Ed, over at Gin and Tacos, blogs eloquently about politics and culture, but last week he was foundering, because he'd set himself the task of thinking about solutions rather than critiques.
It was jarring to realize that for all the time spent pointing out what's wrong with the political process, economic system, and society as a whole, I have next to nothing to offer as a solution. I don't even know where we could plausibly start fixing this mess . . . Maybe being forced to admit that we don't have any answers makes us feel like the designated mourners for a society that kills another piece of itself every day.
I know that feeling. I don't know how to go about solving what's ailing the US, but I do have some opinions on what the prerequisites for change are. There are two political-cultural dynamics that cripple this country's ability to meet its growing challenges (including climate change, energy decline, end of empire, an unsustainable food system, economic contraction, loss of community, etc). The first dynamic is political corruption and the second is the destruction of civilian policing carried through by the "wars" on drugs and terrorism.
The pre-eminent obstacle to solving anything is political corruption. In a functional democracy, officials are elected or hired to work for the public good as that is understood by some subsection of the electorate. It used to be that special interests had to co-exist with (or parasitize) the public interest, but that is no longer the case. Instead we have a thoroughly corrupted system where the electorate has been sidelined and excluded from the true political economy of the country -- where the public good and public opinion figures little, if at all, in the decision-making and priority-setting of government.
Because the wealthy individuals, corporations and industries that vie for control over government are nearly all heavily invested in the status quo, they ensure that we cannot aggressively undertake any of the changes of direction that our country needs in order to survive, much less thrive.
What seems to set this era apart is that all the usual levers for reform have been removed. The problem can't be tackled through the law, because all the important corruption today is perfectly legal. It cannot be about shaming officials or policing ethics, since the culture of government accepts this corruption as perfectly normal and inevitable and ethical. In fact, the courts propound the idea that using wealth to influence politics is "free speech", a right protected by the Constitution. The traditional watchdog, the media, has not only been domesticated through corporate ownership and consolidation, but is one of the main beneficiaries of the vast sums of money coursing through the political system. (TV alone will soak up $2.5 billion dollars this election.) And not coincidentally, even as public education has been gradually starved of funding and morale, scientists, critics, and public intellectuals have been systematically rendered invisible and irrelevant to what passes for public culture and discourse. Even if the mass media weren't busy confusing and misleading people, the problem wouldn't be remedied by normal elections, because corruption has become thoroughly bi-partisan (even if partisans in either camp view the other side as (even more) corrupt than their own).
In effect, only when political influence resides in the votes of citizens rather than the dollars of wealthy donors will we have any hope of returning to a democratic system. (While it's true that a democratic system is no guarantee that we will turn to solving our problems, it gives us a better chance than the current destructive stranglehold.)
There is another relevant collection of levers that can be used for reform, of course, and these include dissent, civil disobedience, popular discontent and unrest. That brings me directly to the second obstacle for true change -- the destruction of civilian policing, and its dramatic replacement with militarized security institutions armed and empowered by the war on drugs and fear-mongering about terrorism.
I'll outline what I mean by that in a subsequent post.