We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
-Preamble to the Constitution of the United States
My life as a political being goes in waves, from peaks of heightened political engagement where I think often about the current state of our country and the philosophical foundations of the American political system, to valleys where I maybe still read history and philosophy but don’t bother much to think about politics as such. The last few years have been such a valley — I’ve spent most of the Obama presidency with a deep respect and admiration for our current president and general annoyance at Republican obstructionism, punctuated by occasional interest in (without taking action on) key issues.
A few recent events have quickly taken me from a valley to a peak: the emergence of the new civil rights movement, particularly in and around my hometown; my wife’s and my decision to start watching The West Wing beginning back in November; the massive popularity of the musical Hamilton, which got me reading more deeply about the early days of our country; and the current election, which vivifies everything wrong with our country today. In this current bout of consciousness I’ve bought a copy of the US Constitution and read it several times, while also beginning to read The Federalist Papers to be better understand the logic and history behind that Constitution.
One unintended result of this is that I like our current president more and more, while increasingly detesting the opposition party. In Barack Obama we have a pretty good president and a great, inspiring leader, willing to work with the opposition. In reaction, the Republican party has done the opposite at every turn. The end result is a rhetorically strong but intellectually dishonest attitude that has the potential to take our country in a disastrous direction.
When your opponent has gone all-in on positivity like Obama did in the 2008 election (and has, generally, maintained) the most immediately effective way to counteract is to invest equally in negativity. Faced with an overwhelming defeat by somebody whose strength lies in large part in his ability to bring people together, each compromise becomes a new defeat. The Republicans’ strength over the last seven years has been to say no, loudly and frequently, and to say with complete conviction that this moderate Democrat is a communist, to say without irony or self-awareness that he is simultaneously Stalin and Hitler. My favorite result of this insanity has been that an entire political party, many of whose leaders have law or other advanced degrees, apparently have no idea that fascism and communism are distinct and mutually-exclusive things.
The Republicans in Congress basically said, on day one, “We can’t let Obama win anything,” to the point that even when he supported Republican legislation, suddenly they had to oppose it. (I say they “basically” said this, but that is very close to a direct quote from Mitch McConnell.) In the general white population, veiled racism stayed only barely veiled, and people inclined to dislike Obama’s popularity and his blackness immediately started painting him as a socialist and a race warrior and an immensely divisive person, even though he maintained significant white support on the left.
The Republican attacks against Obama would be hilarious if they weren’t so potent: That he’s the most liberal president ever, when actually he’s statistically the most moderate since 1945. Or that he rules like a tyrant through executive orders, when he’s issued fewer executive orders per year than any Republican president since Chester Arthur (back when Republicans were liberal). Or many other attacks that go on and on ad nauseum. These attacks stop being funny when you realize that the people who have for years accused a normal American president of Hitler-style fascism are themselves exhibiting functionally fascistic behaviors.
It is not hard to see how we’ve arrived at a world where a major political party’s two front-runners for the presidency can tell blatant lies over and over again without any consequence. This has been the Republicans’ strategy for years, just made more acute and more explicitly racist.
There are real, positive, logically sound and philosophically honest arguments to be made for conservatism. I don’t subscribe to these arguments because my philosophical foundations are different — my thinking is based on equity and community rather than profit and liberty*, and my concern is less for my own private property than for the numerous peoples for whom the American system inhibits “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” — but there are real arguments to be made. For American political beings who are genuinely engaged, the end goal is largely the same: to achieve a system wherein everyone can flourish fully, healthfully and safely. Only the methods of achieving this differ.
Reagan, often, made these arguments. Bob Dole and John McCain made these arguments. But nobody currently leading the right is making these arguments. Instead, the dishonest propaganda machine of Fox News has birthed Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
For the last several years, I’ve started to feel a strong sense of sympathy for two of my grandparents. He was a career naval officer and she, I believe, worked or volunteered in several White Houses including Reagan’s. They are strong people, full of faith and love, and they are Republicans. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to watch this hateful, disorganized, dishonest version of the Republican party. That sympathy — bordering on pity — has only gotten stronger through this election cycle.
This is sad for my grandparents** but it’s sad also for our country. Not because I think Republican policies are good, but because our country is better off when the dialogue is at least honest. Our current president believed that the health care system was broken and knew a majority of the country agreed, but he also knew that almost exactly half of the country opposed Canada- or United Kingdom-style health care systems. So he based his reform of the health care system in deeply conservative (read: free market) concepts. Our country is better off for this, for his incorporation of opponents’ ideas into his own solutions to our country’s problems. But they’ve had much more success digging in their heels and, instead of working with him, yelling “liar!” and drawing Hitler mustaches onto photos of him.
Rather than any sort of theoretical cohesion or discipline, today’s Republican party is borne out of the interplay of two different elements: rhetoric and race. I’ve discussed rhetoric at length here, but the basic summation is that it’s easier to simply say no (loudly) than to engage with real alternatives. That’s how the dishonest lunatic who led the government shutdown of 2013 can be a leading candidate for the presidency. And the candidacy of Donald Trump — the only guy leading the dishonest lunatic who led the government shutdown of 2013 — shows that white resentment of non-whites remains a strong factor in Republican politics.
