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A man holds a placard equating bankers with terrorists as a small group of protesters march past banks in downtown Los Angeles on October 19, 2011. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds a placard equating bankers with terrorists as a small group of protesters march past banks in downtown Los Angeles on October 19, 2011. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Review: Non-fiction

Can America's decline be arrested? Add to ...

“It’s in the things not mentioned that the untruth lies,” John Steinbeck warned from his experience as a Second World War correspondent. Having immortalized stark reality in Grapes of Wrath America, he found insidious myth and deception in much of wartime reporting and the popular views it moulded were portent of a far wider culture of conformity to come over decades of Cold War and narrowing, ever more venal politics, a conventional wisdom and clubbish orthodoxy that made for careers, fortunes, power.

Lost, of course, was breadth and integrity in the national discourse, until by 2011 the United States faced a crisis of economy and governance. These two books are emblematic of this American moment, as remarkable for “the things not mentioned” as for their presumed cachet.

The writers are ornaments of the wider American political class. Bestselling author, columnist and talk-show habitué Thomas Friedman co-writes That Used To Be Us with Michael Mandelbaum, a Johns Hopkins academic with his own dozen books and prestigious advisory perches. Jeffrey Sachs trails a similarly endowed résumé, consulting for the United Nations and the singer Bono in his much-admired humanitarian campaigns for Africa.

Their books admit to no little ambition. Friedman and Mandelbaum call themselves “Fourth of July guys,” hale “optimists” frustrated by the state of the union, and come forward for nothing less than “to maintain America’s greatness.” Repeating themes of Friedman’s The World is Flat and its sequel, Hot, Flat and Crowded, on the impact of globalization, they see the United States confronting fateful challenges in crushing debt atop pressing public needs, climate change amid unbridled energy consumption, the rewards yet risks of the information-technology revolution, and unprecedented competition and vulnerability in the global marketplace.

The compound crises of decline demand exceptional leadership and a concerted national strategy. But just when dynamic governance is most crucial, U.S. politics have gone dangerously stalled, if not lethally dysfunctional. Both old parties are hostage to special interests, pushed to bitter division by their extremes. That Used To Be Us lifts its bleak litany, with random exceptions to misrule. The best of the book is its portraiture of encouraging, if isolated, cases of innovative administration and engineering human and material. Yet micro successes only set out more sharply macro failure, where the remedies are everything Washington is loath or willfully powerless to enact: higher taxes, budget cuts and discipline, wiser investment, research, planning, greater shared sacrifice and political selflessness.

In the end, Friedman and Mandelbaum have little more to give than their shining examples. To break the systemic impasse, the supposedly bold idea stuffed at the climax of the book, they propose a third-party presidential candidate as a moderate yet pure champion of all the thwarted policies. That candidacy, they grant, would probably not win, American politics being, well, American politics. But the third force would enable millions of voters to “join hands in the radical centre,” an enchanted kingdom the authors find nicely midway between Democrats and Republicans. Surely a “shock to the system” will jolt a newly elected president and Congress to their donor-oblivious, bipartisan senses. It evokes the old Austro-Hungarian refrain: The situation is hopeless but not serious, not Friedman and Mandelbaum with this deliverance, at any rate.

Less jaunty, Jeffrey Sachs moves through much the same diagnosis to an equally dismaying end. “I wrote The Price of Civilization,” he explains, “out of the conviction that the U.S. government has failed to understand and respond to the challenges of globalization ever since it began to impact America’s economy in the 1970s.” Needed was a national public-private mobilization rooted in farsighted government spending on education, infrastructure and technology, preparing the nation for a new world economy while democratizing a wider prosperity.

Instead, a parody of decadence, the Reagan eighties and its mantra of trickle-down economics set off a three-decade spiralling descent. Tax cuts, deregulation and myriad gifts to special interests begat a finely honed bipartisan system of fix and favour in which a few gained vast wealth and power while the many saw ever-receding jobs, services and security, a regression much of Europe indulged as well.

