Andrew Bacevich Politics

Deaf to History’s Questions

A Tale of Two Elizabeths, One Joe, One Donald, and Us.
US Capitol, DC by ThatMakesThree is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

By Andrew Bacevich / TomDispatch

Britons mourned the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and understandably so. The outpouring of affection for their long-serving monarch was more than commendable, it was touching. Yet count me among those mystified that so many Americans also professed to care. With all due respect to Queen Latifah, we decided way back in 1776 that we’d had our fill of royalty.

Mere weeks after the death of Elizabeth II came the demise of another Elizabeth, better known as Liz, whose tenure as British prime minister shattered all previous records for brevity. Forty-four days after Her Majesty had asked her to form a government, Liz Truss announced her decision to step down. Cries of “No, Liz, stay on!” were muted indeed, while she herself seemed to feel a sense of relief that her moment at the pinnacle of British politics had ended so swiftly.

As a general rule, I no more care who resides at 10 Downing Street than who lives in Buckingham Palace, since neither bears more than the most marginal relevance to the well-being of the United States. Even so, I confess that I found the made-for-tabloids tale of Truss’s rise and fall riveting — not a Shakespearean tragedy perhaps but a compelling dramedy offering raw material — most memorably in the form of lettuce — sufficient to supply stand-up comics the world over.

That Truss was manifestly unsuited to serve as prime minister should count as the understatement of the month. Her perpetually wide-eyed look seemingly expressed her own amazement at having high office thrust upon her and gave the game away. Along with the entire Tory party leadership, she was, it seemed, in on the caper — a huge joke at the expense of the British people.

Here was so-called liberal democracy in action. And not just any democracy, mind you, but an ancient and hallowed one. In American political circles, the notion persists that our own system of government somehow derives from that of Great Britain, that despite the many historical and substantive differences between the way Washington and Westminster work, we both share the same political space.

We and they are exemplars, models of popular government for the rest of the world. We and they stand arm-in-arm against autocrats and authoritarians. The legitimacy of the British democratic system affirms the legitimacy of our own. To others around the world aspiring to liberty, it proclaims: This is how it’s done. Now, go and do likewise.

In this particular instance, passing the torch in that ostensibly great democracy occurred in a matter of days. Notably, however, the British people played no part whatsoever in deciding who should succeed Truss. Of course, neither had they played any role in installing her as prime minister in the first place. Roughly 172,000 dues-paying members of the Conservative Party had made that decision on their behalf. And when her government abruptly imploded, even party members found themselves consigned to the role of spectators. In a nation of some 46 million registered voters, a grand total of 357 Conservative members of parliament decided who would form the next government — the equivalent of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives deciding it had had enough of Joe Biden and choosing his successor.

British Conservatives dismissed out of hand suggestions that a general election might be in order, that ordinary Britons should have some say in who would govern them. They did so for the most understandable of reasons: opinion polls indicated that in any election the Tory party would suffer catastrophic losses. It turns out that, in the hierarchy of values to which members of Parliament adhere, self-preservation ranks first. Students of American politics should not find that surprising.

To be clear, all of this falls completely within the rules of the game. Were the situation reversed, Britain’s Labour Party would surely have done likewise.

In the United Kingdom, this is how democracy works. “The People” play the role allotted to them. That role expands or contracts to suit the convenience of those who actually call the shots. In practice, liberal democracy thereby becomes a euphemism for cynical manipulation. While the results may entertain, as the saga of Liz Truss surely did, they offer little to admire or emulate.

The entire spectacle should, however, give Americans food for thought. If extreme partisanship, greed, and hunger for power displace any recognizable conception of the common good, this is where we’re liable to end up.

Charles to the Rescue

But give the Brits this: when faced with a crisis at the heart of their politics, their politicians dealt with it expeditiously, even ruthlessly. In announcing economic policies to which their financial markets objected, Truss had seemingly forgotten whom she was actually working for. Because of that, she was promptly sacked and then just as quickly dispatched to the political wilderness.

Credit the sovereign with saving the day. Advised to invite Conservative MP Rishi Sunak to form a new government, Charles III did just that and then returned to Windsor or Balmoral or whichever royal property he and the queen consort are currently using.

Granted, the action by the new-to-the-job king was purely symbolic. Yet its importance can hardly be overestimated. Charles affirmed the legitimacy of what otherwise might have looked suspiciously like a bloodless coup engineered by panicky MPs less interested in governance than saving their own skins. He thereby more than earned his generous paycheck, just as his mother had over the course of seven decades when inviting pols of varying distinction to form governments.

