There’s a scene in one of those 1980s action movies when US commandos are sent in to rescue some hostages. At first, the hostages, not all Americans, I don’t think, are frightened by the arrival of group of heavily armed men. Then one of the men pulls back a velcro anti-glare patch to reveal a US flag underneath, and the hostages are relieved. The good guys had arrived.
That scene always stayed with me, even after I had forgotten the name of the film, because it reminded me that for years the US and her flag were a symbol of good in the world. It’s much more ambiguous now, and the main reason for that has been the troubling direction that US politics has been heading. In that spirit, I thought I’d put together a few of the things that really worry me about the state of US politics today.
1. The presence of hate in politics. There’s an argument that George Herbert Walker Bush, the dad, was the last president that the overwhelming majority of Americans accepted as “their” president. When he was elected in 1988, the Dems controlled Congress, and it wasn’t seen as a big deal. They worked with him, he worked with them. Yes, they were Democrats and Republicans, but they were all sent to do the people’s business, and respected each other for that. Compare that with Michele Bachmann demanding investigations into how American the Democratic Party is. To see Jon Huntsman getting attacked for agreeing to serve his country as US ambassador to China was not only deplorable. It was terrifying to think that having foreign policy experience in dealing with America’s greatest rival is regarded as a liability in the GOP, because you served under President Obama. Does that mean he’d be a better president if he didn’t have that experience? Seriously? The danger is that every election is turning into something equating a civil war, where the other side beat us this time, so let’s fight a guerrilla war for the next four years, questioning their legitimacy and try to paralyse their ability to govern until we counterattack at the next election.
2. Money matters too much. It’s too simple to say that whomever spends the most wins. If that were true, we’d have had a President Perot and President Forbes, and Arianna Huffington would probably still be a Republican. Also, the web has been proven by both Howard Dean and President Obama as being an effective way for small donors to have a very serious impact on a campaign. Having said that, the truth is that big corporate donors do have a serious impact on politics in a way that their numbers as voters simply do not warrant. However, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that poor people just don’t have the same sort of disposable income to spend on politics campaigns as, say, the Koch brothers. Does that mean that one working joe’s vote should count less than the vote of a Koch brother? After all, the US Supreme Court effectively equating one’s amount of free speech to one’s disposable income seems to make that call. By that logic, why not just let voters buy as many votes as they can afford? Campaign finance reforms that have, at their heart, an aim of ensuring that voters get to hear a reasonably equal contribution from each candidate are not a restriction on freedom of speech.
3. Refusing to even listen to the other guy. When I was in New York last year, I watched MSNBC, and was shocked at how biased it was. I’d read that they were effectively the liberal version of Fox News, but it was really quite disturbing to watch an entire news operation filled with people agreeing with each other, and absolutely savaging, in this case, a Tea Party activist who, in my opinion, was making a valid if disagreeable point. Now, Fox is no better, and as a liberal, I’m obviously going to be biased against Fox News. But I do watch it, just to hear what the other guy is saying, because sometimes the other guy is right. Yet when I hear Sarah Palin et al almost taking pride in only listening to news (she doesn’t seem to read) that comes from a standpoint she agrees with, I find that disturbing. How on Earth can voters make a rational choice in an election when they don’t even listen to what the other guy is saying?
4. The micro managing of politics. It happens in every Western country, but the Americans are so far ahead that democracy is actually being hollowed out from the inside. What do I mean? Take redestricting, where both parties can now use technology to such a degree that huge tranches of the House of Representatives or lower state offices are effectively one party states, where the general election is just a rubber stamp election. Or what about the presidential debates, where nearly every phrase has been polled and focus tested? Or what about candidates arriving to pre-screened crowds holding up “handmade” signs that have actually been manufactured by the campaign, misspellings and all? The fact is, US politicians now have access to so many manipulative tools that it is now possible to elect to office people who 20 years ago would not be deemed fit for that office, whether it’s Sarah Palin or Oprah Winfrey, because emotional manipulation of voters, although not a new thing (ask Goebbels) is now at a technical level unprecedented in human history.
5. The disparaging of experience and learning. Ask yourself this: If a candidate calls another candidate an “intellectual”, is he or she being nice about their opponent? Sarah Palin has taken insular parochialism to a new level. Is she really that ignorant of the world, or is she such a savvy politician that she recognises that in today’s America a candidate who admits to being able to speak French is actually doing himself an injury? The other curious development in politics (it started in the 1970s, probably with Reagan and Carter, although George Wallace in 1968 made his contribution too) is the “elitification” of one’s opponents, where actually having worked in Washington, or actually knowing how the political system works is now held against one. The irony is that these anti-politics campaigns tend to be run by professional political operatives and consultants who have done little with their lives other than professional politics.
Don’t get me wrong: US politics has many strengths. But this is the ugly stuff, and where America goes…