Consider a few of the dismal facts describing the current distribution of the goods of the American economic empire: Corporate chieftains earned 149 times as much as the average worker in 1993. One B-2 bomber costs as much as 30,000 college educations. The official black unemployment rate is twice that of the white population. And 10 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the national wealth. If this is healthy, what would cancerous look like?
The political struggle toward a decent America is hampered by exhaustion, disillusionment, and even some venality on the part of groups whose energies have traditionally been available for the task of reform.
For instance, organized labor is only now, through an insurgent candidacy for the AFL-CIO presidency, holding out the possibility of breaking the lethargy into which it has been sunk since before the death of Walter Reuther. Even if successful, it will take the insurgents a long while to revive the institutions that are intended to give tongue to the spirit of American workers.
Meanwhile, the civil rights and women's rights movements have largely been confined to the tenuous, treacherous ground of affirmative action. For economic justice--which is what is required for the long-term survival of all segments of the American economy, not just the inner cities--we have substituted procedural half-measures such as affirmative action which are close enough to being effective to scare the middle class without being sufficient to bring about actual economic change.
And middle-class progressive movements have fared little better. The environmentalists are so busy defending the few regulations they were allowed to write--attempting to diminish mass-scale industrial-based poisoning--that the larger goal, of rendering the economy not only less dangerous to health but positively sustainable, is all but lost. Genuine environmentalism that is both broad-based and as concerned with the planet's health as with public health still needs to be invented, supported, and made politically effective.
The remains of the peace movement are the most difficult of all to discern, having been rhetorically assimilated by mass culture largely as a means of preventing their ideas actually being carried out. The gradual pissing away of the reservoir of international goodwill built up by American involvement in World War II is the hallmark of postwar foreign policy. Insofar as Bill Clinton continues to disappoint that foreign policy establishment that brought us anti-communist wars, coups and incursions until his arrival, the peace movement may have to be contented with the negative miracle of the United States' not actually making things worse during his administration. It remains a task of future administrations to get around to making things better. Stopping the 50-year slide may be quite enough for now.
The ends of wars always look like great times for progress. In 1919 war itself was going to be outlawed. When the Russians (with some help from America) beat Hitler in 1945 and the Americans went on to beat the Japanese, it seemed like freedom was going to expand across at least half the globe.
Instead, of course, we got the religion of capitalism metastasizing everywhere, except in Eastern Europe, where we had the religion of communism doing likewise. Looking back 50 years now, it is possible to observe that while the one totally failed its people, the other simply disappeared.
Beginning in May of this year we endured the war's-end 50th-anniversary orgy of national self-congratulation that ran through August and will be rebroadcast for the New Years' roundups. Sundry public clichˇ-spouters, both elected and unelected (but broadcast), defiled the occasion by pouring soothing poison in our ears. The amount of conveniently flattering historical speculation that has been sold to the American people as fact during this exercise in commemorating wastes of blood is enough to induce despair in any philosophers sufficiently unfortunate to be standing nearby at the time.
My parents died recently; both were of the WWII generation, both adherents of the Southern Catholic left. They saw economic and racial justice as the only stable basis for a peaceful society, and saw political action as the necessary remedy to extant social and economic inequities. And I am happy they did not live to see the fatuous articles and solemnly ridiculous TV shows praising the progress that has allegedly been made as a result of, and in the 50 years since, the end of WWII. Being sensible, they would have been sickened.
My grandfather sold real estate during the Depression on what was then the far southern edge of Houston, Texas (waaaaay out South Main Street, almost out to the Rice Institute campus's Gulf Coast-Ostentatious-Venetian architecture), and even he would not have seen as being an improvement the creation of the suburb as the dominant social institution. Yet that has been the principal verifiable American economic movement since WWII. Former House Banking Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez, the Texas Democrat, has noted that the transfer of wealth from workers to bankers in the financing of the suburbs has been the largest such transfer in the history of the country, far exceeding Social Security, welfare, and federal pensions combined.
Earlier, my three eldest uncles drove a Model A Ford from Houston to New York and back again in 1926 over roads that were alternately muddy and made out of chopped logs, and still none of them--all of whom survived the Moon Landing, and two of whom survived the Presidency of George H.W. Bush--would have argued that the freeway and the automobile represented the highest point of American civilization. Yet the growth of cars and their appurtenances to becoming a third of the economy was the secondary American movement since WWII, as Eugene McCarthy relentlessly pointed out in his independent Presidential campaign of 1976.
Incidentally, presiding over the public disaster of American overautomobilization at Ford was Robert MacNamara's real public disservice, compared to which his mendacity and misjudgment over Vietnam were mere blips on the radar.
The social changes subsequent to WWII have been far less significant than advertised. Yes, Italians and Jews became white people, with all the powers of oppression appertaining thereunto. Yes, black people are no longer routinely lynched, merely underemployed, ignored, or culturally starved. Yes, Hispanics and Asians are encouraged to supply cheap labor, and to send their children to schools which the rich are unwilling to pay for. Yes, women have been, first, allowed, and then required, to work. For less money than men, but enough to almost maintain a falling standard of middle-class living which has not risen since the fall of Saigon.
