The Great Depression was our last truly profound national upheaval. It was not a revolution, per se, but our response to it was, in many ways. The hollowing out of our society caused it to collapse. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer, the middle class evaporated, big business ran rampant, exploiting any and all who could not resist, until the entire social and economic structure of the United States collapsed under it's own morally bankrupt weight.
Our response to the Great Depression was the New Deal. The idea was that government was the entity best suited to dealing with the social ills that afflicted the nation as a whole. Government should coordinate and fund social programs that promoted the common good in the areas of charity, economic stimulation, social well being and legal justice.
The poor should be helped out of poverty. The elderly, the retiring, the sick or the injured should be protected from falling into poverty. Health care should be made more available and affordable. The rich, -- either in the form of individuals or corporations -- should be prevented from using their wealth to take unfair advantage of others. Everyone should have an opportunity to improve their social and economic standing.
The New Deal didn't entirely work; it took World War II to lift us out of the depression and set us on the road to economic well-being again. However, the principles it embodied, combined with that new economic might and an infrastructure revitalized during the Thirties propelled the United States into a time of prosperity and growth unmatched in history. The GI Bill sent millions of veterans to college, adding fuel to the fire of our post-war economic expansion, carrying it forward into the 50s, 60s and 70s. Our massive economic power enabled us to dominate the world, especially with the former major powers of Europe either struggling to reconstruct from World War II, ground under the heel of Soviet Communism, or both. Our scientific expertise expanded, our technological supremacy was unquestioned. Our middle class expanded, the ranks of the poor were in decline, American citizens were getting healthier and living longer. The very vigor of our society made us the envy of the planet.
Now the trend is in reverse.
Taxes are being cut for the wealthy. Money to help the poor, the sick, children in schools is getting cut. Big corporations are getting no-bid contracts with the government. A massive war is being funded by deficit, passing on huge debts to our children and grandchildren. Both the government and individuals are going into debt on a massive scale. The middle class is shrinking, the ranks of the poor are growing.
Government checks and balances are being eroded. Bipartisan deal making and compromise have been replaced by rampant bullying on the part of the party in power. Legislators in the minority party are unable to convene hearings, their voices are shut out of committees, rule making and enforcement. Votes on crucial bills are held open far longer than in the past, violating tradition so that arms can be twisted, ensuring corporate and special interest concerns are promoted above all else.
The Executive Branch of the government is plowing back into old, failed ways of doing business. They're waging war without adequate justification, spying on American citizens, ignoring international laws and norms to detain suspects indefinitely, kidnapping, "rendering" and likely torturing suspects to obtain information. They stifle dissent and manipulate the populace through fear-mongering. They make sweetheart deals with their corporate friends, allowing them to pollute more, deceive more and evade or disobey the law without fear of reprisal from the government. Environmental standards are being lowered or not enforced. International treaties are being unilaterally canceled.
The watchdog role of the media is now subservient to their corporate masters' mandate that they be moneymakers first and foremost, abandoning their historic civic responsibilities as the 'Fourth Estate.' There is no Fairness Doctrine, there are no local media of weight or importance any more. The corporate networks shamelessly pander to right-wing ideologues and discard their obligations to truth and accuracy, instead claming that to be "fair and balanced" is of greatest importance. (It isn't, of course, but that's a topic for another post.) They're under funded by their corporate masters, so they're hamstrung, hobbled and sometimes just plain lazy in their efforts to expose the truth.
Our elections are also suspect. Local, regional and state elections are overseen by party operatives, voting machines manufactured by corporations in bed with those in power jigger our election results, while same corporations resist any attempt at accountability, fighting requirements to print receipts or provide a paper trail.
So we continue this downward slide with fewer and fewer means available to stop it.
I really wish to hell I had a turnaround sentence here. You know, something that says "but there's light at the end of the tunnel," but (to continue with the tired cliché) all I see is the light of an oncoming train.
Is it going to take another Great Depression to put us back on track?
My fear is that it will. Only when the current system, built, funded, encouraged and nurtured by the rich, the powerful and the ideologically backward collapses will the vast majority of Americans be reminded, once again, how morally bankrupt "business as usual" has become for this country.
I sure as hell hope this won't happen, but I also don't see much in today's headlines that will stop it. Let us pray we don't have to go over the cliff in order to learn we're on the wrong road.