European Friends Write: “Are You Americans Crazy?”September 26, 2008
By Bernard Weiner | The Crisis Papers
Dear Wolfgang and Jacqueline:
Yes, I know that you and other European friends are, as you put it, “totally
confused” by what’s happening here in the U.S. right now. Welcome to the club.
I wish I could answer all your questions about America’s current
political/economic crisis with definitive certainty. But the situation is moving real
fast, with one disaster after another, and with politicians flip-flopping all over
As a result, it’s difficult to know precisely what’s going on, but I’ll do
the best I can. Here are my responses to your italicized questions about McCain,
Obama, the financial crisis and bailout, and electoral corruption:
1. BEYOND THE “CRAZY” FACTOR
“Bush, with his policies and wars, has nearly wrecked the U.S.
Constitution and economy and America’s moral standing abroad. We don’t understand why
your John McCain, so closely associated with the Bush policies that brought these
disasters upon your country and the world, should be nearly even in the polls
with Obama. Have you guys gone crazy?”
Short answer: Everyone goes “crazy” for awhile now and again. European
history is also replete with such examples. In the American TV age, celebrity trumps
experience: We feel we “know” these candidates, since we’ve seen them on the
big screen or had them in our living-rooms nearly every night. In recent
years, don’t forget, we elected a Grade-B movie actor as president (Ronald Reagan).
We elected a professional wrestler and a professional bodybuilder as
governors (Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger). We elected a song-and-dance man a
U.S. Senator (George Murphy). By and large, those experiements didn’t turn out
well and did great damage to the body politic, but the fascination with
celebrity is still there.
As to why McCain is nearly even with Obama in the polls, part of the
explanation is that racism is alive and well in the U.S. A healthy chunk of the
electorate, maybe 10% (and much higher in some states, especially in the South),
simply will not vote for a black man. Sometimes, they’re quite open about their
reason for not supporting Obama; mostly they hide their racism by citing other
supposed rationales: “elitist,” “not one of us,” “doesn’t share our values,”
Then there’s the mask element. McCain, for purposes of gaining the
presidency, saw that Obama’s change&hope mantra had captured the mood of the public. So,
since his own issues weren’t catching on, McCain is now Mr. Change, has
re-donned the mask of “maverick reformer,” and is running against the disreputable
Republican record of the past eight years.
McCain apparently is hoping that voters will forget he was a major
ultra-conservative part of that record — he voted for Bush policies 90% of the time,
for example, including approval of torture as state policy. But that chameleon
trick seems to fool a good many voters. Plus, he added the younger, attractive
Sarah Palin to the ticket and she joined him in the charade about “reform” and
“change,” saying she and McCain “will shake things up in Washington.” But
she’s silent about the extreme, rightwing nature of the “change” she has in mind.
As many wise men have said, you can’t go wrong underestimating the
intelligence of the American voter. On the other hand, the more the public sees and
hears the one-note Alaska governor, and learns more about her lack of
qualifications and about the abuse-of-power way she governs, the less attractive she looks
as a VP and potential president.
2. FREE-MARKET SOCIALISM
“America in general, and your Republican party in particular, is big on
free-market capitalism, keeping the government out of the hair of business. Now
the Republican government, supported also by Democrats, is making a 180-degree
turn and urging regulation of corporations, and using billions in tax dollars
to prop up failing big businesses, even going so far as to buy huge shares of
these corporations. What the hell is happening? To us in Europe, who have
seen similar alliances between government and business turn into authoritarian
control, we can’t understand why the U.S. citizens are not revolting.”
The corporate elites who control the political system here just want to make
profits. Most of the time, they do this best when they keep government at
arms’-length from them. But in times of crisis, they go eagerly to Washington for
In short, in good times they’re capitalists, in bad times socialists — but
only for the rich. Middle-class and poor folks recently got the foot of a
burdensome new bankruptcy law placed on their necks. But the upper classes are
provided privileged ways to avoid going under. It is ever thus, but it’s gone to
extreme lengths in the organized looting system for the wealthy arranged by the
What’s been almost laughable is watching McCain, who has been a
deregulationist all his political life, on Monday talking about the necessity for not
letting government get involved in bailing out failing businesses, and on Tuesday
he’s proposing that the government start regulating these banks and
corporations and get into the private business of selling insurance and mortgages. From
deregulator to proponent of nationalizing giant corporations — that’s how fast
the economic-disaster quicksand sucked McCain into the vortex.
