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Eugene McCarraher

The Government We Deserve

Who's conning who?

Are we forever to be at the mercy of thieves and ruffians?" cries Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, the socialite protagonist of Henry Adams' Democracy. "Is a respectable government impossible in a democracy?" An ill-mannered Red might have asked Mrs. Lee how she thought her inheritance was acquired and protected. Alas, such people aren't invited to Washington dinner parties, and so an answer comes from Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, a thief and ruffian with presidential ambitions. Hoping to seduce the earnest Mrs. Lee with philosophical charm, Ratcliffe opines on the state of democracy like an Aristotle on the Potomac. "No representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents."

Unlike Mrs. Lee, Jonathan Chait is no naïf. Senior editor at The New Republic and author of its venerable "TRB" column, he's had a front-row seat at the spectacle of decadence that's been running in the Beltway. In lucid, brisk, and wonderfully sardonic prose, Chait relates the history of the Second Gilded Age, during which a new generation of rogues and knaves has purchased the rights to the republic. Wacked-out eggheads, legislator-lobbyists, shilling pundits: the imperial city is a pestilent bedlam of chicanery, avarice, and fraud. In the finest tradition of progressive dudgeon, Chait recites the roster of corruption and shame and calls on a vigilant and outraged people to reclaim the halls of self-government.

It's an infuriating tale and a noble call, but as Ratcliffe shows, there's wisdom if not honor among thieves. Like so many wizened scoundrels, the senator exhibits the detachment that comes from a lifetime of successful malfeasance. Chait's research is impeccable, and his umbrage is justified, but Ratcliffe may have the final word: the government can't be any better than the society it represents. By all means, throw out the rascals, but it's the world outside the Beltway echo chamber that truly needs to be transformed.

So how did Washington get so loony? Once upon a time, Chait tells us, sanity reigned in the capital city. In the two decades after World War II, American politics was leavened by "an ethos of accommodation between business and government." (Among historians, this has been dubbed "the New Deal order" or "the postwar social contract.") With a favorable international economic climate and a gray-flannelled business culture, corporate business accepted progressive taxation, strong unions, and pesky but not onerous regulations. Committed to the Cold War, needful of social stability, and dependent on steady economic growth, both political parties superintended a tax-and-regulation regime that gently bridled the rage to accumulate and kept inequality within bounds. Liberals restrained their reformist impulses, while conservatives assumed a measure of "social responsibility." Under the aegis of "consensus," Republicans and Democrats presided over a corporate commonwealth.

But in the 1970s, Chait argues, this tranquil political landscape was battered by a perfect storm of stagflation, higher oil prices, and a shameless hunger for riches, legitimized in the 1980s by Reaganism. The consensus eroded as corporations busted unions and demanded lower taxes and faster deregulation. At the same time, a rising cohort of the right-wing intelligentsia grew impatient with their elders' concessions to the New Deal. Through the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years (that's both Bushes, by the way), the Beltway political culture steadily acquired its current ambience of unbridled powerlust and mendacity. In painful detail, Chait demonstrates that the nation's political institutions, and especially the Republican Party, have been commandeered by a right-wing cabal of laissez-faire extremists whose sole purpose—pursued with all the fervor of a religious mission—is to enrich the already stupendously wealthy. Worse than mere "malefactors of great wealth," as FDR once railed, they comprise, in Chait's words, "a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, some quite possibly insane."

What are we to make of an electorate that keeps returning so many of these villains to office; of voters who, fully cognizant of the Himalayan deficit they're passing on to their children, continue to oppose any tax increases to pay for the war in Iraq?

