The Jack Abramoff scandal focused much of our attention on the power and influence of K Street lobbyists in Washington. But it isn’t K Street that comes to mind as I watch events unfold, listen to experts on international affairs or read the thoughtful columns of Frank Rich and others. Rather it is K, the protagonist of a Kafka novel. If you peel things down to the core, we’re mired in a Kafkaesque situation of vast proportions. We know what the problem is, can see the mistakes we’re making and even have some idea of how, if not to fix them, then at least make things better. The fact is that while we theoretically have the power of the ballot, we as citizens are essentially impotent, victims of what is at best flawed decision-making. We see a deteriorating situation and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. We’re a collective K whose ability to determine our destiny in any substantial way is ephemeral, if non existent.
During these past years I have become increasingly convinced that, from a citizen’s standpoint, our approach to democracy is flawed. It’s ironic that we hold ourselves out as a beacon to be followed by others. The Founding Fathers set us on the wrong course, or at least one with unintended consequences. George Washington didn’t want to become a monarch, which is why he limited his tenure in office. But the structure he and his colleagues put in place led to monarchy all the same, even if limited to eight years. While we may naively think that checks and balances govern, the fact remains that the presidency, as presently constituted, provides all but absolute power. Congress finds itself in an impossible situation in which the only recourse they have is to cut off funds, a sure path to political suicide. Executive privilege isn’t about holding back information; it’s about being able to do exactly as the chief executive wishes. The war will continue as long as the President in office wants to stay the course. Citizen K can’t do a damn thing about it.
It is said that our approach to things military is informed by the Viet Nam experience. Most of us forget, and some of us are too young to remember, that the casualties in Iraq pale in comparison to that conflict where combat deaths were at one thousand a month when Lyndon Johnson delivered his famous “I will not run” declaration. Two things came out of that experience. The first was that we would no longer have a draft and the second that, wherever possible, we would avoid setting too many feet on the ground. War after Viet Nam would, from an American perspective, be as antiseptic as possible, as few dirty hands and muddy feet as possible. Machine and technology would be our front line of offence and defense. The latter decision, and its unrealistic dream of arms length conflict, led to the minimal commitment of forces about which even proponents of the war have complained. The Pentagon really saw the shock and awe of air power as a panacea of victory. The abolishment of the draft, which meant that the vast majority of Americans would be voyeurs not participants, had profound political consequences.
Any high school senior knows that feeling of dreaded anticipation that a slim envelope of rejection will come from their college of choice. Eighteen year olds in the 1960s feared an envelope of acceptance, a command performance from their local draft board. No American family was untouched, even if only living with the expectation that one of theirs would be called to arms. There were no onlookers in Viet Nam only participants. But there was nothing high-minded in the decision that followed to opt for an all-volunteer army. Politicians were battle weary not from combat in South East Asia, but from combat on the streets. Involving everyone meant that everyone was ready to engage. When the population got “mad as hell” they wouldn’t “take it any more”. Young and old took to the streets, something that simply could not be allowed to happen any more. There is no underlying rationale for eliminating the draft for the real or wannabe “most powerful nation on earth”. It makes no sense. Sure we may not need large numbers of troops all of the time, but that can be controlled by limited call-ups and with the further offset of volunteerism. In the face of Iraq, there are no masses in the streets and that’s precisely the way our government wants it. Their absence eliminates pressure and gives voice to the myth that the polls don’t mean much because people don’t really care. In this case, intended consequences resulting in a nation of K’s.
Finally, in or present state I don’t think merely of Kafka but also of Vance Packard and The Hidden Persuaders – not of K Street but of Madison Avenue. It was Richard Nixon who brought in the Ad men and bestowed upon them tremendous power. Since that time, the techniques of advertising have been used to influence in an unprecedented way, particularly words, taglines and their constant repetition. “Tide’s in, dirt’s out” repeated thousands of times convinced us (especially the women who were the ordained laundresses) that only the powder in that orange box could get our cloths squeaky clean. Good advertising means staying on message, telling not necessarily what is, but what you want people to think is. Say you’re “pro-life” enough times and anyone who opposes you will be, by implication, “pro-death”. Apply terrorist to all those you face in battle and anyone who questions you will be aiding and abetting a repeat of 9/11 (Bush and Giuliani’s favorite holiday). It reminds one of McCarthy and his invented Communist menace. The repetition of words (highlighted in Frank Rich’s recent column) is meant to brainwash, to make their message our message. And doesn’t that bring us right back to K and, from a relative perspective, to the minor role of K Street in shaping the condition of our lives?