US ruling elite moves to repeal the 1960s

14 March 2017

The repeal of Obamacare, which began last week with the introduction of legislation drafted by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, working in conjunction with the Trump administration, has become the vehicle for a much wider program of social reaction.

The new legislation, which will cut off health coverage for 24 million people, will essentially put an end to Medicaid, one of the major social reforms of the 1960s, a program that has funded health care for tens of millions of poor, blind or otherwise disabled people, as well as nursing home care for the low-income elderly. It sets the stage, as Ryan has indicated, for even more sweeping legislation that will undermine and eventually destroy Medicare, which has provided health coverage for most elderly people in the United States for more than 50 years.

The major social gains of the 1960s–the last period of significant social reform in American history–are in the final stages of liquidation. This is the culmination of a protracted historical process that began almost as soon as the American ruling elite made its decision, driven by the breakdown of the post-World War II economic boom, to shift from policies of relative class compromise to ruthless class warfare. The initial steps were taken as long ago as the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter (1977-81), which began to curb social welfare spending and targeted striking coal miners for government intervention under the Taft-Hartley Law.

The attacks were accelerated greatly under Republican Ronald Reagan, who smashed the PATCO air traffic controllers strike, giving the green light for a decade of corporate union-busting and wage-cutting, and slashed federal social spending to fuel a record military buildup. Reagan set the pace for further attacks on the programs established in the 1960s and even in the 1930s, from Clinton’s abolition of Aid to Families with Dependent Children to Bush’s targeting of aid to public education with his “No Child Left Behind” legislation, co-authored by Democrat Edward Kennedy, and the first steps towards the privatization of Medicare.

The Obama administration did not mark a reversal of this decades-long process, but rather its intensification. Obamacare was not an expansion of the welfare state, as its apologists claimed, but a reactionary effort to shift the cost of health care from employers and the government to working people. The all-out support of the Democrats for this legislation, worked out in collaboration with the insurance industry and the drug monopolies, testifies to the rightward evolution of the Democratic Party over the past 40 years.

The eight years of the Obama administration–begun with promises of “hope” and “change” and filled instead with endless war, attacks on jobs and living standards, and the steady erosion of social services such as education and health care–created the conditions for the Republican takeover of Congress and finally the victory of Donald Trump.

The ideologues of capitalism claim that the “free market” will work wonders if only the restraints placed upon its operations by past social reforms are removed. These “restraints” include every social benefit won through the struggles of the working class over more than a century. Now, every one of Great Society liberalism’s “big four,” as one historian described the laws enacted in a six-month period from April to October 1965, is targeted for destruction.

The Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965: This legislation provided the first extensive federal support for local public schools, which had become politically possible following the legal abolition of segregated public schools in the South. Funds were allocated to improve public schools in poor communities, expand libraries and take the first steps in what became known as “special education.” The law established the pre-school program Head Start as a permanent federal program.

Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa has introduced legislation that would rescind the Elementary and Secondary Act and bar the Department of Education from funding any educational program except state-controlled vouchers that could be used for charter or religious schools or for home schooling.

Medicare and Medicaid, established through the Social Security Act of 1965: This bill for the first time provided government-backed health insurance for those over 65, half of whom had no coverage in 1965. Medicare covered hospital care (Part A) and medical and nursing fees (Part B), but did not pay for vision, dental or prescription drugs. Medicaid covered the poorest sections of working people, including children, the disabled and the blind, as well as long-term nursing home care for the poorest elderly.

The Obamacare repeal legislation would put an end to Medicaid as an entitlement program beginning in 2020, when grants to the states would be capped, forcing them to ration care to the poor and disabled. Medicare was already significantly undermined through Obamacare itself, which cut $700 billion in reimbursements over 10 years, and the repeal legislation will set the stage for even larger cuts, based on Ryan’s plan to convert the program from an entitlement to a voucher program.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the most radical democratic measure enacted by a US Congress since post-Civil War Reconstruction. It targeted those states, mainly in the Deep South, where denial of the franchise to minorities was widespread. Before its passage, few blacks were allowed to register and vote in southern states from Texas to Virginia. Afterwards, voter participation among African-Americans rose sharply, as the federal Justice Department continued to oversee state electoral policies to block any efforts to discriminate.

The US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act by a 5-4 decision in 2013 in Shelby vs. Holder, ruling that the targeting of the southern states for federal intervention could no longer be justified, despite repeated renewal and extension of the law by Congress, most recently in 2006. This decision was part of a wider effort led by Republicans in state after state to enact voter ID laws and other measures whose purpose was to resurrect discriminatory practices against minority and poor voters.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act after its leading Senate and House sponsors, abolished longstanding restrictions on immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and ended the preference for immigrants from Northern and Western Europe over those from Southern and Eastern Europe. It also allowed unlimited immigration of family members of US citizens and residents, encouraging the growth of immigrant communities.

Trump’s travel ban on visitors from six majority Muslim countries directly violates the 1965 law, which prohibits the use of national origin as a test for restricting immigration. His executive orders on immigration as well as the proposed wall along the US-Mexico border represent an effort to turn the clock back to the period of the exclusion laws that barred Asian immigrants and the bracero program that allowed Mexican immigrants only as semi-slave labor in the fields.

There are other reforms of the 1960s, from the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities, to the Clean Water Act and dozens of other anti-pollution laws, which led ultimately to the creation of the Environmental Protection Administration. All these are under attack by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress.

The Democratic Party has collaborated in one attack after another on the social reforms with which it was once identified. The Democrats have spearheaded the attacks on public education, introduced major cuts in Medicare funding as part of Obamacare, and did not lift a finger to restore enforcement after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. They oppose Trump, not in defense of social services, but on behalf of sections of Wall Street and the military-intelligence apparatus, attacking the new administration over its supposed softness towards Russia.

Even in the 1960s, Democratic Party liberalism was not a challenge to capitalism, but rather an effort, at the height of the post-World War II economic boom, to make American capitalism more palatable to the masses, and therefore safer for the capitalists, under conditions of growing mass struggles over civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and for better wages and working conditions. The measures of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” were far less ambitious than the welfare states built up in Western Europe during the same period.

As historian James T. Patterson wrote of that period: “The Great Society programs were… quintessentially liberal, not radical. Except in the area of race relations–a major exception–they made no serious effort to challenge the power of established groups, including large corporations. In no way did they seriously confront socio-economic inequality or seek to redistribute wealth.”

Today, under conditions of the protracted historical decline of American capitalism, exacerbated by the impact of the 2008 financial crash and the massive transfer of wealth from working people to bail out Wall Street, no section of the American ruling class can or will defend any of the social gains of the 1960s.

The supposed Democratic resistance to Trump’s program in Congress is merely for show. The Trump administration and the Republican Party will get nearly everything they want, while the Democrats wage a phony war and call on the victims of Trump’s attacks to wait until the 2018 elections.

The Democratic Party does not represent the popular opposition to Trump and the Republicans, as congressional Democrats and political charlatans like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren claim. Rather, its function is to serve as a brake on the actual resistance to Trump, from the working class, which will take on an increasingly explosive and politically radical form.

The working class must take the lead in the struggles to defend health care, education, environmental protection, the rights of immigrants and all basic democratic rights. It must answer the capitalist program of social counterrevolution with the working class alternative of social revolution. Workers must build a mass political movement independent of and opposed to the twin parties of big business, fighting on the basis of a socialist program.

Patrick Martin


Hillary: Ordinarily Awful or Uncommonly Awful?