Chait devotes his most absorbing and unsettling pages to this lunatic vanguard of the Haves. If you thought economics was the dismal science, it will morph into the art of happy-talk when you meet Arthur Laffer and Jude Wanniski, the dynamic duo of "supply-side economics," the faith that cutting marginal tax rates on upper-income earners would spark economic growth, curb inflation, and enlarge government revenue. (I use the word "faith" deliberately, as Chait refers more than once to the "quasi-religious" or "theological" character of right-wing economic thought.) Considered kooky by even the most business-friendly economists, supply-side economics arrived at a fortuitous moment in the late 1970s, when traditional Keynesian approaches seemed incapable of addressing sluggish productivity, hyper-inflation, and rising deficits. Few outside a small circle of devotees took supply-side thinking seriously—and as Chait establishes, fidelity to its principles has left a fiscal catastrophe in its wake. But Chait proves that, for many of the Right's key political and intellectual players, the attractions of supply-side thinking were never really about economics. Rather, its enthusiasts hoped for a fundamental realignment of American politics: Republicans used supply-side buncombe to beguile wavering Democrats, while the wealthy licked their chops at the prospect of even more money in the bank. As the conservative intellectual Irving Kristol admitted, those who were "not certain of its economic merits … quickly saw its political possibilities."

And these ideologues aren't just committed—they're nuts. Chait isn't kidding when he suggests that supply-side's most representative promoters are deranged. While Laffer was merely inept (he left the Nixon Administration in disgrace after an especially bone-headed episode), Wanniski, his now-deceased mentor, was out to lunch. In Wanniski's view, for instance, the Nazi conquest of Europe was spurred, not by fascist ideology, but by taxes so high that Hitler needed lebensraum to alleviate the pressures of a distorted economy. (By this logic, as Chait snidely notes, Bill Clinton should have invaded Canada after the 1993 tax hike.) But supply-side's most colorful booster is George Gilder, whose panegyrics to wealth, computers, and cyberspace mark a dizzying apogee in capitalist ideology. Ever since his delirious fulminations against the women's movement (he once opined that "there is no such thing as a reasonably intelligent feminist"), Gilder has been a virtuoso of impending millennium, a marketing specialist dealing in rapture at the promise of silicon technology. With Wealth and Poverty (1981)—in which he contended, in apparent seriousness, that capitalism was a gift economy—and his subsequent (and popular) celebrations of the internet, Gilder has beguiled a generation of Bill Gates wannabes with his techno-free-market hysterics. (I've read most of Gilder's stuff—research, I swear—and I have to say that Chait doesn't convey the half of Gilder's euphoric loopiness.)

Many of today's ruffians and thieves have never read Laffer or Gilder, but that hasn't slowed them down; the sorcery of money continues to offer ample scope for the confidence games of corporate business. Chait includes numerous cameos of plunder and sleaze, proving that Jack Abramoff's career in moral shabbiness was extraordinary only in degree. Chait's most disturbing sketch is of Grover Norquist, the Robespierre of the "Republican Revolution."  Norquist, a thoroughly obnoxious and vindictive little man, presides over the weekly meetings of the Wednesday Group, a powerful cabal of conservative politicians, lobbyists, journalists, and activists. Even for a self-described "Market-Leninist" who has proudly declared that his mission in life is to "drown [the government] in the bathtub," Norquist's moral cretinism is breathtaking. Consider his most infamous outburst—not cited by Chait—when he told NPR's Terry Gross that the reasoning used to justify the estate tax was comparable to that employed to excuse the Holocaust. Perhaps I should be charitable, as little Grover's father would steal bites from his ice-cream cone to illustrate the impact of taxes. Oh, the wayward course of Oedipal rage.

As you'd expect from the upper reaches of the masthead at the New Republic, Chait sees the only antidote to the craziness in a revival of the Progressive tradition. Against conservative disparagement of the Nanny State, he reaffirms the Progressive ideal of a "neutral and technocratic government" which rises above class conflict to serve the public good with benevolent scientific expertise. If he had been more skeptical of the postwar corporate consensus, he would have traced the genealogy of supply-side economics to its roots in the Cold War era. The precursors of Gilder and Norquist were the renowned intellectual champions of laissez-faire: Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig van Mises, and Milton Friedman. (Hayek and Friedman get only cursory mentions in this book.) Bankrolled and publicized by a wide network of think tanks, foundations, and universities, and often anointed "the Chicago School" of economics, these libertarian evangelists were never as marginalized as they later claimed to be. (For a history of libertarianism, I highly recommend Brian Doherty's magnificent Radicals for Capitalism.) Although Chait asserts with some justice that the Bush Administration's economic policies are nothing that Friedman "would recognize as his own"—certainly not the massive deficits—the regime of privatization, deregulation, and fiscal austerity, here and abroad, is the fulfillment of Uncle Miltie's dreams. (Naomi Klein surveys Friedman's pernicious impact, along with many other iniquities, in The Shock Doctrine.)

