Murray Polner: Review of Donald L. Bartlett's and James B. Steele's "The Betrayal of the American Dream" and Mike Lofgren's "The Party is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted"


Murray Polner is a regular HNN book reviewer.

Donald L. Bartlett, James B. Steele, and Mike Lofgren, in their two respective new books, look at the current condition of our country and find it wanting, and deeply so. If they are to be believed, we may be on the road to becoming a plutocracy governed by an oligarchy, administered largely by too many amoral politicians and selfish interests whose ambitions and avarice are fueled by an endless stream of corporate billions which end up abandoning the middle class (and the poor, too); a conclusion, of course, disparaged by those championing a strikingly different set of ideas and conclusions.

Are things so grim and beyond repair? Arthur Schlesinger once wrote of the cyclical nature of American political life. Every thirty years, he prophesied, the pendulum would swing between liberals and conservatives. It once sounded like an optimistic and smart possibility, but now it seems Pollyannaish.

As we know, large American businesses have outsourced a massive number of jobs, our manufacturing sector has been disappearing for years, millions have lost their homes and private and public pensions are on the brink of extinction, and already feeble unions are under assault. Meanwhile, the persistent challenge of fevered global competition has led corporations to search for ever more armies of cheap labor abroad.

This isn’t especially original, but what Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele's The Betrayal of the American Dream (PublicAffairs) accomplishes is to allow them to express their rage as “in the forty years that we have been researching and writing about issues that affect all of us, we have never been so concerned for the future of our country. The forces that are dismantling the American middle class are relentless.”

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling (it was backed by the right, libertarians, and the ACLU) they say is designed to impress “the middle class that politics had become slavishly addicted to the big bucks of the moneyed class and that the ability of average Americans to influence elected officials would be overwhelmed by that money,” adding, “the ruling class thinks that the average American earns too much money.” Note their use of “the ruling class,” a phrase rarely tossed about since the 1930s but which is becoming increasingly common now -- and draws inevitable countercharges of “class warfare.”

Mike Lofgren lays out his own thesis in The Party is Over (Viking):

[T]he commanding heights of corporate America -- the banks, the military-industrial complex, corporate interests benefiting from huge subsidies like Big Pharma and Big Oil -- largely have the government they want.

I suspect that many Americans do worry that the Tea Party, right-wing Republicans and conservative Democrats will want to rein in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the heart of our security net. But “fat and lazy” Democrats, writes Lofgren, a Republican House and Senate staff member for twenty-eight years, are also to blame for our recent troubles. Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter promoted deregulation. Clinton signed on to the end of the Glass-Steagall act, which allowed commercial banks to enter the investment field with no holds barred, and thus opened the way for credit default swaps, derivatives, home foreclosures and the near collapse of the credit market. Bartlett and Steele, who won two Pulitzers for their investigative reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer, cite a Miami Herald finding that in 2009 “10,529 persons with criminal records worked in Florida’s mortgage industry from 2000 to 2007. Of those brokers, 4,065 had committed major crimes -- fraud, bank robbery, racketeering, or extortion.”

Their bleak portrait is more emphatically put by Lofgren’s often shrill, yet discerning criticism of what he experienced first-hand as a Republican aide. Once part of the breed of vanishing moderate Republicans he now portrays his party as mainly “theocratic fundamentalists eager to use the resources of the state to regulate private behavior” and whose “hyperbolic partnership, scorched-earth campaigns and propaganda trumping legislation have gridlocked Congress.” He also loathes the power-savvy, bureaucratically shrewd and well-subsidized neoconservative hawks “who never saw a war they didn’t want somebody else’s kid to fight.”

So much of what he writes sound like insider stuff once whispered among Washington’s anointed. He takes direct aim at Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and right-wing politicians who now thrive in our insulated capital. He can’t stand Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner. And he is certainly no friend of our Middle Eastern wars which he says have enriched our war industries and private armies and contractors.

Both books confront the status quo head even as mass protests remain largely invisible. Where they do occur as in the case of Occupy Wall Street -- unlike the gentler reception accorded the Tea Party demonstrators --  they have been beaten back by mayors and their police forces. Even so, all the authors offer some sensible reforms, easy to propose but excruciatingly difficult to enact in our climate of bitter and divisive partisanship. Bartlett and Steele suggest a sweeping revision of our tax code and urge investing heavily in infrastructure, which they say claim can result in more jobs, more income, and more prosperity. Lofgren recommends putting muscle into antitrust laws, public funding of elections, and going after tax-exempt foundations, “one of the most effective instruments by which corporate America and the plutocratic class maintain disproportionate influence over civic life” and also to somehow stop “squandering trillions on a dead-end military adventurism that creates more enemies than it kills” so as to refocus our attention and money on domestic needs.

At their best, both books reflect the class inequality and ideological divisions in today’s America where but for the wealthiest, wages are at a standstill and the economic security of prospective retirees and their children and grandchildren are at risk, buffeted between the mythmakers of self-reliance and safety netters, free marketers and a vast, unknown number of the indifferent. These two books attempt to sound an alarm. But are enough people among the 1 percent and 99 percent listening?

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