Monday, November 5, 2012

A queasy election season

I have three good reasons for posting infrequently over the last five or so weeks. For one, I was traveling for most of that time. The other two good reasons? I'll get around to those. My travels provided rich fodder for future posts, and I'll get around to those too.

But the thing that has paralyzed me above and beyond anything else has caused a lot of other people to check out too. You know what I'm talking about: it's the savagely stupid, money-corrupted level of discourse at which U.S. citizens permit U.S. democracy to be conducted.

The so-called Founding Fathers must be spinning in their tombs.

Like many people I know, political circulars, party fundraising solicitations, and other abuses of innocent trees addressed to my abode go straight to the recycling bin. Yes, there are exceptions. Rare exceptions.

One exception in my household this season was an envelope with Mitt Romney's return-address right there in the upper left corner.

I just couldn't help myself. It was, straining credulity, addressed to me. So I opened it. I began to read. Then I began to laugh. Then I read the whole thing and ... well, never mind what happened then.

Here's what I laughed at:
Dear Steven,

I am running for President of the United States and because you are one of America's most notable Republicans, I want to personally let you know why. [...]

If you ever read anything posted on One Finger Typing that I've labeled politics you know exactly why I started laughing. Let's just say that I am not one of America's most notable Republicans, okay?

I mean, it's true that the first electoral campaign in which I volunteered was a campaign to elect a Republican congressman. He was the only Republican congressman at the time who publicly and vociferously opposed the war in Vietnam. Pete McCloskey. I was eleven years old when I showed up at McCloskey's campaign headquarters on University Avenue. Nobody there could think of anything an eleven year old could do to help other than to stuff envelopes. So I stuffed envelopes. I stuffed envelopes like a kid on a mission, for hours, sheltering under a folding table to stay out of the other volunteers' way.

I'm pretty sure I even registered Republican for at least one election, but I don't recall why or when. That's probably how RMoney got my name. Some computer, somewhere in the twisted bowels of that opportunistic twit's campaign organization, must have recorded that I registered as a Republican once upon a time.

But please ... can we dial down the sycophancy? "America's most notable Republicans"? I think not.

(Is it worth noting that Pete McCloskey changed his political affiliation in 2007, more than thirty-five years after I volunteered in his bid for re-election to Congress? McCloskey at long last declared that, "I finally concluded that it was fraud for me to remain a member of this modern Republican Party...")

One of America's most notable Republicans ... The rest of RMoney's letter was even more vapid than it's ridiculous opening.

As for that other candidate?

I have my complaints about him too, and I've voiced some of them here in this blog. I didn't mention the POTUS's shameful lack of leadership on the critical issue of climate change in a litany composed a couple months ago, but plenty of others are lining up to criticize Obama's inadequate attention to that issue in response to NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's recent endorsement.

Bloomberg's endorsement is pretty telling, really, with respect to that level-of-discourse thing I mentioned at the top of this post. But because there are exactly two candidates who have a prayer of winning the contest, the choice Bloomberg made is a no-brainer. At least Obama has done something during his first term ... and hasn't backed away from his principled position in order to pander to an antediluvian party's so-called "base."

What's with these candidates?

Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University, had some interesting opinions on the topic of political polarization -- the politics of pandering to fundamentalist wingnuts -- in in his NY Times blog on Saturday, America's Leftward Tilt. To wit:
The reality is that our government hasn't become this dysfunctional because the parties are so "polarized." It's because there is only one pole in American politics today, and its magnetic field is so powerful that it has drawn both parties in the same direction -- rightward. And it is in that same direction that the magnetic field of contemporary American politics is likely to pull the stories the two parties tell after the election -- and the policies the winner pursues.

The data, however, suggest just the opposite -- that both candidates have benefited in the general election every time they have taken a left turn. [...] For both men, a pragmatic left-hand turn helped them steer their way toward a middle class desperate for hope.


So what underlies this powerful pull to the right? Many factors, but two stand out. The first is campaign money. When Americans saw the scope of the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s, which today seems like just a bad day on the unregulated derivatives market, Ronald Reagan's attorney general, Edwin Meese III, put nearly a thousand bankers behind bars. In contrast, Mr. Obama's attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., can't seem to smell the stench of a fraud that cost millions of people their jobs or homes.

The second is an ideological vacuum. For years, even Republicans accepted the premises of the New Deal, which drew them leftward just as today's political winds blow everything in their path rightward. President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Interstate highway system. President Richard M. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. Neither believed in the radical dismantling of programs that protected ordinary Americans, and both believed that a crucial role of government is to provide the infrastructure that makes economic prosperity possible.

Then came the conservative movement that ushered in Reagan, whose ideology has dominated our political discourse ever since, even after its proven failure. If Nixon and Bill Clinton were the last gasps of Roosevelt's breath, then Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama and perhaps Mr. Romney may well be the last gasps of Reagan's. If the centrifugal pull of the 2012 election is likely to be to the right, is there any potential counterweight?

Perhaps one: both presidential candidates want a legacy. The most important legacy Mr. Obama could have would be to spend his second term using executive orders, judicial appointments and the bully pulpit to return democracy to everyday Americans by demanding clean elections, uncorrupted by money. [...]

If Mr. Romney wins and wants a second term, he would be wise to wed an economic narrative about innovation with a narrative that will save his party from extinction by making comprehensive immigration reform a central item on his agenda. If Mr. Romney succeeds in reviving a moderate Republicanism that recognizes that an increasingly interconnected world will require an increasingly diverse work force, he could potentially drag his party into the 21st century.

In other words, if the candidate who wins takes a left turn like the one that won him the presidency, the Reagan era would finally be over. We can only hope.
I wish I could be so sanguine. In fact, I'm too nauseated by this year's election season to take a philosophical view. Escaping the hysteria by hiding out across the pond for three of its most hysterical weeks? It wasn't long enough.

Get it over with.

Cast your ballot tomorrow if you haven't already.

Democracy is on the ropes; abdication of citizenship isn't going to help any.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
What do baseball and presidential elections have in common?
The controversy machine v the reality machine
Post-convention blues (the sky, I'm sayin')
North Korea, women's rights, and post-truth politics

Thanks to 99 United for the image from Lobbyist Central in Washington, DC, via Flickr.


  1. Steve, I'm doing a Quixotic thing this election weekend: writing individual Ohio voters on Facebook, those who've posted opinions on Issue 2, their citizen redistricting initiative, to ask them to support the initiative.

    Issue 2 is behind 53% to 28% in a recent poll, and even if I change a vote or two, it won't make any difference on Tuesday. But maybe, years or decades down the road, my thoughts on that initiative may help shape a few viewpoints, and those, a few more ...

    The bottom line: we in California have begun, in some small, halting ways, to take back our own government. In 2008, by the narrowest of margins (50.9% versus 49.1%) we approved Prop. 11, which allows a group of ordinary citizens to draw our legislative district boundaries, rather than professional politicians. This resulted in fairer and more rational boundaries for the 2012 and upcoming elections, than the heavily gerrymandered lines drawn by our politicians in 2000. (Did you know that, following the creation of all those "safe" seats, in the 2004 election, that EVERY California incumbent - state legislator and Congressperson alike - won their races?)

    Allowing ordinary citizens to serve as jurors, to decide the fate of property, in civil and criminal trials, and of peoples' freedom and even life, in criminal trials ... and as in this case, allowing ordinary Californians to draw district boundaries for our legislative officials, are two instances of a general case called "deliberative democracy."

    An introduction to that concept:

    Joe Klein, "How Can a Democracy Solve Tough Problems?", Time, September 2, 2010,9171,2015790,00.html

    "The public is very smart if you give it a chance," says [Stanford professor James] Fishkin, 62, who has been conducting experiments in what he calls "deliberative democracy" for nearly 20 years now. "If people think their voice actually matters, they'll do the hard work, really study their briefing books, ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions."

    In general, some of the functions we've long delegated to elected and appointed government officials, and to civil service bureaucrats, can instead be performed by groups of citizens who come together to make difficult decisions, and then disband afterwards. And often, ordinary citizens make better - and tougher - decisions than elected officials, as professional politicians often 'kick the can down the road' to avoid making controversial decisions that might affect their future electoral prospects, as we've seen on issues like the Federal debt and Social Security/Medicare.

    "It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness ..." (Although both can be handy at times!)

  2. And yes, in most cases, where voting is the only option available, it's fully as important to exercise this right as you've urged ...

  3. @Aron -- Thanks for the link, and for the work you do. You are on the mark, of course: active participation is the real key to any real democracy. Voting is only a part of it, and on it's own it's insufficient.

  4. Nauseous is definitely how I feel. I just voted and now want nothing more than to go pull the covers up over my head and wait until it's all over. The part of me that wants to blame the architects of the far right movement says that encouraging liberals to run and hide is exactly what they intended. But I can't escape the niggling feeling of guilt that this all happened on my generation's watch. I'm not so sure that isn't what's causing the queasiness.

  5. @Bridget: Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem? Or is Drew Westen right that we're witnessing the death throes of the Reagan era?

    Or will the real change to politics, discourse, and engagement be driven by a staggering recurrence of 'natural disasters' brought on in the coming decades by climate change, superbugs, aging infrastructure and the environmental contamination it generates, mass extinctions, and human population?

    Ever the pessimist, I tend toward the long, dark view. Our problems are not a generation in the making, though. Their roots are deep.

    Hey, maybe I'll go pull the covers over my head too.........