As Sachs recounts, it was a relatively slow-motion coup d’état by which the centre of America’s political spectrum moved relentlessly right, conviction going to the highest bidder in the astronomically rising cost of elected office. The result was the dismantling or attrition of the much of the social-democratic scaffolding erected since the 1930s, and the long-range impact was set in motion early for a seismic shift of power. Class war in effect if not intent, it was over before most Americans knew they were in it.

The Sachs recital has drawn predictable wrath on the right, where, as if to prove the author’s point about a cheapened debate, the book is being savaged in The Wall Street Journal and other organs, not by scholars but by dutiful politicians and comfort bloggers. It points up the ultimate futility of Sachs making a case so at odds with a deeply entrenched system with little sense of how that predominant opposition is to be overcome. If Democrats and Republicans now agree on anything, it is their refusal to expand government and pay Sachs’s trillions as a price of any civilization any time soon.So, two ostensibly important books on an existential crisis in the American system – studied, fluent, confident, attentively received – and largely irrelevant.. To apply to the authors questions that the drawling old Tennessee Senator Howard Baker famously asked about Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal: What did he know and when did he know it. “Because it happened in an incremental way, we didn’t notice it,” Friedman and Mandelbaum write, “until the subprime crisis of 2008 showed just how far we had drifted from some of the bedrock values that used to be us.” The lapse is stunning. Though his later writing on world poverty is more acute, Sachs shares it.

By the beginning of the 1990s, what had happened to American democracy, how long and how deeply the decay had been at work, was the subject of a substantial literature. Never before in U.S. history, in fact, did the titles of an era chorus such debacle and warning all too accurately of what was to come, books such as America: What Went Wrong?, The Best Congress Money Can Buy, The Betrayal of American Democracy, Mink Coats Don’t Trickle Down, Sleepwalking Through History and a score more. Who Will Tell the People? journalist William Greider asked of the misrule so widely known in the political class. Not Messrs. Friedman, Mandelbaum or Sachs – not until economic crisis brought the shock, or self-interest, of recognition.

Of the many “things not mentioned” in That Used To Be Us and The Price of Civilization, the most glaring may be the utterly pervasive tyranny of money over American political mores and institutions, a now crude, now subtle culture of complicity and immunity mocking independent principle and authentic dissent. Friedman and Mandelbaum expecting their post-third force conversion, Sachs reasoning with the chattel tribunes of the right – it all defies Washington’s law of gravity, leaving them to float harmlessly above the real world.

As for revered bipartisanship, both books shirk the necessary and lethal collusion of the Democrats, a fashionably liberal upper caste well rewarded by the spoils, blindly uncritical of the blunders and abuses of its interventions, looking down on a twanging hinterland that was once its natural constituency, abandoning it to the multiple manipulations of reactionary wealth.

Not least of the not mentioned is how much the conformity and smug exclusions of the media and academic establishment shut out the warning alarms, the teeming literature of the past three decades they did not notice or credit, the alternative visions and reforms when there was still time, an educated public before it was economically crushed. Among the dirty little secrets of the domain, of course, has been how much ostensible public intellectuals fed at the same manicured hand in a system suborning universities and the media.

How apt that these books appear as demonstrations erupt across America from Wall Street to the Pacific, literally as well as figuratively passing them by. Rescue, if it comes, may begin in the streets, winning concessions, buying time. But it will surely not end there when the curbing of political money and the redress of vast inequities in power will depend on a legion of precinct workers, public-interest lawyers and work-smart reformers to win back slowly and painfully – the only alternative to chaos and oppression – what has been lost. The civilization they pay for, the regained America, will surely include a new, more perceptive, less compromised array of thinkers and doers, recognizing books like these as the relics they are.

Roger Morris is the author of Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America. His forthcoming book is Between the Graves: America, Afghanistan and the Politics of Intervention.

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