This has been an effective strategy for Republicans — though, it must be said, now that the train is completely out of the station and they’re reaping the rewards of years of obstructionism, party elites are beginning to regret the situation they created. The campaign that created this situation was so deliberate and so calculated that it’s easy to get a little cynical and suspect that those running the party don’t regret the strategy itself but only regret losing control of it over the last year.
For my part, I certainly lean leftward. My intellectual interests are very far to the left — I subscribe to a broadly Marxian worldview informed by an academic interest in anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean and sociopolitical philosophy from Northern Europe, along with a belief that the more pernicious impediment to real liberty and eudaimonia is not government but rather socioeconomic elites. But in the context of the American political sphere, these intellectual interests just barely inform my orientation.
When it comes to my thoughts on American politics — you know, the politics that actually impact the way my own nation is governed — I take a much more moderate line. When it comes to our politics, I want to find a way to make my personal beliefs work in an enormous, diverse, and complicated nation. Above all, I realize that my radical Marxian thinking simply won’t work in a country like the United States, but I do believe it could contribute significantly to our political discourse if, simply, people invoked more of a spirit of critique.
There are people in this world who disagree with me. That’s good! When they make reasonable arguments (not like the arguments being made by today’s Republican party), those arguments should be engaged properly. But when it’s racism, hate, and the promotion of violence, the engagement must change.
The left, thus, has a choice: to watch the Republicans swinging as far to the extreme right as possible and similarly swing further left, or to continue a more centrist course that attempts to solve our country’s most intense problems while at least acknowledging that many people disagree with certain solutions to those problems.
This latter course is more difficult because, with the Republican move to the extreme right, the mainstream conservative voices are refusing to even acknowledge the mere existence of certain problems, like climate change or racial injustice or sexual depredation, despite overwhelming and objective evidence proving their existence. So why would the left bother engaging at all? Because moving farther to the left will only entrench the right’s current lunacy while potentially alienating the center***, forcing many moderates to move right as well. Also, while there are alternate socioeconomic and political frameworks that are better than the American one, a drastic uprooting of the US system is not going to happen.
The left needs to figure out how to solve the real problems of the country — mass incarceration and racist policing, ecological destruction, etc. — within the American paradigm.
When I began thinking about this essay several weeks ago, it was intended as an explanation of why I support Hillary Clinton and would vote for her in the primary if I was allowed to. (This is the problem with being a proudly registered independent in a state with closed primaries.) I would certainly be happy to vote for Bernie Sanders because I love his orientation on an intellectual level and I think the realities of the presidency would rein in his unrealistic policy proposals. But while I’d be happy with him as the left’s nominee, I look at Hillary as the candidate best able to take the right tone in addressing our country’s problems.
Of course, she will have her own struggles because the right likes to demonize the Clintons just as much as they do Obama. A common complaint is about tax rates under Clinton and Obama, even though those federal tax rates are lower than they were under Reagan. (My theory is that many people who make this complaint just weren’t as rich during the Reagan years as they are now.) And many of those same white men who would never vote for a black president would never vote for a woman. But also:
- Benghazi: Two separate congressional investigations have cleared pretty much everyone of wrongdoing. One of those investigations was bipartisan, while the other was a House Republican-led
smearfestinvestigation. At this point, any remaining attacks are based on partisan conspiracy theories.
- The e-mail scandal: Similarly, she’s not getting charged with anything over this. Like Benghazi, this is an extraordinarily partisan (and very effective) attack, considering two preceding Republican Secretaries of State — Colin Powell and Condaleeza Rice — did the same thing.
- Ties to Wall Street: I really, really dislike and distrust the stock markets. But even if Bernie Sanders wins, they’re not going anywhere. This is another non-issue, I think.
- Her role in mass incarceration: This one is tougher for me. Mass incarceration comes out of a trend beginning with the War on Poverty, but it really began in earnest in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, with the support of Hillary, and is emblematic of the inequitable way the US justice system treats non-white offenders. This trend has serious equity implications and is in desperate need of reversal. She’s saying the right things today, though, which suggest to my less-than-cynical eye that she recognizes that in 2016 we should be smarter than we were in 1994. And even more, the Clintons — both Bill and Hillary — have been enormous contributors to increased racial justice despite these missteps.
My biggest complaint, really, is that she’s related to a former president; I deeply dislike the dynastic tendencies of our system. But that’s not new (see: John Adams and John Quincy Adams), and it’s not changing any time soon.
The next president will face a difficult task, disrupting entrenched inequities like economic inequality, racial injustice, resource depletion and ecological destruction. Nobody running on the right will even think about these issues — not Rubio nor Kasich nor Trump nor Cruz — but the left has the opportunity to do the right thing and work to improve the American system in pursuit of liberty and justice for all. That’s the only way that we can ensure we pass a vibrant, healthy, and equitable world to our children.
* Liberty here referring not to its common usage as freedom as such, but rather to complete, untethered activity; liberty as the root of libertarian. Click here to return to where you left off.
** At least for those two. I’m blessed with many grandparents (one of the few positives of being a child of divorce, whose parents are also children of divorce), and some lean left, some appear to be apolitical, and at least one is probably really, really into Donald Trump. Click here to return to where you left off.
*** This wouldn’t be the worse thing, because much of our issue now comes down to the two-party system. A centrist third-party could be a real boon to our country’s body politic. Click here to return to where you left off.