Still, libertarians—and "the Left," for that matter—realize that capitalism is an inherently promethean and conflict-ridden system. Forever professing to be shocked, shocked, that there's greed going on here, the reformist lineage so beloved by Chait has never really come to terms with the indomitably covetous nature of the system they believe can be regulated.

At points, Chait appears to concede that the current festival of venality requires more than another round of muckraking and reform. Alluding to the 1870s, 1890s, and 1930s, he notes that when earlier generations were faced with the arrogance of capital, "what finally turned the tide was a wave of labor violence and radical activism." But he follows that concession with the non sequitur of an appeal to the conscience of conservatives. If rational conservatives have been silenced as effectively as Chait believes, it's hard to see how this plea for sanity can have any traction on the Right. As for the Left, Chait dismisses it by invoking one of the moldiest oldies in the moderate playbook: the Similar Styles of Thinking gambit. Radicals on both Left and Right, he lazily argues, are characterized by "identical modes of thought"—"Manichean," conspiratorial, and "absolute." As always, this saves "sensible" moderates the effort of actually knowing and engaging any kind of radical analysis.

Like all good conservatives, moderates, and liberals, Chait thinks class war is a Very Bad Thing. To Marxists, of course, class conflict is a Very Good Thing: it's the turbo-charged engine of history, or the high-octane fuel of the historical dialectic that gives us enlightenment, progress, and eventually liberation. But you don't have to be a Marxist to see that class conflict is inescapable. By definition, classes clash: slaves, serfs, or workers break tools, goof off, organize unions, or rise up in revolt, while their masters, lords, or employers try to wrestle them under control. That's class war, and Chait is so admirably terrified of bloodshed that he can't acknowledge the intrinsically fractious character of any class society. No classes, no class conflict; but if Chait and other reformers were to fully embrace the implications of that insight, they'd have to sign up, not for the promotion of compassionate experts, but for the radical activism whose politics and analysis they routinely deride as "mythology." And with its call for the curtailment of acquisitiveness, mendacity, and empire, that "mythological" Left is arguably now the clearest and most uncompromised voice of reason in contemporary politics.

Not that a lot of people are listening, mind you. Despite the Democratic gains in last year's midterm elections, and despite the new and fragile majority's passage of tougher ethics legislation, Congress continues to be awash in a sea of money, and the coffers of all the leading presidential candidates—including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, the three putative "reformers"—resound with the jingle of corporate coin. And where is the full-throated voice of The People, calling for virtue and honesty? Muffled or ignored, Chait claims, by the establishment media, desperate to "hide the unpopularity of the plutocratic agenda."

But is it so unpopular? Like the Left he maligns, Chait just can't find a disparaging word to say about The People. It's long been a staple of most left-wing criticism, populist or socialist, that if The People only knew the extent of capitalist villainy, they'd rise up in herculean righteousness and cleanse the Washington stables. From Thomas Frank and Amy Goodman to Bruce Springsteen and Ani DiFranco, this faith in the demotic remains an indispensable and tenacious conviction on the American Left. Yet what are we to make of an electorate that keeps returning so many of these villains to office; of voters who, fully cognizant of the Himalayan deficit they're passing on to their children, continue to oppose any tax increases to pay for the war in Iraq; who still seem to treat the suburban idyll with undiminished reverence?

Perhaps it's time to attribute the plutocratic hold on American politics, not only to the money and manipulative genius of corporate capital and its minions, but to popular dreams of avarice as well. A con man, we ought to recall, needs a mark whose desires he can beguile. Perhaps Silas P. Ratcliffe—or rather, Henry Adams—is as timely and incisive a philosopher as he was during the First Gilded Age. For all the righteous bloviation about a Beltway that's "out of touch with the people," this government is finally no better or worse than the society it represents.

Eugene McCarraher is a professor of humanities at Villanova University. He is writing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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