Fear in American Politics
Okay, the election is over. It may be a stretch for a resident of Alaska to ask what’s wrong with America, because the rest of the country has long been witness to Alaskans’ lack of good judgment. The bizarre antics of our lone congressman, for example, have for decades put Don Young in a class by himself, not to mention the unrelenting saga of Sarah Palin. So, it’s not really a surprise that Senate candidate Joe Miller is challenging the public’s ability to spell the name of his opponent, Lisa Murkowski. But with all the ranting from the Tea Party about the sanctity of freedom and reverence for the Constitution, if Miller really thinks voters feel their vote should be nullified because of a misspelling, something is wrong, something that matters.
Looking deeper, I would argue that what’s wrong here is what’s wrong with America. When people have little or no respect for the spirit of the law, as Miller’s actions demonstrate, it stems in large part from a lack of respect for opposing views. In a nutshell, it’s about identity: what the other side wants doesn’t matter, the spirit of the law be damned. When Miller is caught lying about his unethical use of an employer’s computer, it doesn’t matter to those who identify with him.
Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Still, many residents of this state do not fit the Tea Party mold. Long before publication of Thomas Frank’s insightful What’s the Matter with Kansas, I found myself in the company of people perplexed and preoccupied with the enormous gap between Republican Party promises and the reality of what Republicans actually do in office.
These days Wall Street financial institutions use supercomputers to algorithmically skim stock market cash, like cream off of fresh milk, right before our eyes. And yet, too many of our fellow citizens continue to think that the Republican who receives the most political contributions from Wall Street is their champion to reclaim the interests of ordinary Americans. That anyone who examines the legislative record carefully can actually believe this is baffling; it stretches reason beyond credulity.
A significant percentage of the American populace, Alaskans among them, just don’t get it. Perhaps they never will. Thomas Frank put it this way: “American conservatism depends for its continued dominance and even for its very existence on people never making certain mental connections about the world, connections that until recently were treated as obvious or self-evident everywhere on the planet.”
It boggles the mind. All it takes to achieve the big disconnect between the political promise and the hidden agenda of anything business wants at public expense, is to whisper something about values, hold up a symbol, wave a flag, show how this or that group has an unfair advantage, mention gay marriage, say something about gay people having special rights, or even point out that someone running for office doesn’t wear a lapel-pin flag or other such nonsense.
The reason for this disconnect is pretty simple but isn’t any easier to accept. As I have written before in numerous essays, politics, for those too inarticulate to speak their minds effectively, is all about identity. For them it can’t be otherwise, because they don’t really know what is on their minds. They know only that they are anxious and fearful; they feel that their identity is threatened, and they stand ready to react when prodded, as evidenced by the fact that they fall hook, line, and sinker for one insane conspiratorial email campaign after another. Republican strategists know this; they know that if they can raise the existential anguish level high enough among ordinary citizens who aren’t well educated or don’t think critically, their agenda is home free because it will render their intended audience oblivious to well-reasoned counterarguments.
For a half-century, Republicans have been spiking the discourse with hot-button messages that inspire emotional despair at the expense of reason, and then, once in office, they do little or nothing about these matters until it is time for the next election. That this tactic works more often than not is deeply disturbing. It’s hard to describe the depth of disappointment that comes with watching this orchestrated ploy play out, year after year, election after election.
So many people fail to see through the masquerade. So many people act as they are expected to act as surely as if they were puppets, and yet they can’t seem to feel the pull of the strings on their emotions. They say they want to be free, but because they feel their identity is under siege, they lash out at phantom manifestations of otherness. As a result, they free themselves only from the goodwill and common decency necessary to see that everyone who needs medical attention gets it! After all, there could be laggards out there who may not deserve it. “People judged to be too different from us to count” is the unspoken assumption.
How absurd it is that deluded individuals want to be free to die without health insurance, even if a government program is the only way they can get insurance, or even when the policy they do have is practically worthless. But, by God, no one can make them buy insurance, and no one can push around the insurance companies and tell them how to do business. This, after all, is America! Such inane rhetoric is ubiquitous during national elections, as evidenced by the recent display of Tea Party placards all over America.
Indebted to eight years of Republican rule, we were bequeathed two wars, both unpaid for—one waged under false pretenses, the other neglected to the degree that the insurgents we oppose regained much of their power. We also saw bellicose saber rattling and un-American behavior that effectively tarnished our reputation as a just nation in the eyes of the world; the biggest private sector construction fiasco in the history of industrialized business in the inept private sector attempt at rebuilding Iraq; a Medicare prescription drug program amounting to a pharmaceutical industry windfall, again unpaid for; egregious neglect of our returning war veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital and elsewhere; the overuse of the National Guard; the overt politicization of the office of attorney general; rendition and government-sanctioned torture; illegal wiretapping; the outing of a CIA agent for political gain; the K Street Jack Abramoff scandal; Tom Delay’s auction of political power to the highest bidder; lobbyists writing business legislation that emulated foxes guarding the hen house; cuts in funding for medical studies, not to mention stem cell research; huge tax cuts for the richest of the rich that sent the deficit soaring—again not paid for; the hemorrhaging loss of eight million jobs; denial of and failure to address global warming; Dick Cheney’s secret energy task force; a frenzy of Wall Street deregulation that brought the economy to the brink of collapse; and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008. I could go on for another page or two, but it’s too depressing. I’ll just throw in hurricane Katrina and let you recall the rest.
Now we learn that one of President George W. Bush’s biggest disappointments was not having been successful in privatizing Social Security, as if by now millions more senior citizens would not face destitution. In light of the above, I find it inconceivable that the Republicans, mind you, profess to be the party of values and of freedom. That so many people believe this political party will put the country on the right track staggers the imagination.
Millions of people have apparently forgotten who brought us to the brink. To be sure, both political parties are guilty of selling out the middle class to the financial elite, but the Republican Party is in a class all by itself. It’s way out front in the effort, and they do it with such flair—unabashedly shouting platitudes about values as effectively as a matador manipulating the aggression of a raging bull with his cape. If it were not so easy to do, it would seem the Republicans are geniuses for convincing people to be anti-intellectual, to not use their heads, in matters where heads are required.
Ultra-right-wing conservatives like Joe Miller wave a flag, talk wistfully about freedom, name those who are supposedly keeping their constituents from being free, and most of the time, it works. People get mad. Prod their fearful emotions, threaten their sense of identity, and yes, they will profess a willingness to die without health insurance. But at least, as the insane thinking goes, they will be liberated. Even if their very lives are at stake, they are resentful, because they think the government is trying to tell them what to do. For many, this passion is the residue of childish rebellion.
Consumed with existential angst and contempt for otherness, we are the only industrialized nation in the world with so much pent-up animosity that we can’t generate enough goodwill to see that every one of us has adequate healthcare. This fact is a very sad commentary and renders absurd any assertions of our greatness as a nation.
America used to be thought of as a melting pot. These days, orchestrated fear produces lumps that don’t dissolve. Instead they fester and grow into contemptuous strains of outright hatred. There is a media clip played frequently where Glenn Beck says he fears for his country. Me too, but precisely because of people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michele Bachman, Bill O’Reilly, and others of their ilk who make a living inciting fear in people who are well intentioned but ill informed.
If suddenly four commercial passenger jets were to begin crashing in America each week, killing all on board, how long do you think it would take to ground aviation? How many weeks would it take for most of us to stop flying? Not many I suspect. And yet, many more Americans than this die each and every week because of a lack of health insurance. President Obama got it right when he put healthcare on the front burner of his political agenda. Those who cry “jobs, jobs, jobs first” have it wrong. What we have here is moral triage. Only those who’ve swallowed too much of the status quo Kool-Aid lack the common sense and common decency to know without question that to be a moral human being it is necessary to stop people from dying needlessly because they are without health insurance. That’s the essence of triage. Even having to point this out is grimly disturbing.
The president’s healthcare program, though, does not go nearly far enough; it’s only a step in the right direction. And when we compare the issue against numerous examples of other developed nations, a single-payer system is ultimately the most cost efficient and morally just solution. As things are today, even those with health insurance, unless they are very wealthy, are deluded to imagine that they won’t wind up in bankruptcy if they get really ill. Few but the very rich can cover the co-pay necessary for catastrophic illness, and the major health insurance companies, with aid of the Republican Party in particular, don’t and won’t have to make up the difference because big-business profits are deemed more important than the health of individuals. After all, it’s all about freedom.
Now, thanks to the most gullible among us, the Republican Party has improved their chance to finish what they started. This time, though, we are already close enough to the financial edge that it won’t take them long to dismantle the last few rungs of America’s middle class. Perhaps, if this demolition happens fast enough (the title of a later book by Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew, refers to Republicans), more and more people will begin to wake up and pay attention, not to what the Republicans say, but what they do. Indeed, what they have done.
The only upside I can imagine is that now that Republicans have enough of a presence in office to be seen once again as being in large part responsible for the state of the economy (since no one seems to remember it was Republicans who got us into this economic bedlam), perhaps by election time 2012, sufficient numbers of people will start to see things as they are and things will swing the other way. It could happen. After all, it’s fairly dependable that the administration in power loses congressional seats at midterm. But I daydream.
This time, though, it may be too late. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision may be the end of whatever is left of democracy. For fifty years, moneyed interests in America have used their power to shift more and more of the tax burden to those least able to pay. Methodically they have been buying up influence. And now, by stacking the Supreme Court with ideologues (who promised us they were not activists), they have acquired the absolute right for corporations to spend as much as they want to buy elections in secret. This may well sever the final thread of anything close to resembling democracy. If nothing is done to turn the tide of political power going to the highest bidder, we will soon be witness to the utter absurdity that money and free speech are one and the same. The former effectively abolishes the other. Under-the-table cash will foreclose and override the rights of ordinary citizens as it has been doing for decades, only now it will be faster without need of explanation.
