Mr. Greider is a hopeful man. Although he believes the United States is in deep trouble, “deeper than many people suppose and the authorities want to acknowledge,” he also believes the country is on the cusp of a second populist uprising, which will force elites to confront the perils of globalism, militarism, economic inequality, ecological crisis, and debt. He admits that his friends regard his optimism as “delusional.” The reader may be forgiven for drawing the same conclusion after studying his persuasive argument for national decline and democratic corruption.
Consider his major theme: “Come home, America. Instead of trying to run the world, let us tend our own wounded society.” The advice is sound, but his expectation that “the people” will demand it be done is not. There is no evidence whatsoever for such an isolationist revival, but rather than deal with what that means, Greider retreats into bombastic self-assertion: “I reject the notion that the United States has evolved into an imperial state, that it is no longer a democracy.” Yet is not a country (and here I paraphrase Greider) that neglects its own interests in order to run the world an empire by definition?
If we are what we are, then we have a problem—actually two. First, we cannot afford global domination. As Greider points out, “the U.S. economic engine is running on empty, borrowing vast sums of capital from abroad every year,” and “the nation as a whole is sliding into dangerous debtor’s dependency.” The twin deficits of the 1980’s (trade and budget) have never gone away; in fact, they are worse than ever. For fiscal year 2009, the federal-budget deficit will surpass one trillion dollars, and it is expected to be as large in 2010. The country continues to pile debt upon debt. Unlike Obama, Greider realizes that we cannot continue to maintain global constabulary forces, wage multiple wars, and engage in nation-building, while simultaneously spending billions at home rebuilding and modernizing our transportation networks, developing new energy sources, and reviving our manufacturing base. We have to choose, but Americans don’t like that. This points to a problem of national character that Greider does not see.
What imperial state in history has ever relinquished its empire as a matter of free choice, instead of being forced to do so by some combination of catastrophic military defeat, demographic exhaustion, and financial collapse? As long as foreigners continue to buy our treasuries, the imperial game will go on. Richard Holbrooke has declared that a stable and democratic Pakistan is vital to U.S. national security; Hillary Clinton, that promoting democracy is a major aim of U.S. foreign policy; and Bob Gates, that failure in Afghanistan (meaning getting out of there) is not an option. So much for change we can believe in.
Greider dedicates his book to Lawrence Goodwyn, the historian of populism. Greider himself is descended on his mother’s side from Scots-Irish farmers in western Pennsylvania. He is one of those rare reporters who has not been captured by his sources (i.e., corrupted by his proximity to power and money), and he has written about those issues that have always concerned populists: overseas military adventures, banking and the money supply, trade and tariffs, and democratic procedures. His 1989 best seller, Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country, is selling again. His Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy (1992) details the betrayal of the American middle class by a plutocratic elite. In One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (1997), Greider explains how the fraud of “free trade” is driving down wages and driving out manufacturing. Here is a reversal. In the past, populists, being mostly farmers, benefited from low tariffs; today, being salaried workers, they require protection from the Darwinian “race to the bottom,” the unceasing search by corporations for a cheaper market in labor.
Greider blames NAFTA but also the Federal Reserve, accusing it of “targeting the wages of working people.” But he never explains how it is doing that. He says it “hardened the value of money and wealth” and inflated the value of financial assets (stocks, bonds, real estate), apparently unaware that it cannot do both. On the contrary, the Fed’s policy has been to soften (inflate) the dollar by pushing interest rates down and flooding the market with liquidity. A more plausible explanation for falling salaries and wages is immigration, both legal and illegal, which coincides exactly with the trend and, for that reason, is backed by both the managerial and rentier classes. A recent study (reported only by Lou Dobbs) concludes that the H-1B guest-worker program has driven down the annual salaries for highly educated workers in the technology sector by six percent.
In 1982, the average wage for a full-time American worker was $34,199 (in 2006 dollars); 20 years later, in 2002, it had climbed to $34,861, a $662 increase! This meager raise was all Americans had to show for 20 years of near-continuous economic growth, a bull market in stocks, and increased productivity resulting from new information technologies. Meanwhile, the richest five percent of Americans have seen their incomes and investments rise quite nicely. This growing maldistribution of wealth has become so marked (reaching or exceeding levels last seen in the late 19th century) that even the beneficiaries have taken note and realized that something has to be done. But that something is merely palliative (e.g., expanded healthcare coverage). The financial oligarchy is even now plotting how to survive the current crisis with its wealth and privileges intact. Greider calls the adaptive policy “strategic repositioning.”
Robert Rubin (Bill Clinton’s secretary of the Treasury and a head honcho at Goldman Sachs and CitiGroup) has founded the Hamilton Project to manage this problem, yet when Greider asks him if anything can be done to arrest the downward pressure on U.S. wages, he replies, “I guess the answer would be no.” Greider asks economist Alan Blinder if anything can be done to stop the exporting of U.S. manufacturing, and Blinder, annoyed, refers him to “the immutable laws of economics and history.” He asks Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, who has at least admitted that there is a “dark side to globalization,” what the answer is and hears, “I don’t think there is one.”
Conversations of this stripe have persuaded Greider that only the people can save themselves from the corporatist road to serfdom: “From the birth of our nation, it was always ordinary people, pushing from the bottom against an entrenched status quo, that led to the most momentous changes in American life.” He expects this to happen again. Yet history offers little succor. Throughout our past, conspiratorial elites with self-serving agendas have repeatedly taken the people for a ride. Greider cites the abolition of slavery, but that was effected by presidential decree and military force. The U.S. Constitution itself was the product of a nationalist cabal. Industrialization, massive immigration, intervention in two European wars—not one of these transformative changes happened because the people wanted them. The people seem capable of only one kind of political action: throwing the bums out. In 1980 and 1994, they tossed out the Democrats; in 2006 and 2008, the Republicans. But only once in 40 years have more than one or two percent been bold enough to vote for a third party. As Clyde Wilson observed years ago, “the American people have lost the capacity for self-government.”
Greider says we must reject “the familiar themes of patriotic optimism,” but he cannot resist. “Americans have the capacity to govern themselves.” “Our saving grace lies in the hope for self-correction a functioning democracy can achieve when people make themselves heard.” “Americans are a pragmatic people; we learn from experience, from the past.” “Americans will postpone immediate gratification and endure hard sacrifices.” “We Americans accomplish great things when we pull together.”
In all these sentences the wish is the father to the thought. Our democracy cannot be both “dysfunctional” and “functioning.” People have to know their history before they can learn from it. The early popularity of the Bush presidency was based on the opposite premise—that Americans would support multiple wars only as long as they were called on neither to fight nor to pay. Recalling the unity of wartime America, circa 1942, Greider thinks that what we did then, we can do now, without recognizing how much has changed in both the character and the composition of the people. A fragmented collective, divided against itself, made up of self-seeking individuals and selfish groupings representing every religion and race on the globe, does not constitute a people.
Greider would have done better to call for a radical devolution of power to the states, or even for secession. Once freed from the burdens of empire, the suffocations of a centralized administration, and the inundation of foreigners, some areas of our country might still be capable of self-government and genuine nationhood. Some may reply that separation is unrealistic, yet it is certainly not more so than the expectation that a fictional people will gather themselves up and restore the polity of Jefferson.
[Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country, by William Greider (New York: Rodale) 328 pp., $25.95]