Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizak, who is the author of the recently published book, LIVING IN THE END TIMES, recently asserted, “We don’t know what to do but we must do something fast.” Sounding more like the great American comedian, Sid Caesar in his mode as the loony German philosopher than a respected intellectual, Zizak has nevertheless put his finger on the contemporary human condition that is in constant crisis.
Zizak sees Western politics much in the same way as American liberal thinkers such as Richard Hofstadter did in the 1950s, when they were confronted with radical right McCarthyism based on fear of communism. There are two main forces; the traditional liberals or social democrats who accept capitalism and liberal democracy but assert the need of a safety net that they tinker with and the radical right, which today is anti-immigrant, populist, racist and demagogic. In this context, it is the liberal Democrats who are now the conservatives, which in America means fighting to preserve the reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and Obama’s universal health care, against the rising tide of the radical right, to which the traditional Republican Party has succumbed.
In the Fifties, America was fortunate enough to have the popular figure of Eisenhower to diffuse the radical right as a Republican. There is
no Republican figure now capable of playing that role. Even Nixon was moderate on the issues and Ronald Reagan, who was able to defeat Jimmy Carter with the most conservative rhetoric ever delivered by an American politician, nevertheless, appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, and working with the Democrats, rescued Social Security, and reformed the tax code, while systematically growing both the size of the government and the deficit. And while George W. Bush became unpopular because of his military policies, he appointed more blacks to high positions than any American president and expanded Medicare through his prescription drug benefit program that the Republicans in Congress endorsed.
It was the financial crisis that led to the near landslide victory of Barack Obama, American’s first black president and the Democrats in both houses of Congress. But as soon as the Democrats took power, a right wing backlash of unprecedented proportions took hold, with demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck leading the charge and Fox News playing a key role in whipping up resentment against Obama and the liberals. The radical right in the form of the Tea Party, led by Sarah Palin, propelled the Republicans to victory in the House, and only the nomination of several week Republican candidates enabled the Democrats to hold the Senate.
The continued high rate of unemployment fueled the dissatisfaction that led to this revolt, but the cry of “ let’s take our country back” with its distinctly racist overtones had much to do with the route of the Democrats. Smelling blood, the Republicans show every signs of continuing the onslaught by stonewalling Obama, even to the extent of postponing a scheduled dinner with him at the White House, a sign of disrespect for a president of unprecedented proportions.
And while the continued crisis of the economy necessitated government action and dramatic steps by the Fed, the radical right backlash propelled the dynamics of an anti-government, pro-free market movement that contradicted the failures of the capitalist system itself. It was as if the radical right and the Republican Party that embraced it were living, as David Frum has put it, in an “alternative reality.” They confused what was a crisis of capitalism itself with the illusion of the threat of socialism and the Americans bought it. With the Democrats in retreat from their own policies and the Republicans determined to bring down Obama and take total power, America is caught in a situation in which there is virtually no possibility of constructive discourse or action.
With virtually everyone on the deficit reduction bandwagon, the right is prepared to throw people to the wolves, terminating unemployment insurance and depriving them of other needed services in the name of saving a capitalist system that can no longer afford the safety net that was put in place to thwart the very socialism so many Americans fear. The question really is whether you can have economic competition without social barbarism. So, odd as it may seem, the eccentric, bearded philosopher, Zizak, is right. We don’t know what to do but we need to do something fast. Or else.