Throughout her far too long public life, Hillary Clinton has demonstrated repeatedly how clueless and inept she is; her tenure as Secretary of State is riddled with examples from around the world.

Libya, Syria and Iraq are the jewels in the crown of the Queen of Chaos, as Diana Johnstone has aptly described her. But nearly everything that the Madam Secretary did at State went awry. She is the Empress of Ineptitude too.

And yet, conventional wisdom has it that she is a foreign policy whiz.

Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but this is extreme. How did it come about that the conventional wisdom and the truth got to be so wildly out of line?

When Hillary and Bill move back into the White House, Hillary’s purported expertise will find new avenues for expression, causing even her liberal supporters to turn against her as she leads the United States into more quagmires – or worse — than all her predecessors, including Lyndon Johnson, combined. Then that question will receive the attention it deserves, and insightful answers will come to light. Der Hass sieht Scharf, hatred sees sharply.

But is she really worse than the others?

Compared to Barack Obama, the answer is surely Yes. Obama is a foreign policy dunce, but Hillary will make him look downright statesman-like in comparison.   No wonder he is so eager to get her elected; she is his best, perhaps his only, chance actually to be appreciated and missed.

But, from the perspective of the past half-century, the answer is less clear.

That thought is bound to occur to readers of Andrew Bacevich’s new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (Random House: 2016).

A friend recommended that book, and I would like to pass the recommendation on – not only for its accessible and compelling accounts of recent American military interventions throughout the Muslim world, but also because the story Bacevich tells sheds light on the part that President Hillary Clinton is likely to play in the on-going tragedy of American diplomacy in the Middle East.

It should be born in mind, though, that her role in the war for –and also against — the Greater Middle East is only part of the larger picture. The scarier part lies with her designs on lands farther to the north, in Russia and the other former Soviet republics, and in China. Russia and China are far less likely to start wars than, say, Israel or Pakistan, but they have many more nuclear weapons, and they don’t take well to being bullied.

Fortunately, their leaders – including the incessantly villainized Vladimir Putin — are wise enough to do all they can to keep their nuclear and conventional weapons from being used. But when the Queen of Chaos gets going, anything can – and often does – happen.


The chronicle Bacevich presents recounts how, from the late seventies on, American policies towards Muslim lands in the Greater Middle East, and in peripheral regions like Somalia and Yugoslavia, have been monumentally clueless and inept.

In this respect, Hillary is not much of an outlier after all; she is only the latest in a long line.

Needless to say, the underlying cause of the perpetual war regime that the United States has inflicted upon that part of the world, and upon itself, is and has always been oil: its availability to the United States and its allies. But that is not the whole story. The United States does want to control as much of the world’s oil supply as it can, but this plain fact explains very little about the fix we are presently in.

On Bacevich’s telling, the key to understanding that is the realization that even when the road to hell was paved with benign intentions (as, rightly or wrongly, he thinks it often was), events went awry because Western, especially American, politicians, diplomats and military leaders were in way over their heads.

I would venture that he gives those bumblers too much credit; that their motives were less benign than he makes them out to be. But I won’t press that point here. It hardly matters, in the end, because, as the saying goes, the road to hell can be paved with good intentions, just as surely as with bad.

However, for putting Hillary’s place in the larger scheme of things in perspective, it does matter a little.

As Bacevich sees it, Jimmy Carter got the process going, more or less inadvertently. The presidents who followed then kept on blundering, much as he did –only worse.

I would venture, though, that, in key respects, Carter was not so much the prototype of what was to come, but the exception to the rule. Unlike his successors, Carter was a sheep, not a wolf, in sheep’s clothing.

To be sure, he served economic elites, and he was swayed by powerful and nefarious lobbies. He was a President, after all; that’s what Presidents do. But, in his heart, he was a guileless and earnest man, a Sunday School teacher, who only wanted to bring peace to the world.

Too bad that he listened as much as he did to his guileful National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and therefore signed off on providing arms and diplomatic support to political Islamists in Afghanistan and anywhere else where they could harm the interests of the USSR.

This made Cold War sense; it was a way to force the Soviets into a situation similar to the one America got itself into in Vietnam. That Machiavellian démarche was not exactly Carter’s idea; Brzezinski and the people around him came up with it. But the buck stops in the Oval Office.

It is therefore fair to blame poor Jimmy Carter for setting a process in motion that made political Islam a significant factor not just in the Greater Middle East, but, in one way or another, in all the four corners of the world.

Carter stumbled into what would soon become the norm: clumsy interventions into complicated situations that ignorant leaders, too clever for their own good, barely understood, and invariably got wrong.

Through force of arms, those hapless leaders would sometimes “win” — at first. But, after the dust cleared, it would turn out that the consequences of the murder and mayhem they unleashed were counterproductive at best. Even when they won, they lost.

America “lost” in Vietnam too, but it was never defeated in the way that Germany and Japan were in World War II. Those countries had no choice but to set their imperial ambitions aside, and to tune down their adherence to cultural norms that inclined them towards war. Their peoples, and the peoples of the world, have been better off ever since.

So far, America has always emerged unscathed from its failed military adventures. Its elites and their media flacks have therefore learned nothing salutary from any of them. If anything, America’s addiction to war has gotten worse.

And so, to the detriment of all affected parties, the idea of America as “the indispensable nation,” as Hillary calls it, has never been corrected or revised. In elite economic and political circles, in major media outlets, and in Hillary Clinton’s mind, it has been embraced instead.

This is why we Americans now live in a state of perpetual war that counts many of our rights and liberties among its casualties. And it is why, in large swathes of the Greater Middle East, people live amidst death and destruction, and in constant fear of coming to a violent end – whether from bullets or bombs or, most terrifying of all, from Barack Obama’s drones.

It is also why humanitarian and refugee crises abound – not only in the Greater Middle East, but now also in Europe as well.

This is the world that the Clintons helped make, and that Hillary Clinton will dedicate her presidency to advancing.

Clinton has long been reviled, for all the wrong reasons, by rightwing ideologues and by their marks, the mindless denizens of the Fox News demographic. As she ratchets up America’s clueless bumbling without changing the thinking behind it one iota, she will come to be even more profoundly reviled by everyone to her left – which is to say, by nearly everyone.   Their reasons will be impeccably compelling too. But, for now, too many liberals don’t see it. What they see instead, or think they do, is that Hillary and Bill are good social liberals; and that is enough for them.

Some of them even think that she is a “pragmatic progressive.” Perhaps those who sincerely believe that mean well, but they are in serious denial. There is therefore no arguing them out of that transparently false idea. Not now, anyway; events will bring them around soon enough.

Even on cultural matters, the Clintons, like Obama, go whichever way the wind blows. In some respects, the United States in the twenty-first century is more “inclusive” than twentieth century America was, and so the Clintons now are too. They never took the lead, but they are happy to take the credit.

Of course, for Muslims and others who could be mistaken for Muslims, and for Hispanic immigrants, America is a good deal less welcoming than it used to be. For this, we have mainly America’s “dumb wars” (candidate Obama’s term) and NAFTA and other Clinton trade policies to thank.

So the Clintons’ record is mixed. But at least, they have been generally loath to tap into voters’ baser prejudices and instincts, the way that Donald Trump does. Even so, they are not beyond encouraging Islamophobia and nativism indirectly, by supporting political and economic policies that call it forth.

Still, it must be said that when they have public opinion on their side and, in the case of Hispanics, when it makes political sense, they will do the right thing. Give credit where credit is due. Hooray for them.

And Hooray for Hillary more than Bill.   Our “first black President” would, after all, spew out racially coded messages when electoral exigencies seemed to call for it. Bubba knew just how to do it. Hillary, the Goldwater Girl from Chicago’s lily-white western ‘burbs was brought up better than that.