Of course, little of this has anything to do with democratic practice per se. After all, no one elected Charles king, just as no one had elected his mum queen. And while Charles inherits the title “Defender of the Faith,” no one has ever looked to a British monarch to serve as a “Defender of Democracy.” The role of the monarch is to sustain a political order that keeps at bay the forces of anarchy, thereby enabling some version of representative government, however flawed, to survive.

By that measure, Britons have good cause to proclaim, “God Save the King.”

Still Legit?

All of which should invite us Americans to consider this long-taken-for-granted question: When it comes to the legitimacy of our own political system, how are we doing? Given the startling proliferation of illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies in the American polity, how should we rate the health of our own liberal democracy? Indeed, does the phrase “liberal democracy” even accurately describe what goes on in Washington and in several dozen state capitals?

That such a question has acquired genuine urgency speaks volumes about American politics in our time. Nor does that urgency derive entirely – perhaps not even primarily — from the malignant presence of Donald Trump on the national scene, regardless of what panicky reporting in mainstream media outlets may suggest.

On all matters related to Trump, our fellow citizens — those who are sentient anyway — tend to fall into two camps. In one are those who see the former president as a transformational figure, whether for good (Make America Great Again) or ill (paving the way for fascism). In the other are those who view him less as cause than effect, his lingering prominence stemming from pathologies he’s skillfully exploited but had little role in creating.

I happen to inhabit that second camp. I loathe Donald Trump. But I fear a political, intellectual, and cultural elite that appears incapable of responding effectively to the crisis presently engulfing the United States.

Innumerable writers (including me) have attempted to lay out the origins and scope of that crisis and propose antidotes. None in my estimation (myself again included) have fully succeeded. Or at least none have persuaded Americans as to the true source of our collective malaise and discontent.

The resulting void explains the inclination to view Trump as the root cause of the nation’s troubles — or alternatively as our last best hope of salvation. Yet despite the palpable hunger in some quarters to imagine him locked up and in others to return him to the White House, Trump is neither a demon nor a wizard. He is instead a physical manifestation of the collective fears and fantasies to which Americans of all political persuasions have in recent years become susceptible.

Should Trump regain the presidency in 2024 — admittedly, a dreadful prospect — the crisis gripping our country would undoubtedly deepen. But were a benign storm to sweep the Master of Mar-a-Lago into the vast ocean depths never to be seen again, that crisis would persist.

Factors contributing to that crisis are not difficult to identify. They include:

  • the pervasive dysfunction that grips Congress;
  • the seemingly terminal irresponsibility to which the Republican Party has succumbed;
  • the corrupting influence of money on politics, national and local;
  • a waning public confidence in the impartiality of the courts;
  • a “way of life” centered on rampant consumption with lip service paid to the rapid environmental deterioration of our world;
  • freedom defined as radical autonomy, shorn of any collective obligation;
  • grotesque economic inequality of a sort not seen since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century;
  • increasing levels of violence stoked by resentments related to race and class;
  • the invasively corrosive, ever-expanding impact of social media;
  • deep-seated disputes centering on the role of religion in American life;
  • a mindless penchant for military activism sustained by willful amnesia about war’s actual costs and consequences;
  • a refusal to acknowledge that the era of American global primacy is ending;
  • and last (but by no means least), a loss of faith in the Constitution as the essential cornerstone of our political order.

Collectively, these add up to a Bigger Truth that easily eclipses in importance the Big Lie that presently dominates so much of American political discourse. While obsessing over the false claim that Trump won reelection in 2020 may be understandable, it diverts attention from the real meaning of that Bigger Truth, namely that liberal democracy no longer describes the bizarrely elaborate, increasingly disfunctional system of governance that prevails in the United States.

Reducing the existing system to a single phrase is a daunting proposition. It is sui generis, mixing myth, greed, rank dishonesty, and a refusal to face the music. But this much is for sure: It’s anything but governance by elected representatives chosen by an informed electorate who deliberate and decide in the interests of the American people as a whole.

Siri, Where Are We?

In my estimation, Joe Biden is a man of goodwill but limited abilities. In ousting Donald Trump from the White House, he performed a vitally important service to the nation. But President Biden is not just very old. His entire outlook is as stale as a week-old bagel.

Biden clearly believes that he has a firm grasp on what our times require. He regularly insists that we have arrived at an “inflection point.” Drawing on the familiar narrative of the twentieth century, he believes that he has deciphered the meaning of that inflection point. His interpretation, shared by many others among the current crop of the Best and Brightest, centers on a conviction that a global competition between freedom and unfreedom, democracy and autocracy defines the overarching challenge of our time. It’s us against them — the United States (with accommodating allies holding Uncle Sam’s coat) pitted against China and Russia, the outcome of this competition guaranteed to determine the fate of humankind.

