Optimism and Cynicism

Some Cana­di­an and Amer­i­can friends have asked for my opin­ion on the upcom­ing US Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. What do I think Oba­ma’s chances are?  Isn’t it going to be a Land­slide for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, giv­en the dis­as­ter that Bush has proven to be? Do I think I might return to the US after it’s gone back to being a coun­try more in tune with my beliefs and values?

While for some I may seem unen­thu­si­as­tic or even pes­simistic, I have to admit that my first response has been that I think the out­come is a toss-up. While I’m hope­ful that Oba­ma and Biden will win in Novem­ber, I remem­ber all too vivid­ly how it was to be stunned in 2000 by Bush tak­ing the oath of office, and shocked again in 2004 (no, that time it was more like we were all in mourn­ing) when he was reelect­ed. How could more than half of the Amer­i­can pub­lic be so blind, twice? (More about that in a bit). Being a long-suf­fer­ing Red Sox fan dur­ing their drought of World Series vic­to­ries and ago­niz­ing defeats to the Yan­kees that last­ed the life­time of my moth­er-in-law (she was born the year after their Word Series win in 1916 and died before they won it again in 2004), I’m no stranger to the despair of an unex­pect­ed defeat. Per­haps I’m just doing my best to guard against that pain a third time in a row.

Republicans, like the Yankees, are Good at Winning

If a win for the Democ­rats is not a cer­tain­ty, does that mean that McCain and Palin can win? I’m remind­ed that the GOP is very, very good at win­ning elec­tions. (As Howard Dean used to say that it’s a pity that the Repub­li­can’s aren’t as good at gov­ern­ing as well as they are at get­ting elect­ed). They still have tons of mon­ey from count­less cor­po­ra­tions and groups made far rich­er and more pow­er­ful than they were eight years ago. They are still in pow­er and hence, have access to all sorts of advan­tages their oppo­nents don’t have, and they have high­ly regard­ed experts with impres­sive track records like Karl Rove (either with­in the par­ty or hired as con­sul­tants and lob­by­ists) who know how to per­suade vot­ers and per­haps even once again alter vot­ing machines enough to gain an advan­tage in key swing states (Ohio, anyone?).

American Lack of Education

My belief that either par­ty could win goes deep­er than just the GOP’s recent suc­cess­es (not count­ing the 2006 Con­gres­sion­al elec­tions, but it’s worth not­ing that even in defeat, they still man­aged to hold on to enough num­bers to make the Democ­ra­t’s retak­ing of sev­er­al Con­gres­sion­al seats a non-issue for them; the US Con­gress is cur­rent­ly held with even low­er esteem than Bush!)  I believe that for the last 20 years or so the US pop­u­la­tion has been method­i­cal­ly robbed of the abil­i­ty to think ratio­nal­ly about the choice of who will gov­ern them. With the weak­en­ing of the Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion sys­tem that start­ed at about the Rea­gan era, it is very pos­si­ble that both par­ties — per­haps even by acci­dent — dis­cov­ered that a dumb­ed-down elec­torate was far eas­i­er to con­trol, and hence, eas­i­er to gov­ern. I can imag­ine that each group came to the same con­clu­sion: An eas­i­ly steered pop­u­la­tion would ben­e­fit their agen­da. For lib­er­als who believed that indi­vid­u­als deserved help from the gov­ern­ment, this meant that peo­ple could be con­vinced of the worth of social pro­grams by sell­ing them the way that Ford or Toy­ota sold a new car mod­el. For con­ser­v­a­tives, well, we can see that the last 8 years of tax cuts (‘You like tax cuts, don’t you? After all, it’s your mon­ey!’) for the rich­est friends of the par­ty and mil­i­tary adven­tures (with cor­re­spond­ing mil­i­tary con­trac­tor feed­ing troughs) have been the direc­tion they’ve got­ten through herd­ing the US’s citizenry.

I’m not alone in this view. Al Gore’s lat­est book deals not with cli­mate change, but this very sub­ject. It’s called The Assault on Rea­son.  There are also books by Richard Hof­s­tadter: Anti-intel­lec­tu­al­ism in Amer­i­can Life (which end­ed up being very pre­scient, as it as the Pulitzer Prize Win­ner in 1963) as well as Susan Jaco­by’s very recent The Age of Amer­i­can Unrea­son. There are oth­ers, but I thought it might be good to point some of the more well-known titles. There’s been a lot of ink on this par­tic­u­lar subject.