But the hypocrisy around her is just as mind-boggling. When pressed to find something about her to praise, her apologists tell us that children are and always have been her first concern.   Well, sure – unless those children are Palestinian or live in countries that the American empire is, for one reason or another, putting down.

As the War for the Greater Middle East has proceeded, and especially after 9/11, the Land of the Free is no longer as free as it used to be. The Clintons are fine with that too — as long as voters don’t mind too much. And even if they do, that only gives them a reason to seem to care.

In this case too, the Clintons are basically of the same mind as others in the political class. If they differ, it is in degree, not in kind.   Obama, for example, is no friend of due process rights or transparency.   But Hillary is worse. Maybe the reason is that she has more to be embarrassed about.


Carter stumbled into launching a war with the Muslim world, but because his heart wasn’t really in it, that war never quite took off.

That didn’t happen until Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush decided that what Carter got going could be useful for burying “the Vietnam Syndrome,” the idea that, after Vietnam, the American public would never support open-ended commitments of American troops dispatched to far away places solely for the sake of securing America’s position as a global hegemon.

But even they never quite achieved a state of permanent war. That required the active participation of the Clintons, doing what they do best – implementing Republican programs and ideas by neutralizing opposition within Democratic ranks and, whenever possible, bringing willing Democrats along.

Thus it was Bill Clinton and his close advisors, including Hillary’s mentor, Madeleine Albright, who fully brought the War for the Greater Middle East to fruition.

Hillary’s apologists could say that it was her husband, not she, who did this; technically they would be correct.   But if Hillary wants to credit her years as First Lady as evidence of her foreign policy expertise, the sins of her husband and his administration are on her too.

By the time the Clintons came along, the Soviet Union was gone, and the Vietnam Syndrome was already history. But the military industrial complex was still there, calling for ways to maintain the war economy on which American prosperity had depended for more than forty years.

NATO was a particular problem. By the nineties, it had become integral to America’s imperial project, but with the Warsaw Pact gone, and the Cold War over, it was hard to make a case that would appeal to anyone outside the war machine’s ambit for needing it at all.

However, the empire’s stewards did need NATO because they couldn’t or didn’t want to police the empire on their own, and because the UN could not be counted on to bend to America’s will – not with all those pesky little countries with different ideas in the General Assembly, and not with Russia and China having veto rights in the Security Council.

NATO, on the other hand, was a serviceable international organization that the United States could dominate and also, not incidentally, use to keep European powers under its thumb – in the unlikely event that any of them might decide to get uppity.

On Bacevich’s telling, this is what American machinations in the former Yugoslavia were about – once it became clear that the US could not remain aloof from the disintegration of that formerly socialist and multi-cultural country without ceding power to the Germans and other European upstarts.

For Clinton – or, rather, for the Clintons and their co-thinkers — dropping bombs on Serbians was a way to make NATO relevant, and also to insure that the United States would continue to call the shots in the so-called Free World.

Also, from the Clintons’ vantage point, supporting Bosnians and later Kosovars seemed like a quick and dirty way to win over Muslim hearts and minds.   While inflicting murderous sanctions on Iraqis, supporting reactionary Arab governments throughout the region, and writing Israeli governments blank checks to advance the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, a get-out-of-jail-free card like they thought they could get by siding with Muslims in the Balkans was just what the doctor ordered.

However, what they actually got was a fresh supply of zealous jihadis. Had they been better informed about the consequences of their machinations, they would have realized that they were playing with fire. But, when you have many times more weapons than the rest of the world, and an economy that dwarfed Yugoslavia’s many times over, why bother becoming informed?

Reagan’s efforts and the first Bush’s to break down the Vietnam Syndrome were sporadic and inconsistent – indeed, incoherent – but, with the passage of time, the Vietnam Syndrome did fall into America’s capacious memory hole.

Also, by the time that Saddam Hussein moved into Kuwait, Bush and his foreign policy team had become more competent, at least at a tactical level.   They hadn’t become much better informed, however; and their strategic acumen was as flawed as ever. They were able to force the Iraqis out of Kuwait, but then, true to form, they had no idea what to do next.

The Clintons did – sort of. Their idea was to bomb the smithereens out of Iraq and enforce a sanctions regime that, by some accounts, led to the premature deaths of more than half a million men, women and children. Because they did their killing without committing American ground troops, they largely escaped public opprobrium.


In Kosovo, Clinton-style bombing actually seemed (for a while) to have brought on regime change. This gave the stewards of the empire a newfound faith in the efficacy of air power alone.

The Clinton way of war, fine-tuned in Yugoslavia, came down to this: keep the bombs falling, and Americans out of harm’s way.

However, air power alone was plainly not enough to accomplish the “missions” that Dick Cheney and Bush the Younger had in mind for Afghanistan and Iraq. They didn’t change course, however; they just grafted troops on the ground onto the Clinton scheme.

The several “surges” undertaken on the watch of our Nobel laureate President were also cut from the same cloth.   No surprise there: for four long years, Hillary was his Secretary of State and, even after she was gone, her epigones remained.

It was on Obama’s watch too that the generation of Pentagon brass that had just missed Vietnam set out to get “counter-insurgency” right – pouring new wine into the old bottles. The result was predictable: they got it dead wrong, making everything they touched worse.

The outcome would have been worse still, had not Obama been a tad wary of letting the generals have their way. When it comes to waging war, Hillary Clinton is never wary.

Like Jimmy Carter, or Woodrow Wilson, she doesn’t send others off to fight to “make the world safe for democracy” or to end war forever. Her idea, like Madeleine Albright’s, is that war or the threat of war is a tool in the diplomat’s arsenal – useful, more often than not, for assuring that political and economic elites get their way.

In other words, if you’ve got it, use it – flaunt it even; the indispensible nation must remain on top, come what may.

Mistakes will be made, of course; that is inevitable. But, alone among the nations of the earth, America is “exceptional” in the sense that whatever it aims to do is ipso facto good — and beneficial not just for money-grubbing capitalists, but for everyone the world over.

As much as she believes anything, Hillary believes that. Seriously.

We cannot blame the sorry trajectory – from Jimmy Carter to Hillary Clinton– on moral and intellectual decline alone, or on the malign intentions of the two Clintons. If Bacevich is right, as I think he is, the main villains are the cluelessness and ineptitude of our politicians, diplomats and military leaders – every single one of them from Carter on.

With the passage of time, America’s ability to escape the consequences of its leaders’ follies has diminished, just as the cluelessness and ineptitude of those leaders has generally gotten worse.   But with Hillary about to take over, we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.


Hillary is more bellicose than most; and, like Madeleine Albright, more inclined to shoot first and ask questions later. She also has less inclination than most of the others – with the possible exception of some of the neoconservatives that Dick Cheney empowered in the Bush the Younger years – to steer clear of nuclear powers that could and probably would fight back if sufficiently provoked.

These differences could mean life or death, but they are differences of degree, not of kind.

Should we therefore conclude that Hillary is awful in the way that all the others have been – more extreme, perhaps, but not awful in ways that the others were not?

There is no simple answer — because, when conditions are right, a straw can break a camel’s back, and because there is less tolerance nowadays of politicians of the familiar kind than there used to be.

Thanks to forty some years of the same old same old, people around the world are rising up in opposition. The center is holding — in the United States and everywhere else – but only barely. Economic elites may not yet have cause to worry, but the politicians who serve their interests do.

And Hillary does more than most because, more than anyone else of comparable prominence, she embodies all that people are in revolt against.

