By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Not long after America was born as a libertarian democracy, the Civil War exploded that libertarian ideal and ushered in American plutocracy. The Great Depression and World War II then intervened with 20 years of dysfunction before America’s plutocracy was restored. Were it not for the pandemic, after 2016 America could well have evolved into a Trumpian kleptocracy.
The pandemic has blown the cover of Trump and his crony capitalist kleptocrats, but it’s still uncertain what American democracy will look like after the pandemic. The November elections will give us a preview. If the Democrats win, the crony capitalists on Wall Street will run for cover. American capitalism will once again be regulated, if not reinvented.
Capitalism has long been an integral part of American political culture based on its innovation and competition that has balanced the natural greed of capitalists. But since the 1990s, economic and political power has been concentrated on Wall Street, with competition reduced by mega-mergers. Increasing disparities in wealth now threaten economic justice.
The pandemic has revealed a dysfunctional economy supported by Federal Reserve and Congressional interventions that began in 2008 to save mega-corporations that were “too big to fail.” Public subsidies have protected Wall Street and Silicon Valley from economic failure since then, and the pandemic has increased those public subsidies for mega-corporations.
Since 2008 public subsidies have favored Wall Street over Main Street. In downturns small businesses have failed while mega-corporations have been protected from failure with unlimited assistance from the Fed and a benevolent Congress beholden to their patrons on Wall Street. America has been evolving into a nascent kleptocracy based on crony capitalism.
The pandemic was the triggering event that turned an economic downturn into an economic disaster, with unemployment levels not seen since the Depression. America was a decadent and divided nation before COVID-19 struck, and after staying at home so long Americans may have forgotten just how decadent and divided they were before the pandemic.
Ross Douthat’s latest book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, was published before the pandemic. Walter McDougall has noted that Douthat hoped America’s decadence and division would resolve itself into a renaissance rather than a revolution; but McDougall isn’t so sure about sharing Douthat’s optimism.
Whatever comes next remains a mystery, but American democracy will be different after the pandemic--just as it was after the Civil War and World War II. Will America experience a renaissance and be reborn as a revitalized libertarian democracy, resume as the plutocracy it was before 2016, or will it evolve into Trump’s image of an American kleptocracy?
A plutocracy is a society that is ruled or controlled by people of great wealth or income. See
A kleptocracy is a government with corrupt leaders (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political powers. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kleptocracy.
Walter A. McDougall has noted, “Douthat describes the symptoms of our national decadence in four pithy chapters. The first symptom is economic stagnation resulting from the demographic aging of the population, runaway national debt, the collapse of educational standards, and the surprising loss of American technological dynamism. The second is sterility resulting from the natural drop in the birthrate of a wealthy information-age society, but also from feminism, abortion, divorce, the decline of marriage, and the soaring cost of child-rearing. The third is sclerosis most obviously displayed in the paralysis of a gridlocked government that used to win world wars but today cannot even pass a normal budget. The fourth symptom is repetition, being a lazy lack of creativity reflected in Hollywood’s habit of making “remakes of remakes.”
McDougall recommends readers to pair Douthat’s The Decadent Society with James Kurth’s new book The American Way of Empire: How America Won a World—But Lost Her Way. “Among much else, Kurth describes the “preferred domestic public policies” as well as the foreign policies of three American plutocracies. The first rose to power in the 1880s and 1890s on the strength of industrial sectors such as coal, steel, railroads, and oil. Its captains of industry, or “robber barons,” wanted a political system that seemed bracingly democratic, but in fact ensured that both political parties would do their bidding by supporting the gold standard, protective tariffs, a big navy, and foreign markets through the “Open Door” policy. The second American plutocracy that arose in the 1920s and 1930s was split between industry and the financial sector which rose like a rocket during and after the Great War. Wall Street favored free trade and internationalism and thus quarreled with the industrialists of the Middle West. When the Great Depression hit both were hurt badly, but did not succumb to populist or leftist movements thanks to Franklin Roosevelt, World War II, and Harry Truman.
The third American plutocracy is dominated by the financial sector, which hollowed out American industry, not only by promoting free trade overseas, but by promoting multinational corporations after 1960 and globalization after 1990. So we have our plutocracy to thank for the Rust Belt with its abandoned working class. The most scandalous proof of its power to manipulate public policy is Washington’s response to the Great Recession caused by the greed of the financial sector beginning in 2008. Nearly all the “too big to fail” financial institutions were awarded generous bailouts funded by ordinary taxpayers or else tacked onto the national debt (which doubled under George W. Bush and doubled again under Barack Obama).
...Meanwhile, the new billionaires of the tech industry—who were already “woke”—not only joined the plutocracy but contributed to it the means to anesthetize the “deplorables” in the hinterland. Not that the founders of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and the rest of those veritable sovereignties intended to exercise dystopian social control but, having done so, are not about to let go of their algorithms.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, what may happen next is a mystery. But Douthat thinks a radical revolution in the United States is extremely unlikely given that its population is much richer and older than those of say, late Imperial Russia or Weimar Germany, and is atomized and tranquilized by the internet. Instead, he hopes for a renaissance inspired, perhaps, by simultaneous scientific and religious revivals, because “there can also be a mysterious alchemy between the two forms of human exploration. And nothing will be a surer sign that decadence has ended in something like a renaissance than if that alchemy suddenly returns.”
In How the Irish Saved Civilization, his little classic on the so-called Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire, Thomas Cahill quotes cultural historian Kenneth Clark to the effect that “Civilization requires confidence—confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers…. Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilizations—or civilizing epochs—have had a weight of energy behind them.” Can Americans recover that confidence and display that energy after this emergency has passed? Will a critical mass of them come to realize (as Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) that the decadence of a technological civilization lies in its worship of Quantity over Quality?
I believe we shall know that postmodern America has begun to exit La Décadence only when her people embrace faith, hope, and charity, and begin to create beauty again.” See
Robin Wright has asked: Is America’s ‘one nation indivisible’ being killed off by the coronavirus? “The existential but conflicting issues spawned by the pandemic—the right to life and physical health versus the right to liberty and economic health—have provided the perfect vector for new fissures in America. The gun-toting protesters may be a minority, but polls show that the President’s positions on the role of the state during the pandemic have solid public backing. In the midst of Trump’s skirmish with Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, his job-approval rating soared by six points, to forty-nine per cent, according to a new Gallup poll released on Thursday. It tied for Trump’s personal best in Gallup’s polling data. Forty-seven per cent disapprove. America is a country evenly and bitterly divided. But Americans should remember, ...“there won’t be any blue or red rooms in heaven.” See