There are many roads to serfdom but none quicker than cash and carry. Sadly, the most rabid Tea Party participants will never make the connection about who really spoiled their tea. They will believe as they are told that some liberal poisoned it with the fallout of good intentions.
I know from personal experience what it is like to be indoctrinated by the conservative mantra of storybook history and sleight–of-hand politics. I do believe, however, that when I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, conservatism was something altogether different from what it is today. What bothers me most of all is that, even though I understand the shallowness of the politics I grew up with, getting true believers to think beyond their manipulated emotions is the most challenging objective of adult education. Ignorance magnifies anguish, and when prodded with sufficient force, pent-up emotion obliterates the ability of people to reason, especially people who are uneducated, ill-informed, and whose politics are vested more in identity than objectivity.
In her compelling and prescient book Third World America, Arianna Huffington lays out in great detail what pseudo- conservatism has done to the American Dream. She describes America’s middle class as “going the way of Lehman Brothers.” She argues quite correctly, in my view, that “anyone who continues to make the case that markets do best when left alone should be laughed off the bully pulpit.” Huffington likens the ongoing home foreclosure crisis to a “middle-class Katrina.” And she hits the nail squarely on the head when she says, “the founding democratic principle of ‘one man, one vote’ has been replaced by the arithmetic of special interest politics.” She points out that “there are no lobbyists for the American Dream.” I would argue that if we don’t reverse or amend the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, in the near future it will seem as if none of our other problems matter very much in comparison.
Look at how much things have changed in the past half- century, from a time when one breadwinner per family was enough, not only to sustain a family, but to allow them to buy a home and flourish. Now, even to achieve middle-class status requires two wage earners in most cases just to keep from losing ground. What’s the matter with America is that too few people are vigilant enough to see that the Republican Party is the undisputable heavyweight champion of growing inequality. And, for as long as they can get millions of people angry enough at scapegoat surrogates to deflect the blame, they will reign as such.
During the past decade, it has been made crystal clear for anyone paying close attention that we have a social welfare state in place for the richest of the rich. Drawing a distinction between Wall Street and Main Street is not class warfare—it reflects reality. The war is over. Wall Street won. In plain sight they bankrupted our financial system and still came out unscathed. Furthermore, they still demand their bonuses, and they still get them each year as the amount escalates.
Do we spend too much as a country on things we shouldn’t or don’t need? Sure we do. But every building owes to its foundation its strength to stand erect, and the wealthiest Americans likewise owe a franchise fee in progressive taxes to the foundation without which their wealth would not be possible. We don’t have any economic problems in this country that couldn’t be solved by simply requiring the people who can afford to pay the taxes owed to actually pay their fair share. There can be no top without a middle and bottom level to support it structurally, and, lest we forget, the people at the bottom are human beings. Our taxes are the lowest they’ve been in nearly a half-century, and that’s by the design of those with the influence to make it so.
Nevertheless, as we have observed, the richest of the rich have persuaded poor people to protest high taxes. The rich are so effective at investing in emotional subterfuge that they incite thousands of poor people to carry signs in public, without being paid to do so, and to rage about outrageous tax policies, even though these protestors pay few or no taxes themselves. Moreover, a significant portion of the excess spending our government engages in is meant to increase the profits of those with the wealth to purchase political power. That’s why the military industrial complex spends untold billions of dollars on unneeded weapon systems, whose sole purpose is to enhance the bottom line of the corporations that have foreclosed on democracy through bought-and-paid-for political influence.
The day after the November 2010 election, MSNBC headlined their web site with a photo of a man leaning back on his heels, eyes closed, with a look on his face reminiscent of religious ecstasy. To the left was a picture of President Obama and these words in bold letters: Voters say they cast ballots against Obama, Pelosi.
What’s the matter with Kansas, Alaska, and the whole country is steeped in the visceral notion of identity. Deconstructing MSNBC’s post-election snippet is stunning in metaphorical revelation. The man seemingly in the grip of spiritual fervor, we read in small print, was simply overjoyed with the final game of the World Series. His team won. The same was true for those who voted against Democrats. Politics and sports both have more to do with relating than reasoning. During major elections, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on political advertising aimed at causing an emotional uproar among fearful and insecure citizens and overwhelming them with a primeval sense that those of the opposition represent the incarnation of otherness. Simply put, they are not one of us, and ultimately it becomes a question of good versus evil.
Impertinence by those at the ideological extreme of the Tea Party movement laid bare a deep-seated and ethnically malignant strain of racism aimed at President Obama. Moreover, the misogynous derision against Speaker Pelosi has effectively made her a symbol incurring the pent-up rage and unrelenting contempt of individuals who have an instinctive disdain for women in positions of power. Public scorn against Nancy Pelosi is so common as to be expected whenever and wherever groups of men congregate, and the thoughtlessness of this aggression is despicable.
If America is going to have a better future, we need to put our Stone Age feelings of exceptional identity aside and intellectually guard ourselves against emotional manipulation while reasoning our way forward. If we can’t generate enough goodwill to see that all Americans matter, then how can we call ourselves Americans? That’s what’s the matter with America.