This is why, on many issues, Donald Trump’s views, as best they can be ascertained, are actually more progressive than hers. Even running against him, she is not unequivocally the lesser evil.

If Trump had any chance at all of winning in November, it might be worthwhile to reflect on that situation and to ponder its implications. But no matter what Hillary wants voters to believe, and no matter what media pundits claim, his chances of beating her – even her! — are practically nil.

Do the math! He has destroyed the Republican Party and alienated prominent rightwing bloviators. And as if that weren’t enough, he is constitutionally incapable of not undermining his own position, just by being the narcissistic buffoon that he is.

Hillary and her people are counting on voters not realizing this until the election is over.   With so many talking heads playing along, they will likely get their way.

Lucky for them too that the consensus view among those who shape public opinion is that the Brexit vote in the UK is a reason for closing ranks behind the Democrats’ presumptive nominee. The argument seems to be that if “it” could happen there, “it” could also happen here. The first “it” refers, of course, to the vote to leave the EU; the second refers to Trump.

It should go without saying that the premises of this argument are flawed. Of course, there were racists and nativists in Britain who voted “leave,” but that was not what the leave vote was mainly about. It was about the EU and therefore about neoliberal globalization and the withering away of what little democracy Britain once enjoyed.

And although Trump plainly has the power to bring out the inner fascist in many elderly white voters, most of his support in the primaries came from people who were justifiably fed up with much the same things as their UK counterparts, not from racists and nativists or fascists.

Most Trump voters used Trump to express their frustrations with politics as usual, just as surely as he used them to bolster his own standing with himself.

Those frustrations are not going to go away any time soon – especially not with Hillary leading the Democratic ticket. But, by the time November comes, it will be painfully clear to all but the most damaged Trump admirers that the alternative he offers is too ludicrous to be taken seriously.

And even if many of the people who voted for the Donald in the primaries remain recalcitrant, no one else will. All those independent “swing” voters we used to hear so much about will fall into line to make sure that he never sees the inside of the Oval Office – unless, of course, his once and future friends, Hillary and Bill, invite him in.

The lesson that ought to be drawn from the Brexit vote is therefore the opposite of the one that has been drawn.   It is not that now is the time to form a united front against a fascist on the rise – a Mussolini wannabe. It is that politicians who promote neoliberal nostrums just don’t cut it anymore.

Hillary will run an awful campaign – she is not even good at that – but she will nevertheless win in November because she will be running against a sure loser.

But then, when voters’ remorse sets in, as it surely will right away, she will find herself reviled.

At that point, the shades of difference that distinguish her from Obama and other like-minded bumblers will be of critical importance. Where they would be inclined to stay away from situations that are bound to turn sour, her inclination, as always, will be to jump in and lash out.

There is probably not a whole lot more harm that she and her co-thinkers – people like Robert Kagan and Victoria Nuland, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Michele Flournoy, Elliot Abrams, Robert Zoellick, Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross — could do to the Greater Middle East, though maybe Benjamin Netanyahu will think of something.

The greater danger will come, though, when Hillary Clinton’s America “pivots” more towards Russia and China.

Obama wanted to turn the bull in the china shop loose there too, but he never got very far. Count on Hillary to do her level best to get farther – in ways that could lead to outcomes too horrible to contemplate.

Therefore, while Hillary may differ only in degree, not in kind, from the devils we know, the ones that have been leading us to ruination since the Jimmy Carter days, those differences can have momentous consequences.

Is our next Commander-in-Chief just garden variety awful or is her awfulness qualitatively worse than anyone else’s? The short answer, for now, is: probably not. But either way, the lesson is plain: worry! And then organize — post-haste!

After 2008, the idea was that Obama would do the right thing, if “the people” made him. It is hard to imagine, in retrospect, that anyone could have taken such nonsense seriously with Obama at the helm.

Now, at least, everybody knows, or ought to know, that there is no chance at all of our next President doing the right thing or indeed much of anything worth doing. Therefore, the task now is more modest, but also more achievable and more urgent: it is to disable the Queen of Chaos, as best we can – before she breaks the whole world, just as surely as George W. Bush and Barack Obama, standing on the shoulders of their clueless and inept predecessors, broke the Greater Middle East.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


Wall Street donors account for 40 percent of super PAC funds in US election


By Barry Grey
4 February 2016

The 2016 US election campaign has exposed deep-seated popular alienation from the entire political establishment and growing anger over the domination of US society and politics by Wall Street. Democratic contender Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, has capitalized on this sentiment by basing his campaign on denunciations of the “billionaire class” and an electoral process dominated by corporate money.

New figures on the funding of so-called “super PACs,” the nominally independent “political action committees” that are the main vehicles for corporate bribery of would-be officer-holders, shed light on the degree to which the political system is controlled by big business in general, and Wall Street in particular.

Statistics compiled from Federal Election Commission reports by the Center for Responsive Politics, an election watchdog group, and the Wall Street Journal show that cash from major banks and investment, real estate and insurance firms accounts for more than $116 million of the $290 million raised thus far in the current election cycle by super PACs and other independent campaign organizations. That amounts to 40 percent of the total.

In the second half of 2015, super PACs backing the various presidential candidates took in $100 million. Of this, $81.2 million came from the financial industry.

The weight of finance capital in funding the campaigns of both Democrats and Republicans has grown by leaps and bounds, particularly since the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling that lifted all limits on corporate campaign donations via super PACs.

In the 2012 election, donations from the financial services sector comprised 20 percent, or $169 million, of the $845 million raised for the entire election cycle by super PACs and other independent campaign groups. Thus, as a share of total super PAC money, financial capital’s role has doubled in this year’s election cycle.

This compares to the “mere” $2.4 million of super PAC money donated by Wall Street in the 2004 election. Already in the 2016 election, the total from banks and financial firms is 70 times the level 12 years ago.

Former President Jimmy Carter felt obliged, in an interview Wednesday on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program, to denounce the US campaign finance system as “legalized bribery.” Carter, who was elected in 1976 and defeated in his reelection bid by Ronald Reagan in 1980, said, “As the rich people finance the campaigns, when candidates get in office they do what the rich people want. And that’s to let the rich people get richer and the middle class get left out.”

A Wall Street Journal article published Sunday provides details on Wall Street funding for various presidential candidates. The super PAC supporting Republican Senator Marco Rubio received over half of its money in the second half of 2015 from financial industry contributors. The two biggest donors were hedge fund billionaires Paul Singer (net worth of $2.1 billion) and Ken Griffin ($6.6 billion), who gave $2.5 million each in the last two months of the year. Hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness and Florida mega-investor Mary Spencer each donated $1 million.

Half of the $5 million raised by the super PAC supporting Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey came from Wall Street, including a $2 million donation in December by hedge fund mogul Steven Cohen (net worth of $11.4 billion) and his wife, who also gave a combined $2 million to the super PAC in the first half of 2015.

The super PAC backing Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas received at least $11 million from billionaire hedge fund founder Robert Mercer and $10 million from private equity firm founder Toby Neugebauer.

The super PAC backing former Florida Governor Jeb Bush raised $10 million of its $15 million for the second half of 2015 from Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of American International Group, the mega-insurance firm that was bailed out by the US government in 2008 to the tune of $182 billion. As of the end of September 2015, half of Bush’s top donors were employed by major financial firms, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Barclays, where Bush previously worked as a consultant making $2 million a year.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is no slouch when it comes to Wall Street bribes. Of the $25 million raised by the super PAC supporting her in the second half of 2015, $15 million came from financiers. Nearly half of that came from billionaire investor George Soros (net worth of $24.5 billion).

