What is it that absolutely separates humans and other animals? Answer: we cook our food. Of course there are other differences. There is evidence humans think bigger thoughts, a function of our measurably larger brains and nominally more nuanced world views… though if you happen to catch a presidential campaign debate, this may not be readily apparent.
Loyal partisans in political contests display behaviors found up and down the food chain. Herd mentality, for example. And voters can be every bit as blind to irony as an advancing army of angry red ants. Irony abounds…where to start?
An early example is Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owner who writes “all men are equal.” He writes also of a modest-sized agrarian utopia — and then champions the Louisiana Purchase, pleasing the Manifest Destiny crowd.
Richard Nixon, lifelong commie-hater, opens the door to Red China, and then negotiates with the Soviets. Nixon has issues, like paranoia, yet unlike too many of today’s Republican leaders sees utility in talking to enemies.
Bill Clinton, the so-called liberal — some calling him the nation’s first black president — supports harsh get-tough-on-crime measures, to reduce urban crime… or at least garner more support from moderates, for his re-election.
Bill Clinton — he and his wife both self-styled pragmatic progressives — kills the Glass-Steagall Act, thereby eliminating the firewall between taxpayer-insured deposits and speculative securities. This in turn helps sets the stage for the 2009 credit crunch that doubles the ranks of America’s working poor.
George W. Bush, in what for many was a pleasant surprise, launches an historically significant initiative sending generous non-military financial aid to Africa, some of it aimed at fighting HIV/AIDS. Arguably a rare example of Christian faith-based political leadership.
Then there’s our current president. Some critics label him a socialist. A socialist, mind you, who bails out Wall Street’s uber-capitalists. Who carries the flag for free trade — supported by the Fortune 20, and many of the 0.01 percent, yet vigorously opposed by most Democrats and, increasingly, Republicans.
This president has earned bragging rights on multiple fronts. Some historic. That said, and while it’s not all his fault, the self-styled post-partisan poser of 2008 has fanned the flames of, has presided over, an historically bitter, hyper-partisan period. There’s plenty of blame to spread around. The Senate Majority Leader, for instance, has been more small-minded; at times, like now, in a shameful way.
I voted for that 2008 candidate who seemed so keen to transform Washington’s ways. Voted for him twice. I feel like a jilted lover. The first time it was with romantic enthusiasm; also owing to a strange, recurring nightmare of a wildly ignorant yet potentially powerful, dangerous woman with tremendous vision under Northern Lights. The second time there was nowhere else to turn, given the other guy’s apparent lack of interest in the issues most important to me.
Some years before I’d seen him speak live, that 2012 losing candidate who was formerly a fairly popular Republican governor of a traditionally liberal northeastern state. He seemed presidential to me. He wasn’t presidential as a presidential candidate. Despite a lackluster performance, though, he would have won, but for the Electoral College. The popular vote, that is. He put the lion’s share of his considerable resources in a relative handful of states; the list of states reflecting his calculated need for marginal electoral as opposed to popular votes. The popular vote was close anyway. (It’s not irony, but it’s no good.)
Among the current crop of would-be presidents are supposed conservatives — they wrap themselves in the flag and Founding Fathers — who would keep people out based solely on their faith. Even if in the Founders’ day “religious freedom” meant mostly variations on Christianity, this betrayal of the national faith by self-appointed faith defenders is… ironic. As is a self proclaimed Christian who boldly calls for taking out not merely the terrorists, but the terrorists’ families as well.
Safe harbor for the oppressed of any faith, welcoming people and new ideas: that’s American Exceptionalism. That’s what made us great. In the idealized — i.e. not fully realized — American Melting Pot, it’s effort and merit that win out, and We the People drive politics. All of it thanks to a transparent system based on openness, liberty and fair play. Not that it always works that way. It’s not working that way now. People of different values and views have arrived at this same dispiriting conclusion, agreeing on descriptions if not prescriptions. Some of these counter-intuitive alignments may strike some as almost ironic.
