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Short memories, misdirected anger, nutty politics

This has got to be one of the nuttiest periods in American political history. At a time when you'd expect populist anger to be directed at corporate, big-money interests for getting the nation into the worst financial ditch since the Great Depression, most of the populist anger is directed at progressive, regulatory-minded government, while corporate, big-money interests are gleefully buying congressional seats across the country.

I understand that in the digital-cellular world of 2010, everyone is distracted, and medical research tells us that attention spans are getting shorter all the time.

But you'd think something like the most far-reaching economic collapse that most Americans alive today ever experienced — and the reasons for it — would have left an impression.

Anyone recall the failures of greedy, giant investment banks and other Wall Street institutions after taking enormous financial risks while the Bush administration was either asleep or looking the other way?

Does "subprime" strike a familiar note? Derivatives? Bundled mortgage securities? Credit default swaps? Does Lehman Brothers ring a bell? How about AIG? How about those lavish junkets and multimillion-dollar bonuses for AIG executives in the midst of the mess?

And what about the human toll — loss of jobs, evictions, foreclosures, declines in retirement funds?

Even Alan Greenspan, former Fed chairman and student of Ayn Rand, admitted that he was wrong about the so-called "self-correcting power of free markets." He was stunned and appalled that banks had turned the U.S. housing market into a massive casino.

"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief," Mr. Greenspan told a congressional committee.

He said he had been wrong to support the deregulation that made exotic wagering on the housing market possible. I realize we live in the warp-speed Information Age, but that was only two years ago this month.

Aside from a brief period last year, when some citizens registered complaints about government bailouts, we haven't seen or heard the kind of sustained demand for reforms — and support for progressives — one might have expected for a nation of thoughtful, rational people who have been burned by the corporate establishment.

But we are not so thoughtful, not so rational.

Here it is, 2010, and the loudest and most enthusiastic populist movement on the national scene wants less government, fewer reforms. "Get government out of the way," is a tea party refrain.

Tea partiers opposed the overhaul of health care, even as health care costs continue to grow and be a drag on economic expansion. Tea partiers opposed bailouts for banks, even with the threat of the economy going deeper into the tank, and they opposed the multibillion-dollar effort by the Obama administration to stimulate some job growth.

You can understand the dissent about big government, government spending and taxes, though at some point the tea party expectations about cutting the budget (Social Security? Medicare? Pentagon funding?) become ridiculous and even hypocritical. You wonder where these people were when the Bush administration ran war costs into the trillions and cut taxes, leaving behind huge deficits.

What's nuts, however, is the call for less government regulation and the very Republican-sounding assertion that what the nation needs is a return to the free market — as if corporate America has been bound and gagged in the last two years.

In fact, the complete opposite is true, and we are living through it.

While President Barack Obama signed a Wall Street overhaul bill to make the financial system more transparent and accountable, the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to corporate America to take back the streets.

With all the big money pouring into congressional campaigns this fall, corporate interests could get what they want: Republican majorities to smash even meager attempts at progressive reform, perhaps even repeal the health care overhaul or, more likely, do absolutely nothing.

The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United liberated political groups to spend unlimited amounts of corporate money on independent ads for or against candidates. It's happening in Maryland, as the conservative Republican Andy Harris attempts to unseat first-term blue dog Democrat Frank Kratovil in the 1st District.

Where's the populist anger about all the mysterious ads making all those outrageous claims on television and radio? Where's the pushback against the corporate coup that's under way?

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM.

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