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The death of American politics

Godfrey Hodgson
31 October 2005

Since the great revolution of 1789, French political history has been measured out in “days” – those occasions when the Paris crowd pours into the street and strikes fear into the hearts of its rulers. Modern American politics, especially when afflicting a United States president who lasts into a second term, seem to be developing a similar rhythm – the routine of scandal.

As with Watergate (1974), Iran-Contra (1986), and the Monica Lewinsky affair (1998), President George W Bush is in deep trouble because legal processes mean that the media have no excuse to avoid reporting the outward signs of an administration’s inner bureaucratic and spiritual crisis.

The upcoming trial for perjury of I Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief-of-staff of the powerful vice-president Dick Cheney, will feature increasing media reporting of what a narrow and prejudiced place the White House under George W Bush is. The conjunction of legal process and media exposure is appropriate, because Bush became president thanks to lawyers and has remained relatively free from criticism until very recently because of the timidity of journalists.

In Washington today it is lawyers and journalists – and their attendant chorus of unelected lobbyists, think-tank pundits, and assorted political mercenaries – who, far more than elected politicians, decide who will live politically and who will die.

But even if other senior officials – Karl Rove, the president’s chief adviser, or Dick Cheney himself – get splashed with mud as special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald pursues his investigations, the unravelling scandal reveals two far more important issues at stake even than the careers of the clique around the president:

  • how much damage has been done to American democracy by a regime dominated by a tight knot of mainly unelected ideological courtiers?
  • how can democracy, in the nation that gave the world government by the consent of the governed, be given back to the people?

An epic of incompetence

George W Bush became president in 2000 thanks to the skill of his lawyers. He was re-elected in 2004 thanks in large part to the failure of journalists and the Democratic opposition to explain just how cliquey, how ideological and how incompetent his administration was.

The main reason for the failure, no doubt, is 9/11 and what followed. As Bush blundered into Iraq, I asked a Democratic senator: “Where are you Democrats?” He answered that his colleagues thought they would be out of power for a generation if they attacked a “war president”. Today, it is becoming more likely that they will be out of power for a generation if they do not.

Godfrey Hodgson is the author of More Equal than Others: America from Nixon to the new Century (Princeton University Press, 2004)

Godfrey Hodgson’s analyses of democracy in the United States have appeared on openDemocracy for four years. The first:

“Can America go modest?” (October 2001)

Among the latest:

“The Senate’s filibuster deal: only a truce in the culture wars” (May 2005)

“American media in the firing-line” (June 2005)

“Gimme five! US Republicans’ amoral minority” (June 2005)

“After Katrina, a government adrift” (September 2005)

“Oil and American politics” (October 2005)

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The motive for inaction on the part of many journalists was even less creditable. The administration was unusually punitive, journalist friends would explain. If they criticised the president, access – the philosopher’s stone that turns many a pinchbeck talent in Washington into gold – would be remorselessly cut off. The combined result was that the misjudgment and negligence of opposition politicians and the press allowed the administration to consolidate its rule and pursue its disastrous course.

The sequence of events leading to Libby’s arraignment may seem trivial compared to the Bush administration’s denial of global warming, its invasion of Iraq, its contempt for international law and multinational institutions, its encouragement of torture, and its blatant classism of fiscal policy. Yet large-scale abuse of power is often illuminated by apparently technical misdemeanours: as in Watergate or Iran-Contra, so in “Plamegate”.

The Valerie Plame affair – the revelation of a CIA agent’s name in apparent punishment for her ex-ambassador husband’s criticism of the administration’s deceit over Saddam Hussein’s alleged purchase of material for weapons of mass destruction from Niger – is mysterious as well as tortuous. The New York Times journalist Judith Miller spent eighty-five days in jail for refusing to discuss the sources for an article on the subject she never even wrote. Robert Novak, the man who did write the column “outing” Valerie Plame after talking to his White House contacts, is free as a bird.