Forty years ago, dealing with the array of concerns that defined the late Cold War era — avoiding World War III, outcompeting the Soviets, and keeping the gas pumps from running dry — Biden might have been an effective president. Today, he’s as clueless as Liz Truss self-evidently was, spouting bromides and advocating for programs left over from the heyday of American liberalism.

As Biden stumbles wearily from one verbal gaffe to the next, he embodies the exhaustion of that earlier political era. If reinvigorating the American political order defines the urgent calling of our present moment, he hasn’t the least idea where to begin.

At the risk of violating the prevailing canons of political correctness, let me suggest that we turn for counsel to Russia. No, not Vladimir Putin, but Leo Tolstoy. In the conclusion to his novel War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote that “modern history, like a deaf man, answers questions no one has asked.” That pithy observation captures the essence of our own predicament: It’s the questions that go unasked that are likely to do us in.

Consider, for example, these: What if the vaunted “American way of life” doesn’t define the destiny of humankind? What if true freedom means something different than the conception promoted in Washington or New York, Hollywood or Silicon Valley? What if Biden’s inflection point — should it exist — doesn’t come with a Made-in-the-U.S.A. label?

The first step toward enlightenment is to ask the right questions. Joe Biden and the American political establishment seem remarkably blind to the need to do just that. So are the tens of millions of Americans, whether angry or simply baffled, who vainly stare at their smartphones in search of answers or who look at the results of the midterm elections and ask: Is that the best we can do?

As a nation, we are adrift in uncharted waters — and we can’t look to King Charles to save us.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

* indicates required
Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

10 comments

  1. Thank you for writig this piece. I thoroughly gree witth everything you have written. My knowledge of politic is etremely lmited but I undertood everrything you have written and throughly agree with you. It is like standing at the edge of a precipice and asking, “where do we go from here?”
    I think both Britain and American have fallen victim to over commercializtion and the idea that products can improve our lives. Greed and possessions based on status lead to power becoming the aims. Liberal politics have made people forget the value of community and we are blinded and separated by wealth, status and image creating media and advertising. In the need to compete we have created global corporations that are too big, and to top it all we enable arms manufcturers to create or rather destroy comunities. It is a monster that is feeding upon itself and which totally ignores ethics. It could ultimately lead to a Brave new world in which only a select number are able to survive at the expense of the many.

  2. ” As a general rule, I no more care who resides at 10 Downing Street than who lives in Buckingham Palace, since neither bears more than the most marginal relevance to the well-being of the United States.”
    Ah, there it is, right at the start of his article Bacevich shows his true colors. He is a nationalist through and through. Not surprising for a former Army colonel and compliant officer for the ruling class. The statement above shows his ignorance, arrogance, and selfish, nationalist interests. He is basically saying he could care less about the British working class having to suffer under the oppression of its ruling elite. The British working class are being gutted and filleted by a government hell bent on endless, crushing austerity measures and compliance to the American world order for war with Russia and China. The British working class are being pushed to the brink as strikes for more than starvation wages are erupting across the country while the government funnels more money to Ukraine as an obedient trick for its owner across the pond for a treat of continuing their ” special relationship.”
    Too bad Bacevich doesn’t care about who resides in 10 Downing Street, because the US government and military and intelligences services certainly do. We haven’t coup’d over 80 countries on this planet to let the citizens of those countries be self determining.
    As for the rest of the article, Bacevich scratches his head in befuddlement and professes that he, and innumerable other writers,
    ” have attempted to lay out the origins and scope of that crisis and propose antidotes. None in my estimation (myself again included) have fully succeeded. Or at least none have persuaded Americans as to the true source of our collective malaise and discontent.”
    He then lists factors contributing to the crisis of our ” collective malaise and discontent ” but completely, and conveniently, like the good obscurantist for nationalism he is, ignores the elephant in the room, Capitalism. The malaise and discontent doesn’t only reside here, the only country Bacevich cares about the ” well being ” of, but globally because the masses of the working class reside in a capitalist system of profit for the few over the human need of the many, a vacuum system where we the global working class create the wealth that is sucked into the protective bag of the oppressors who wreck any and all social services for a real, and healthy democratic society by creating the malaise and discontent that Bacevich hasn’t ” fully succeeded ” in understanding . Like the capitalist ruling class polluting the air, Bacevich is polluting the minds of readers by playing dumb and expecting you to play dumb right along with him.

    1. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “Look for the brave in prison, and the stupid among the political leaders!”

      This article is a tribute to unending loyalty to US arrogance and stupidity. Thank you for showing your contempt for NY Times ‘wisdom’ and West Point ‘intelligence’.

      Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

      John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873): “I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally conservative.”

