Saturday, January 07, 2017

Mourning in America – Part IV: Not Just Another election

In looking at the 2016 election, it is important to do so in as clear as fashion as possible. But that is much easier said than done. 

On the one hand, some of us tend to operate out of the tendency to awfulize the results, a tendency that can prevent us from seeing the actual results and thus the situation that now confronts those of us who reside in Trumpland.  As one of my many very bright students so aptly observed, “I got up the morning after the election and the sun still came up as usual. The sky did not fall with this election.” 

Fair enough. But only the beginning. 

The more tempting possibility is for the functionalists among us to try to look away from the 2016 election and minimalize its consequences, denying the fundamental changes this election represents and avoiding its potential damage. Functionalism is by definition a conservative hermeneutic that presumes the ongoing existence of the status quo, just in slightly different terms. It is a salve for frightened spirits, a means of reassuring oneself that everything will ultimately be all right.

But this election was different. Constructing it in functionalist terms only adds self-deception to the damage already inflicted by both the process and its results. 

What occurred in the 2016 election was not a changing of the guard, it was a fundamental shift in paradigm. With that shift the experiment in democratic self-rule called America died and a new, grotesque caricature of that experiment called Trumpland was born.

In the aftermath of the election it is tempting to try to normalize this event, to avoid the implications of that shift with superficial notions of ordinary competition. Seeing this election in the same manner one would see a sporting event, with winners and losers and promises of “We’ll get you next time!” from the latter, suggests that one does not fully understand the functioning of democracy or the gravity of the situation at hand.  

The events of Nov. 8, 2016 were not about mere winning or losing. They do not presage future elections on even playing fields where on a good day either party can win the next time. The results of this recent election mark the end of anything remotely resembling democracy in America. If there are future games, you can be assured they will be fixed without any pretenses of fairness.

In the end, this election was not about democracy. It was about domination.

Trickle Down Devolution 

Of course, if we are being honest with ourselves, we Americans will confess that we have known that the fix has been in for a very long time. For the past four decades, the goal of wealthy conservatives has been to essentially decimate anything that bore even a remote resemblance to democracy. Within a decade of those goals being clearly articulated in a memo by then future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, the so-called Reagan Revolution would give America its initial push down the slippery slope toward corporate dominance with its two primary policy shifts. 

The first was the institution of trickle-down economics, a supply-side approach that Reagan’s opponent in the election, George H. W. Bush, aptly called “voodoo economics.” Apparently the Gipper worked some good voodoo. Within four decades, this approach had magically transformed an American populace with a moderate range of economic equality into one of the most unequal societies in the world. 

The immiseration of the working poor was its first casualty but the constriction of the middle class soon followed. The result of this Reverse Robin Hood process was a slow but steady shift of control over the wealth of this country to its upper quintile resulting in the most inequitable distribution of wealth among first world nations. In the process the top 10% of the country’s populace came to own about 75% of its material goods. 

That inequality will surely only accelerate in a Trumpland led by a real estate magnate who is a poster boy for the 10%. At a very basic level, the wealthy have become the vultures picking at the carcass of a dying America that the policies ensuring their privilege have helped to kill. 

The second was a program of deregulation that has allowed the foxes to guard the henhouses. On the economic front that has meant deregulation of banking which has produced scandal after scandal plunging the nation into crisis: the savings and loan scandal of the Reagan and Bush Sr. years, the housing scandal of the Bush Jr. years and the near Depression involving our nation’s banking and accounting firms that resulted from it. 

Each time the holders of power - who increasingly owe their political lives to the corporate interests whose misdeeds have caused these crises - have voted to financially rescue the moneyed interests while holding virtually none of the wrong-doers who caused these economic nightmares accountable, either legally or fiscally. And each time it was the members of the working and middle classes -  themselves increasingly the collateral damage of offshoring, automation and down-sizing decisions good for stock holders but catastrophic for workers -  who got stuck with the bill. 

Any rescue efforts which would come their way would be meager and often far too late to cover the damage inflicted upon them in the process. 

But economics would be the tip of the iceberg. On the political side, everything from insuring access to voting to protecting the health and welfare of our most vulnerable citizens has been dismantled over the past three decades. Prisons were privatized placing oversight out of the hands of the people who pay for their operations but are subject to its deprivations. 

Public lands increasingly became targeted for private consumption and public moneys were increasingly called upon to clean up ecological disasters created in the name of profit. In one of the great ironies of American political life, costs of production are routinely socialized even as the profits they yield are privatized.

With the Citizens United decision, the floodgates opened for corporate moneys to exercise unchallenged control over the governmental process. Any illusions that it was not moneyed interests and their lobbying efforts that were the engines driving public policy were simply stripped away. 

Unlimited money would be spent on increasingly negative, nasty and often fallacious advertising that the candidates themselves did not have to account for so long as their name was not mentioned. Donors to these attack ads were not required to be identified. Thus, the “dark money” that Jane Mayer has so accurately described came to dominate elections that increasingly exceed seven digits even at state and local levels. 

As a result, authentic, honest elections in America would simply go away; in their places came auctions for virtually every aspect of the public sphere to the highest bidder. Increasingly that meant conservative moneyed interests held the upper hand in events which retained the form of democracy but in fact were hollowed out mockeries.   

Lifeworld Colonized 

Social theorist Anthony Giddens long ago delineated four quadrants of any society’s collective life together: business, political, societal institutions and cultural values. According to Giddens, it was always the tendency of the business and/or political quadrants to seek to dominate the other two, something Jürgen Habermas would call the “colonization of the life world.”

Historically, what generally prevented that from occurring on a totalizing level was the tendencies of the business and political sectors to compete with one another, the business seeking to fund the political process and the political seeking to constrain and regulate the business sector. With the neutralization of any kind of regulating power through a campaign financing system which is little more than a thinly disguised system of bribes, business was now free to dominate every aspect of collective life. The supplanting of self-understandings of Americans as citizens by media driven constructions as consumers reflects the success of that dominance.

Once the political quadrant had been reduced to mendicants serving as compliant managers for moneyed and corporate interests, most Americans found themselves shut out of the process entirely. The apotheosis of Habermas’ nightmare is embodied in the election of a monster spawned by corporate real estate, perhaps the least qualified candidate to lead the country in its history, a morally repugnant man whose only real means to even being considered for the presidency was his access to money. 

With that election, Lewis Powell’s dream will be realized. Conservatives who ultimately answer to corporate and wealthy interests will control every aspect of the government with both houses of Congress, the White House and most state governments as well. 

The potential to place conservative ideologues on the Supreme Court will insure the downward spiral of a corporatized court which has already brought us the presidency of George the Unready, the end of voting rights protections, the sanctioning of individual gun rights the Framers would never have understood and, most of all, the Promethean granting of humanity to the legal fictions called corporations. The stone masons may as well begin chiseling “Equal Justice Under Law” off the pediment of the Supreme Court.

Already Trumpland's proposed cabinet embodies the very antithesis of what was once America. Indeed, Trump has chosen ideologues completely opposed to the interests their offices were designed to protect. A climate change denier will head the EPA. A fundamentalist billionaire homeschooler dedicated to defunding public schools will head up the Department of Education. A racist segregationist who cozies up to the Ku Klux Klan will head the Justice Department. 

Meanwhile in the Congress, Republicans are gleefully rubbing their hands over the opportunities to end health care for the destitute and dismantle medicare and social security protections for the elderly. The same senator who prevented Antonin Scalia’s seat from being filled for almost two years, apparently impervious to irony, now says that Americans will not tolerate the Senate’s failure to fill that seat with a Trump appointment. 

The vultures are drooling over the remains of what was once a mighty nation.

Long Train Coming 

Of course, Trumpland did not arise in a vacuum. Many of us have known for a very long time that the direction our beloved nation was headed was precarious. 

We watched with alarm as our electoral process became increasingly driven by dark money and those without money unwilling to sell their souls were shut out of the process. We watched the end of the Voting Rights protections that prevented white men of privilege from stacking the deck in states across the country to insure electoral victories that free and open elections probably could not guarantee. We watched unabashed gerrymandering that created safe Republican districts and domination of both state houses and Congress.

We mourned the lost dreams of a promising presidency elected under the rubric of hope and change which ultimately protected the interests of Wall Street but not the sold-out people along Main Street. We were sickened by a truncated health care act that was passed largely by creative parliamentary maneuvering by a Congress that then spent the next six years doing absolutely nothing in protest. We shuddered as we saw our government shut down completely and lurch to the brink of more shutdowns repeatedly, signaling to the world that America had become an unstable commodity. 

We argued about standards and testing procedures in Orwellian named programs like Leave No Child Behind which ultimately left about one in three children behind, primarily poor children of color, lacking high school degrees. We watched without acting as state legislatures cut taxes to the wealthy enroute to defunding colleges and universities and passing the cost of their operations onto students through life-crippling loans. We remained silent as hell hole prisons became privatized, creating economic incentive to lock up even more people in the world’s most incarcerated nation, without any public oversight.

We knew that the morasses we had unnecessarily created in Afghanistan and Iraq were unwinnable and that our troops had become inextricable without creating even more death and destruction.  Images of little boys, victims of atrocities in places with names like Aleppo, seared our memories. Their lifeless little bodies washed up on the shores of the 
Mediterranean, a testament to the desperation of those refugees willing to take any risk to escape the nightmares our 
policies had a hand in creating in Syria. 

These images accosted us in our news media as we watched in a paralyzed horror. And we knew that it was our own profoundly misguided foreign policy that had unleashed these demons on the world.