Soros gave the pro-Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA Action, $6 million in December, bringing his total in donations to $7 million. Priorities USA Action also received $3 million from entertainment industry investor Haim Saban (worth $3.6 billion) and his wife, who also gave $2 million earlier in the year.

These figures were compiled from incomplete Federal Election Commission filings, as most of the candidates and their associated super PACs had not filed with the FEC as of early Sunday evening. The deadline to do so was midnight Sunday.

The New York Times reported this week that a super PAC associated with the political network of the right-wing Republican Koch brothers (net worth of $44.3 billion each), reported Sunday that it had raised $11 million. The Koch brothers’ umbrella political organization, Freedom Partners, announced Saturday at its annual winter conference in California that it spent $400 million in 2015 to fund political and “philanthropic” organizations. That put the Koch political network at less than half of the two-year spending goal of $1 billion it announced last year.

Among those at the closed-door conference were two supporters of senators Rubio and Cruz, offering their obeisance in the hope of getting cash from the billionaire arch-reactionaries.

Why the Donald’s Dark Allure Goes Deeper Than Racism and Xenophobia

Trump, Sanders and Tribalism 

Behind the hateful rhetoric and paranoid fantasies, Trump conjures up the violent darkness of human history.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD – MARCH 6, 2014: Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Photo Credit: Christopher Halloran /

At some point during the Iran hostage crisis of 1980 – an event that, lest we forget, decisively scuttled the presidency of Jimmy Carter and got Ronald Reagan elected – I remember seeing a hand-painted banner outside a working-class tavern in South Baltimore. Its centerpiece was a caricature of the Ayatollah Khomeini, done in political-cartoon style with an oversized head and undersized body. Iran’s Supreme Leader was bent over with his robe hitched up to his waist, wincing in pain or religious ecstasy as a large bomb with streamlined 1958 Cadillac fins, bearing the atomic symbol and the American flag, was thrust between his buttocks. Beneath this was written, “How long, Mr. President? How long?”

This outsider-art masterwork made a huge impression on me, although I wasn’t sure why at the time and understand it only a little better today. I couldn’t tell you where I was in my adolescent political evolution at that moment: Did I think I was a Marxist or a libertarian or a Democrat? In any event, I couldn’t quite get my head around the multiple layers of hatred and cruelty and infantile viciousness in that image, the way it conjured up genocide and xenophobia and anti-Islamic bigotry and homosexual rape and a tribal revenge fantasy in a few simple brushstrokes.

Many Americans, probably most, felt increasingly demoralized and depressed as the 444-day hostage crisis dragged on, and the failed rescue mission of April 1980 made the world’s supposed military superpower look impotent against a radical student uprising. The Baltimore protest banner cut through that Gordian knot of national gloom with a kind of primitive genius, and could not have evoked Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” more clearly without actually using the phrase “Exterminate all the brutes!” (I use the loaded word “primitive” deliberately, and we’ll get to that.) It expressed a desire that was forbidden and deeply irrational, and because of that it was exciting even if I also thought it was dreadful. I look back on it now and I think: Hello, Donald Trump.

Maybe the guys in that bar who had commissioned and displayed that glorious artifact would have told you that it was basically a joke, ha ha, and they didn’t really want or expect Carter to drop a nuclear bomb on Tehran, killing thousands or millions of civilians along with the Ayatollah and the American hostages, and quite possibly starting World War III in the dumbest imaginable way. (On the other hand, given the “Dr. Strangelove” death wish not far below the surface of American culture, maybe they wouldn’t.) But jokes are funny things, am I right? As Dr. Freud informed us, jokes and dreams are where the action is, in psychological terms – they provide an arena where stuff comes out that isn’t supposed to come out.

You and I and pretty much everybody else in the reality-oriented quadrant of the population treated Trump’s presidential campaign as a joke from Day One, and it’s safe to say the laughter has faded. I remember hearing Mara Liasson, NPR’s national political reporter, assure her listeners in tones of smug gravity that Trump’s best day as a candidate would be his first day. (In fairness, Liasson recently had the decency to eat those words in public.) If Trump’s campaign is a joke, it’s beginning to look like the “killing joke” variously imagined by Monty Python and Alan Moore, the one so funny you laugh yourself to death.

Trying to stop Trump by pointing out, Mara Liasson-style, that everything he says is unreasonable or nonsensical or flat-out false is missing the point entirely. To extend the metaphor, it’s to anoint yourself as another butt of Trump’s grand joke, alongside Jeb Bush and Megyn Kelly and Hillary Clinton and all the other talking heads and pseudo-sincere candidates who have been made to look ridiculous by a maroon-faced billionaire with a comb-over. Trump’s audience is self-evidently and aggressively not interested in truth or reason. His bottomless reservoir of Dionysian, rageaholic bullshit is his greatest strength. That quality may also lead to his defeat, in due course, but not because eggheads with expensive degrees who sit behind desks in New York and Washington say so.

It’s all very well to talk about racism and nativism and the distinctive small-mindedness and paranoia of white America, and those things unmistakably nourished the soil from which the Trumpian flower bloomed. But he is tapping into something that runs much deeper than any of that. There’s a reason the Trump spectacle is mesmerizing the media and dominating public discourse, and why those who find him despicable and disturbing are just as addicted as those who are delighted that someone is speaking for them at last. Trump is like the answered prayer of those South Baltimore boozehounds, made incarnate and blown up to superhuman scale. How long?, those guys plaintively demanded, and even if they’ve all drunk themselves into the next world by now, their sons and grandsons have worse jobs and worse attitudes and at last the wait is over.

Trump expresses the irrational and forbidden desires that more calculating politicians deliberately suppress, and as with my teenage response to that Khomeini cartoon, that feels exciting and dangerous. He channels primitive and incoherent tribal emotions that stretch way back into our species’ history, before America, before modern conceptions of race and nationality, before any of that stuff. He gazes upon us with his dreadful, melted countenance, looking like a Play-Doh replica of JFK blown up in the microwave by a malicious child, assuring us in half-bullying, half-benevolent tones that, sure, America is a great country founded on important values and stuff.

But beneath that pablum lies a knowing wink, and beneath that wink lies the understanding that the most important American value is the one-in-a-million shot (putting it very generously) that we might wind up half as rich and half as vulgar as Donald Trump. Even if we never get to ride in that helicopter — since we are not quite dumb enough to believe that will really happen — we take solace in another layer of hidden, shamanic meaning beneath the Trumpian wink and the Trumpian bamboozle. We thrill at our secret shared understanding that the veneer of civilization, with its “political correctness” and its insistence on facts and reason and the logic of causes and consequences, is basically a scam and that the true nature of human existence is about jamming a nuke up somebody’s ass every so often. And we’ve gotten soft and out of practice!

Stepping back from the thoroughly insane dynamics of the 2016 presidential campaign to this point, the larger philosophical problem posed by Trump is that it’s no good pretending that none of that has any validity or resonance. Nothing he ever says about specific issues makes any sense, but as Paul Solotaroff’s fascinating profile in Rolling Stone makes clear, Trump’s campaign is not about issues or specifics or making sense. He doesn’t even pretend to be a normal presidential candidate armed with a vaguely coherent set of policy proposals and a supposedly consistent ideology, largely because we’ve all realized that those candidates are full of crap anyway.