And Obama came along quickly as well, even though he has important caveats of
opposition. Though the Democrats are plugging for ways to aid the
middle-class in this economic bailout, neither party or candidate wants to risk being
held responsible for a full-scale financial meltdown and collapse of the U.S.
economy. So, at least for the moment, everyone’s theoretically on board.
“Too big to be allowed to fail”
The rationale for the federal bailout plan is that these companies are too
huge, too intertwined in so many areas of the economy, to risk them going under.
It’s like the Italian government saying that the Mafia is too big and thus
too important to the Italian economy (read: jobs, contribution$) to let them
fail, so we’ll just prop them up, look the other way while the looting and
violence takes place, and roll along on our merry way.
Yes, of course, these corporations are huge, sprawling, multi-headed
behemoths, but the politicians never want to examine how they got to the point of
untouchability. How many times have we seen how deregulating industry has resulted
in economic and/or social disaster? Anybody remember Enron? The S&L collapse
of the ’80s (in which a compromised McCain was right in the middle, by the
way)? And now Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae? And Lehman Brothers? And AIG? And
Morgan Stanley? Et al.
The ghost of the 1930s Great Depression is hovering over the present crisis.
Indeed, so fast is the house of cards tumbling down, with more major
corporations expected to follow, that the politicians, regardless of party, are falling
all over themselves to create an institutional feather cushion to catch these
failing enterprises as they crash toward insolvency. These are socialism-like
measures, as was true in FDR’s New Deal days as well, designed to forestall
another Great Depression and maybe even revolution. Except these
socialist-seeming solutions are not designed to aid the bulk of the population, the
middle-class and poor, but to provide aid and sustenance to the wealthy titans of
industry. The rest of us will be expected to pay the bill, probably more than a
trillion dollars when all is said and done, since the plan also may include
bailing out troubled foreign banks who dived into the giant profit-making machine
in the U.S. (This massive federal bailout is being considered at the same
time when the cost for America’s current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is
approaching the trillion-dollar mark.)
The proposed federal bailout of the failing corporations is the ultimate
crime caper, well understood by those who have read Naomi Klein’s ##”The Shock
Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” (
www.crisispapers.org/essays8w/klein.htm ) Few in their right mind would agree to any of this in normal times,
especially expressing a willingness to trust this same President and
Administration who have proven themselves reckless, incompetent, secretive, lying
power-mongers. But under leaked provisons of the plan, Congress would turn over
virtually full control of the trillion-plus dollars for this new program to the
Executive Branch (via the Treasury Secretary), with no outside oversight
permitted, not by Congress and not by the courts. Here’s the wording in the original
plan: “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are
non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and ##may not be reviewed
by any court of law or any administrative agency.” (
Given the massive effects on the body/social politic, it really doesn’t
matter if the use of “shock-doctrine” tactics happens as a conscious elitist plot
to foment the crisis or follows a genuine crisis that, willy nilly, provides
the plutocrats with their opportunity to use the catastrophe to their own
economic and power benefit. The result is the same: Ordinary citizens, especially in
the middle-class, take it in the neck — and wallet — and constitutional
government is damaged badly.
The inevitable fallout from greed
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told an anxious public the other day that
things should get better now that the government is dealing with the “heart of
the matter.” He seems to think the “heart of the matter” has to do with moving
cash around to keep the house of cards propped up, at least in the public
But the “heart of the matter” has to do with the promulgation of greed as the
operating principle in American economic (and social and political) life.
It’s been that way openly for the past 30 years, at least since Reagan’s
presidency. We profess shock, shock!, when after a few years that principle
leads inexorably to disaster. When those crises develop, invariably the elites
arrange themselves massive bailouts, the corporate executives suffer nary a wit,
the taxpayers (and their children and grandchildren) are expected to meekly
pony up, and then, there being no accounability for bad management, these
ethically-challenged magnates feel free to go out and do the same thing again until
the next major crisis.
In fact, the moral lesson many CEOs might derive from this experience is: If
you’re going to engage in high-stakes over-leveraging and gambling on
derivatives, don’t do it in a small-scale way. Make your corporations so very huge and
so important to the system that nobody will want to risk upsetting the
social/financial apple cart. So be sure to put at risk as much investor-money as you
possibly can and that way, if something goes wrong (and inevitably it will),
you’ll get bailed out by the government. Small scams will get you nothing and
might even lead to you getting arrested; but humongous unwise schemes, the
bigger the better, will give you a free ride at taxpayers’ expense. Which mostly
means by us small-fry.
