Friday, August 29, 2014
We're Living In America's Brezhnev Years
About a decade ago in the midst of the worst of the Bush administration, I quipped to a friend that America was entering its Brezhnev years. Despite a change in the White House and a lot of other events in the interim, I think that my offhand comment might have been more truthful than I ever could have realized.
For those of you who don't know, Leonid Brezhnev lead the the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982. While its military might grew to unprecedented levels and its oil resources better exploited, beneath the images of tanks parading down Red Square on May Day sat a vast festering reservoir of economic and cultural stagnation. The situation, where a massive military machine had to be supported by hobbled economy, led to Gorbachev's reforms and eventually to the Soviet system's collapse. A world power, one of the two superpowers, was brought low in an astoundingly short period of time. One notable thing about this period was not only the economic stagnation, but the basic loss of faith in the Soviet system and communist ideology. Laconic workers in this period used to quip "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." This is hardly the spirit of the "shock workers" who helped build steel mills in the Ural wilderness in the 1930s. In the 1980s, when Gorbachev's glasnost policies carried the day, few people bothered to defend the principles of Marxism-Leninism. According to recent article about Vladimir Putin in The New Yorker, even members of the secret police "laughed at Soviet ideology" and "thought it was a joke."
I see plenty of parallels to America's present and its recent history. While American military power has never been bigger, its weakness has been exposed. Just the Soviets had their misguided invasion of Afghanistan, we have had ours, along with the war in Iraq, whose unintended consequences have come back to haunt the United States in recent days. America's ability to assert its role abroad has been called into question in ways the world hasn't seen since before World War II.
On the domestic front long term problems are simply being allowed to fester like a gangrenous infection. Our infrastructure is crumbling, the immigration system cries out for reform, higher education is being defunded, and poor communities and their children have been left to wither. Economic inequality is returning to Gilded Age levels. The political will to overcome the obstacles to solving these problems appears to be completely absent. In the midst of the urgency to do something, our current Congress has been one of the least productive in history.
Above all, just as the Soviet state lumbered on even though most of its people did not believe in the regime's ideology anymore, in the United States our leaders seem to have stopped believing in basic democratic principles. Both parties are bought and sold by corporate interests and spend all their time on symbolic gestures intended to get their partisans' support at the polls without actually doing something about anything the people care about. The public too seems to have largely lost interest in holding their leaders accountable, or to bother caring or paying attention to the state of things. Voters certainly aren't flocking to the polls. After the president's press conference yesterday, all of the commentary I saw on Twitter, even by intelligent people I respect, focused on Obama's tan suit and not on the possibility of being entangled in conflicts in Iraq and the Ukraine. The protests in Ferguson give me hope that there are people willing to press for real change, but most people in this country are content to be fixed to their iPhone screens and ignore the stench of decline that surrounds them.
In the Soviet bloc, humor often subversively commented on popular discontent with an unresponsive system. Much the same is evident today. When future historians want to understand the mentality of America's Brezhnev years, I am sure they will be watching episodes of Veep. The politicians and their handlers spend their time obsessed with superficial image making, and only deal with regular people when using them as props for photo opportunities. They feel contempt for the public, but it is a light-hearted, off-hand contempt, the basic mode of our ruling class. That ruling class might want to look back at the gerontocracy of the Brezhnev regime, and start thinking that their end might be closer at hand than they think.