Trump represents something else. Call it the call of the wild, the allure of that long era of cruelty and brutality that preceded recorded history and human civilization, when the weak were ruled by the strong and little or no justification was required to inflict terror and violence on our perceived enemies. Anthropologists may dispute the proposition that this was universally true everywhere in the world, but however you slice it an awful lot of trauma and bloodshed was implicated in the nasty, brutish and short lives of our distant ancestors. More to the point, we all have moments when we wonder how much that has really changed after a few millennia of despotism and a few hundred years of high-minded Enlightenment thinking about human rights and democracy, applied with a notable lack of consistency.

What Trump understands, and may genuinely identify with, is the sense of embattled tribal identity found among too many white Americans of the 21st century, the belief that they are “living in a state of war in a small community, the existence of which is continually threatened, and the morality of which is the strictest possible.” What is the highest form of enjoyment to be found in such a community, “for souls which are vigorous, vindictive, malicious, full of suspicion, ready to face the direst events, hardened by privation and morality?” It is “the enjoyment of cruelty,” as Friedrich Nietzsche put it in 1881. “Such a community would find its delight in performing cruel deeds, casting aside, for once, the gloom of constant anxiety and precaution.”

That pretty much covers it, right? Nietzsche was actually writing about primitive human society before it had been afflicted or transformed by Christian morality. But he would be amused and not altogether surprised to learn that we have come out the other side of that process, and that the nation that pronounces itself the world’s arbiter of democracy and human rights has fallen to its knees before a third-rate imitation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria who promises to bring us back to the old gods and the old truths. “Nothing has been more dearly bought,” Nietzsche writes later in the same section of “Daybreak” (also translated as “Dawn”), “than the minute portion of human reason and feeling of liberty upon which we now pride ourselves.”

That unjustified pride in our superior moral status, Nietzsche continues, prevents us from observing that the long period before the beginning of “world history” was ”the real and decisive epoch that established the character of mankind: an epoch when suffering was considered as a virtue, cruelty as a virtue, hypocrisy as a virtue, revenge as a virtue, and the denial of the reason as a virtue, whereas, on the other hand, well-being was regarded as a danger, longing for knowledge as a danger, peace as a danger, compassion as a danger: an epoch when being pitied was looked upon as an insult … and every kind of change as immoral and pregnant with ruin! You imagine that all this has changed, and that humanity must likewise have changed its character?” (Italics are in the original. I’m using the 1911 translation by John McFarland Kennedy, which is a little old-fashioned but admirably clear, and easily available in the public domain.)

That list of deliberately perverse virtues and values was meant to shock the enlightened German reader of the 1880s, committed to the upward narrative of human progress. In the wake of what happened in Nietzsche’s homeland and numerous other places over the ensuing five to seven decades, his concluding question takes on a darker character. Even Donald Trump would not come right out in 2015 and say that he’s in favor of cruelty and hypocrisy and the denial of reason, but he doesn’t have to. He demonstrates his devotion to those virtues with every second of every public appearance, every hateful comment directed at women who presume to challenge him, every poisonous calumny about the immigrants who do the worst jobs in our society for the lowest wages (and pay taxes for which they receive no benefits), and every preening pronouncement that he plans to exert power and authority well beyond that allotted to the president by the Constitution, or that he possesses a magical solution for some nonexistent problem but won’t tell us what it is.

If we turn the Trump phenomenon around and gaze at it in the mirror, the reflection we see bears a resemblance to Bernie Sanders, the other populist insurgent of 2015 to channel widespread discontent with bipartisan politics. Sanders and Trump are thematically connected in that respect, you might say, and they have jointly performed an enormous public service by injecting unexpected energy into what seemed likely to be a monumentally boring presidential campaign and by sowing terror in the hearts of the string-pullers and bankrollers behind both major parties.

I argued early this summer that there were important similarities between Trump and Sanders, and that has become such a tenet of journalistic wisdom that it now demands some ideological pushback. When it comes to political philosophy and their implicit relationship to human history, Sanders and Trump are almost negative images of each other, so much so as to represent alternative and perhaps impossible pathways for the human future. If Trump stands for the orgiastic embrace of atavism and a wholesale rejection of the Age of Reason, Sanders embodies that pride or overconfidence in Enlightenment thinking and “the minute portion of human reason” that Nietzsche warned might blind us to the darkness in human nature. Trump is all about performance and evil charisma and paranoid fantasies that we can only hope will never come to pass. Sanders’ appeal lies in his lack of artifice, his rumpled, cantankerous anti-charisma and his thoroughly rational program of radical policy realignment that will in all probability (and however regrettably) never come to pass.

I swear on the graves of our forgotten ancestors that I was not about to tell you that Hillary Clinton is the happy medium between those extremes. If anything, Clinton’s 2016 problem is that she appears bereft of all the above-mentioned qualities. She cannot present herself as the fist of tribal cruelty (nor would she want to, even in her most extreme moments of strategic triangulation), but after her long career of compromise and calculation she doesn’t much resemble a beacon of Enlightenment idealism either. She is supposed to be the voice of common sense and the force who gets things done, and she now faces with a public that suspects, not without justification, that common sense is useless and that nothing ever gets done. (As Clinton no doubt tells herself every time she turns on the TV, at least she’s not Jeb Bush, playing the role of chubby kid to Trump’s playground bully.)

As to whether my barroom buddies in South Baltimore were joking about nuking Iran: It’s not the right question. Is Trump “joking” when he claims that Mexico is deliberately shipping murderers and rapists across the border, or that once in the White House and endowed with mysterious special powers, he will round up and deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants? You should never sell short on the ignorance and self-delusion of the American public, but even in the Trump demographic many people must halfway grasp that the first of those things is not true and the second is not possible, at least not without transforming the entire country into a police state. Like the juvenile fantasy of buggering the Ayatollah with the Bomb, those are not facts or proposals or ideas but forbidden desires that can be spoken aloud at last by the Trumpian fireside, tribal invocations meant to connect us to the long and thrilling history of human cruelty and rally us for the great deeds ahead.


Andrew O’Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.

War is the new normal: 7 reasons America can’t escape conflict

No sooner do we withdraw from one Middle Eastern country than we reengage another. It’s a cycle we refuse to break

War is the new normal: 7 reasons America can't escape conflict
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

It was launched immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when I was still in the military, and almost immediately became known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT.  Pentagon insiders called it “the long war,” an open-ended, perhaps unending, conflict against nations and terror networks mainly of a radical Islamist bent.  It saw the revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, buried in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam, and a reinterpretation of that disaster as well.  Over the years, its chief characteristic became ever clearer: a “Groundhog Day” kind of repetition.  Just when you thought it was over (IraqAfghanistan), just after victory (of a sort) was declared, it began again.

Now, as we find ourselves enmeshed in Iraq War 3.0, what better way to memorialize the post-9/11 American way of war than through repetition.  Back in July 2010, I wrote an article for TomDispatch on the seven reasons why America can’t stop making war.  More than four years later, with the war on terror still ongoing, with the mission eternally unaccomplished, here’s a fresh take on the top seven reasons why never-ending war is the new normal in America.  In this sequel, I make only one promise: no declarations of victory (and mark it on your calendars, I’m planning to be back with seven new reasons in 2019).

1.  The privatization of war: The U.S. military’s recourse to private contractors has strengthened the profit motive for war-making and prolonged wars as well.  Unlike the citizen-soldiers of past eras, the mobilized warrior corporations of America’s new mercenary moment — the Halliburton/KBRs (nearly $40 billion in contracts for the Iraq War alone), the DynCorps ($4.1 billion to train 150,000 Iraqi police), and the Blackwater/Xe/Academis ($1.3 billion in Iraq, along with boatloads of controversy) — have no incentive to demobilize.  Like most corporations, their business model is based on profit through growth, and growth is most rapid when wars and preparations for more of them are the favored options in Washington.

