If there is one lesson to take from this year’s political season it is this: just about everyone is sick of this shit. Fed up. Tired of being lied to. Angry about the growing disparity between the rich and everyone else. Feeling like the America we were all promised is slipping through our fingers like sand. Feeling like we are being taken advantage of.
This is key. I’m going to come back to the theme of ‘being taken advantage of’ over and over in this essay.
In the meantime, let’s focus on the current situation. We are being asked to make a choice for President of the United States between two of the most disliked people to ever run for that office. How the hell did that happen? How did the major parties both nominate such deplorable candidates?
How? Simple: the Democrats used their political machinery to engineer a victory for Hillary Clinton while the Republicans failed to use theirs to exclude Donald Trump. It really boils down to that. On both sides you had outsiders running on populist platforms speaking to the concerns of the disenfranchised, but one side used every trick in the book to exclude the outsider and the other put its fingers in its ears and went, “Na, na, na, na.”
The failure of dog whistle politics
The ‘why’ of the Republican Party failure is going to be debated by pundits for years, but I think it boils down to this: the GOP has hypocritically used dog-whistle politics for a long time to energize a portion of their base characterized by racist, exclusionist, and nativist views.
This was the Republican ‘Southern Strategy,’ which they instituted after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to wrest control of the deep South away from the Democrats. They convinced these people they were on their side and deluded them into believing the GOP would address their concerns, concerns that included feelings of being left out by changes to the world. Then what they actually delivered consisted of ‘more of the same,’ focused on helping out the fat cats at the expense of everyone else.
The GOP establishment used those people. Used them hard and put them away wet. This led to the rise of the Tea Party and other movements within the GOP, focusing more on the yearnings of this base and seeking to actually address their legitimate concerns. (And some of their more problematic demands as well.) Unable to repudiate these movements without losing those voters, the GOP establishment coasted instead, waiting for the whole thing to burn out and throwing a bone once in a while. Only it didn’t burn out, because ambitious demagogues stepped into the power vacuum. (I’m looking at you Cruz.)
The thing is, ordinary demagogues working within GOP power structures weren’t existential dangers. The GOP elites had been handling that kind of problem for years and knew what to do. What they didn’t know how to handle was a ‘black swan’ leaping into the race and eschewing the dog whistle for one that could be clearly heard.
With Trump the GOP was forced to make a choice: let him strip away the veil and win the nomination by owning the worst elements of their electorate or fight back against the crazy and lose a big piece of that same electorate going forward. A choice possibly leading to making the Tea Party a separate entity able to suck away GOP support forever.
They chose the coward’s way out.
When your Left looks more like your Right
On the other side of the fence we have the so-called ‘liberal’ party playing their own shell game–pretending to be ‘progressives’ while in fact delivering pretty much the same things as the conservatives. Mind you, there are plenty of differences in social policy between the Democrats and the Republicans, but that’s about it. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of running the country, international diplomacy, and keeping the ‘1%’ on the sweet side of the tax system they have proved to be more alike to the Right than a mirror of it.
And Hillary Clinton? We are talking about the insider’s insider here and we are talking about a force to be reckoned with. Powerful. Connected. Extremely smart and very capable. Very much into ‘politics as usual.’ If she was a Republican they would have nominated her in a heartbeat. Given the sad slate of opponents they originally fielded against Clinton one might even be tempted to think they wouldn’t mind seeing her in the White House all that much, despite all the invective they hurl against her.
In many ways Ms. Clinton exemplifies everything the GOP elite actually wants. She is in tight with the money men (yes, men) and is a foreign policy hawk. Her instincts are for ‘law and order’ and greater government control of damn near everything. She has no problem with government snooping, inside or outside the USA. A Clinton presidency would be generally good for the Military Industrial Complex and generally bad for individual rights. She really is the GOP-elite dream candidate.
But, you ask, isn’t the GOP for individual rights? Not really. In fact, almost not at all outside of the 2nd amendment, and that is mostly a play to their base.