But the Plame affair is only one of the events that have exposed this administration’s incompetence. There is a cascade of others:

  • the number of Americans killed in Iraq has passed the 2,000 mark
  • the president, under pressure from his own conservative supporters, had to withdraw his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers as a justice of the Supreme Court, and pander to them by nominating a conservative federal appeals court judge, Samuel Alito, in her stead
  • Iraq, despite the vote for the constitution, remains a mess – politically, economically and above all in terms of security; the administration has, belatedly and reluctantly, published an estimate of 26,000 Iraqis killed in the past two years
  • Tom DeLay, who a year ago seemed to have the House of Representatives in the palm of his hand, has been indicted in his home state of Texas for political corruption
  • Bill Frist, DeLay’s opposite number as majority leader in the Senate, has been caught unloading shares in a family business for millions ahead of a fall in the price
  • Hurricane Katrina exposed the incompetence and cronyism of Bush’s style, and also showed up the folly of his denial of global warming
  • the appointments of ideological zealots like UN ambassador John Bolton and attorney-general Albert Gonzales look even more ridiculous with the passage of time

Years ago a very gentlemanly British editor wrote: “Never trust a scandal!” How wrong he was! Scandals are important, as well as pruriently fascinating, because they reveal how things really are – as opposed to how powerful people want us to believe they are.

Also on “Plamegate” in openDemocracy:

KA Dilday, “Judith Miller’s race: the unasked question“

Sidney Blumenthal, “George W Bush: home alone”

A regime of cliques

What the Bush administration’s scandals reveal is that, so far from being swept by a deep popular tide of rightwing feeling, the American people have been taken for a ride by an army of interlocking conservative cliques:

  • the neo-conservative clique: unelected pundits like William Kristol and Elliot Abrams, both promoted through family influence, have astonishing influence over American foreign policy
  • the “college Republicans” clique, which connects the lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the tax crusader Grover Norquist with two men they recruited twenty-five years ago for the rightwing student group they ran in Massachusetts: the president’s chief strategist Karl Rove and the smooth Capitol Hill operator Ralph Reed
  • the pro-business clique and the anti-abortion clique: the pretence of each to stand at the head of a great army of concerned Americans has been done very largely with smoke, mirrors – and money

Bush and his minders have persuaded a sufficient number of Americans to vote for them because they have been able to sell a number of dubious propositions. But an administration of cliques does not make a coherent political project – as the deceits that have surrounded the “war on terror” daily reveal.

Where are the Democrats?

Where are the Democrats in all this, and what are they going to do now? Democratic voters have never been more clearly distinguished in their interests and ideology from Republican voters, but Democratic politicians are trapped in the same web of constraints as their Republican opponents. It all comes down to money.

American politics have been “professionalised” by the need for people with specialised skills – fundraisers, PR men and women, speechwriters, copywriters, space-buyers, filmmakers, congressional staffers, lawyers, hacks and flacks of every description – who expect to be paid incomes to match. Campaigns take place largely on the hugely expensive medium (especially in big, multi-market states like California, Florida, New York or Texas) of television.

As a result, Democratic politicians can no longer rely on enthusiastic amateur envelope-lickers and disciplined union stiffs. They are out there hustling for money like the Republicans, and in much the same way. In return for money, they give access to the interests, the big donors, the heavy-hitters from Wall Street, or Hollywood, or Silicon Valley.

Ideologically, the Democrats got into politics because they disagreed profoundly with what the conservative Republicans were saying. But they find themselves in the same subculture, talking the same language, making the same assumptions. The Clintonites called it “triangulation”. There are less complimentary words for it.

Most practicing Democratic politicians have more or less consciously bought half the conservative ideology. They are ashamed to advocate government action. They take care not to risk a sandbagging from the rightwing ranters that even the liberal papers now feel obliged to employ. They don’t want to sound sentimental, soft, or (God forbid) liberal. That’s why the John Kerry campaign was such a total fizzle.

That is the real significance of the legalistic wrangling and the journalistic punditry over who said what to whom about Valerie Plame. It offers an opportunity for the Democrats, as the opposition, to recover their morale. But can they take it?

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