Freedom isn’t free,” as a popular conservative bumper sticker puts it, and neither is war.  My father liked the saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” and today’s mercenary corporations have been calling for a lot of military marches piping in $138 billion in contracts for Iraq alone, according to the Financial Times.  And if you think that the privatization of war must at least reduce government waste, think again: the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated in 2011 that fraud, waste, and abuse accounted for up to $60 billion of the money spent in Iraq alone.

To corral American-style war, the mercenaries must be defanged or deflated.  European rulers learned this the hard way during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century.  At that time, powerful mercenary captains like Albrecht von Wallenstein ran amok.  Only Wallenstein’s assassination and the assertion of near absolutist powers by monarchs bent on curbing war before they went bankrupt finally brought the mercenaries to heel, a victory as hard won as it was essential to Europe’s survival and eventual expansion.  (Europeans then exported their wars to foreign shores, but that’s another story.)

2.  The embrace of the national security state by both major parties: Jimmy Carter was the last president to attempt to exercise any kind of control over the national security state.  A former Navy nuclear engineer who had served under the demanding Admiral Hyman Rickover, Carter cancelled the B-1 bomber and fought for a U.S. foreign policy based on human rights.  Widely pilloried for talking about nuclear war with his young daughter Amy, Carter was further attacked for being “weak” on defense.  His defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 inaugurated 12 years of dominance by Republican presidents that opened the financial floodgates for the Department of Defense.  That taught Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council a lesson when it came to the wisdom of wrapping the national security state in a welcoming embrace, which they did, however uncomfortably.  This expedient turn to the right by the Democrats in the Clinton years served as a temporary booster shot when it came to charges of being “soft” on defense — until Republicans upped the ante by going “all-in” on military crusades in the aftermath of 9/11.

Since his election in 2008, Barack Obama has done little to alter the course set by his predecessors.  He, too, has chosen not to challenge Washington’s prevailing catechism of war.  Republicans have responded, however, not by muting their criticism, but by upping the ante yet again.  How else to explain House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March?  That address promises to be a pep talk for the Republicans, as well as a smack down of the Obama administration and its “appeasenik” policies toward Iran and Islamic radicalism.

Serious oversight, let alone opposition to the national security state by Congress or a mainstream political party, has been missing in action for years and must now, in the wake of the Senate Torture Report fiasco (from which the CIAemerged stronger, not weaker), be presumed dead.  The recent midterm election triumph of Republican war hawks and the prospective lineup of candidates for president in 2016 does not bode well when it comes to reining in the national security state in any foreseeable future.

3.  “Support Our Troops” as a substitute for thought. You’ve seen them everywhere: “Support Our Troops” stickers.  In fact, the “support” in that slogan generally means acquiescence when it comes to American-style war.  The truth is that we’ve turned the all-volunteer military into something like aforeign legion, deploying it again and again to our distant battle zones and driving it into the ground in wars that amount to strategic folly.  Instead of admitting their mistakes, America’s leaders have worked to obscure them by endlessly overpraising our “warriors” as so many universal heroes.  This may salve our collective national conscience, but it’s a form of cheap grace that saves no lives — and wins no wars.

Instead, this country needs to listen more carefully to its troops, especially the war critics who have risked their lives while fighting overseas.  Organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace are good places to start.

4.  Fighting a redacted war.  War, like the recent Senate torture report, is redacted in America.  Its horrors and mistakes are suppressed, its patriotic whistleblowers punished, even as the American people are kept in a demobilized state.  The act of going to war no longer represents the will of the people, as represented by formal Congressional declarations of war as the U.S. Constitution demands.  Instead, in these years, Americans were told togo to Disney World (as George W. Bush suggested in the wake of 9/11) and keep shopping.  They’re encouraged not to pay too much attention to war’s casualties and costs, especially when those costs involve foreigners with funny-sounding names (after all, they are, as American sniper Chris Kyle so indelicately put it in his book, just “savages”).

Redacted war hides the true cost of a permanent state of killing from the American people, if not from foreign observers. Ignorance and apathy reign, even as a national security state that is essentially a shadow governmentequates its growth with your safety.

5.  Threat inflation: There’s nothing new about threat inflation.  We saw plenty of it during the Cold War (nonexistent missile and bomber gaps, for example).  Fear sells and we’ve had quite a dose of it in the twenty-first century, from ISIS to Ebola.  But a more important truth is that fear is a mind-killer, a debate-stifler.

Back in September, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham warned that ISIS and its radical Islamic army was coming to America to kill us all.  ISIS, of course, is a regional power with no ability to mount significant operations against the United States.  But fear is so commonplace, so effectively stoked in this country that Americans routinely and wildly exaggerate the threat posed by al-Qaeda or ISIS or the bogeyman du jour.

Decades ago, as a young lieutenant in the Air Force, I was hunkered down in Cheyenne Mountain during the Cold War.  It was the ultimate citadel-cum-bomb-shelter, and those in it were believed to have a 70% likelihood of surviving a five-megaton nuclear blast.  There, not surprisingly, I found myself contemplating the very real possibility of a thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, a war that would have annihilated life as we knew it, indeed much of life on our planet thanks to the phenomenon of nuclear winter.  You’ll excuse me for not shaking in my boots at the threat of ISIS coming to get me.  Or of Sharia Law coming to my local town hall.  With respect to such fears, America needs, as Hillary Clinton said in an admittedly different context, to “grow a pair.”

6.  Defining the world as a global battlefield: In fortress America, all realms have by now become battle spheres.  Not only much of the planet, the seas, air, and space, as well as the country’s borders and its increasingly up-armored police forces, but the world of thought, the insides of our minds. Think of the 17 intertwined intelligence outfits in “the U.S. Intelligence Community” and their ongoing “surge” for information dominance across every mode of human communication, as well as the surveillance of everything.  And don’t forget the national security state’s leading role in making cyberwar a reality. (Indeed, Washington launched the first cyberwar in history by deploying the Stuxnet computer worm against Iran.)

Think of all this as a global matrix that rests on war, empowering disaster capitalism and the corporate complexes that have formed around the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and that intelligence community. A militarized matrix doesn’t blink at $1.45 trillion dollars devoted to the F-35, a single under-performing jet fighter, nor at projections of $355 billion over the next decade for “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear arsenal, weapons that Barack Obama vowed to abolish in 2009.

7.  The new “normal” in America is war: The 9/11 attacks happened more than 13 years ago, which means that no teenagers in America can truly remember a time when the country was at peace.  ”War time” is their normal; peace, a fairy tale.

What’s truly “exceptional” in twenty-first-century America is any articulated vision of what a land at peace with itself and other nations might be like.  Instead, war, backed by a diet of fear, is the backdrop against which the young have grown to adulthood.  It’s the background noise of their world, so much a part of their lives that they hardly recognize it for what it is.  And that’s the most insidious danger of them all.

How do we inoculate our children against such a permanent state of war and the war state itself?  I have one simple suggestion: just stop it.  All of it.  Stop making war a never-ending part of our lives and stop celebrating it, too.  War should be the realm of the extreme, of the abnormal.  It should be the death of normalcy, not the dreary norm.

It’s never too soon, America, to enlist in that good fight!

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel. He has taught cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, officers at the Naval Postgraduate School, and currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology. He is the author of “Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism,” among other books. He may be reached at


Democrats vs. the New Deal: The party is now firmly anti-New Deal

Who really runs the party — and why it might surprise you

Democrats vs. the New Deal: Who <em>really</em> runs the party -- and why it might surprise you

In the aftermath of the shellacking they took in the midterm congressional and state elections, many Democrats are calling for their party to return to its New Deal roots.