We knew our refusal to participate in the world treaties on climate change would spell their doom even as peoples in vulnerable coastal regions have already begun fleeing rising seas and increasingly damaging storms while droughts and fires plague our heartlands. While Congressional corporate interest watchdogs protected the interests of fossil fuel industries, tidal waters began bubbling up in storm sewers in coastal communities like Miami Beach and inundating islands and peoples once protected by permafrost off the Aleutian chain.

Worst of all, we knew that in the face of all of these mounting crises, the very means of addressing these problems in a democratic society were being steadily chipped away. As elections increasingly were driven by false news, fact-free advertising and a media which sees its role as entertaining viewers rather than critically informing them, the ability to cast an intelligent informed vote became increasingly impossible. 

Yet, in the face of all of that, we remained silent. We went shopping, camping out in parking lots up to two weeks before Thanksgiving to get cheap consumer goods that a year from now would be obsolete. We distracted ourselves with our technology and our social media, obsessing over who would win on American Idol or one of the 41 post-season collegiate bowl games, some now featuring teams with losing records.  

In the end, we knew. And we went along. 

Hopes for Dodging the Bullet 

Many of us who voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election did so open-eyed knowing that this was a flawed candidate and that her election probably meant that few of the long-term structural problems would be effectively dealt with during her administration. I called that hoped-for election “dodging a bullet,” the recognition that while Hillary was not the ideal candidate in the face of the crisis America was then facing, she at least would not pour gasoline on the smoldering fire of a nation in crisis. 

As I saw it, the problems America faced were deeply rooted and would require extended attention to be resolved, just as Bernie Sanders had told us. That simply could not happen in any given election. These problems had taken decades to come into place. Despite the American consumerist desire for instant gratification, it would take years to address them. The only goal I hoped our nation could accomplish with the election of Hillary Clinton was simply to not dig those holes any deeper. 

I also well understood the anger that many voters felt about that crisis. Workers facing job losses with little prospects of regaining meaningful and life-affirming employment have reason to be angry. Students facing work lives saddled with debt for their educations passed on to them by legislatures seeking to provide tax breaks for the wealthy have reason to be angry. People of color watching their offspring die on the streets of our cities at the hands of those entrusted with protecting them have reason to be fearful, angry and distrusting.

It was no doubt a feel good move for many to vote for a monster in the face of that frustration under the rubric of throwing a monkey wrench into a dysfunctional system. Such a vote would require no small amount of rationalization for many, particularly those voters who supposedly cast their ballots on the basis of their religious faith, a topic I will touch upon later in this series. But even as the option of dodging the bullet was rejected, many of these voters once giddy with righteous indignation are already awakening to the dull thudding pain of a reality hangover and realizing that the bullet they chose not to dodge has ultimately lodged in their own foot.

I also realize that many voters, particularly younger voters, chose to register their discontent with the system by either not voting or voting for a third party. I share that discontent. And at some level their idealism is to be commended. It will surely be needed in the rebuilding of a New America when Trumpland ends in an inevitable crash and burn. 

But at another level, it evidences a naiveté that ultimately played into the hands of the dark strategists of Trumpland. Third parties are essential to a healthy democracy. But in an unhealthy system saddled with two (and now one) party hegemony, minor party voting often ends up being little more than self-righteous masturbation. 

At a basic level, it reflects a consumerist vision of politics in which instant gratification plays a starring role. But the problems America faced did not arise overnight and could not go away in a single election. Indeed, it was the prophet of the angry left, Bernie Sanders, who repeatedly reminded his supporters of the long-term struggle change would require at every campaign rally. 

In the end, America chose not to dodge the bullet. And in the end, that bullet would prove fatal for the nation called the United States of America and the people who called themselves and each other fellow Americans. 

[Continued with Part V]
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)
© Harry Coverston, 2016

1 comment:

Rich Wilson said...

Well done, Fr. Harry. I look forward to the remainder of the series. In this post I started off feeling you might be over dramatizing the Trump win. But then your documentation of the problem and issues we face, perhaps the cause of the bullet "America chose not to dodge," is spot on and real, requiring no dramatization. In the end (of this part of the series), though, I'm not sure America chose not to dodge the bullet; America, actually the Electoral College, decided that 4-8 years of Madame Clinton, who I voted for, would not produce the change she (America) needs, the change you document so well. Often, it has to get worse before it can get better. My younger brother's candidate, Mr. Trump, will deliver "worse" more effectively than ours -- if you believe, as you and I do, what the real problems are. By the way, my brother is a beautiful, average, thoughtful white American who decided,like so many others at the last minute, to vote for change, just like I did eight and four years ago. In two and four years, we will be very few votes away from addressing the appropriate concerns you voice about "Trumpland." If not in two, certainly in four to eight years, the need for real change will be evident and well within our grasp. Thank you for keeping the vision alive. Blessings, Rich