For the next two months, politics will dominate the news. Think in the Morning has put our heads together to come up with a few comments based on our perception of politics in America today. This is not a scholarly tome. It is simply a list of anecdotal observations. Given the seriousness of politics in American society, we would like to start with this silly little song to lighten the mood. The song may have been an inspiration for Roy Hoggard’s feature art at the top of this post but I do not know that for sure. In any case, it fits. The best part starts about halfway through, so be patient if you want to hear it.
Here are our observations on American politics today in no particular order.
Politics in America is a money game. No attempt has seriously been made to remove the corrosive impact of money on elections. Just count the number of solicitations you get daily, weekly, monthly. Wealthy contributors have an undue influence on elections, laws, and ultimately on life in America. As Walter Cronkite used to say at the end of his news broadcasts: “that’s the way it is.” Or, as reflected in the name of a weekly financial radio show I did for around fifteen years: Money Talks.
The Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde coined the phrase: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Many in America today have become cynics with regard to politics. An often heard refrain is “politicians are all the same” meaning that they are out for themselves, power hungry, full of false promises, etc. While there is some truth to this, I do not believe it is generally true. I am not a cynic with regard to politics in America but I am concerned that so many are. If we lose faith in the system, we become easy targets for authoritarian rulers. President Obama offered the remedy for cynicism: “If you don’t like what’s going on right now, do not complain, don’t hashtag, don’t get anxious, don’t retreat, don’t binge on whatever it is you’re bingeing on, don’t lose yourself in ironic detachment, don’t boo, don’t put your head in the sand. Vote.” Unfortunately, only a bare majority of eligible voters actually vote. Around 45% don’t bother or don’t care.
Have we outgrown democracy? That’s a question I asked a few posts ago. We are so divided that it may seem obvious that the answer is yes. Our divisions are increasing, spurred on by cable news, social media, and the increasing belief that compromise and negotiation are bad. I have quoted Senator and Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater before:
Inconsistency is a political tactic. Consistency is a political liability, or can be. Barry Goldwater’s most famous line in the 1964 election was “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in defense of justice is no virtue.” I admire his pluck but being so explicitly truthful cost him the election. People rightly fear extremism because it leads to fanaticism. What if your understanding of “liberty” or “justice” is wrong?
Those on the other side of the political divide are not all stupid even if you disagree with them. They believe in what they say and you might learn something by listening. Unless you are going to live in a cave, you will need to try to get along with them. So, try. It doesn’t mean you must give up what is most dear to you, just that you should think about things carefully and listen to the alternatives.
Term limits have become a popular refrain. Full time politicians are increasingly held in low esteem. This may have been appropriate in an early rural America, I don’t know. But today life is urban, complicated and knowledge based. Donald Trump who once said “good people don’t go into government” has revised his opinion: “… the word experience is still good, I always say talent is more important than experience, I’ve always said that—but the word experience is a very important word, a very important meaning.” Ask yourself, would you like doctors, professional athletes, farmers, or barbers to have term limits? Or is experience worth something? One problem with American democracy is that it encourages short term rather than long term thinking. In this case, term limits might be a benefit if they encourage more long term planning and solutions. But, there is no guarantee that this will be the case.
The very process by which the President is elected is anti-democratic. The Electoral College is an anachronism and it is time to consider alternatives. Granted, there is no easy solution. The same is true for the allocation of Senators between states. The two together allow for the minority to dominate the majority.
Foreign interference in our elections is large and growing. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of social media and the proliferation of fake news services but it is a fact. Ultimately this will lead to more division and distrust. It cannot be good for American democracy. Check out your sources before you share them on social media or with friends over cocktails. Don’t blindly repeat everything you hear. The price of democracy is eternal vigilance.
Most people who do vote, a bare majority of eligible voters, vote along party lines although there is a growing group of independent voters. Independent voters are beneficial to democracy if they task themselves with becoming informed about the issues and basing their decisions on facts. If not, they may be a destabilizing force. Voting the party line can be a lazy substitute for getting educated on the issues but it can also bring people together to compromise and negotiate. No two people will agree on everything.
Politics ultimately comes down to trust. Who do you trust? Which system do you trust? Can you trust anyone or any system? When asked what he had done at the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin famously replied: “Given you a republic, if you can keep it.” For over 200 years American has managed to balance all our diverse interests and to keep the republic. Will that continue as we move into the next election? It is a question only time will answer. Fingers crossed.