"You know, this used to be a helluva good country"

Reflections on a post-NPSM America


Author's note: This column is about politics and hence is filled with profanity and heaping helpings of excretory imagery. The faint of heart should evacuate this page immediately, like patrons at a Golden Corral buffet once the cheese sauce runs out.

There's a scene in Easy Rider, a movie that is all about America's manifest inability to redeem itself at the last minute, in which George Hanson, the small-town lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, sighs, "You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it."

The good news for George Hanson is that shortly after making this observation, he gets beaten to death by a bunch of rednecks wielding baseball bats.

The bad news for those of us who are alive in the post-American Century century is that we're witnessing a seemingly endless series of what I've come to call "national pants-shitting moments." By this term of art, I mean situations that are simply too terrifying and unbelievable to take at face value. To do so is to admit that things are just so existentially fucked that you almost literally lose control of your most basic bodily functions. Which is, I'm told by people who are supposed to know, what happens to you when you know you are going to die. I don't include horror shows like the Oklahoma City bombing or the 9/11 attacks in this category because they are plain evil, pure and simple. What's integral to a national pants-shitting moment (NPSM) is that as it unfolds, you're being told that what is plainly true is not in fact what's happening. And you really don't want to believe what you know to be true.

The first NPSM I recall fully came on August 20, 1998, the day that Bill Clinton ordered bombing runs on terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan. It was also, as you may recall, the same 24-hour-period during which Monica Lewinsky delivered grand jury testimony on the then-pressing matter of whether the president had lied under oath (he had).

Unless you were retarded, or Hillary Clinton, you could only draw one honest conclusion (a conclusion shared by nearly 50 percent of the country at the time): The bombings proceeded not from even a semblance of sober, rational calculation of the national interest or an attempt to protect American lives and property, but from a desperate desire of a sitting chief executive to cover his ass. I'm not pretending to have been naive back then, to have thought that foreign policy—or domestic policy, for that matter—was some noble, idealistic undertaking.

But Clinton's actions were breathtaking, even—or especially—among those of us who are totally cynical about the intentions and outcomes of state power. There was simply no way to account for his actions, except in a way that no one really wanted to believe. And he took our breath away again in December 1998 by bombing Iraq on the evening before the House of Representatives was voting on articles of impeachment, thereby delaying the proceedings. If Clinton was doing what he plainly was doing, he revealed a secret skeleton key to history that unlocked a treasure-trove of despair. What else in American history has happened because of such base, stupid, and vulgar motivations? How incompetent could government actors be that they would think they could get away with such shit? (Which, of course, he did.)

It seems to me that ever since those bombings we've been moving faster than Capt. James T. Kirk on a green-skinned alien toward a complete breakdown of legitimacy in politics. The 2000 election ended in a dead heat and each party in Bush v. Gore employed precisely the opposite arguments they claimed as first principles (the Dems went for a state's rights case while the Republicans pushed a federal case; the same ideological gender-bending was evident in the grotesque Terri Schiavo case a few years later). You can't fault Bush, Gore, and their minions for slugging it out to the bitter end, but you don't have to believe them when they try to pretend that they actually have principles.

The Bush administration's case for invading Iraq was a house built on sand and the only question remains whether anyone in the Bush administration other than the good soldier Colin Powell believed what he was saying at the time. But even beyond all those infinitely disturbing questions about whether people in a position to know really believed in weapons of mass destruction, there was something more screwy going on. Those of us who are not party hacks were forced to witness Democrats, who had been so bellicose during the Clinton years, suddenly become peaceniks. And Republicans, who were against sending even our bombs, much less our boys, overseas to the former (and god forbid, the future) Yugoslavia or anywhere else when a Democrat ran the military, suddenly come out in favor of not just nation-building but region-sculpting. And now we've got a president-elect who somehow ran as the peace candidate who has talked about increasing the size of the military, invading Pakistan or Iran, and finally getting American forces into Darfur.

