Trump as “Consequence, Not Cause” of the Collapse in the Post Cold War Consensus

Yves here. Readers will likely concur with Bacevich’s analysis but find his proposals to be simplistic, starting with the fact that he calls them preliminary yet two of them require Constitutional amendments. And he misguidedly calls for a balanced Federal budget, revealing he’s a captive of neoliberalism. So I’d take the many useful parts of this piece, the most important being that the media and pundit fixation on Trump conveniently diverts public attention and energy away from the structures that keep negligent and looting elites firmly in charge, and discount the rest.

By Andrew J. Bacevich, the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, now out in paperback. His next book will be an interpretive history of the United States from the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump. Originally published at TomDispatch

Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us.

It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850-1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic.  He was merely the federal chief executive.  Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore.  With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s successors.  They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded.  So when Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) or William Howard Taft (1909-1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines — now known as “presidential libraries” — to the glory of their presidencies.  In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.

Over the course of the past century, all that has changed.  Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarified space as our king-emperor.  The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace.  We have our man in the White House.

Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government.  In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy.  Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.  

At the same time, they also took on various extra-constitutional responsibilities.  By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and — last but hardly least — celebrity-in-chief.  In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.   

As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint.  On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an “imperial presidency.” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action.  The War Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule.  Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919 (enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.

In truth, influential American institutions — investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national security apparatus and both major political parties — have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod.  By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.

Furthermore, it’s our president — not some foreign dude — who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe.  For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both “exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems only right and proper.  So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.

Then came the Great Hysteria.  Arriving with a Pearl Harbor-like shock, it erupted on the night of November 8, 2016, just as the news that Hillary Clinton was losing Florida and appeared certain to lose much else besides became apparent.

Suddenly, all the habits and precedents that had contributed to empowering the modern American presidency no longer made sense.  That a single deeply flawed individual along with a handful of unelected associates and family members should be entrusted with determining the fate of the planet suddenly seemed the very definition of madness.

Emotion-laden upheavals producing behavior that is not entirely rational are hardly unknown in the American experience.  Indeed, they recur with some frequency.  The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are examples of the phenomenon.  So also are the two Red Scares of the twentieth century, the first in the early 1920s and the second, commonly known as “McCarthyism,” coinciding with the onset of the Cold War.

Yet the response to Donald Trump’s election, combining as it has fear, anger, bewilderment, disgust, and something akin to despair, qualifies as an upheaval without precedent.  History itself had seemingly gone off the rails.  The crude Andrew Jackson’s 1828 ousting of an impeccably pedigreed president, John Quincy Adams, was nothing compared to the vulgar Donald Trump’s defeat of an impeccably credentialed graduate of Wellesley and Yale who had served as first lady, United States senator, and secretary of state.  A self-evidently inconceivable outcome — all the smart people agreed on that point — had somehow happened anyway.

A vulgar, bombastic, thrice-married real-estate tycoon and reality TV host as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and chief celebrity?  The very idea seemed both absurd and intolerable.

If we have, as innumerable commentators assert, embarked upon the Age of Trump, the defining feature of that age might well be the single-minded determination of those horrified and intent on ensuring its prompt termination. In 2016, TIME magazine chose Trump as its person of the year.  In 2017, when it comes to dominating the news, that “person” might turn out to be a group — all those fixated on cleansing the White House of Trump’s defiling presence.

Egged on and abetted in every way by Trump himself, the anti-Trump resistance has made itself the Big Story.  Lies, hate, collusion, conspiracy, fascism:  rarely has the everyday vocabulary of American politics been as ominous and forbidding as over the past six months.  Take resistance rhetoric at face value and you might conclude that Donald Trump is indeed the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, his presence in the presidential saddle eclipsing all other concerns.  Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death will just have to wait.

The unspoken assumption of those most determined to banish him from public life appears to be this: once he’s gone, history will be returned to its intended path, humankind will breathe a collective sigh of relief, and all will be well again.  Yet such an assumption strikes me as remarkably wrongheaded — and not merely because, should Trump prematurely depart from office, Mike Pence will succeed him.  Expectations that Trump’s ouster will restore normalcy ignore the very factors that first handed him the Republican nomination (with a slew of competitors wondering what hit them) and then put him in the Oval Office (with a vastly more seasoned and disciplined, if uninspiring, opponent left to bemoan the injustice of it all).

Not all, but many of Trump’s supporters voted for him for the same reason that people buy lottery tickets: Why not?  In their estimation, they had little to lose.  Their loathing of the status quo is such that they may well stick with Trump even as it becomes increasingly obvious that his promise of salvation — an America made “great again” — is not going to materialize.

Yet those who imagine that Trump’s removal will put things right are likewise deluding themselves.  To persist in thinking that he defines the problem is to commit an error of the first order.  Trump is not cause, but consequence.

For too long, the cult of the presidency has provided an excuse for treating politics as a melodrama staged at four-year intervals and centering on hopes of another Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan appearing as the agent of American deliverance.  Donald Trump’s ascent to the office once inhabited by those worthies should demolish such fantasies once and for all. 