  3. What a superb view and essay.Thank you for illuminating the British system. And a big thank you for cutting to the core of our lameness. The predominance of the old (dated) world view soaked leadership is analogous to Liz Truss’s naïveté. Out of touch with reality (realities). could the climate catastrophe be our 40 days in the wilderness where we are being forced to evolve a consciousness (or not) that serves life over that of today’s which serves power, greed, money, entrenched interests, and self aggrandizement at the expense of others and life itself? To sacrifice the lesser for the greater good?

  4. If you look at the history of ‘liberal democracy’ you will see that from the beginning in 1917 it has been the chosen appellation of ‘Wall Street’ and the ‘City of London.’

  5. H. Rap Brown: “Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie. Americans taught the black people to be violent. We will use that violence to rid ourselves of oppression if necessary. We will be free, by any means necessary.”

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1978): “A continuous blindness of superiority is typical of the West; it upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present-day Western Systems.”

    “We and they are exemplars, models of popular government for the rest of the world. We and they stand arm-in-arm against autocrats and authoritarians.” — Andrew Bacevich

    This article quote stands as an exemplar of White Western arrogance as our politicians have always supported the worst kinds of autocrats and dictators. Iran, Venezuela, and Mexico supported the Allies through WWII with cheap, highly profitable crude oil and received poverty, contempt and death squads as reward. Latin America would be heaven on earth if the Monroe Doctrine stood for anything but Yankee greed.

    Simon Bolivar: “The United States appears to be destined by Providence to plague [Latin] America with misery in the name of liberty.”

    The US now, and always, makes collaborators of the most corrupt, violent human rights abusers. Recently, US trained military yahoos committed 8 coups in West Africa. Of course, military coups are cheaper than honestly negotiating Oil & Gas rights with responsible, democratically elected, popularly supported leadership. ‘Los Zetas’, Mexico’s worst narco gang were trained and armed by US ‘special forces’. Honduras, where democracy was recently restored after a US-OAS coup installed a president and family now facing decades in US prisons for drug trafficking. El Salvador, where ex-President Cristiani is facing murder charges for the executions of 6 Catholic priests, housekeeper and her young daughter, that advocated for negotiations and peace.

    Gen. Smedley Butler, “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer; a gangster for capitalism.”

    These most recent examples US war crimes and human rights abuses don’t cover Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea, Chile and every other Latin American country, Haiti where they recently paid France the last compensation instalment for freeing themselves from slavery, Operation Gladio, the Middle East and every country seeking actual democracy.

    Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, “…nobody now gives the United States any respect, apart from a handful of fascist Brits and that simpering little whore Tony Blair.”

    H.L. Mencken: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents… the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

    GFW Hegel, The Philosophy of History, “What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUBvIUtL0LU
    Bruce Cockburn – Call it Democracy – Russian

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eFkmRp_G2uo
    Solomon Burke – None of us are free

  6. Hmm…a lot of words here, but a large dose of obfuscation, too, methinks.

    “The first step toward enlightenment is to ask the right questions. Joe Biden and the American political establishment seem remarkably blind to the need to do just that.”

    Not blind. Uninterested. The writer knows this. And what are the “right questions?” That is highly subjective. My version of the right questions may be: What are the shared goals and sacrifices we need to discuss to walk together down a path of collective enlightenment? Why are our “leaders” never speaking about or working toward a more peaceful, more prosperous, and more cooperative world? What hard realities must be faced, responsibilities taken, and compromises made if we are to ever experience justice again, or get along without constant threat of violence? Why has US “leadership” brought to bear a government that acts more like an organized crime family than the stewards of a functioning democratic republic? Why is our government no longer interested in national sovereignty, our Constitution, or our Bill of Rights?

    Neither Biden nor any “leader” “elected” into thoroughly corrupted Western governments are interested in these concepts or questions. But they are not blind to them.

  7. Interesting that the English only took 40 days to correct their mistake whereas it took America four years, and the “mistake” may re-manifest itself again. It is pretty obvious that the evolution of ethical behavior here in America has reversed course.

    From the Reagan administration forward, regulation (the primary purpose of the executive branch) was forbidden territory. To the extent that the executive branch was a part of democracy it became withered and gaunt not able to do its job. Obstacles to corporate power were taken down and the wealth went to the hierarchy. If you give non-democratic corporate entities that kind of power, then what can you really expect but a degradation of democratic processes.

    So here we are going back to a paralyzed congress, waking up each morning wondering if some idiots weapons system will malfunction and start WW3 and secretly hoping that a comet fragment will come down reboot the earth.

  8. Oh, please.

    Anyone oblivious to the authoritarianism of neoliberalism is not paying attention.

    Donors are American politicians’ constituency, and the weak suffer what they must

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: