Skip to main content

Essays in American History: Reagan to the Present

An Introductory Note

Being sophisticated consumers of historical prose, readers have no doubt kept their skepticism front and center while perusing the author's historical essay-summaries. They surely do not need to be told what the author nevertheless feels the need to tell them, which is that as we approach the present, all commentary becomes arguably even more liable to slanting than usual. In this final essay, which covers a period through which the forty-seven-year-old author has lived, just about all bets are off -- and not just for the present author of course. History may always be contentious, but this particular present, though perhaps no more so than any other present (media saturation aside), is a cultural war zone, and for important reasons the author will try to illuminate. 

We Are All Neoliberals Now

Neoliberalism Trickles Down

In 1980, Ronald Reagan did what Barry Goldwater could not do: he brought the New Right to power, aided by a resurgent evangelical movement and a widening tax revolt that had begun in the late seventies in California. Reagan's administration purposely ran up massive budget deficits by cutting taxes while instituting a massive military buildup that more than outweighed any savings from cuts to social programs. After all, feeding the already rich individuals and corporations was advertised as a way to raise all boats, as the saying went, since benefits poured on high would trickle down to the rest. "Purposely" is as per Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, who confirmed suspicions that such trickle-down methods, dubbed voodoo economics by Reagan's more traditional rival, George H. W. Bush, later made his vice president, was consciously intended to inflate deficits, and thus increase the national debt to astronomical proportions primarily to create an "emergency" the solution to which would be taking a hatchet to the still generally popular social programs now rebranded as "entitlements." A related and more than symbolic shot across the bow was Reagan's breaking of an air-traffic controller strike, which, among other actions, was a signal to management that the new sheriff in town would turn a blind eye to deunionizing actions. By 2017, private-sector unionization rates were in the single digits and still dropping.

A wave of balanced-budget amendments were passed by states, thus locking in what would later be called austerity at that and the local levels while, ironically, increasing demands on the federal budget which remained unconstrained by any such fiscal requirement. Much of this assault on the postwar consensus was wrapped in an at best nostalgic and at worst racist-dogwhistling package of a new "Morning in America." Reagan, a fine film actor and former governor of California, played his role perfectly, projecting on television a kindly, grandfatherly persona that was generally well-received even by his opponents in and out of Washington. The Great Communicator probably avoided impeachment because of his affective connection with the American public, something Nixon lacked (but Clinton had), and which led to the quip that he was a teflon president. When, finally, something actually stuck to him -- the Iran-Contra affair, described below, that in some dimensions far outstripped Watergate -- he managed to avoid the ultimate penalty.

His successors, from the Bushes to Clinton and Obama, despite some relatively minor but still important divergences and much hot air blown from almost all positions along the proverbial spectrum, maintained Reagan's general domestic thrust. Clinton presided over the partial dismantling of the New Deal and Great Society; a master politician, he raised triangulation to an art form, consistently outwitting an increasingly frustrated Republican party that played brinksmanship without scruple, shutting the down the federal government and even investigating and impeaching, though not convicting, the ever-popular Clinton over a possible act of perjury designed to hide a marital infidelity of exactly zero policy consequence but of astronomical importance in the ongoing, ever-broadening, and ever-more-nasty culture war. 

Rightwingers, following Reagan-era deregulation of the media, including the rescinding of the Fairness Doctrine, essentially took over AM radio. Cable television had arisen in the eighties but exploded in the nineties, especially after CNN's coverage of the Gulf War, with Fox News becoming a rightwing megaphone, and wildly successful, too. Subscriber-funded and always on, cable news channels (which soon meant all news channels) featured 24/7 coverage and an ever-shrinking "news cycle" that favored, as always in for-profit media going back to Hearst and others, conflict, violence ("if it bleeds, it leads"), infotainment, and, crucially and increasingly, market-tailored content designed to reinforce, not challenge, the conventional wisdom of whichever set of ever-more-precisely subdivided market cohorts were targeted. This was done more for profit than for political or ideological gain, though it was becoming difficult to separate the two. Such capture of the public mind has had its effects, especially as print news media went into an apparent death spiral, leaving in control radio and video news, both far less able (and willing) to investigate or treat anything in-depth.

This period has seen a widespread attack, from left and right, for reasons both ideological and economic-technological, on the very notion of objective truth itself. Speaking generally, rightwingers (not without justice) blame New-Left-ish postmodernism, which in its popularized form without a doubt influenced a widely-held if not deeply understood set of anti-realist notions, whereas leftwingers (not without justice) blame the dominance of capitalist marketing, advertising and PR, forms of untruth in which all are marinated virtually all the time. Typically, all sides see the mote in others and miss the beam in themselves. See, and are encouraged to see by the increasingly partisan media and political system itself spread and marketed via increasingly inexpensive, miniaturized, and networked personal computers on ever-more-Balkanized online and social-media sites.   

However this system arose, its usefulness was not lost on party managers and elites of all kinds, regardless of how often they were at each other's throats. In general, according to reliable polling, despite much polarization on social issues, and as was periodically pointed out during the candidacies of both Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders, Americans tended, sometimes without even knowing it, to report a desire for a raft of policies far to the left of both parties. This "left," however, wasn't all that far from where Eisenhower had comfortably sat in the fifties, as indeed Sanders himself, self-styled democratic socialist that he is, happily admitted.

Neither party, especially as campaigning became essentially permanent, increasingly expensive and unregulated (Citizens United v FEC being only the icing on the cake), seemed institutionally capable of a course correction, let alone a realignment. With House districts microsegmented (a.k.a., "gerrymandered") according to supercomputer-fueled marketing techniques, representatives mostly selected their voters, with reelection percentages reaching, literally, Politburo levels. Senators still had more leeway, but the rise, both in rhetoric and to some extent in reality, of the red state-blue state divide, meant that senate seats were also increasingly locked down. The presidency was decided, due to the lingering Electoral College, by an ever-decreasing cohort of undecided voters living in the few swing states that remained, or, when a swing-state's vote margin was razor-thin, as it was in 2000, by the Supreme Court (Bush v Gore). While party loyalty massively decreased during this period, at least in terms of registrants, ideological loyalty, itself increasingly mapped to partisanship, skyrocketed. One could see all of this as the triumph of neoliberalism, perhaps most consequential in how it had changed Americans' self conception from citizen to consumer. Citizens have rights that need to be actively secured and responsibilities that need to be actively fulfilled. Required is both effort and a sense of responsibility beyond one's own or one's family's personal journey or state of happiness. Consumers, however, have only the right to choose a product or service, a passive choice for which responsibility resides mostly in being true to one's own personal brand or identity when choosing accordingly from pre-selected options, whether sneakers, smartphones, or political candidates.

Boom-Bust's End Booms, Then Goes Bust

One of the important divergences between the parties is that Democrats, now fully on board with neoliberalism, actually reduced, sometimes to the point of elimination, the budget deficits both decried and continually exacerbated by Republican administrations. Democrats remained the home of the socioculturally progressive and Republicans that of the socioculturally traditional, but both parties embraced what are called free-trade agreements, such as NAFTA, that added to what some analysts called a sort of global virtual parliament in which investors "voted" on policies inside of nation-states through the mass and instantaneous, if not literally coordinated, movement of gigantic amounts of capital against which signatory nation-states had often signed away much of their own power to counteract. Both parties generally chose monetarist policy over fiscal policy (defense spending, as always, aside), with the Fed chairman taking on an almost Delphic role in the national and global economy. Both parties championed increasing deregulation. 

That all of these policies happened to generally increase the corporate profits from which much of campaign finance, most post-governmental-service remuneration, and all of corporate lobbying was drawn was periodically noted and usually rejected as cynical or conspiratorial thinking. A Democrat, Clinton, signed into law the destruction of one of the New Deal's centerpieces, the Glass-Steagall Act, which had formed a wall between investment and commercial banking. Deemed naive and outdated in the late nineties, especially given the widely held view that, in some mystical fashion never much spelled out, the high-tech New Economy had forever ended a boom-bust cycle as old as capitalism itself, less than a decade would pass before a bust partly caused by this one deregulatory act and rivaled only by 1929's was followed by a depression rivaled only by the Great one that had engendered Glass-Steagall in the first place.

Downturns had of course persisted since 1980. They alternated with increasingly jobless recoveries in which gains lost by the majority of the population were mostly not made up, either through lingering structural unemployment or, more insidiously, through widening underemployment of all kinds. Such results were unsurprising given the reigning neoliberal ideology which had essentially abandoned any collar darker than white. So the gap widened between what soon came to be called the one percent, whose wealth continued to increase near-exponentially, and everyone else, whose wealth, despite ever-increasing productivity, stayed flat. Such widespread insecurity -- the rise of the "precariat" it was dubbed -- increased the potential for ugliness of all kinds, as the system itself never could properly identify the causes for what was widely seen, with much justice, as the end of the American Dream.

The Dream itself had been forged in the massive take-off of the second industrial revolution and turbocharged by the unrepeatable dominance the U.S. had enjoyed just after World War II which was still well within living memory. The expectation was that each successive generation would outstrip the former. Even to remain in the same position as one's parents was seen as near-failure: to fall behind was unthinkable, and, quite neoliberally (or is it just quite American?), such a failure was wholly assumed to be either one's own moral fault (a.k.a "personal responsibility") or the result of the actions of some other set of immoral individuals. In any event, by 2017, the nation was at perhaps its most unequal; certainly, inequality, along its associated suffering, was stratospheric. The often directed search for culprits was increasingly unsettling. Fueling the increasingly unsettling search for scapegoats were Republicans, who were incapable of making a plausible systemic explanation, and Democrats, Sanders aside, who were apparently unwilling to do so. Hillary Clinton's epic loss was explained, sometimes even plausibly if only partially, in every possible way other than the actual record of her long-dominant wing of the party. (To be fair, to admit as much would be tantamount to a voluntary unilateral disarmament in the face of a fired-up progressive wing and base; such victories are won, not granted.) Also exacerbating the sense of precarity bordering on panic was that Americans, encouraged by a deregulated financial sector under only the barest of oversight, had funded what was almost universally seen as the necessary improvement over their parents through massive private borrowing, and in a political and economic environment in which creditors pretty much ruled. Moreover, not just the adults were in financial trouble: by around 2010, a nation dedicated to family values had saddled its children with an aggregate college debt of over $1.2 trillion, a total that exceeded even aggregate credit-card debt.

The still lingering Great Recession began in an overinflated housing market. Bubbles of all kinds had grown and burst with increasing regularity and destructive force throughout the neoliberal period, from the crash of 1987 to the later Savings and Loan debacle and the Asian crisis still later. The housing bubble had been exacerbated by both legal and illegal corruption by just about all players, whether banks, mortgage writers, insurance companies, rating agencies, or well-captured regulatory agencies. The collapse of the housing market quickly initiated a financial domino effect that led to the monumental crash of 2008. Months later, a Democrat, Obama, had taken the White House, bolstered by a mailing list of around three million well-motivated fans, an Obama Army deeply feared by the right but (staggeringly) never mobilized. Democrats controlled both houses of congress. What FDR or LBJ would have done with those weapons we needn't belabor; what actually occurred was stunningly un-Democratic to anyone with a historical memory but hardly surprising given that the Democrats had long since abandoned that heritage. 

First, a relatively weak but still countercyclically helpful stimulus package had already been passed under George W. Bush and was soon joined by a massive set of bailouts, both the officially named one and the far larger set of monetary injections designed to keep essentially bankrupt banks afloat. In fact, bailouts were extended beyond the financial sector, including to the auto industry, which the Obama administration essentially nationalized but with a promise of treating it "like a hedge fund," just to forestall any concerns about a new New Deal, one that might have retooled some of those plants for desperately needed high-speed rail, for example, which would have saved and created many jobs. It seemed as though just about everyone but the average, heavily indebted, foreclosed or "underwater" American had received a bailout. This was, as a then-popular phrase went, trickle-down "on steroids." These vast expenditures at the top probably did prevent another Great Depression by propping up steadily crashing aggregate demand in perhaps the most expensive manner possible. They probably also prevented a new-fashioned bank run that threatened to, as George W. Bush noted, "bring this whole sucker down" due to a information-technologized, interconnected, electron-fast, and barely controllable global finance system.

Second, what did not happen captured just how neoliberal the Democrats had become, though when noises were occasionally made about other options, the utterly lockstep Republicans, dubbed The Party of No, were there to decry it -- even when "it" was an essentially neoliberal, even conservative, and certainly Mitt-Romney-Republican health insurance bill, dubbed "Obamacare." By the 2010s, after the rise of the Tea Party, discussed below, even conservative analysts like Norman Orenstein were calling the Republicans less a traditional parliamentary party than, in his words, "a radical insurgency." So, there was no government work program to provide employment opportunity where the private sector could or would not. There was virtually no real program to stem a foreclosure crisis of gigantic proportions, let alone house people who'd lost their homes. There was some but far from enough, let alone systemic, legal action taken against what most observers considered prima facie cases of outright fraud. In fact, many financial institutions were deemed "too big to fail," that is, so large and so potentially devastating to the global economy as to be forever beyond the reach of state power, apparently regardless of their actions. Aside from the initial and lukewarm stimulus, it was left up to the Fed's limited monetary tools to fix what needed fixing. Even the Fed chairman, a student of the Depression, noted how dysfunctional was the investing of his own domain with such responsibilities, doomed as it was, bereft of partners acting via fiscal policy, to at least partially fail.

Trickle-down worked as expected. The top ten or so percent recovered quickly and soon improved its position, with the top 1% and especially the top 0.1% making out like bandits. Everyone else stagnated or lost ground -- perhaps less so than would have happened without the trickling but surely more so than would have happened had aggregate demand been supported from the bottom up through FDR-like programs. This was hardly limited to the U.S.; the global story among the developed countries was pretty much the same. Much of politics since the Great Recession has been the story of populist revolts, both left and right, against what is an often ill-understood but impossible-to-miss sense of a rigged system run by elites who don't much care about helping anyone other than themselves. Both the Occupy movement on the left and the Tea Party movement on the right arose soon after the crash of 2008 and each flowed into political campaigns, the former into the insurgent Bernie Sanders campaign and the latter much more successfully into the congressional space but also into the equally insurgent Donald Trump campaign. Populist uprisings occurred around the developed world. On the left, parties like Spain's Podemos, Greece's Syriza, and the UK's Jeremy Corbyn-led Momentum vied not only with centrist parties but also with a probably stronger right-populist, xenophobic, and sometimes even neo- or proto-fascist collection of loosely coordinated, somewhat allied movements, from Le Pen's National Front in France to UKIP and much of the pro-Brexiters in the UK to the outright fascist Golden Dawn in beleaguered Greece and figures like Orban in Hungary. 

The West seems to be in the midst of a full-on legitimation crisis which has led to an unprecedented (at least in recent times) opening up of the political space to views usually too far from the center of the spectrum to get a hearing, both for good and ill. Interacting in dynamic and even explosive ways with this legitimation crisis is the harvest of decades of Western policies which have taken, in part thanks to ever-improving technology, the form of the asymmetric warfare known as terrorism, which, as desired by the terrorists themselves, has engendered a widespread and growing xenophobic, nativist, and Islamophobic reaction. So it is to post-1980 foreign policy we must now turn.

We Are All Neoconservatives Now

A supposedly new breed of strategist, and despite being somewhat historically localizable in ex-Reaganites who later populated the George W. Bush administration, what came to be called neoconservatives, seem even in foreshortened retrospect to have been merely the right wing of the general Wilsonian view that America must use its military force to make the world safe for democracy. Often portrayed as the opposites of liberal interventionists, both groups share at least the perceived need to sell interventions as humanitarian, a feature unique neither to either group, nor to the past few decades, nor even to the United States. As is always the case with people, by their fruits ye shall know them, and each group's fruits looked awfully alike.

History Ends, Then Resumes

One had to have lived through it to fully appreciate the orgy of self-congratulation with which most Americans met the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. America had won; all the blood and treasure of the sometimes hot Cold War had been worth it; now, some even seriously maintained, history itself would end as not only communism but also any challenge to permanent, global, neoliberal, "managed democracy" would soon wither away. High hopes proliferated for how the expected peace dividend would be spent, now that the globe had finally settled into its proper role of aping America's exceptionalism as best it could.

It was exceedingly naive. No peace dividend materialized. NATO not only remained but expanded, even to the borders of Russia, despite supposed American promises and 150 years of Russian history, either forgotten or ignored by American planners reveling in triumphalism. Russia itself was overrun by American (and other Western) carpetbaggers seeking to spread the neoliberal gospel and finding an avatar in Yeltsin who mostly followed the advice. The result was a decrease in life expectancy usually associated with a war or an epidemic and a massive increase in highly sophisticated organized crime and astronomically powerful oligarchs, not always easily separable categories, as the fire sale of Soviet/Russian assets proceeded apace. What was mostly killed off was Russia's flirtation with some form of liberal democracy. Something akin to this out-of-control, hyper-neoliberal experiment would be repeated, with similar success, in post-war Iraq.

Looking abroad for dragons to slay -- why else a military-intelligence complex on which was annually spent more than the next several nation-states combined? -- the U.S. began what many wryly called "the enemy of the month club." More like ramped up than began, actually: let's not jump ahead. During first the Carter and then massively during the Reagan years, and still (putatively) part of the Cold War, the U.S. had resumed its traditional role of tidying up its backyard by aiding the rightwing Contras who were fighting against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. It wasn't all that popular, so soon after Vietnam, and eventually a Democratic Congress passed restrictions on funding for the death squads described by Reagan as "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers." To be sure, such Latin American interventions had gone on for decades under presidents of both parties, and usually without much hullabaloo, but post-Vietnam and -Watergate, an odd ailment had arisen that caused much elite anxiety: the Vietnam Syndrome. This debilitating condition was marked by such symptoms as taking official justifications for violence with many grains of salt and lacking much taste for expensive, brutal, and destructive wars for unclear purposes. Supposedly cured by the excitingly televised Gulf War, to be discussed presently, it lingered on during the 1980s, and was so ideologically widespread that Christian evangelicals traveled to Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America in an attempt to use their own bodies to protect the populace from U.S. or U.S.-backed assault.

In any event, Reagan completely ignored Congressional restrictions, unconstitutionally, and in a scheme that had it not actually happened would have been considered outlandishly bad spy fiction, arranged to fund the Contras through arms sales to, of all countries, Iran, itself the target of an arms embargo, which had recently had an Islamic revolution so anti-American as to have featured a hostage crisis that humiliated the U.S. and probably cost Carter re-election as Reagan had consistently cited the ongoing crisis as evidence of Carter's weakness, appeasement, and incompetence. Impeachment was in the air, but never occurred, though it was probably more richly deserved that Nixon's. Also during Reagan's tenure, the U.S. began to re-specialize in splendid little wars, conquering or bombing such bastions of power as Grenada and Libya. It was also willing to tip the scales of unsplendid, large wars, such as the brutal slaughter that occurred between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, during which the U.S. gave possibly decisive help to compliant then-ally Saddam Hussein against defiant punishment-deserving Iran.

The Enemy of the Month Club

After 1989, it became very difficult to use "communism" as an excuse for military action. The U.S. hardly missed a beat: communism was replaced by international drug trafficking when former CIA asset and dutiful assistant for Reagan's wars in Central America, the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, was captured in a brief but violent assault. Soon after, no-longer-compliant Saddam, as he came to be known (especially via George H. W. Bush's likely purposeful mis-stressed pronunciation, which came out sounding suspiciously like "Sodom"), was crushed for invading Kuwait in the excitingly televised Gulf War which is perhaps best seen as World War I to the Iraq War's seemingly endless World War II. Evil was found once again in the former Yugoslavia, so once again the U.S. led the charge. Such charges were led without  declarations of war and sometimes with, sometimes without UN sanction of one form or another.

To be clear, none of these deposed rulers were anything but appalling people; nor were their "regimes," as such governments targeted for "change" came to be called, humane, not by a long shot. This was not really at issue; what was at issue was the wisdom of appointing oneself global policeman -- if, that is, one even bought the justifying rhetoric of "democracy promotion" or, if one did, that bullets were the best way of encouraging ballots. Even at the time, many wondered how former allies like Noriega and Hussein could have become mortal enemies so fast, especially since nothing much seemed to have changed in their treatment of those under their power which itself did not seem much different from that of other contemporary allies around the world.