This is inadvertently comical.  The present-day Democratic Party has next to nothing to do with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  Today’s Democratic Party is a completely different party, which coalesced between 1968 and 1980.  And this half-century-old party has been anti-New Deal from the very beginning.

Now that I have your attention, allow me to explain.

While there have been two parties called “the Democrats” and “the Republicans” since the mid-19th century, these enduring labels mask the fact that party coalitions change every generation or two.  Franklin Roosevelt created a new party under the old name of “the Democrats” by welding ex-Republican Progressives in the North together with the old Jacksonian Farmer-Labor coalition.  The contentious issue of civil rights nearly destroyed the Roosevelt Democrats in 1948 — and finally wrecked it in 1968, when George Wallace’s third party campaign proved to be a way-station for many working-class whites en route from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Today’s Democratic Party, in contrast, took shape between 1968 and 1980.  Although George McGovern lost the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon in a landslide, the McGovernites of the “New Politics” movement wrested control of the Democratic Party from the old state politicians and urban bosses of the Roosevelt-to-Johnson New Deal coalition.  Robert Kennedy’s aide Fred Dutton, one of the architects of the disempowerment of the old New Deal elite, called for a new coalition of young people, college-educated suburbanites and minorities in his 1971 book “Changing Sources of Power: Politics in the 1970s.”  Sound familiar?  That’s because, nearly half a century later, the same groups are the core constituents of today’s Democrats.

Jimmy Carter was the first New Politics president (or New Democrat or neoliberal, as they were later called).  He was a center-right Southern governor who ran against big government and touted his credentials as a rich businessman.  He did not get along with organized labor, one of the key constituencies of the Roosevelt Democrats.  His major domestic policy achievement was dismantling New Deal regulation of transportation like trucking and air travel.  He appointed a Federal Reserve chairman from Wall Street, Paul Volcker, who created an artificial recession, the worst between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, to cripple American unions, whose wage demands were blamed for inflation.

Even before Carter’s election, the Democratic “class of ’74” in Congress wrested power from the old largely Southern politicians of the New Deal era. The  northern Irish Catholic-Southern alliance, symbolized by House Speakers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright, gave way among congressional Democrats to a new Northeastern-West Coast domination, beginning with Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, of the state of Washington.  Many of these younger Democrats were deficit hawks, like Bill Bradley of New York and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.  Democrats like these supported the 1983 Social Security “reform,” which cut Social Security benefits by raising the formal retirement age from 65 to 67.  In his 1984 presidential campaign, Carter’s former vice-president, Fritz Mondale, made deficit reduction his central issue.

Bill Clinton had worked for McGovern’s campaign in 1972.  A center-right Southern governor like Carter, he too combined moderate economic conservatism with social liberalism.  Like Carter, Clinton attacked a major New Deal program, teaming up with the Republicans in Congress to abolish a New Deal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and replacing it with what conservatives wanted: federal grants to state-based programs.  Clinton made deficit reduction rather than public investment central to his presidency. Clinton also supported the dismantling of New Deal regulations of the financial sector, completing the dismantling of the New Deal in the economy that Carter had begun.  In the 1994 midterms, many of the remaining Southern “blue dog” Democrats were replaced by Republicans, shifting the regional base of the party even more to the former liberal Republican states of the Northeast and West Coast.

Barack Obama is the third New Politics Democrat in the White House, following Carter and Clinton.  His base is the Fred Dutton constituency — young people, some college-educated whites, and blacks and Latinos.  Like Carter and Clinton, he went after a major New Deal program — the most iconic of them all, Social Security.  Obama proposed cutting Social Security by means of inflation adjustments or “chained CPI” as part of a “grand  bargain” with Republican conservatives.  He backed off only after a rebellion from what remains of the Democratic left.  Those who call him an “Eisenhower Democrat” recognize that he is closer in outlook to penny-pinching, dovish mid-20th century liberal Republicanism than to “guns and butter” Rooseveltian liberalism.

The New Politics Democrats, in class terms, are an “hourglass party,” uniting the disproportionately nonwhite working poor with affluent whites who are drawn to the Democrats by non-economic issues like environmentalism and feminism and gay rights, not the bread-and-butter issues of the older Rooseveltian New Dealers.  While the New Dealers preferred universal jobs programs and universal social programs like Social Security and Medicare to means-tested “welfare,” all of the social insurance programs pushed by the New Politics Democrats since the 1970s — SCHIP, the earned income tax credit, Obamacare — have been means-tested welfare programs targeted at the working poor, not at the better-paid but still struggling working class or middle class.

The policies of the New Politics Democrats are frequently the exact opposite of those of the old New Deal Democrats.  Here are a few examples:

Foreign policy.  The New Deal Democrats were more hawkish than mid-century Republicans. New Politics Democrats, from McGovern to the present, have been more dovish than post-Reagan Republicans.  Even the hawks in the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s distanced themselves from the greatest New Deal presidents — FDR and his protégé LBJ.  Instead, they tried to rehabilitate Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.  Because of Vietnam, the erasure of LBJ by embittered antiwar baby boomers is understandable.  But didn’t FDR win World War II, while Truman’s Korean policy was a bloody debacle?  It is bizarre that partisan Democrats created the Truman National Security Project instead of a Roosevelt National Security Project.

Civil rights.  The liberal rather than radical proponents of desegregation in the mid-20th century, like Bayard Rustin and Hubert Humphrey, favored race-neutral remedies, instead of race-based affirmative action (Martin Luther King Jr. was ambiguous).  Today any Democrat who questioned race-based affirmative action — including preferential policies for Latinos who arrived following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — would be ostracized.

Immigration.  To protect the working class from wage-lowering immigrant competition, the New Deal Democrats abolished the Bracero program (a Mexican guest-worker program).  The Hesburgh and Jordan commissions, appointed by President Carter and President Clinton, respectively, reflected this older pro-labor emphasis by calling for reductions in low-wage immigration.  Today’s orthodox Democratic position favors not only an amnesty for undocumented immigrants already here, but also more legal immigration and fewer penalties for “illegal” immigration.  This was, and still is, the position of Republican business elites, who want to use immigration policy to create a buyer’s market in labor.

The white working class.  The loss of the white working class to the Democrats is hardly a new development. It goes back to George Wallace in 1968. Every decade since then there has been a debate in the New Politics party about whether to try to get the white working class back.

You get the point. Today’s Democrats have no more in common with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson than today’s Republicans have in common with Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower.  From its origins in the 1970s to the present, the contemporary Democratic Party has had deficit reduction, cutbacks of New Deal-era entitlements and regulations and identity politics in its DNA. This is a party that is not only post-New Deal but in many ways anti-New Deal. It was born that way.

If I am right, the New Politics party, as the most recent party to use the Democratic label, is between 40 and 50 years old.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the steam had pretty much gone out of the New Deal Democrats, many of whose young idealists had aged into corrupt hacks. Today it is the New Politics Democrats who are running on fumes.  The neoliberal combination of center-right economics, deficit reduction at the expense of middle-class entitlements, and means-tested small-bore welfare programs for the working poor is tired and uninspiring.

For their part, the Republicans can’t go on for much longer trying to revive the imagined glories of the Reagan presidency in the 1980s.

Real change may not come in 2016, or even in 2020.  But no party system lasts forever. The Great Recession failed to shake up the New Politics-Movement Conservative dichotomy that has held since the 1980s. But maybe at some point sheer boredom will succeed.