How is it that someone like Trump could become president in the first place?  Blame sexism, Fox News, James Comey, Russian meddling, and Hillary’s failure to visit Wisconsin all you want, but a more fundamental explanation is this: the election of 2016 constituted a de facto referendum on the course of recent American history.  That referendum rendered a definitive judgment: the underlying consensus informing U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has collapsed.  Precepts that members of the policy elite have long treated as self-evident no longer command the backing or assent of the American people. Put simply: it’s the ideas, stupid.

Rabbit Poses a Question

“Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”  As the long twilight struggle was finally winding down, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, novelist John Updike’s late-twentieth-century Everyman, pondered that question. In short order, Rabbit got his answer.  So, too, after only perfunctory consultation, did his fellow citizens.

The passing of the Cold War offered cause for celebration.  On that point all agreed.  Yet, as it turned out, it did not require reflection from the public at large.  Policy elites professed to have matters well in hand.  The dawning era, they believed, summoned Americans not to think anew, but to keep doing precisely what they were accustomed to doing, albeit without fretting further about Communist takeovers or the risks of nuclear Armageddon.  In a world where a “single superpower” was calling the shots, utopia was right around the corner.  All that was needed was for the United States to demonstrate the requisite confidence and resolve.

Three specific propositions made up the elite consensus that coalesced during the initial decade of the post-Cold-War era.  According to the first, the globalization of corporate capitalism held the key to wealth creation on a hitherto unimaginable scale.  According to the second, jettisoning norms derived from Judeo-Christian religious traditions held the key to the further expansion of personal freedom.  According to the third, muscular global leadership exercised by the United States held the key to promoting a stable and humane international order.

Unfettered neoliberalism plus the unencumbered self plus unabashed American assertiveness: these defined the elements of the post-Cold-War consensus that formed during the first half of the 1990s — plus what enthusiasts called the information revolution.  The miracle of that “revolution,” gathering momentum just as the Soviet Union was going down for the count, provided the secret sauce that infused the emerging consensus with a sense of historical inevitability.

The Cold War itself had fostered notable improvements in computational speed and capacity, new modes of communication, and techniques for storing, accessing, and manipulating information.  Yet, however impressive, such developments remained subsidiary to the larger East-West competition.  Only as the Cold War receded did they move from background to forefront.  For true believers, information technology came to serve a quasi-theological function, promising answers to life’s ultimate questions.  Although God might be dead, Americans found in Bill Gates and Steve Jobs nerdy but compelling idols.

More immediately, in the eyes of the policy elite, the information revolution meshed with and reinforced the policy consensus.  For those focused on the political economy, it greased the wheels of globalized capitalism, creating vast new opportunities for trade and investment.  For those looking to shed constraints on personal freedom, information promised empowerment, making identity itself something to choose, discard, or modify.  For members of the national security apparatus, the information revolution seemed certain to endow the United States with seemingly unassailable military capabilities.  That these various enhancements would combine to improve the human condition was taken for granted; that they would, in due course, align everybody — from Afghans to Zimbabweans — with American values and the American way of life seemed more or less inevitable.

The three presidents of the post-Cold-War era — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — put these several propositions to the test.  Politics-as-theater requires us to pretend that our 42nd, 43rd, and 44th presidents differed in fundamental ways.  In practice, however, their similarities greatly outweighed any of those differences.  Taken together, the administrations over which they presided collaborated in pursuing a common agenda, each intent on proving that the post-Cold-War consensus could work in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

To be fair, it did work for some. “Globalization” made some people very rich indeed.  In doing so, however, it greatly exacerbated inequality, while doing nothing to alleviate the condition of the American working class and underclass.

The emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism improved the status of groups long subjected to discrimination.  Yet these advances have done remarkably little to reduce the alienation and despair pervading a society suffering from epidemics of chronic substance abuse, morbid obesity, teen suicide, and similar afflictions.  Throw in the world’s highest incarceration rate, a seemingly endless appetite for porn, urban school systems mired in permanent crisis, and mass shootings that occur with metronomic regularity, and what you have is something other than the profile of a healthy society.

As for militarized American global leadership, it has indeed resulted in various bad actors meeting richly deserved fates.  Goodbye, Saddam.  Good riddance, Osama.  Yet it has also embroiled the United States in a series of costly, senseless, unsuccessful, and ultimately counterproductive wars.  As for the vaunted information revolution, its impact has been ambiguous at best, even if those with eyeballs glued to their personal electronic devices can’t tolerate being offline long enough to assess the actual costs of being perpetually connected.

In November 2016, Americans who consider themselves ill served by the post-Cold-War consensus signaled that they had had enough.  Voters not persuaded that neoliberal economic policies, a culture taking its motto from the Outback steakhouse chain, and a national security strategy that employs the U.S. military as a global police force were working to their benefit provided a crucial margin in the election of Donald Trump. 

The response of the political establishment to this extraordinary repudiation testifies to the extent of its bankruptcy.  The Republican Party still clings to the notion that reducing taxes, cutting government red tape, restricting abortion, curbing immigration, prohibiting flag-burning, and increasing military spending will alleviate all that ails the country.  Meanwhile, to judge by the promises contained in their recently unveiled (and instantly forgotten) program for a “Better Deal,” Democrats believe that raising the minimum wage, capping the cost of prescription drugs, and creating apprenticeship programs for the unemployed will return their party to the good graces of the American electorate. 

In both parties embarrassingly small-bore thinking prevails, with Republicans and Democrats equally bereft of fresh ideas.  Each party is led by aging hacks.  Neither has devised an antidote to the crisis in American politics signified by the nomination and election of Donald Trump. 

While our emperor tweets, Rome itself fiddles. 

Starting Over

I am by temperament a conservative and a traditionalist, wary of revolutionary movements that more often than not end up being hijacked by nefarious plotters more interested in satisfying their own ambitions than in pursuing high ideals.  Yet even I am prepared to admit that the status quo appears increasingly untenable. Incremental change will not suffice.  The challenge of the moment is to embrace radicalism without succumbing to irresponsibility.

The one good thing we can say about the election of Donald Trump — to borrow an image from Thomas Jefferson — is this: it ought to serve as a fire bell in the night.  If Americans have an ounce of sense, the Trump presidency will cure them once and for all of the illusion that from the White House comes redemption.  By now we ought to have had enough of de facto monarchy. 

By extension, Americans should come to see as intolerable the meanness, corruption, and partisan dysfunction so much in evidence at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  We need not wax sentimental over the days when Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen presided over the Senate to conclude that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer represent something other than progress.  If Congress continues to behave as contemptibly as it has in recent years (and in recent weeks), it will, by default, allow the conditions that have produced Trump and his cronies to prevail. 

So it’s time to take another stab at an approach to governance worthy of a democratic republic.  Where to begin?  I submit that Rabbit Angstrom’s question offers a place to start:  What’s the point of being an American?

Authentic progressives and principled conservatives will offer different answers to Rabbit’s query.  My own answer is rooted in an abiding conviction that our problems are less quantitative than qualitative.  Rather than simply more — yet more wealth, more freedom, more attempts at global leadership — the times call for different.  In my view, the point of being an American is to participate in creating a society that strikes a balance between wants and needs, that exists in harmony with nature and the rest of humankind, and that is rooted in an agreed upon conception of the common good.

My own prescription for how to act upon that statement of purpose is unlikely to find favor with most readers of TomDispatch.  But therein lies the basis for an interesting debate, one that is essential to prospects for stemming the accelerating decay of American civic life. 

Initiating such a debate, and so bringing into focus core issues, will remain next to impossible, however, without first clearing away the accumulated debris of the post-Cold-War era.  Preliminary steps in that direction, listed in no particular order, ought to include the following: 

First, abolish the Electoral College.  Doing so will preclude any further occurrence of the circumstances that twice in recent decades cast doubt on the outcome of national elections and thereby did far more than any foreign interference to undermine the legitimacy of American politics.

Second, rollback gerrymandering.  Doing so will help restore competitive elections and make incumbency more tenuous.

Third, limit the impact of corporate money on elections at all levels, if need be by amending the Constitution. 

Fourth, mandate a balanced federal budget, thereby demolishing the pretense that Americans need not choose between guns and butter. 

Fifth, implement a program of national service, thereby eliminating the All-Volunteer military and restoring the tradition of the citizen-soldier.  Doing so will help close the gap between the military and society and enrich the prevailing conception of citizenship.  It might even encourage members of Congress to think twice before signing off on wars that the commander-in-chief wants to fight.

Sixth, enact tax policies that will promote greater income equality.

Seventh, increase public funding for public higher education, thereby ensuring that college remains an option for those who are not well-to-do. 

Eighth, beyond mere “job” creation, attend to the growing challenges of providing meaningful work — employment that is both rewarding and reasonably remunerative — for those without advanced STEM degrees.

Ninth, end the thumb-twiddling on climate change and start treating it as the first-order national security priority that it is.

Tenth, absent evident progress on the above, create a new party system, breaking the current duopoly in which Republicans and Democrats tacitly collaborate to dictate the policy agenda and restrict the range of policy options deemed permissible.

These are not particularly original proposals and I do not offer them as a panacea.  They may, however, represent preliminary steps toward devising some new paradigm to replace a post-Cold-War consensus that, in promoting transnational corporate greed, mistaking libertinism for liberty, and embracing militarized neo-imperialism as the essence of statecraft, has paved the way for the presidency of Donald Trump.

We can and must do better. But doing so will require that we come up with better and truer ideas to serve as a foundation for American politics.

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    1. nonclassical

      …#1 on list needs be end of supreme fundamentalist court “citizens united”-allowance of $$$$ influence of “the people’s” democratic process…

      If $$$$=$peech, speech isn’t FREE…

      Consulting Jack Beatty’s, “Age of Betrayal: the Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900” (for only one example), we find on pages 200-210, the “legislative language” utilized was never within legislative language at all; rather, within preamble to said post Civil War-“reconstruction era” language…

  1. Carla

    “Fourth, mandate a balanced federal budget, thereby demolishing the pretense that Americans need not choose between guns and butter.”

    Thanks to Yves for her always valuable caveats, including calling out the above. From my POV, it threatens to invalidate the entire piece, which is really unfortunate, because so many millions of people need to get the message contained in the rest of Bacevitch’s post.

    So I just hope Mr. Bacevitch will educate himself more along these lines:

    If he really wants to know what people who hold political views different from his actually think, perhaps he’ll be reading these comments.

    1. Democrita

      I get that the balanced budget thing is bogus, and the promise of MMT, but his guns/butter point made me think. Is it enough to add spending on the public welfare side (jobs guarantee or basic income or Healthcare or whatever pro-human priorities we want) without cutting back on warfare?

      Does that approach not keep us mired in an unsustainable infinite-growth mode?

      Wrong mechanism, maybe, but I think a right idea that we must or should rebalance our gun/butter spending ratio.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        The temptation to use guns to break windows is too great as was demonstrated by diplomat Madeline Albright.

      2. Jim Thomson

        The insight of MMT is that the constraint is not money, per se, but real resources. The military does consume real resources, which can be measured in money terms. As long as we support this huge expenditure we cannot use those resources for other purposes. So there ultimately is a real resource constraint.
        However, since we are not at full employment, our society is not utilizing all its resources, as the primary resource is labor.
        Once at full employment, then the ratio of guns/butter must be balanced; one must be reduced to increase the other.

    2. Brian

      I think the fourth step Bacevitch offers is more of a stepping stone to MMT rather than precluding it (though I may be giving the author more credit than is due). Similar to what Democrita said, giving a clear choice between improving welfare or fighting wars (guns/butter) will deny hawkish politicians any opportunity to convince the American people they should have more of both. This is not to critique MMT on these grounds. It only seems that Bacevitch’s proposal could smooth the transition to MMT-based thinking.

  2. RenoDino

    I like the idea here that the Cold War kept inequality in check. It imposed a discipline on the elites who were forced to accept we were all in this together. Once it was over, the War Dividend went right into their pockets and pink slips went out to the masses.

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      I’d like to see something that demonstrates that we ever arrived at a “post-Cold War consensus”.

      Seems the me the bear-baiting has continued without interruption all along, from the expansion of NATO countries to the current Red Scare hysteria and the massive Skandy and E. Europe troop buildups and sabre-rattling, war in Syria to dislodge the Russian warm water port, the Ukraine coup, the attempted Erdogan coup. Doesn’t sound “post” anything.

    2. Altandmain

      I think that they were for a while, truly afraid of communism.

      It may be why they are so desperate to attack socialism. Even milder people like Sanders who is a Social Democrat and unions are often attacked in a desperate attempt to keep the capitalists in control.

      1. Stephen Gardner

        But Yves, As Yeats said: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” What could be more appropriate than the lines of that poem for this situation? Bacevich is one of my favorite conservatives. And although he doesn’t get MMT, yet, I believe he can be brought up to speed. With that tiny difference his whole essay is spot on. And to use the Yeats allusion was brilliant and funny, in a sort of bookish and dark way.

    1. Stephen Gardner

      Yeats wrote a poem about the apocalypse called “The Second Coming” where he mentions the beast “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born”. The literary reference is very apropos.

  3. George Phillies

    Excepting the balanced budget proposal, the ‘solutions” appear to be a proposal to do what liberal Democrats want, and stand against what conservative Republicans want. There does not appear to be any possibility for progress here. Mind you, I was not surprised by the election outcome (I would have been equally not surprised if Clinton had won), and thought Clinton would have been as bad a President as Trump, but in different ways.

  4. Norb

    In society, the greatest threat to liberty is inequality. Inequality is driven by lack of access to resources and the means to effectively use those resources sustainably.

    Bacevitch dances around the edges by suggesting that ideas are of fundamental importance, but misses the larger issue of a wrong-headed worldview. The American, winner take all system is failing because of its resounding success, and its citizens will be forced into committing acts of treason in order to bring about change.

    All his points are a call for socialism, but he just can’t admit that too himself. Greed cannot be tempered or placated. It must be forcibly contained in some way or you get the world we are living in today. That is the paradigm shift that is needed. Democracy leading to Socialism, not Dictatorship.

    The paradigm shift will have to be much bigger, and a leadership found that has the courage to take that great leap.

    1. Carla

      “The greatest threat to liberty is inequality.”

      There it is, right there. Thank you, Norb.

      How the hell do we make that paradigm shift?

    2. Stephen Gardner

      You say: “[. . .] its citizens will be forced into committing acts of treason in order to bring about change.” I don’t see any actions against the current leadership of our nation as treason. I see it as acting to remove the usurpers from power. The current leadership of government and pretty much all of the major institutions (business, universities, think tanks, the press, etc.) have strayed far from what I was taught that this nation is about. Resisting them by any means necessary is more of a duty than a treasonous act. That’s why I count Edward Snowden among the greatest heros of my time. He acted with more courage, selfless devotion, and intelligence than any of the elites have. I don’t even understand how people can see his act as “treason” or any other act to destroy the snake that has wrapped its body around our government, media, et. al. as treason.