The infamous (for liberals) Charles Koch is usually (and fairly) positioned as a hard-right conservative mover-and-shaker. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he was referring to a certain self-proclaimed democratic socialist (not exactly the same as socialist, but who cares) when he wrote: “The senator is upset with a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged. He believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness. He thinks many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field. I agree with him.” So do I. We need more people to more thoughtfully consider and debate what we best do about it.
American-style democracy has never been easy. How could it be? It’s not easy to balance individual sovereignty, limited government and social justice. To balance free enterprise, the bedrock of American culture, with environmental and consumer protection, key to our health and survival. It’s awfully difficult to balance openness and the practical imperatives born of necessarily heightened security. In a fast-changing, dangerous world we do well to revisit, at times perhaps to recalibrate, the mix of laissez-faire, careful, smart and soulful.
To a point. Let’s not be too quick to forego those foundational values that have historically made America exceptional. We don’t need to restore past greatness; we need to remember what made us great, and build on it. Let’s not further undermine our democracy and further diminish our credibility and thus our place in the world, by fervently embracing un-American practices. Today’s mean-spirited nationalists forget that America was built to be more than a mere nation. The Founders, whatever their foibles or failures, envisioned something bigger involving life, liberty, even the pursuit of happiness. Would Trump, Ted or Marco have penned it that way? To ask the question answers it.
Granted, none of the pretenders offers all the elements of the ideal one-two-three for would-be presidents: a well-rounded, reasoned narrative, one that rises about rhetoric; a clarity of purpose and focus combined with what we once called statesmanlike qualities; and unassailable personal integrity.
My unhappiness with American politics reflects the lack of integrity, the lack of leadership and the overabundance of irony. And nastiness. I still believe nevertheless that it was my good fortune to be born in the USA. That’s why it pains me to see the urgent need for improvements alongside the lack of earnest effort, especially by people in and seeking power, to positively cultivate consensus on how best to go about the people’s business.
Fed up I am, as Yoda might say. Yes I’m hardly the only one. Popular faith in our system is crumbling faster than our roads and bridges. People are angry; that’s rarely good. And who can blame them? Low-paying jobs. Inept bureaucracy. Dirty water. Bad public transit. Uneven foreign policy, and that’s sugar-coating. Meanwhile the security state is palpable. As palpable as our financial insecurity.
Lucky to live here, yes. You bet. But concerned. Increasingly worried. It would be grand for a change if during the course of the silly season we got a better idea of how the candidates view America. Not in comparison with other, largely dissimilar nations. Nor in terms of emotionally-charged, litmus-test questions. Rather in terms of an update for a uniquely American ambition. Simple, not simplistic, new ideas for more effectively, more smartly, advancing old ideals.
Too bad there can’t be more interesting discussions — say, of the difference between “freedoms to” and “freedoms from;” and how best to balance these distinctly different yet equally important dynamics. Which is the key to a more robust, more prosperous, more equitable and generally happier democracy. The rub is that any such discussion presupposes a radical shift away from today’s prevailing politics. The politics of gotchas and nasty, juvenile gestures.
Our current and ironic (and moronic) misdirection circus keeps our eye off the ball, i.e., the sobering challenges we face. Can we hope for a breath of fresh air? What might that look like? I’m more confused than ever, so don’t ask me.
It would have to involve candidates finally stepping up to ask some good, fair questions of each other, notwithstanding the all-too often superficial, sensational media — and then answering those questions squarely. With civility. Finding ways to more agreeably disagree where consensus proves elusive. Candidates would have to dial down the dramatic cheap-shots. Try harder to challenge, not merely rile up, the voters. By no means should we let ourselves off the hook.
We voters must set aside our reflexive, animal instincts. Be slower to follow the herd. Be more open to new ways of doing things, so long as they don’t betray longstanding, still relevant principles. We can’t keep relying so heavily, so lazily, on generally one-sided media. On biased and usually misleading party rhetoric. On one-dimensional labeling. On whether candidates will pledge allegiance to our angry bumper sticker. We gotta grow up. Then maybe our young country will.
This nation may be at a crossroads. We risk losing what we have. But no matter which way the wind blows, I’ll never vote for some fool who, if he’d been in charge at the crucial moment, might’ve slammed the door shut when a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came knocking. Yo. Life with no sky-hooks? No thank you. Just sayin’.
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