But the widely shared, fatally incomplete view of how America had saved the world during The Good War (World War II) tended to form the psychohistorical backdrop for these farcical attempts to repeat that history. As always, but perhaps increasingly in a heavily mediated age, consent was manufactured with stunning alacrity and success by the ever more data-driven art of telling people what they want to hear about themselves and their ever-more-encouraged avatars, the nation, the president, and democracy itself. All of this took on a different coloration when a real attack by a real enemy took place on September 11, 2001, the first on actual American soil since either Pearl Harbor, if you count pre-state Hawaii, or, if you do not, the War of 1812.

Closing in on Midnight

The Terror We Acknowledge

What came to be called 9/11 was almost universally acknowledged to be an international crime of the first order. The first act of mega-terrorism, it was the to-date most devastating example of a form of asymmetric warfare of increasing inexpensiveness, and very hard to interdict. The present author was actually in midtown Manhattan that day and made his way down to Ground Zero with a coworker where we were of no use aside from comforting a few crying firefighters who were waiting for WTC 7 to collapse from the unquenchable heat. 

Bin Laden had clearly wanted to engender a reaction -- that is the whole point of terrorism -- and he must have been stunned with how useful a reaction he engendered. The U.S. not only passed draconian surveillance and war-making laws and resolutions, few if any of which have been or seem likely ever to be rescinded as this instantly declared "global war on terror" is a state of emergency unlikely ever to end, particularly as terror's root causes go mostly unaddressed. The U.S. also launched two still-ongoing wars -- one in Afghanistan, which had hosted Al Qaeda, and which was not all that controversial generally speaking, and one in Iraq, which hadn't had a thing to do with 9/11, almost instantly exploded myths aside, and which was massively controversial. The Iraq War was the first war in at least Western history that was greeted before it was launched with absolutely mass protest, with virtually no elite support, and not just in the U.S. but abroad as well (it was at that point perhaps the largest single one-day protest in human history). This was clearly an acute attack of Vietnam Syndrome.

Few expected the U.S.'s "full spectrum dominance" in military and intelligence capabilities to do anything but instantly crush the already hollowed-out Iraqi state and society, one which, since the end of the Gulf War, had been hemmed in by sanctions the effect of which were so severe that about a half-million children died and two successive administrators of the sanctions had each resigned, both describing the sanctions as "genocidal." But what was to be a cake walk became a quagmire that made possible the rise of ISIS, a group so fanatical as to have offended even Al Qaeda, just as U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia had allowed Pol Pot to take power among the destruction. Plus, for all of the expenditure and death, and as was widely predicted by many specialists, the war, as well as the militarized response to terrorism around the globe, including Obama's drone war, created more terrorists than it killed and more acts of terror than it prevented or punished. The response at home has been laws like the Patriot Act and other laws and executive actions that more or less rescind the fourth and sixth amendments, among other developments all seemingly permanent, unlike, say, Lincoln's actions during the Civil War which was expected to end, and did. To the current day, ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks of any magnitude lead to the same cycle of violence that does little to undermine root causes for terror, which are to be found, as always, in history. 

With the election of Trump, what thin gloves were once on under Obama are now off, as well as all pretense to the rhetorical and policy-based care both Bush and Obama generally took not to play into Al Qaeda/ISIS's obvious desire to survive and thrive by creating a full on war between the West and Islam. As of this writing, Trump's Muslim travel ban, oddly particular, is still being held up by the courts though a border wall with Mexico, partly if not primarily justified by the need to protect the nation from terror, is in the planning stages. The general effects of these policies and others, both domestic and global, can be easily imagined, if not specifically predicted.

The Terror We Ignore

The phrase "existential threat" has become almost annoyingly common. It's applied to just about every threat short of the two that are indeed existential and still mostly unaddressed: nuclear weapons and global warming. The former threat has unaccountably dropped off the public's radar, despite the fact that stockpiles, while massively reduced via various START treaties, have proliferated and will continue to do so, often with American sanction (in the cases of India and Israel, at least in part), and which still number many times what would be necessary to destroy civilization, and perhaps even, given the relative certainty of nuclear winter, most multicellular life on earth. In yet another example of the strong line of continuity and the triviality of the by now literally reality-TV nature of political discourse, Obama's trillion-dollar nuclear refurbishment program will apparently be carried through by Trump despite the fact that both have said that nuclear weapons need to be abolished in some theoretical perhaps subjunctive future. To be sure, nuclear weapons, along with other so-called weapons of mass destruction (biological and chemical), do get discussed with respect to the not unreasonable worry of their use in asymmetrical warfare, though not to the point of cancelling plans to miniaturize nuclear weapons. Imagine the political, not the more obvious destructive, effects of a nuclear or even "just" a radiological weapon going off in any city on earth. It's not hard to do: take the reaction to 9/11 and raise it about ten orders of magnitude. One would think that at minimum the majority of the world's populations would beg for a totalitarian lockdown in the service of safety, which it probably wouldn't secure.

But the mention of nuclear winter leads into the even odder treatment of the problem of global warming or anthropogenic climate change. In what may be the final triumph of PR-fueled consent-manufacture, as of one recent poll only 16% of Americans consider it to be a serious problem. About half, give or take, simply do not believe it exists. Yet the science that supports it is rock-solid, unprecedentedly uncontroversial, and so widely distributed across so many independent lines of research in so many disparate, distantly related fields as to be pretty much settled. This disconnect did not just "happen." A massive, decades-long campaign, based on that which was done on behalf of undermining science that linked cigarettes to cancer, has managed to turn global warming into yet another "advertising quality" to be associated with the constellation of qualities that make up the Red State Identity. Literally quadrillions of dollars are on the line since for humanity to survive in any decent fashion, carbon must remain in the ground unburnt and unconverted to profit. The Republicans virtually to a person deny that global warming exists, or if it does that human activity has anything to do with it, or that if it does that we should do much of anything about it. To be fair, the Democrats have hardly led with any real effort to educate the public, let alone any concerted action. The existence of a Party of No provides an often welcome excuse not even to attempt to expend political capital.

Global warming's effects are already here but they will only increase in frequency and severity, eventually in an uncontrollable, runaway chain reaction as the inherently nonlinear system that is the climate reaches the proverbial tipping point. The exodus of hundreds of thousands of Syrians has nearly brought the West to its knees, with Islamophobia running high. The movements of people as sea level rises will make Syria look like a small picnic in the park. It is unlikely that a hundred million Bangladeshis, for example, will politely drown or starve rather than risk offending Westerners by demanding refuge among those societies who have contributed the most carbon and thus experienced the most development of wealth. Moreover, serious pandemics, such as what the Ebola outbreak came within a hair of becoming, will be increasingly common, with catastrophic effects, both human and political. Even the Department of Defense considers global warming to be perhaps the major security threat of the century...and yet almost nothing is being done about it. Worse, as of this writing, Trump has announced that the U.S. will pull out of the Paris Accord, an agreement made weak and voluntary primarily by Republican refusal to endorse any treaty, period, but certainly one that would bind signatories to actual action. All in all, a most untimely resurgence of America First.

A Concluding Note

It is perhaps unfair that technological power has increased to the point at which human beings can no longer stagger along as they have since the Pleistocene in their naive often thoughtlessly destructive fashion. Long gone are the days when disaster could sometimes be averted by moving along to greener pastures, ethnically cleansing any pesky inhabitants, and rebooting society. Turner's frontier thesis has gone global. There's nowhere else to go; no terra incognita on which to start over. This is indeed a very un-American concept, but it is the truth. Business as usual will simply not work, not if we acknowledge the truly terrifying, truly existential threats we face. Yet we seem unable to acknowledge, let alone act on, them in any sufficient manner, possibly because the threats are so dire. But it hardly helps that in the last presidential campaign, global warming was hardly mentioned by either candidate, let alone the media system.

This country was founded on Enlightenment principles. The founders saw it, in typical Enlightenment fashion, as an experiment. The human species itself, like all species, may be viewed as an experiment. Experiments, it must be faced, sometimes fail. America's career has often failed to live up to what even Enlightenment thinkers themselves often failed to live up to -- what we all often fail to live up to: the thoroughgoing application of reason and love to the potentially fixable problems of human life. If the United States is actually to be the last, best hope of earth, it had better get itself going as it has done on occasion in the past when an aroused public unleashed itself on its leadership, forced its hand, and managed to achieve, if only in part, necessary and even great things.