      1. Norb

        I agree with you. My point being that those finding a duty to resist the corporate elite will be branded as traitors to both the Nation and the Market, which is not surprising as both have become one. The Market has taken on religious proportions and those individuals questioning its validity face the wrath of zealots. That is the power of TINA. All opposition will be crushed. Can you call factions that seise power and maintain a large following usurpers? After a certain time, they become de facto legitimate.

        We are seeing the perfection of true American ideals. The right of individuals to amass personal wealth.
        That is the unbroken legacy of our nation. Once again, we as a people must decide if this nation, in this form, is worth maintaining through sacrifice.

        Snowden, while very admirable, always maintained that his main reason for releasing documents to Greenwald was to promote public debate, not an imperative to change the system. If, through public debate, it was decided that mass spying was necessary, he would abide with the outcome. Not a very potent challenge to the system as we know it. The intrusiveness goes on unabated.

        Neoliberalism is a radical movement. The US is the main purveyor for its maintenance and spread throughout the world. That is becoming our nations legacy to the world. Democracy not so much.

        Like Carla said, how do we make that paradigm shift? It seems the current shift is more akin to water eroding a mountain range. Slow, relentless, but inevitable.

        The elite seem to be egging on unthinkable, violent confrontation. Just daring us mopes to make our move. Hasn’t this always been the case?

        At the very least, a paradigm shift, if one believes in such a thing, will be brought about with subversive action. There is no other way.

  5. oh

    Tenth, absent evident progress on the above, create a new party system, breaking the current duopoly in which Republicans and Democrats tacitly collaborate to dictate the policy agenda and restrict the range of policy options deemed permissible.

    This should be priority one; all others will follow if we accomplish this.

  6. DJG

    The irony here is that Bacevich, who protests mid-essay that he is a conservative, didn’t want to admit that he agrees with Sanders when it came to listing his prescriptions: Points 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 would all be adopted by Our Revolution and in fact are in the current platform being proposed.

    I hesitate to say never (or even worse, “na ga happen”) but abolition of the Electoral College is highly unlikely. First, it has produced two undeserved Republican victories in twenty years. So what’s the impetus for Republicans to tamper with such a bulwark of original intent? Second, the Electoral College favors the states with lower population, always a cause of stumbling in U.S. history.

    A year of national service: That’s a bromide. Constantly being trotted out. Two ideas: Bring back the draft. That’ll give focus to little Tiffany at Oberlin and Jayden in business school. An alternative *may* be to have people in certain fields get forgiveness of student loans for giving a year or two of national service: I’m thinking M.D.s, dentists, nurses–to shore up a public health service. Also, MBAs (the poor little darlings). Maybe people who major in critical languages. Computer programmers? Welders?

    As Yves Smith points out, the federal balanced budget amendment is a relict. It’s a fossilized dinosaur of the good-government types. The underlying issue is that you can have either guns or butter. Not both. The U S of A has had enough of guns. Stop funding the endless wars of empire. Bacevich implies that butter would then come to the fore: I doubt it. The bloated intelligence community would go on and on. There’d still be plenty of money flowing to profiteers like Betsy DeVos’s family. The Joint Chiefs of Staff would always get what it wants. And the immorality of war would be paid for by closing clinics in West Virginia and neglecting retaining walls in New Orleans.

    1. Mel

      The issue of the Electoral College strikes me as accidental. As it happened, Trump won a majority of states and a minority of votes. What if it had been the other way around? Would we want two Electoral Colleges?
      If it’s the ideas, the idea here is: Do the United States make up a federated nation or not? What would be the consequences, either way?

  7. George Phillies

    This essay shows why American politics are where they are, namely a lack of recognition that there are not agreements as to major issues. There are some possible additions to his proposals. For example,

    ‘Zeroth, agree that there was an election, Donald Trump won whether you like it or not, and efforts to block his election via the electoral college, impeach him, or remove him via the 25th amendment are at present illegitimate and should be deprecated.” With this change, it might be possible for Democrats to get Republicans to listen if actual grounds for impeachment were ever found.

    “End the culture wars by eliminating attacks on abortion rights, eliminating affirmative action programs, eliminating the war on drugs, and eliminating attacks on the right of all Americans to keep and bear arms.” Because culture wars are bidirectional.

    I would be amused to learn whether or not the author thought that that the pro-Democratic Party gerrymander, majority-minority districting, should be eliminated.

    1. Vatch

      I would be amused to learn whether or not the author thought that that the pro-Democratic Party gerrymander, majority-minority districting, should be eliminated.

      There’s not much Democratic gerrymandering; there’s Illinois and Maryland, and that’s about it.

      As for Republican gerrymandering, there’s a lot:

      North Carolina

      I probably missed a couple.

  8. RRH

    While not agreeing with every one of your 10 points, I believe that you forgot a couple of very important “changes.” Firstly: Term Limits for our Congress.

    The members of the House should be limited to 4 terms of 2 years or 2 terms of 4 years–8 maximum; yes a change away from every 2 year elections. That might mean that we get more work and less fund raising and campaigning from Congresspersons. House members COULD stand for election to the Senate, but there too there should be Term Limits–2 terms of 6 years. This would mean that a single person could be in DC and in the Congress for no more than 20 years.

    Then there should also be a 10 year prohibition regarding lobbying. This would effectively make ex-Congresspersons obsolete when it comes to influence peddling.

    Secondly, you also forgot to include that congressional pay should be linked to GDP growth and that retirement not be funded perpetually by the Taxpayer. Upon becoming Term Limited, they should given an annuity, purchased in the open market, that is equal to 50% of their total salary for the terms they have served. The Annuity would pay out over their lifetime. (And watch the improvement in Annuities that would come about.) OR they could take a one time payment. Of course either of these payouts would be taxed at the appropriate rates.

    And all past “Retirement” schemes will become null and void and the participants will be given 5 years to earn out. After that, no more payments from the taxpayers.

    1. No One

      I think it would be better to link congressional pay to median national income than GDP, because it would be a more accurate indicator of the economic conditions in lower/middle class households.

    2. Carla

      Free and fair elections would provide term limits as needed, with nothing further required. Without free and fair elections, term limits won’t matter anyway.

  9. Scott

    You do not need a constitutional amendment to get rid of corporate personhood, but simply a 15 minute read of where it came from and a severe questioning of any Supreme court decisions based on it. Confront the fact of corporate personhood as the Big Lie, and there is no longer any basis for allowing corporations that serve no public good, or allowing unlimited anonymous campaign propaganda.

    The physical reality of globalization is the corporate jet. In fact the last campaign was a contest between two political class jet setters. For Rome it was the quick of the Chariots, for the classes benefiting from globalization it is the private jet.

    (There are two generals jets, the Jetstar for sale in the $900.000.oo range, Elvis had one that is stuck in a wall at his museum home of Memphis. There are three classes of jet setters, the Political class, Movie star class, & Corporate Kings class.)

    The roots of inequality are identified by a tolerance for the neofeudalism that gives rentier classes inheritances & the miracle of compound interest means permanent stage managers.

    My invented currency is based on human assets as reflected by actuary tables & shared equity of the insurance company treasury. I overcome the flaw of communism and unite labor for my model nation of airports that gives labor leverage with capitalists.

    More people with more private wealth only becomes qualitative if all citizens have superior educations which revolve around the character that comes from inculcated ethical behavior & understandings, along with knowing how to use ancient & modern tools.

    Recognize that healthcare is an aspect of defense. Healthcare of your citizens is simply an extension of the CDC.

    Since Newt Gingrich succeeded in creating an absolute division of the parties and their goals along with completely ignorant representatives when it comes to the differences in finance & economics we face another US government shutdown.

    I have for a long time recognized the power of television and pitched a damned television show to educate the American population about how the US Treasury provides money to itself, the US.
    You don’t need me to tell you what it is all about, since Michael Hudson has in his two books Killing the Host & J is for Junk.

    I have been told that better than he for my show than Michael Hudson would be Dean Baker. Fine, whatever it takes, I want a big set with at least 7 chairs regardless. Yves can pick a cast of Economists & David Cay Johnston can pick those of “Finance”.

    Einstein is reputed to have said that “One cannot go wrong if your goals are correct.” US domestic & foreign policies have become either incomprehensible, or when comprehended obviously unethical, mean, or stupid.

    The US Constitution & Bill or Rights were, and continue to be fine goals. Out of the UN came the Declaration of Human Rights, supposedly given the force of international law by the 1976 UN Covenant on Civil & Political Rights.

    In the age of nuclear weapons without a Government of Governments to call when threatened every nation owes its people the protection that nuclear weapons provide. John C. Mearsheimer is right about that. However we have only common sense to see that that is not going to happen in any way that prevents the apocalyptic riot, and we had better create a system that gives us a Government of Governments.

    I am a supporter of the Points for Reinvention of the UN as authored by French Ambassador Andre` Lewin. A truncated version was published in the March 15th edition of the NYTs which caused me to seek him out. He added to his points my concepts for UNTV. Ambassador Lewin died in 2012. I aim at honoring his work by speaking in ear shot of the UN as soon as possible.

    We have amongst us the ability to do the systems engineering that furthers goals stated on the Statue of Liberty by that poet, Emma,. Our Bill of Rights, & Constitution have been degraded primarily by the Big Lie of Corporate personhood. It is that, that must be destroyed.

    To be built up is Banking as a Utility.

    P.S. I am aware that this is a reactive letter comment & does not appear here as a complete and perfect bit of writing. I might ought be doing something else. At least I finished one oil painting and sent two off with my friend & representative. I can’t find gold but can make an oil painting which as an object is like the currency of traders, subjective & objective value.

  10. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thank you for this article regarding the emergence of a “muscular” executive branch on steroids over successive presidents. The hubris of the executive branch in the form of abuse of war powers; diversion, obfuscation and failure to answer press questions regarding policies that do not relate to national security; or to address many policy issues publicly; has been on display over a period of many years.

