Monday, January 19, 2004

Latin Americanization

When I was a young reporter, one of my first major interviews was with then-Sen. Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who gained a measure of fame (or infamy, at least in conservative circles) in the 1970s for ripping the lid off the Central Intelligence Agency.

Church not only was chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, he also headed the panel that investigated the CIA's many abuses abroad in the preceding years, particularly in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, as well as against American citizens here in the USA. He was famous for (accurately) describing the agency as "a rogue elephant out of control" -- though of course, after Sept. 11, conservatives disinterred Church's corpse and thrashed it publicly for being somehow responsible for the decline of American intelligence. (Chris Mooney at American Prospect did a very nice takedown of this charge.)

I wound up interviewing Church several times, and much of what I learned from him has stuck with me over the years. It indeed seems to me relevant today. "Choose your enemies wisely," he counseled, "for you will become like them." He was describing the American government's propensity for imitating in substance and nature the behavior of Soviet communists -- but his warning could just as easily reflect the current "war on terrorism."

One comment in particular, however, stands out in my mind these days. We were talking about America's future, and where the conservative cadre that was then taking over the Republican Party intended to take us. His expression darkened, and it was clear that he had a good deal of foreboding in this regard. "What I fear most," he said, "is the Latin Americanization of America."

He wasn't concerned, of course, with the arrival of Latinos on American soil (or what Pat Buchanan calls "Meximerica") except insofar as that could be manipulated to achieve this end. What he feared was that corporatist conservatives, if given free rein, would turn our standard of living into what you find in Latin America. That working Americans would one day be reduced to the level of near-serfdom that is the common way of life for millions of Latinos.

During the Clinton years, of course, this fear looked farther and farther remote -- everyone's wages were rising, jobs were being created by the millions, and our standard of living was never healthier. I began to think that we had staved off Church's specter, perhaps forever.

But then, I never imagined the Bush years, either.

James Galbraith's recent piece in Salon was devastatingly accurate in describing our gradual descent into that hell (subscription only, but if you must, buy the day pass and read it). Galbraith, of course, details painfully just how many jobs we are losing, and what that means for working people. I was particularly struck by this passage, since it brought back Church's remark like a bell:
What does Bush want? He wants a growth rate high enough to get him through the election. That's obvious. After that, he doesn't care. His clientele -- the military contractors, oil companies, pharmaceutical firms and big media that control this government -- make their money on patents, contracts and the exercise of monopoly power. (Case in point: Bush is pressuring impoverished Central Americans, in trade negotiations, to add 10 years to the length of drug patents.) These people have no interest in full employment. They like unemployment, weak labor, low wages and a government that bullies on their behalf. And after the election, if Bush wins, that is what they will get for four more years.

And I was likewise struck by Galbraith's description of the outcome of Bush's proposed immigration reforms:
This program will permit any employer to admit any worker. From any country. At any time. The only requirement is that it be for a job Americans are not willing to take. But it is easy to create such jobs: Cut wages. Terminate the unions. Lengthen the hours. Speed up the lines. Chicken farmers have known this for years. Bush's plan is a blank check for every bad boss this country has.

... For millions of citizen workers, what would happen? The answer is clear: Bad bosses drive out the good. Good bosses will turn bad under pressure. The terms of our jobs would get worse and worse. Who would want a citizen worker? A bracero will be so much cheaper, more loyal, and under control. And who among us, in our right mind, would want to look for work? Unless, of course, we needed to eat. Or pay the mortgage. I am not exaggerating: This is a threat to us all.

I'm not sure how many people writing in the blogosphere -- or working in journalism, or especially among the pundit class -- have a clear sense of the reality of this existence -- what it is like to be trapped working for a Wal-Mart or a Con-Agra or any of the thousands of faceless bad bosses whose main purpose in life seems to be finding ways to worsen everyday life for their workers: refusing raises, shortening hours, slashing benefits, pitting employees against each other, allowing work conditions to steadily deteriorate. Eventually they may taste it, of course (anyone who works for a midsized or small-town chain newspaper already has), but for now it is mostly an abstraction, and thus not something as important as, say, John Kerry's haircut.

I have, however -- when I was younger, and before I graduated from college. It is nearly impossible to describe: the claustrophobia, the oppressiveness, the complete mindfuck that is life when one is caught up in this machinery. All I can say is that I worked desperately to escape it, and swore I would try never to forget the masses of people out there caught up in it.

I used to like to joke: "A recession is the Republican way of shortening the lift lines at the ski hill." But things are much more serious than that now. Much more.

If the current generation of Democrats does not recognize it, and fails to begin shouting it from the rooftops, then I genuinely fear that Frank Church's darkest premonitions will finally be realized. It simply boggles my mind that, over the past generation, progressives have allowed working-class people to increasingly identify with conservative Republicans. The GOP has mainly achieved this through a combination of demagoguery and jingoism, appealing to people's baser instincts, particularly the desperate selfishness that in fact is forcibly part of life in the sinking classes. In the process, they have convinced working people to slit their own throats -- and ultimately everyone else's too.

This is, I think, the significant part of what Howard Dean was talking about when he discussed gaining votes among "guys with Confederate flags on their pickups." If Democrats fail to make middle- and working-class citizens recognize that conservatism, as practiced by the Bush administration, is directly inimical to their own self-interest, then we are all in serious trouble -- for years to come.

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