With a pub­lic so eas­i­ly influ­enced and turned to the advan­tage of who­ev­er is the clev­er­er mar­keter, either out­come is pos­si­ble. It comes down to a game of duel­ing com­mer­cials between the cam­paigns (and isn’t it appro­pri­ate that the same word ‘cam­paign’ applies to both the activ­i­ty of sell­ing soap as well as polit­i­cal candidates?)

The Press is Playing for Time

Sound cynical?  There’s more: The press has it’s own agen­da, but it’s a dif­fer­ent one. At a slight­ly lat­er date after the erod­ing of the pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem, many news report­ing orga­ni­za­tions were bought up by a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of own­ers, and also placed under the enter­tain­ment bud­get of their respec­tive own­ers’ busi­ness­es. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly the case with TV News, not to men­tion the 24-hour cable net­works. We almost take for grant­ed the fact that The News is now clear­ly in the rat­ings busi­ness. That means that they not only have to com­pete for atten­tion, but they also ben­e­fit if the Pres­i­den­tial race is close and peo­ple stay tuned in and engaged as long as pos­si­ble. I’m not echo­ing the com­mon tirade that the press has a con­ser­v­a­tive or lib­er­al bias. Instead, they have a bias towards any­thing that makes the race clos­er, and in turn gen­er­ates more ad rev­enue. It’s very like­ly that the see-saw­ing lead between McCain and Oba­ma in the polls is a con­cert­ed effort by the news media to make sure that their view­ers stay on the edge of their seats until November.

Per­haps it isn’t duel­ing com­mer­cials, but a Pro­fes­sion­al Wrestling match. It’s cer­tain­ly not a debate of issues. You get the appear­ance of a con­test, but it’s real­ly all just the­atre. Pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions are, well, just too bor­ing and dry for an une­d­u­cat­ed elec­torate. They want to be enter­tained, and in the final analy­sis, may end up vot­ing for the most enter­tain­ing and telegenic can­di­date, and depend­ing on how you define telegenic in this case, I don’t think that Oba­ma’s youth and hand­some­ness will nec­es­sar­i­ly guar­an­tee that he gets more votes, par­tic­u­lar­ly if vot­ers want to be reas­sured by an avun­cu­lar or Grand­fa­ther­ly McCain. This could cer­tain­ly be the case if the Repub­li­cans can once again play the fear card, and there could, of course, be anoth­er ter­ror­ist attack before the elec­tion. I’m not quite cyn­i­cal enough to believe that the Repub­li­cans will stage a fake attack, or even sur­rep­ti­tious­ly noti­fy some group of a secu­ri­ty hole, but give me time.

So with an igno­rant pub­lic that’s ruled by emo­tion and cam­paign manipulation,  orga­ni­za­tions (like some with­in the GOP) that have no qualms with a lit­tle cheat­ing here and there, and a media that main­ly just wants to keep the con­test excit­ing for as long  as pos­si­ble, I don’t expect the out­come to be pre­dictable based on real facts or sit­u­a­tions. So, I’m opti­mistic, but won’t at all be sur­prised if the Repub­li­cans find some way of win­ning once more. The out­come was nev­er any­thing that you or I could pre­dict in the first place.

It’s Their Last Chance

One final thought; if the Democ­rats do man­age to lose, they should absolute­ly and with­out any fur­ther dis­cus­sion be dis­band­ed. Sell off all the assets at a fire sale and start with a new par­ty with a new name and all new per­son­nel. If I was light-heart­ed in any of the above dis­course, I’m dead seri­ous about this. If the Democ­rats lose in 2008, get rid of them for good. For­get about Hillary in 2012; That’s not even an issue at that point. If an oppo­si­tion par­ty can’t win after the appalling two terms of rule by Bush and Cheney, who with all prob­a­bil­i­ty will go down as the worst Pres­i­dent and Vice Pres­i­dent in his­to­ry, it does­n’t deserve to exist.

Bit­ter? Moi?

13 Replies to “Optimism and Cynicism”

  1. I’m much more hope­ful than you, David.

    I think there are sim­ply too many weak points for McCain that will start show­ing bad­ly now that the intra-par­ty squab­bles (Dem vs. Dem and Rep vs. Rep) are over and the actu­al elec­tion race is on for real.