But any remarks calculated to undermine the white male's view of progress as inevitable and himself as indispensable to it are naturally suspect by the popular media, the more exalted punditocracy, the political animals who feed them, and the corporate covens who own them all. After all, our official media culture claims, we Americans have no faults for which we need apologize, and the glories of male western civilization have reached their pinnacle in us.
In real life, however, the progress of progress is, at best, peristaltic: moments of exertion followed by longer moments of lassitude. And with the Lizard as the Loudspeaker of our national legislature, moral lethargy--if not outright stupor--is definitely our current condition. Out of it may grow, however, future effort, if only to rectify the damages being done today, not to mention those left over from recent history.
For WWII itself was, despite its irreproducible sense of national unity, at best a holding action. The national unity Americans nostalgically boast of was equally visible in England, Germany, Italy and Russia during those years, and so may not be a wholly made-in-America phenomenon. Perhaps it was, in fact, a result of history.
But Americans have always felt themselves superior to, and frequently outside of, the power of history. It has been at once our strength and our weakness not to feel governed by the probabilities, limits, and traditions that formed other nations. However, the United States is old enough now to have determined, where we did not actively impose, our own boundaries of possibility. The longer that the delusion persists that we are free of human and historical constraints--continue to believe that we can do anything we want--the greater the ultimate disillusionment.
In defense of the world that then was, the WWII generation produced instead a new world which, unsurprisingly, resembles the old world far more than it does the promised New Jerusalem. Privilege we shall have always with us, apparently.
Better nutrition has barely kept pace with population increases. Higher earnings have been sapped, not by income taxes (a canard spread by the wealthy in order to make popular their avoidance of civic responsibilities) but by greater personal debt and higher sales, unemployment, and retirement taxes that fall more heavily on the worker than the owner. Meanwhile, the spread of education has almost exactly equaled, but has nowhere exceeded, the rapidly multiplied forms of public ignorance known as TV and radio; whereas the cheapening of print technology has almost exactly paralleled the rise of disinterest in actual knowledge.
The resemblances of the present world to the one at the end of WWII are dispiriting at best. I believe the horsemen still number four, and are to be found about the globe, including the Western Hemisphere, with depressing regularity: war, death, famine, and pestilence. It was perhaps too much to believe that one nation alone could have altered the historical landscape for the better. But that belief, trumpeted as truth, infests the airwaves to this day. Right next to the news that the Federal Reserve Board is not raising interest rates since enough people are already out of work to hold prices down.
Despite the United States' inherent economic imbalance and an intractable social disequilibrium, efforts--not only at reform, but at pushing the boundaries of structural economic change--are being made, and need to be increased. In them lie the seeds, and the future fruits, of radical political organization in America.
For instance, as James Ridgeway suggests, progressives could wean away the small ranchers and lumber employees from the Wise Use anti-environmental propagandists, whose corporate funding and right-wing ideology doubly disqualify Wise Use from the status of popular movement. Yet the concerns of their ordinary supporters must not be territorially conceded to the right, for the energy of the agrarian west's disillusionment can help fuel a new locally-based environmentalism.
Meanwhile, in the shadows of such long-acting Republican legacies as Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas and Ms. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor languish the dehospitalized, the diseducated, the fast-food malnourished, the overwasted, the Babelously overadvertised and malcommunicated, the over-engined and under-travelled. And insofar as economic alterations are required to lift the murk, political action must remain a paramount instrument. The cyber-entrepreneurs aren't going to wire the ghetto unless there's some money there to make it worth the effort; and nothing short of political action can change the economy enough to help that happen.
Fortunately, the amount of public cynicism, despair, and sour temper is sufficiently high to be useful. After having tried the panacea of Eye of Newt to its evident indigestion, the public may well be ripe for other solutions. And certainly the husk of the Democratic Party is available to anyone with sufficient energy to try to take it over. I'd love to see a load of hopelessly idealistic progressive House candidates in Democratic primaries--and there are far fewer Democratic incumbents to challenge these days--trumpeting a Walensan/Gorbachevian message of widespread economic radical reform, vast social change, and increased political involvement by the formerly lethargic.
The incrementalists have been bought and sold on both sides of the aisle, and their manifest incompetence provides an opportunity. The chimera of third-party politics represented by the wraiths Henry Ross Perot and General Colin Powell is a distraction from, though it indicates a willingness to explore means of accomplishing, systemic change in America.
Third party if necessary, capturing the Democrats from within if possible; these are the options. The challenge to corporate Republican repression must be an explosion of popular energy involving those Democrats who are willing and ignoring those who are not. The 1994 defeat of liberal orthodoxy by so feeble an instrument as white suburban Republican males shows how much room there is for genuine progressive action in 1996 and beyond.
James McCarty Yeager is a writer and editor born in Minnesota, raised in Texas, educated in Canada, domiciled in Maryland, and fatally attracted to Washington, D.C.
THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST