This evening, through another in a series of “no duh!” moments, I realized that the Democratic Presidential candidates are arguing over two separate types of discord.
The first began subtly but unmistakably creeping toward center stage after the Iowa caucuses, when Clinton supporters found themselves in a real race and began to say things to the press that caused them to be reassigned to duties out of the public eye. I do not imply that the Clinton machine is the only flinger of mud; but I do assert that, with regard to mud and the flinging of it, the Clintons’ assembly far outguns the combined strength of its Democratic opponents. They have the organization, the campaign experience, the government-related connections, and some knowledge of what it’s like to be in the public eye constantly. Plus memories of just how low politics can really go.
Many Americans find this disgusting. The Democrats haven’t yet begun accusing each other of experimenting on unborn kids. No sirree; Democratic barbs are less direct, more substantial, credible across a larger range of educational backgrounds. You know, things like aggravating racial divides with inept remarks about the sainted Dr. King. Or occasionally slipping in inadvertent drug references:
“To me, as an African American, I am frankly insulted the Obama campaign would imply that we are so stupid that we would think Hillary and Bill Clinton, who have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues — when Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood; I won’t say what he was doing, but he said it in his book — when they have been involved,” he said.
Leaving aside the structural deficiencies of that sentence — what, in fact, is the Obama campaign supposed to have implied about the Clintons? — this seems to me a coach-class insult hurled by an operative of moderate skills and fiery temperament. The motivation such people bring to the table only partially compensates for the disarray their manic activity can generate.
In this case, the incident is unlikely to have lasting significance. Mr. BET, Bob Johnson — the only black American billionaire other than Oprah — has apologized for his remark, and the Obama campaign has accepted the apology. But there’ve been a number of these not-too-subtle low blows since Iowa; and my guess is that if Obama wins South Carolina, especially if he wins handily, he can expect a fuller taste of Rovian tactics from the crowd around his main competitor.
I further guess that absent something both real and serious — unlikely but not beyond imagining — throwing dirt at Obama will only make him stronger. This is precisely the kind of politics Obama is making his name in opposition to. Taking mudballs and holding his position, fuzzy though it be, he appears to stand tall, a man who can rise above the fray, climb the mountain, and bring back the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason.
Many Obama voters no doubt agree with his policies. Many more agree with what they believe his policies are, basing their beliefs on how they feel about him personally. And it’s undeniable that he’s a tremendously charismatic figure, the best set-piece speaker I’ve ever heard, and the sort of person we wish the American system tended to produce, though in fact he’s more of a fortunate anomaly.
Mike Huckabee benefits similarly by coming across as a likable person. Anyone who can hold his own with Colbert twice has proved himself quick-witted and comfortable in his own skin; he gives you the feeling that he’d be a good decision-maker in the sense that he’d make decisions based on what he really thought, felt, and believed was going on. Of course he’s totally bonkers in several areas with respect to what actually is going on, but that’s a separate issue.
But many Obamaniacs, it appears to me, support him because they think he’ll make politics friendlier, less critical and demanding and more harmonious. More like television and less like in-laws. It’s a beautiful dream and a worthwhile goal, though a reader of history might be forgiven for considering it something of a long-term prospect.
I’m all for aiming the society at the flag of coöperation. But at this point in the evolution and training of human consciousness; at this stage in the development of the nation-state; at this historical tipping point between a modern feudalism and a renewed commitment to the path of democracy, with all its surprises, Americans are neither psychologically prepared nor sufficiently informed to participate in creating global harmony. As Bertrand Russell put it, our ethic compels competition, but our situation requires coöperation. We’d better get our minds right or we’ll be spending more than one night in The Box.
To do that, we have to work on making society more just; and to do that we have to confront the powers in our own country. We cannot expect to achive measurable success toward our goals by compromising with those who are gorging themselves at the public trough. Unfortunately the very act of exploitation creates a zero-sum game, where Player One loses to the exact extent Player Two gains.
The corporations that are the current bane of democracy in America, particularly the weapons, insurance, and drug companies, can logically expect a reduction in profits as a result of increasing public control over public things. If the US stopped bombing other countries, spent half the money we send to Iraq on nationwide infrastructure and Japanese-level trains and the other half on developing new energy sources and saving the environment, and developed some sort of universal health-care plan like all the other so-called industrialized countries, we could free ourselves from the necessity to invade other countries for profit or resources. We could once again bid to lead the world in technologies of the future (and the future-tech niche tends to have unusually high profit margins). We could regain some of our international moral stature.
But this would damage the corporate profit sheets beyond the power of spin, reducing the value of stock options held by literally hundreds of board members across the country. They are likely to oppose any such plan, and to have significant resources available to invest in agreeable candidates and initiatives.
The battle to decide whether the early 21st-century United States will be a corporate or a popular state is underway. To the extent that popular sovereignty succeeds (or a populist monomaniac arises), powerful interests will suffer a decline in superlativeness. They will resist the individual depredations with every available tactic. It’s worth spending a hundred million in advertising and campaign contributions to preserve thirty billion a year in profits, eh what?
Like the vast majority of Americans, I would like to see the vicious, low-down, lying, dirty politics of the last few decades evolve into a mutual realization of mutual dependency. But that’s not on the horizon. Rove, and the Republican oppo research tanks now recycling classic baby-vivisection stories, will soon be aimed at the Democratic nominee, and no victory in November, no matter how convincing, will silence them. If the next President wants to return some control over the government to the people, that project will meet resistance, not only from the Republicans now hypocritically filibustering everything, but also from the Republican wing of the Democratic party, the DLC. Such a project is bound to fail without the exhibition of significant public interest. Therein, of course, lies the danger.
But I’m afraid there’s no escaping it: this is a fight we either take on or cower from. We cannot rise above it. We can succeed, but if we run, hide, or ignore it, we lose.