and changing state laws to be friendly to unions are two things that have been suggested that might be decent approaches (because both can be attempted locally as I don’t think changing the voting system is forbidden by existing laws etc. – unlike getting money out of politics which IS forbidden by existing Supreme Court rulings).

  17. Harry Shearer

    Re: the candidates–he is more likely to get us into a war by accident, she is more likely to get us into a war deliberately.
    Re: the culture–BBC’s Adam Curtis did a wonderful program a few years back (The Century of the Self) about Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who used his uncle’s insights into human irrationality in inventing modern public relations. America’s great achievement in the 2nd half of the 20th Century was creating vast industries based on manipulating that irrationality.

  18. Hayek's Heelbiter

    I just cannot believe how many pundits, academics and my (paleo? meso?) liberal friends totally do not get it.

    Donald Trump is electoral equivalent of the proverbial ham sandwich.

    It matters not one iota of one whit what he believes, says or does or plans to do..

    All a huge number of Americans (with whom the pundits, academics, die-hard liberals [of which I am one], and especially those within the Boston-Washington-New York bubble never engage) know is that since the neoliberals took control of government and corporations to hoover up all the money they could from those who were scraping by to fill the coffers of those who have too much, their lives have become more and more difficult and constrained.

    Although you would probably only get blank stares if you asked a Trump supporter, “What do you think of the repeal of Glass-Stegall?”, they know on some visceral level that they have been screwed by those in power and screwed again and again..

    HRC is the centerfold poster child for neoliberalism, and those who ran against Trump were all of a similar stripe.

    The people who have watched their lifestyles shredded, their incomes plummet, lost their houses while the people and institutions responsible for their plight were rewarded for their thievery, watched as America became the only developed country with declining life expectancy, would vote for a ham sandwich as long as it wasn’t a neoliberal.


    1. Seamus Padraig

      Exactly. It’s starting to become a cliché, but Trump really is the American Brexit.

  19. Expat

    Frankly, America has the candidates it wants and deserves. Most of America seems thrilled with the various wars. Most still believe in Horatio Alger, angels and the tooth fairy. It seems many more whites than thought were closet racists of some sort or other. Most importantly, most have a very short attention span and no interest in facts or policy.

    If I were to vote, I would vote for Trump on the basis that he has at least pissed off nearly everyone. If he wins, he might just fuck up enough to bring about real changes to American politics and policies. If Hillary wins, it’s MOAR of the same: moar Wall Street greed, more TTIP, moar wars, and moar Terror Alerts.

    I don’t think we ever had a Golden Age, but I can’t recall another election where one candidate won because the other choice was so appalling. Thus, will Clinton become our next president, entrenching the new royalty spanning Bush to Clinton. Then, when Hillary fucks up, we will get Jeb back. And then it will be one of the Obama girls followed by Jenna Bush or some other mentally deficient Bush offspring.

    As if it even mattered….

  20. Sluggeaux

    The reference to Boorstein and pseudo-events is spot-on. The American polity rejected reality in favor of Ronnie Reagan’s Hal Riney fiction. The movie has sucked us in; our failures are seen as failures of propaganda and faith, not as objective reflections of a reality in which we are being fleeced by vicious hucksters.

    We’ve all happily gone Hollywood, because as my friend always reminds me, “People love to be lied to!”

  21. Seamus Padraig

    A Clinton presidency, therefore, offers the prospect of more of the same — muscle-flexing and armed intervention to demonstrate American global leadership — albeit marketed with a garnish of diversity. Instead of different policies, Clinton will offer an administration that has a different look, touting this as evidence of positive change.

    Isn’t that what we had under O’Bomber?

    Yet while diversity may be a good thing, we should not confuse it with effectiveness. A national security team that “looks like America” (to use the phrase originally coined by Bill Clinton) does not necessarily govern more effectively than one that looks like President Eisenhower’s. What matters is getting the job done.

    Heresy! I hope for your sake, Andrew, that you don’t plan ever to turn up in a university town again. They’ll burn you at the stake for saying that.

    The just-ended conclave in Philadelphia was, like the Republican one that preceded it, a pseudo-event par excellence, the object of the exercise being to fashion a new “image” for the Democratic candidate.

    Actually, I’d have to disagree with you there. These were the two most unusual conventions since 1968.

  22. Paul Greenwood

    Well since Americans get to vote – at least if 53% of them can be bothered – for a candidate to live in that building on Penn Ave, the Rest of The World should get a say in how the Elected Emperor gets to mess up their world.

    It seems as if the Arms Race was created by the USA from the beginning – firstly by building SAC into a force to overwhelm the Soviet Air Force leading them to turn to ICBMs only to find the USA had many more of those until 1970s. They leave Afghanistan and East Germany and Poland and Romania and Hungary and Bulgaria and the US moves in with tanks and now rocket launch facilities on the Russian border and Blackwater and California National Guard in Ukraine and US warships in the Black Sea and US Navy having paid to build schools and “hearts and minds” spending $60 million in Ukrainian Crimea prepping for a new US Naval Base.

    Europe has even less wish to be a US Theatre Battlefield under Obama-Clinton than it had under Reagan and public opinion would like the US gone instead of sitting on the Russian border with no identifier flashes on their uniforms trying to provoke war between Ukraine and Russia or using Poland as a tripwire much as Chamberlain did in March 1938 to provoke war

  23. Jet pilot

    Perceptive piece by COL Bacevich. He makes a lot of good points including historical perspective on judgments/actions taken going back to the 1950’s. Despite his concerns about Secretary Clinton, I think she is the only rational choice this election.

    1. pretzelattack

      hmm, i think she is the most irrational choice. but if you like the way things are going, vote for the status quote. yay banks! yay wars on false pretenses!

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