Fast-forward to the past eight weeks or so and feelings of dizziness and epistemological irritable bowel syndrome have reached uncontainable levels. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson appears virtually out of nowhere to inform us that the U.S. economy will collapse if Congress doesn't pass the economic equivalent of the Patriot Act. In eight days, no less. Congress passed it and the markets still tanked. So Paulson changes his mind about what the bailout is for. And then again. Or maybe he simply loses his mind (watch him on the TV sometime with the sound turned off). The important thing is that the former head of Goldman Sachs has given his company $25 billion in tax dollars (at a minimum) and the government is on the hook for oh about $8.5 trillion in direct subsidies and guarantees related to various bailouts. Which Republicans are already blaming on Obama, who has yet to take office. And Democrats keep talking about how Bush and the Republicans deregulated everything, when the exact opposite is true.

Carmakers beg for more money from Congress (they got some earlier this fall) and will almost certainly get something either now or in a couple of months. Whatever partial nationalization that follows will be touted as necessary to rescue…free enterprise, just like with the financial sector. We're in the middle of a meltdown caused by easy money. The government-approved solution? Even easier money, especially for homeowners. Or at least the ones who have demonstrated an inability to pay (if you're up to date on your mortgage or rent, go fuck yourself). We've got to jump-start the economy, prime the pump, put confidence back into the markets by spending today and saving tomorrow. Go figure. Trust them, they know what they're doing. President-elect Barack Obama is promising a stimulus package for an economy that has received more stimulation than John Holmes in Saturday Night Beaver. No third term for Bush. But maybe one for Bill Clinton. Hope. Change. Tom Daschle. Boolah-boolah.

And then, as a semi-comical cherry on the very top of this shit sundae is the bizarre arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) for, among other things, allegedly trying to sell the Senate seat being vacated by Obama for as much as…$1 million (cue the Dr. Evil impersonation). According to ABC News, the Justice Department claims it has tapes of Blago saying things such as, "I've got this thing, it's fucking golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for fuckin' nothing." That's only the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to Blagojevich and whatever pols he takes down with him.

In a fundamental way, we know that all the charges are true, against Blago and every other politician, now and forever, amen. At least since some time in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson's credibility gap grew bigger than his gall bladder scar and his dog's ears combined, or, at the very latest, in the early '70s, when Richard Nixon mumbled that he wasn't a crook (thereby acknowledging that he was in fact one), we've known that the worst thing we can imagine about our politicians is true. My father, born during the Harding administration for god's sake, averred that everyone always knew this was the case. But it's almost as if we are now conjuring up our own national nightmares, like some weird character from a Harry Potter novel. There are some good politicians, of course, but even when they are trying to do the right thing, they screw everything up, it seems. And of course much of the time, they are not even particularly concerned with doing the right thing.

Which explains historically low presidential approval ratings and congressional ratings that barely make it out of the high teens.

And in this sense, the George Hanson character from Easy Rider had it all wrong. This never was a "helluva good country," at least when it came to politicians. We just pretended it was. Certainly, after a decade or more of NPSMs up the ying-yang (apologies, but we are talking about politics, which driveth all decent men and women mad), it's impossible to have any illusions. We are a nation of Depends wearers, even those of us who are half the age of John McCain.

And here's one final turn of the screw, the worm, whatever. According to the authors of the depressing yet persuasive (and unpublished!) paper "Regulation and Distrust," the less we believe in government, the more of it we will demand.

Writing in July, Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer argue that "distrust influences not just regulation itself, but the demand for regulation. Using the World Values Survey, we show both in a cross-section of countries, and in a sample of individuals from around the world, that distrust fuels support for government control over the economy. What is perhaps most interesting about this finding…is that distrust generates demand for regulation even when people realize that the government is corrupt and ineffective."

That's just one more horrible, deep-rumbling-in-the-very-depth-of-our-bodies-and-souls truth that stands revealed before us, at the end of the Clinton-Bush years. And, sadly because history is a dream from which we cannot awake, the Bush-Obama years, which have already started.

Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com.