    I even think there’s a good chance that the McCain cam­paign will implode before Novem­ber and we’ll have a nice, unex­cit­ing elec­tion. I think Oba­ma will win with some­thing very dif­fer­ent from the 50.1 pct. of the votes that W called “a clear man­date from the Amer­i­can peo­ple” in 2004.

    A cou­ple of weak points that I think will sink McCain:

    - McCain seems to be cam­paign­ing on an image of being an out­sider from pow­er (after 23(?) years in the sen­ate), when the truth is that he was just a rel­a­tive out­sider in his own par­ty (irre­press­ible spurts of integri­ty made him not toe the par­ty line often enough, I think).

    - His VP can­di­date is a no-go. Cheney is the best qual­i­fied, best con­nect­ed, most pow­er­ful evil genius VP who ever sat. And McCain wants to replace Cheney with the least con­nect­ed, least expe­ri­enced VP he could’ve pos­si­bly cho­sen, by the looks of things. Sarah Pal­in’s only claim to fame seems to be that she’s a gun and bible totin’ child rear­ing woman. The con­ser­v­a­tives attacked Oba­ma for being untest­ed; they’ll have to stop say­ing that now. And just imag­ine the upcom­ing VP can­di­date debates between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. That bat­tle will be even more unbal­anced than Gore vs Quale in 1992.

    - McCain’s much hailed mil­i­tary cred­it con­sists of scrap­ing through mil­i­tary acad­e­my, being a bomber pilot, being shot down, and then being held pris­on­er and tor­tured for years. He may have done a lot of good since, in pol­i­tics, but from what I under­stand, in his actu­al mil­i­tary career he was nev­er a mil­i­tary leader. His mil­i­tary career should earn him medals and a pen­sion, it should­n’t earn him the presidency.

    - McCain’s char­ac­ter and integri­ty may stand head and shoul­ders above his Repub­li­can rivals, and that may be why he won the nom­i­na­tion (I did­n’t fol­low that well). But unless actu­al, lit­er­al human skele­tons are dis­cov­ered in Oba­ma’s actu­al bed­room clos­et, Oba­ma will win big on char­ac­ter. Oba­ma is a bet­ter exam­ple of “the Amer­i­can dream” that the Repub­li­cans love so much that they want to claim it as their domain, than is McCain. And it’s my strong hope that the Amer­i­can vot­ers are ready for an actu­al accom­plished self-made man now that they’ve expe­ri­enced what a lucky, fam­i­ly-made moron can do.

  2. Excel­lent post, David.

    We total­ly agree — espe­cial­ly the last para­graph. If the dems blow this one, they don’t deserve to exist. Start over with a clean slate. Some­thing the NDP should do here provin­cial­ly in BC, as far as I’m concerned .…

  3. Amer­i­ca’s polit­i­cal sys­tem (first-past-the-post / win­ner takes ALL) is geared toward a two par­ty sys­tem, and you pro­pose that the under­dogs (in terms of orga­ni­za­tion­al pow­er to make things hap­pen) — whose views you gen­er­al­ly agree with — should dis­band themselves (!)

    Well, that’s cer­tain­ly one way to cre­ate a sta­ble one-par­ty polit­i­cal system.

  4. Also want to echo what an inter­est­ing post! My real­ly brief think­ing: the two sides will duke it out, but Oba­ma is still ahead by most accounts. It will take an out of the ordi­nary suc­cess or fail­ure to shift that, I think.

  5. Jan — I think I should have made it clear that after the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty was dis­solved, anoth­er one with bet­ter man­age­ment (and the right mes­sage to win an elec­tion) should imme­di­ate­ly begin to be formed. This has hap­pened before in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. In fact, the ‘Grand Old Par­ty’ of the Repub­li­cans is actu­al­ly the younger of the cur­rent two par­ties. Pri­or to the mid 1850s, there were two par­ties, but they were the Democ­rats and the Whig par­ty. I know next to noth­ing about the Whigs, except that William Hen­ry Har­ri­son was one of them. At any rate, it’s pos­si­ble for par­ties to come and go over time, and if the Democ­rats lose this next elec­tion, I’d like to sug­gest that their time is up.