    The engineered demise of the social contract that was implemented in the Great Depression of the 1930s and particularly after the second world war, began in earnest in the early 1970s. If capitalism is worth saving and is to be saved, I believe it will be through restoration and enforcement of the safety nets, policies, laws and regulatory mechanisms initiated by FDR, and by the Fed under Marriner Eccles, and legislation passed into law by Congress during that era.

    Setting aside No. 4 on his list of ten policy suggestions and constitutional amendment requirements mentioned by Yves, a .900 batting average isn’t bad. However, I wish Col. Bacevich had also listed some suggestions regarding geopolitical policies consistent with his past posts here. The concentration of war powers in the executive and resultant perpetual war have been key to concentration of other powers in the executive branch IMO, particularly diminished civil liberties and laws pertaining to financial intermediaries. Enough already, we need checks and balances.

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      “If capitalism is worth saving”.

      The only way to answer that is for us to give capitalism a try sometime, who knows, maybe it really is the best of all possible bad choices?

      Everyone clobbered Bernie for daring to say the word “Socialism”, but few stopped to ponder that we already HAVE “socialism” writ EXTRA LARGE across the breadth of our economy. Just not the kind for you and me.

      Wall St gets socialism. The MIC gets socialism. Big Pharma and Big Health Care get socialism. The SIC (Surveillance-Industrial Complex) gets socialism. The PIC (Prison-Industrial Complex) gets socialism. It’s the chump citizen who gets Capitalism, as in Capitalist Creative Destruction of their finances and health and well-being whenever the above groups require their next Socialist fix.

      If the captains of Wall St, those paragons of free enterprise and capitalism, took even a spoonful of the capitalist medicine they bloviate about day in and day out then we’d be getting somewhere. Alas, not.

      1. nonclassical

        …au contraire:

        (“The only way to answer that is for us to give capitalism a try sometime, who knows, maybe it really is the best of all possible bad choices?”)
        “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution”

        “In this New York Times bestseller, award-winning author Simon Schama presents an ebullient country, vital and inventive, infatuated with novelty and technology–a strikingly fresh view of Louis XVI’s France. One of the great landmarks of modern history publishing, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution is the most authoritative social, cultural, and narrative history of the French Revolution ever produced.”

  11. John k

    And yet…
    It was a very close election in spite of her incompetence and hubris… they’ll vote for me because they have no other option, therefore no need to spend time among the deplorables, just talk to the rich and respectful in their posh living rooms. And refusal to abandon the status quo.

    Clearly the neolib consensus could have continued, and still can in future, given just a slightly less obnoxious candidate. Certainly that is what dnc anxiously hopes.
    This piece argues change is desired and therefore inevitable… change will only happen if and when an army of progressives organize themselves sufficiently to overcome the fierce resistance from both parties.

    I continue to think taking over the dems is fantasy, and that taking over the greens is both doable and could lead to success given that 40% of the electorate are now indies hungering for change, plus both legacy parties seethe with discontent.

  12. Eureka Springs

    Love love love, attempted solution discussions. Thank you.

    First, abolish the Electoral College.

    I’m less inclined to support this than I used to be. Abolition of the U.S. Senate seems a far more important step. Considering we have tried via amendment to make the Senate a more representative/accountable body to no avail… it’s time to eliminate it.

    Third, limit the impact of corporate money

    How about none whatsoever. Talk about foreign influence. And I’ll add eliminate ability of dual citizens to hold so much as a position of chief dog-catcher.

    Fifth, implement a program of national service, thereby eliminating the All-Volunteer military

    Couldn’t disagree more with any move towards a draft forced death/murder. Compelled public service with many choices, where the monetary value/return is equal among all job choices… no preference for military outside of a time of true defensive (within our border war). And this with a military budgeted no more then twice the next biggest spender on the planet. OK.

  13. hemeantwell

    In a world where a “single superpower” was calling the shots, utopia was right around the corner. All that was needed was for the United States to demonstrate the requisite confidence and resolve.

    Three specific propositions made up the elite consensus that coalesced during the initial decade of the post-Cold-War era. According to the first, the globalization of corporate capitalism held the key to wealth creation on a hitherto unimaginable scale.

    The last thing we need now is another mealy-mouthed clone of Arthur Schlesinger talking about US foreign policy without talking about its drivers and its fundamental constraints. When the Soviet Union collapsed the US was in a position to bring about a transformation of its military posture and thus the world’s. US policymakers could have, along with not expanding NATO in violation of agreements between Gorbachev and Bush, dusted off the idea of a Graduated Reduction in Tension, aka GRIT. Basically, it involves initiatives in arms reductions with an eye to demilitarizing major power relations. Sure, Clinton would have run into flack, but he would have been doing something that was hardly at odds with the real strategic situation, and he could have strenuously argued for it. It was a world historical opportunity and US elites, to their world historical shame, instead chose to put the squeeze on.