It IS crazy. And angering. And not just to liberals; many conservatives also
are horrified by the ramifications of the governmental bailout. (As I write
this, it’s still not clear if and when the much-amended bailout plan might be
voted on and whether it will pass in anything close to its original outline.)
3. OBAMA CAN’T/WON’T DO IT ALL
“Will Obama really make a difference? Can he? Didn’t Bush and Cheney and
their cronies mess things up so badly that nobody will be able to do much?”
Short answer: Yes, even if Obama wanted to institute major changes, he would
have to face the unenviable task of trying to undo all the damage done by this
Administration. To do so successfully might take a decade or two, especially
because HardRightists have been placed into key positions in the bureaucracy,
judiciary, and mass-media outlets. Even if McCain loses, Obama will face a c
onstant, nasty battle to get anything decent done. (And if the Democrats in
November don’t pick up enough seats in the Senate to block Republican filibusters,
the job will be even more difficult.)
Many progressives/liberals have chosen to believe that Obama is one of them
and is willing, indeed eager, to shake up the system in a radical way. Don’t
count on it. I am enthusiastically working for and donating money to his
campaign, but I have lowered my expectations. Obama is a centrist with some liberal
leanings, but beholden to many of the same elitist forces that dominate most
power-centers in this country. And his foreign-policy views, while more cautious
and realistic, rest on the dangerous exceptionalist premise that the U.S.
should be the military policeman in the world.
Obama certainly is bright, thoughtful, and full of good ideas, but the best
we can expect would be something like Bill Clinton. Given how far right the
country has moved in the past several decades — the center is now regarded as
“left” — we on the progressive end of the spectrum will have to spend a lot of
time and effort pressuring a President Obama to do what’s right, given the
other forces operating on him. I continue to believe that Obama has within him
the possibility of being a dynamic, transformational president, but we
shouldn’t expect him to be a progressive superman. That’s not who he is.
4. THE ROLE OF POLITICAL PARTIES
“Is there any kind of party loyalty and discipline in your presidential
elections? Or do voters in America make their decision purely on personal,
rather than policy, matters.”
Short answers: No and yes. Americans have a disconnect when voting for
president. What the parties stand for hardly matters anymore. How the candidates
have voted and behaved in the past tends not to count for all that much either.
Sad to say, what seems of most importance is biography and how “comfortable”
citizens feel with a candidate rather than with the issues and party. Voting
from this perspective makes no rational, or even political, sense — especially
since citizens are often voting against their own economic and social
interests. Which helps explain why there’s such “buyer-remorse” several years later
when they see what they got and their rational mind kicks in.
5. THE CORRUPT ELECTION SYSTEM
“Your election systems seem so easily corruptible. Has nothing been done
to change that?”
Short answer: Not much. A few states have reacted to the unreliable,
easily-hackable touch-screen computers by going to optical-scanning machines that
leave a paper record. But about one-third of the voting public in November will
still cast ballots on touch-screen machines, many in key battleground states.
The more pressing scandal is that vote-tabulation for all forms of voting
remains outsourced to Republican-supporting corporations using secret software.
Those voting totals, it has been publicly demonstrated, can be altered by a
technician or hacker in less than a minute, leaving no indication of tampering. (The
puzzling additional scandal is that the Democratic Party has shown no
interest in publicizing these vulnerabilities, and the corporate media is complicit
as well by its silence.)
In short, Americans have no real certainty that their votes have been, or
will be in November, accurately recorded. Rove and his minions are trying to keep
the polling-gap between the two candidates to just a few percentage points so
that whatever illegal manipulations take place will not be so noticeable. In
addition, hundreds of thousands of likely Democratic voters are being purged
from the voting lists in key states, or are being victimized by GOP scams of
one sort or another, especially with regard to absentee ballots. Once again, in
a close election, electoral theft is a real possibility, as happened in the
past two presidential contests, judging from the available evidence.
Well, Jacqueline and Wolfgang, let’s stop there and deal with your other
questions at another time. I wish you good luck in your own home countries, as they
suffer “tsunami”-like effects on their economies and political structures
because of what’s happening here in the States. Good luck and stay in touch. —
All best, Bernie #
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught
at Western Washington University and San Diego State University, worked as a
writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently
serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment:
First published by The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 9/23/08.
Copyright 2008 by Bernard Weiner.