This is a story about two crises, one line, and one question.
We’re entering primary season. Lots of moderate Democrats want to be President. There’s a specific media cycle for centrist candidates. First, excitement. Second, everyone does research on the candidate. Third, disappointment follows. If you watch this close enough, you notice a pattern. It doesn’t matter who the centrist candidate is. They always have two blotches on their record: the Iraq War, and the 2008 Financial Crisis. Time and again, the candidate made the wrong choice.
These two crises define what makes a centrist a centrist. Allow me to explain.
Here’s a short list of people who are responsible for the Iraq War. This inventory is not exhaustive. If we expanded the catalog to include lower-level government officials, it would be several times longer.
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Richard Perle, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Paul Wolfowitz , Bruce P. Jackson, Michael Rubin, Randy Scheunemann, Harlan K. Ullman, James Woolsey, and Tony Blair
Here’s a short (but not complete) list of the people responsible for the 2008 Financial Crisis:
Abby Cohen, Angelo Mozilo, Phil Gramm, Alan Greenspan, Chris Cox, Larry Summers, Hank Paulson, Joe Cassano, Ian McCarthy, Frank Raines, Kathleen Corbet, Dick Fuld, Christopher Dodd, Marion and Herb Sandler, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Stan O’Neal, Wen Jiabao, David Lereah, John Devaney, Lew Ranieri, Burton Jablin, Fred Goodwin, Sandy Weill, David Oddsson, Jimmy Cayne, Maurice Greenberg, Andy Hornby, Fred Goodwin, Chuck Prince, Lloyd Blankfein, Ralph Cioffi, and Matthew Tannin
The history of the early 21st century can be told in these names. Those two crises are responsible for our current political predicament. Don’t get me wrong. Neoliberalism is responsible for our economic turmoil. Climate change is burning California.
If this theory seems rather obvious to you, that’s fine. Obvious truths need to be restated. True stories need the most repetition.
I list the names above for a reason. The two crises were not Acts of God. They were created by human beings. The events above didn’t just happen. They were made to happen. Two groups of people caused the last twenty years of American political history.
The two crises are not the only important events since 2000. But they sum up the rest. More importantly, the reaction to these calamities built the America we live in now. These two problems were caused by the establishment. The crimes behind the crises were ignored by the establishment.
The establishment is made up of the center-left and the center-right. Do you want to know what unites them? I will tell you. They are afraid of facing down American foreign policy and American capitalism. They fear the Foreign Policy Blob, and they fear Wall Street. The architects of the war and the financial crisis got away with it. They left office. Their successors could have mended matters. They didn’t.
There is one line in the sand that defines your politics today:
Are you willing to confront 2008 and Iraq?
Are you ready to address why they happened—why they really happened—and what they mean?
That’s the one line. If you refuse to face the crises, you are called a “moderate.” If you do want to confront the crises, you’re called a “radical” or an “extremist.” It’s pretty simple.
The center will never cross the line. At most, they might make a speech. But action? No, never. They will not confront the two crises. Not in a hundred million years. That silence is the keystone of our political order. The silence is the steam engine pushing forward outsiders like Bernie, Warren, and Trump.
These days, the center worries about the erosion of norms. But the norms were shredded long before Donald J. Trump rode down his great fool escalator. If some well-meaning brow-creaser tells you about Trump being elected by Fake News, ask him what the hell the Iraq War was.
If you’re ever bored, I have a game for you. The next time you read a think-piece about declining national values, scan the text and see if they mention the two crises at all.
Iraq War promoter David Brooks is the funniest of them all. Brooks is concerned with the social fabric of America. “America’s social fabric is being ripped to shreds,” Brooks wrote in a manifesto for the Aspen Institute. Later in the same document, he added:
If there is no trust at the foundations of society, if there is no goodness, care, or faithfulness, relationships crumble, and the market and the state crash to pieces.
That’s a puzzler. Indeed, where has the love gone? Let me take a swing at it, old sport. You know what might have destroyed the “trust” at the “foundations of society?” The way every single important institution of my society protected injustice.
In 2003 and 2008, ordinary people suffered, and the powerful got away with it. The words we were taught in school about civics and good government were just that: words. Nothing more. How did Brooks put it, in 2003? “History will allow clear judgments about which leaders and which institutions were up to the challenge posed by Saddam.”
Well, this is history, knocking on the door.
Indeed, the two crises taught me what two hundred years of history had not: My society, and the generation that runs my society, are completely full of shit.
In the Tempest, the monster Caliban tells his master Prospero, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you for learning me your language!” Why don’t millennials trust American institutions? Because we know better. Society taught us the value of that trust. You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse.
This is why millennials will win this fight. They lack the illusions past generations had.
The two crises destroyed the America that was. It made the Republic look like a sham.
The student debt crisis would have happened without the financial crisis. But without 2008, without the bailout and the failure to prosecute, we would not have clear examples of whose financial needs “mattered,” and whose needs didn’t.
When Amy Klobuchar says to students, “I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs, I do,” we know she is making things up again. Poor Klobuchar! Her votes are a matter of public record. She supported for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 which authorized $198 billion for the military.
In the past, this kind of spending spree could have been forgiven as a one-off. An isolated incident. But the two crises fixed our amnesia. Why is Medicare For All gaining ground? Because Iraq showed us whose spending needs counted. The old arguments about “paying” for this or that don’t work now. We are reminded of the $2.4 trillion bill for the Iraq War, and that the 2008 crisis cost every American $70,000. We learned that there is always money for war and rich people.
The American prison system would still be exploitative and racist without the two crises. But when the bankers got away with it, the notion of justice under law seemed quaint to millennials.
We learned that the gears of justice only apply to you if you are poor or marginalized.
When Pete Buttgieg says of felons, “Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights. You lose your freedom. And I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote”—and then he says they should get the franchise back when they leave prison—we know that he is making things up again. Poor Buttgieg! He thinks it’s still the Nineties, and that millennials will let jails do whatever they want.
The two crises taught us a different way. The two crises taught us the illegitimacy of institutions.
American political problems get treated as if they were hurricanes. They seem to come out of nowhere. They hurt people. And everybody says, “What a tragedy.” The important folks shrug their shoulders and say, “If only this could have been prevented.” But this is nonsense.
Our problems are created by politics. They can be solved by politics. No laws of nature say that single moms have to work three jobs. No mathematical truths dictate that Puerto Rico should be in tatters. Gravity does not command student debt. Show me where on the Periodic Table it says we have to have eternal war.
The two crises are worth talking about. Especially in election season. We must address the contradictions they embody: America must stop fighting the eternal war. America must stop existing only for rich people. America must become a country of laws.
Until we face these problems—until we elect politicians who will address these issues—we cannot move ahead. Not as a people. Not as a nation.
And so, we arrive at the one question. The only question that matters is about the two crises: “How do we react to them? What do we change?”
If your response is “not much,” you will never be President. You will never really lead again. Sorry, Pete. Sorry, Amy. Sorry, Uncle Joe.
Until we make right what once went wrong, we will live in Crisis World. Time heals all wounds, they say. But we must fix this. Not some abstract force of history. Only us. We must look to ourselves to create a better society. And we will. The problems are still out there, but the fix is in.