    McCain does have some weak points, and yes, his VP choice is about on par with Bush I’s choice of Dan Quayle (anoth­er attrac­tive, young, right-wing con­ser­v­a­tive) who was utter­ly unqual­i­fied and unready to be Pres­i­dent. PS: Bush I won any­way, even with Quayle on the tick­et. I remem­ber a Sat­ur­day Night Live skit with Jon Lovitz play­ing Michael Dukakis utter­ing the line we were all think­ing: “I can’t believe I’m los­ing to this guy!”

    As for the POW not being a good enough cre­den­tial for office, I sus­pect that there you are get­ting into ’emo­tion­al’ ter­ri­to­ry, and there­fore, my the­sis that Amer­i­cans vote based on their emo­tions rather than rea­son­ing would immu­nize him from crit­i­cism. (Indeed, try sug­gest­ing that he is not a leader because he was just a POW to any Repub­li­can and I’ll bet they’ll bite your head off. It’s taboo to even bring such a thing up.)

    The last point about Oba­ma being the ‘Great Amer­i­can Suc­cess Sto­ry’ is inter­est­ing, espe­cial­ly in light of the way Rove, McCain and oth­ers have been try­ing to paint him. By mak­ing Oba­ma the elit­ist and McCain the self-made man, you have a repeat of the last elec­tion’s log­ic of Ker­ry paint­ed as a trai­tor who would shoot a man in the back and George W. Bush being the hand­some young cadet. Again, remem­ber who won that elec­tion and the stretch was far greater. The dif­fer­ence this time is that the Oba­ma cam­paign won’t allow the ‘Swift-Boat­ing’ of their man, and the fact that such a phrase has entered the ver­nac­u­lar means that it can be used to short-cir­cuit the most obvi­ous of those re-def­i­n­i­tions of the candidate.

    I had a brief dis­cus­sion about the out­come of the elec­tion with my father today, and we both agreed that if McCain wins, the US is in big, big trouble.

  6. Thanks, MJ. I’ve been think­ing of this one for a while.

    Isn’t it lucky for Bush and Cheney that a Hur­ri­cane has giv­en them an excuse to be absent from the Repub­li­can Con­ven­tion? It avoids the awk­ward­ness of the cur­rent candidate(s) hav­ing to be asso­ci­at­ed with these criminals.

  7. @David: There have been char­ac­ter assas­si­na­tions on both sides of the line. I bought into the whole Demo­c­ra­t­ic line about Bush 1 being “poor George, he can’t help it, he was born with a sil­ver foot in his mouth”.

    All the arti­cles I’ve read in the past 9–10 years that com­pared Bush 2 to Bush 1 have made it painful­ly obvi­ous to me that I had been tricked. Turns out Bush 1 was a real­ly accom­plished man in his pre-pres­i­den­tial life!

    That dis­ap­point­ment still stands out for me a reminder about pol­i­tics (with ref­er­ence back to your post title about cyn­i­cism): If I could be mis­led that thor­ough­ly by “the good guys”, what else am I being mis­led about?

  8. Jan — I lived through Bush I, and one of the worst things he did was remove the tax deduc­tion for Health Insur­ance costs if you were self-employed. It was a move for Big Busi­ness and bla­tant­ly against the ‘lit­tle guy’, and it hit Pam and me hard. I had been work­ing as a Con­sul­tant for quite a few years, but the inabil­i­ty for me to get a fair shake with health insur­ance after George H. W. was what made me decide to work for com­pa­nies for among oth­er rea­sons, the health insur­ance, which sud­den­ly became a much big­ger deal.

    Bush I also appoint­ed Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court. You prob­a­bly remem­ber Thomas’s stormy con­fir­ma­tion hearings. 

    It’s worth not­ing that it was Clarence Thomas’s vote in 2001 that put George W. Bush into office, by halt­ing the recount in Flori­da. He usu­al­ly favours the police over indi­vid­u­als in cas­es of unrea­son­able search­es and seizures, and was one of the few mem­bers of the Court that believed that that mil­i­tary com­mis­sions set up by the Bush admin­is­tra­tion to try detainees at Guan­tanamo Bay did­n’t vio­late Gene­va Convention.

    If ever there was a Supreme Court appoint­ment worth going back in time to stop, I’d say it was Thomas. He’s proof that the Supreme Court nom­i­na­tions of a Pres­i­dent in the past (in this case, the ear­ly 90’s) can have a far-reach­ing effect on future events.

  9. I did­n’t say George H.W. Bush was a won­der­ful US pres­i­dent whose lega­cy delights me to this day.

    I said George H.W. Bush was no bum­bling fool who was giv­en every­thing. From what I’ve since read (in arti­cles con­trast­ing him with his son), GHWB was an accom­plished man (beyond his priv­i­leged back­ground) who got things done his whole life. And yet I was sold the oppo­site sto­ry by “the good guys”.

  10. First of all: I’m sor­ry I used such to a hard tone in my last comment. :-/

    Sec­ond, I’ve been think­ing a lot about your idea about the press play­ing for time, want­i­ng to “keep it interesting”.

    The idea seems at odds with the media out­lets’ var­i­ous degrees of affil­i­a­tion with either par­ty. But I can’t find any oth­er rea­son for there being so much focus on the one big aggre­gat­ed poll num­ber (e.g. is can­di­date X up by 51–49 or down by 48–52). Every­body knows the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion isn’t decid­ed by one pop­u­lar vote but rather by the Elec­toral Col­lege sys­tem (which in my opin­ion isn’t so much obscure and con­vo­lut­ed as it is stiffling and insane).

    At CNN.com you have to dig a lit­tle to find their cov­er­age of the elec­toral col­lege here. Which has Oba­ma ahead at 233 del­e­gates from “safe” and “lean­ing” states; McCain at 189 (dit­to); and 116 del­e­gates in real play (“tossup”).

    A friend also told me that the cur­rent polling num­bers all come from land­line phone inter­views. Is that right? That would skew the results away from young vot­ers, urban vot­ers, etc. Right?

  11. Jan -

    No wor­ries about the tone. You are right, GHWB was no idiot. The son is a case of own­ing ‘Fad­ed Genes’. 

    As for the media ‘play­ing for time’, I note that the items that attract the media (par­tic­u­lar­ly CNN, Fox and MSNBC), like a small child attract­ed to the newest shiny thing, is all over the stu­pid accu­sa­tions that float around (‘Lip­stick on a pig com­ment’, claims of Oba­ma want­i­ng peo­ple to teach sex to young chil­dren, any­thing relat­ed to Sarah Palin, etc.) because those news items get the most atten­tion because they are sim­ple and sen­sa­tion­al. Run a seri­ous and sober dis­cus­sion of the issues (aside from the debates, which are more a game of ‘who can appear more pres­i­den­tial’) and the view­er­ship will drop off. Run some­thing about McCain claim­ing that Oba­ma will put a Mus­lim prayer rug in the White House and the rat­ings will shoot up into the stratos­phere (and so will ad revenue).

    The rea­son for the focus on the aggre­gat­ed poll num­bers are clear: most Amer­i­cans don’t under­stand the elec­toral col­lege at all, and if you told them that their vote could mean more in a swing state, they’d be sur­prised to hear the rea­son why.

    Re. the cur­rent polling num­bers com­ing from land­lines only and hence, leav­ing out most of the young vot­ers, you are absolute­ly cor­rect. This is the one thing that is nev­er dis­cussed, and I hope that high­er urban youth par­tic­i­pa­tion might be the sto­ry that saves the day. How­ev­er, I heard this might be a fac­tor in 2000, and then in 2004, and each time ‘The Youth Vote’ was a no-show. Maybe the third time’s a charm. Some­times I think that Oba­ma should ‘do a McCain’ and sug­gest that if McCain is elect­ed, that he will be forced to re-insti­tute the draft. That would get the youth vote out faster (but again, depends on the dis­en­gaged, unin­ter­est­ed young urban pop­u­la­tion actu­al­ly learn­ing of this in time to reg­is­ter, which is anoth­er piece of the puzzle).

  12. By the way, Adam McK­ay, in his post­ing “We’re Gonna Frickin’ Lose this Thing” post in The Huff­in­g­ton Post says a lot of what I said above, par­tic­u­lar­ly with respect to the Press. He adds the chill­ing observation:

    …And with­out a real press the cor­po­rate and reli­gious Repub­li­cans can lie all they want and get away with it. And that’s the 51% advantage.

    When I orig­i­nal­ly wrote my post, the McCain cam­paign had­n’t start­ed their bliz­zard of lies. Now it seems as if the lack of a press now presents them with a dis­tinct advan­tage (unless the Democ­rats now lie just as much).

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