As the conventions and campaigns come in full swing, the ceaseless commentary couches our politics as a clash between conservative and liberal. But the two sides of the fundamental dynamics of our political environment for several decades are better captured as venality vs. haplessness.
The dynamics of venality vs. haplessness are well on display in the issues of guns and the Supreme Court. Republicans ignore both popular will and compelling logic in their refusal to allow any form of gun control. Theirs is a higher calling – the dollars and voters of the NRA.
Meanwhile Democrats fumble for any foothold or leverage, and continue to fail. A failure running parallel to their inability to enable a President to exercise a fundamental right and need of the nation, to nominate a Supreme Court Justice. While venality propels Republicans to block the process, in the hope for a future that maintains a Court steadfastly supporting their economic interests. If the situation were reversed, and Democrats were attempting political blackmail, the Republicans would put up a firestorm of protest.
A partisanship based on ideas and conflicting philosophies is a healthy part of the democratic dialectic. As Gandhi put it, no person or side has a monopoly on truth. There is thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. But venality brooks no such perception and haplessness produces no resolution.
History is shaped by both underlying trends and signal events. Ours has been molded by a confluence of the relinquishment of a sense of the common weal from the Republican Party and the structural havoc they have wrought, which neither hapless Democrats nor horrified citizens have been able to stop. The cries of pain that animate Trump and Sanders supporters and the unspoken millions who share that agony are results of decades of policies and programs that have systematically hurt many for the benefit of a few.
The seminal moments of how we got here are a mix of slow burns and hot moments. It is no accident that some people rise to leadership, and the mowing down of a generation’s leaders, the Kennedys and King, left a void that lowered the bar. The tone Nixon set destroyed the opportunities for racial accommodation that had just begun when he took office. The Vietnam War highlighted the beginnings of catastrophic failures of American leadership and judgment that became the norm.
That became more critical when the 1994 midterm elections put into office a Congressional majority built around a shocking value system: that they no longer represented, or even needed to, the interests of the country as a whole. That instead they were in office to stay in office and enrich those who kept them in office, and that government for any other purpose was subject to attack.
In Shakespeare or in film noir, corruption festers into long term consequences. So it was that the 2000 election pounded big nails in the coffin of American liberty. We had a rigged election, plain and simple: a bunch of daddy’s cronies installing the son into office. The stench of that corruption has been rotting us ever since. Imagine how different the world’s headlines would have been if Gore had won; think of a world without the Iraq invasion, and the lies that became the commonplace vocabulary of public pronouncements, lies that have killed so many.
Despite the closeness of the election and the questions as to its outcome, the Bush people proceeded as if they had a mandate. While the Democrats, perhaps shocked that the nation’s highest office could be stolen, retreated into a corner of their own making. Bush seeks a trillion dollars in wealth transfer through revised taxes, and the Democrats declare victory by saying they held it to $750 billion. You can almost see the cigars laughing.
It’s commonplace now to reference horrendous failures of the George Bush Presidency, but doing so obscures how successful it was achieving its major priority — the concentration of wealth that will maintain an elite for decades to come.
One can only imagine the collective gasps that erupted with the announcement some decades ago that the US will be a majority non-white nation by 2050.
The White America Wagon Train had long enjoyed an unfettered grasping of American opportunities. They had taken land, built factories, created and exploited a mass market the like of which had never been seen.
And now they had to insure their offspring would retain what they had gotten.
The Bush years enriched companies and people within its circle, while exploiting the fears and phobias of the constituents it in theory (only) served. Relentless in obtaining and concentrating wealth, while Democrats watched with verbal dismay and tactical failure.
The irony is that the
very people who have been so damaged
by Republican policies regarding taxation, civil rights, the environment, and who for so long have been kept in the fold by calculated appeals to their fears — regarding the rights of women to their own bodies, of fantasies of power that identify them with their guns, and with the dream of holding on to being rich that has 99% of them voting against their own realistic interests for tax and social policies — are still turning to the same party that has destroyed them to try to make their lives better.
This underlying dynamic was perfectly embodied in the recent
show Confirmation, about the Clarence
Thomas hearings. The Republicans,
whatever their personal feelings, lined up behind their president and were
ruthless in pursuit of Thomas getting confirmed, regardless of any inconvenient
facts that stood in
The Democrats were inept in countering the assault, to the point that they were, for reasons that even watching the show remain obscure, intimidated into not putting a corroborating witness on the stand, one who had come to Washington and was left in the wings. The result: a nominee to the court who year in and year out has with silent efficiency delivered for them, from putting Bush II in power to allowing money to dominate the political landscape.
That relentless pursuit of power for its own sake and to further extremely narrow interests is well on display as Republicans fall into line to support Donald Trump, bending themselves into political pretzels to justify his shortcomings, his bigotry, woeful unpreparedness, repulsive temperament and pandering. For one thing, pandering has been the stock and trade of the party for a long time; for another, they have no moral compass from which to respond, having given any up any semblance of serving all a long time ago.
They line up behind him because they still see it’s in their own best interests, and while onlookers think they are observing a train wreck, Paul Ryan & Co. are simply looking in a slightly distorting funhouse mirror reflecting their image more or less completely.
Social issues shape identity for enough people that they can be cynically manipulated by those whose interests are even simpler – money. The accumulation of wealth. The generational capacity to keep that wealth and the power it enables. There are days now that foster empathy for what some Germans must have felt with the impending rise of their Nazi party; we assume it can’t happen here, as we watch it happen.
A selection from my upcoming book, Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America.