    Whatever does the category of monarchy have to do with a push from sectors of capital + the military-industrial complex + troglodyte strategists who believe in some version of the Heartland? Bacevich shifts into talking about process questions — abolish the electoral college?? —
    that are fraught with distracting issues without ever getting close to setting out the policy complex that must be broken up. This sort of studied rumination on the state of the republic — it’s what brought Schlesinger, a master of profound-sounding elision, to mind — serves an intellectual placebo function, appearing to satisfy the need for Big Critical Thinking when it actually forestalls it.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I think I am agreeing with you on most points. So I tacked on my comment.

      Parsing through this post — am I supposed to conclude: The “cult of the presidency” is something new and more special than a hook for news blips? Trump’s “defiling” the presidency suffices to explain the actions of the wholly owned main stream media, Congress, and the independent community of spooks? Ronald Reagan is a worthy who contrasts with the clownish Trump?

      And this tidbit begs a few questions:
      ” … underlying consensus informing U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has collapsed. Precepts that members of the policy elite have long treated as self-evident no longer command the backing or assent of the American people.” I don’t recall any underlying consensus informing U.S. policy outside of the beltway. I don’t recall any assent or self-evidence attributed to the precepts of the policy elite. I do recall a lot of optionless grumbling and welling discontent but no real consensus. I do recall a lot of misguided faith that our betters know what they’re doing and have our best interests at heart. I do recall a growing resignation and apathy.

      “Unfettered neoliberalism plus the unencumbered self plus unabashed American assertiveness: these defined the elements of the post-Cold-War consensus that formed during the first half of the 1990s — plus what enthusiasts called the information revolution.” What consensus? Whose consensus? And what does the information revolution have to do with anything?

      So I reach Rabbit’s poser and somehow arrive at “… the crisis in American politics signified by the nomination and election of Donald Trump.” What crisis? Whose crisis? A lot of money went on the table in the 2016 elections and now the losing side faces an unpredictable Joker in the Whitehouse — a Joker who belongs to a different coalition within the Power Elite. There is no crisis in American politics. Neoliberalism is live and well, and carries on. The 2016 election of Donald Trump indicates trouble ahead for controlling the populous using the same old methods that worked before. And the nostrums Bacevich offers seem remarkably like an encouragement to continue the ongoing efforts to roll a great stone to rest at the top of a great hill.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        Looking again at Bacevich’s wish list for starting over I think the quote from Yves post of today “Neoliberalism’s ‘Die Faster’ …” is most fitting: “But the bigger point is that many of the problems we face are being defined in terms of symptoms as opposed to root causes.”

  14. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

    “By now we ought to have had enough of de facto monarchy.”

    Ought to, but that’s not – maybe never – going to happen. Americans are perfectly happy with a monarch-president so long as it’s one that represents THEIR particular belief. Setting aside, of course, that many of those M-P wannabes will lie thorough their teeth in regard to either beliefs (or their ability to fulfill promises) and Americans will *still* cheerfully vote for the next jackanapes to do it to them again.

    You want REAL change, let’s think way outside the box.

    Expand Congress. Yes, it would need another amendment, and a dilution of power, and so will never happen, but set Congressional representation at the same ratio it would have been in 1787 – about 1 representative per 60,000 people. Call it 1:50,000 for a round number. This would make gerrymandering moot, make representatives far more “representative” of reasonable population sizes, make lobbying for special interests incredibly difficult – especially if congresspersons had to reside in their district – and expensive, and restore a far more “representative” nature to the Republic. The size is no huge issue as Congress can meet electronically in this day and age, but occasionally rotate through various venues capable of seating ~6,500 people for special ceremonial events. While we’re at it, we’d repeal the 17th Amendment and allow each state to go back to selecting Senators as each state chose to do, thus making it more likely that Senators will be representing their states as a whole, rather than party interests of the voters of a state.

    Got popcorn ready….

    1. JGW

      Well, it would certainly make it much harder for the lobbyists to swarm remote Congress-critters. And I like the idea of their constituents lining up daily at the home-office or local office. Neoliberalism would be challenged by equal access, let alone constituent-majority access.

  15. Democrita

    To RRH’s proposal, can we add term limits for DC journalists? Every 5 years or so make them go write from flyover country for awhile?

    Actually, the more I think about it, make DC a separate political entity (which it already is) that requires a working papers for any job that influences government, and rotate them ALL out periodically. Everyone but the janitors and teachers and such regular folk.

    Maybe too simple to be a really good idea, but I dream.

  16. Livius Drusus

    Andrew Bacevich is similar to Jimmy Carter in that he sees our problems as ultimately cultural. I recall reading that Bacevich approved of Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech. I think that partially explains his call for a balanced budget. He sees federal profligacy as part of our moral crisis, our refusal to live within our means and accept limits.

    The other aspect of Bacevich’s call for a balanced budget and national service is his conviction that most Americans are alienated from the reality of war and that causes them to support or at least tolerate warmongering by the government. The theory is that since most Americans have no skin in the game they don’t care if the wars go on indefinitely. Would the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted as long as they did if there were heavy war taxes and a draft? I don’t necessarily agree with Bacevich, particularly on the balanced budget issue, but I find his perspective interesting.

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