But, but, the 2nd amendment! Clinton is going to take away our guns, right? You’ve been listening to too much Right-Wing radio son. Clinton has no interest in gun control outside of the possibility it might bring her more votes. How many policy statements has she actually made on that front?
Well then, how about big government? The GOP is against that, right? Excuse me for a second . . . I need to stop laughing before I continue. The answer is: no, not at all. Government and the National Debt that supports it has expanded enormously under every president since Eisenhower, without regard to their political affiliation. (Yeah, Eisenhower, the guy who first warned us about the ‘Military Industrial Complex.’) The Bush clan were probably the worst offenders. Compared to them Bill Clinton was a small-government zealot.
But, corruption, what about that? Hillary is a corrupt politician, right? Well, I’ll give you that one, but only if you accept she is the same kind of corrupt politician as the GOP elite. Beholden to the same kings of industry and embedded into the same power structures. Clinton is corrupt, but she is normally corrupt in a manner and to a degree that echoes nearly every career politician in Washington DC, political affiliation notwithstanding.
Clinton is part of the machine. No denying it.
This is why the Democratic Party did what they had to do in order to make sure Hillary got the nomination; because in all truth they are the other side of the Republican coin, not the opposition.
A house on fire
One could say it is this very corruption driving people onto the Trump bus right now. Some are the same racists and nativists who won him the nomination. But many, perhaps even most, aren’t there because they love Trump so much as they are there because they believe something is wrong with this country and Clinton is part of the problem.
I think they are right. There is indeed something wrong with this country. I think Hillary Clinton is indeed part of the problem. (Along with all the other leaders of both parties.) I believe the highest levels of political power in this country are largely controlled by big money interests, even if that control is indirect and diffuse. Difficult to pin down because the connections are never explicit. Because the driving factors are not outright conspiracy, but rather self-interest and patronage.
The perception our political system is corrupt is one shared by many on both sides of the political fence. On the right you have your Tea Partiers and (big or small ‘L’) Libertarians. On the left you have your Bernie supporters and the Green Party. (Not to forget the Occupy movement.) All of these disparate groupings are generally in agreement about at least one thing: the rich have too much power and take too much advantage.
Mind you, there are a lot of other things wrong with this country. We are riddled with isms; sexism, ableism, ageism, racism, you name it. Racism remains one of our greatest evils and even after half a century of concerted scrubbing its stench still permeates local power structures and culture. And despite the fact this is a rich country with enormous resources, we don’t take nearly good enough care of our least fortunate citizens.
Then there is the way we have allowed an entirely unreasonable fear of terrorism to become a wedge between us and our best interests. Statistically you are far more likely to be killed by damn near anything than terrorism, but in the name of safety from this far-from-existential threat we have allowed our individual freedoms and rights to privacy to be stripped away. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “Those who surrender freedom for [an] imagined security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
And the drug war? That’s the wedge the elites used before they had terrorism to scare us with. Before that it was Communism. This stuff goes way back.
But these are only distractions. The real problem is somewhat of our own making: for years we voted for the candidates put up by the party elites and we got what we deserved, a country run by the rich for the advantage of the rich. One where trickle-down-economics barely trickles and we fight war after senseless war abroad, funding them with debt we can never repay. We have been used and abused and taken advantage of at every turn. All because when we went into the polling booth we figured maybe they were all sons-of-bitches, but our son-of-a-bitch was different.
Outrage at the way we were used has been smoldering for a while, but this year it broke into open flame.
On the left Bernie Sanders turned in a surprisingly powerful performance. Not because he is a great politician so much as because he isn’t and is perceived as coming from outside the power structures. On the right another outsider, Donald Trump, captured the GOP nomination using the tactics I described above.
So, instead of a fake wrestling match between two avatars of the establishment we got one solid establishment candidate and one outsider. As a result a good part of the people right now committed to voting for The Donald are not so much pro-Trump as they are anti-Clinton. Anti-establishment.
Think about this. These people are so angry, so tired of being taken advantage of, that they will vote for someone as personally repellent as Trump. They might be deceiving themselves about why. They might not even know what they really want. But they do know they don’t want any more of the same-old-same-o.
I live in Trump country. I’ve heard them talk about it over coffee or beers. Some really are deplorable people, racists and the like. But the majority are decent folk who want to see change at almost any price. Some even publicly and seriously discuss the possibility of armed insurrection. I’ve heard people I know to be good and upright citizens say these things.
Yes, these same people are aware Trump is a horrible person. I’m sure they have even given some consideration to the eyebrow-raising fact one of the 1%, one of the establishment, is cold-bloodily exploiting populism and anti-establishment sentiment as his vehicle to the White House. But they rationalize it all away because their desire for immediate change is so great.
The conclusion is inescapable. The house we live in is on fire.
You don’t put out a fire with gasoline
There is a saying, “Those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it.” Historically successful populist movements led by demagogues either fizzle out with in-fighting or turn into dictatorships. The more extreme the demagogue and the movement the more likely the end result is either immediate dictatorship or total anarchy leading eventually to dictatorship. This has happened over and over throughout recorded history. I can give you chapter and verse if you like. Starting with Ancient Greece.
This happens because people entirely fed up with the current order are willing to try anything to change it. Because they believe the consequences of trying seem less bad than the consequences of staying pat. They are usually wrong.
It’s all a matter of degree. If the current system is like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia then, yeah, there is little to lose by burning it down. But our house isn’t that far gone. Yes, it is corrupt, but our system mostly works. I’ve traveled a bit and seen how people live in other countries and, with all of its faults, the United States of America is still one of the best places there is. Really. REALLY.
One of the reasons why we are exceptional is this: we can solve our problems without burning down the house. Yes, both major political parties are corrupt. Yes, both answer to the same masters. Yes the rich are always going to get more than their share and there will always be a deep unfairness dominating our politics so long as money plays an important role in it. (In other words, pretty much forever.) But the parties also respond to the electorate given time and pressure. They really are in it to win and if they start losing support they will change their tactics to get those voters back or someone else will come along and do it for them.
We’ve been through this before in America you know! Over and over. And far worse than today. Read about the ‘Spoils System’ of the nineteenth century if you don’t believe me.
Remember, we live in a country where we can change things by simply demanding change with firm, but non-violent, methods. Via our constitutional right to free speech and assembly and via our choices at the ballot box. We’ve done it before and we can do it again. And we can do it without electing a dangerous demagogue to the highest office in the land. We can do it by simply making our demand for change heard; so long as we do it together, left and right shoulder-to-shoulder.
This is because the USA was originally established by very smart people who were forced to tear down an existing order which had become intolerable, but who DID know their history. They so feared the government becoming entrapped by our worst elements they engineered a system with feedback loops and separate centers of power. They even chiseled individual rights and government limitations right into the very rock they built it on.
It takes time and effort and getting involved and maybe we need to leave the fire burning for a bit–so long as we can keep it small–because the smoke is a call to action. But we can save this house for all of us. We can clean up at least some of the corruption, starting with getting big money out of politics and putting an end to things like PACs. We don’t need to chance leaving our children naught but ashes simply because we are sick of this shit and we don’t want to take it any more. That’s the easy way out which often leads to worse.
I’m not saying Donald Trump is without doubt a wannabe dictator, expecting to misuse the presidential power granted to him to ‘fix things.’ Nor am I saying Trumpism must eventually devolve into something as completely broken as the French Revolution. I’m not even saying you have to hold your nose and vote for Hillary Clinton. I’m saying yes, the house is on fire–but you don’t put it out with gasoline.
Author’s note: if you agree the real problems are big money in politics, lack of transparency, and a deep unfairness built into the system you have many options for what to do next. Personally I am partial to the Open Source Party and suggest you take a look at them.