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On the Era of Bad Feelings
If you asked someone 10 years ago what Cornel West, Donald Trump, Marianne Williamson, Vivek Ramaswamy (who?), and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had in common, assuming they knew something about all of them, it would be difficult to give a single answer. “Thought Leaders” seems a bit of a stretch. I suppose they’ve all published books, with varying degrees of authorship. Large egos are also a common thread. But you’d still never hear those particular names grouped together in 2013.
Today it’s obvious: they are all non-politicians running for President of the United States. And boy do the politicians despise them for this. Trump was the first US President since Eisenhower to have been elected without any prior experience in federal office, but Eisenhower caught a break because we have a thing for generals in this country, especially Nazi-killing ones (he was also the president of a university first, though in his case it was Columbia rather than...Trump U). And while the likelihood of a Williamson Administration sweeping to power on a platform of E-bikes in every garage and energy crystals on every bookshelf feels far-fetched, we are somehow staring down the possibility of the Trump Show Season 2: This Time It’s Personal despite four years of compelling evidence that it may not go so well. Yet the only serious alternative currently on offer is Uncle Joe, a man who has trouble stringing a sentence together and has been the epitome of insider politician since 1972, when people still used rotary telephones and Brezhnev ran the Soviet Union.
Forgive my French here, but what in the absolute f*ck is going on?
Politics has always been an unsavory business, but never in my relatively brief lifetime has the script felt so spun-out, so utterly devoid of solutions, that most presidential candidates don’t even pretend to care about policy anymore. They are essentially contestants in a perverse game show, but the prize in the briefcase isn’t a free trip to the Bahamas, it’s the nuclear launch codes. Most reasonable people who value their mental health (i.e, not me) are tuning out and hoping that it all gets sorted somehow. This is not going to happen. The fact that we are facing a rerun of the already-despised 2020 election shows how little anything has changed since then, and our motley crew of non-politicians are having a moment simply because they are not bound by the restrictions and hierarchy - sorry, meritocracy - that prevents ‘real’ politicians from ever thinking, let alone uttering, an original thought.
Until the true enemy of American democracy is named and condemned, we will continue to be dragged down into a bad-faith struggle between quasi-fascist corporate stooges on the ‘right’ and spineless, uninspiring corporate stooges on the ‘left.’ It’s like being asked whether you’d prefer to be shot in the face or slowly poisoned. Uhh…what’s option C?
The enemy I am referring to is not any single candidate, not even the Orange One, but the totally unaccountable, toxically codependent duopoly of the Republican AND Democratic parties. There’s no place in the US Constitution that says “and all the above will be divvied up between two private organizations run by sociopaths,” yet here we are, and have been for quite some time. I’m not even sure what the word ‘democracy’ refers to in this country other than the endless Donkey vs. Elephant gaslighting parade. The last thing George Washington did before he left office was warn us all about the dangers of partisanship, and the aforementioned Eisenhower similarly sounded the alarm about the encroaching powers of the military industrial complex. Here in 2023 these two pernicious forces have almost totally fused into a chimera capable of destroying the world many times over but somehow have convinced us that it’s really just the other party’s fault, and thus your fault for not voting hard enough. What American democracy needs is a one-party state, they argue, and in the same breath decry Russia and China as despotic Orwellian nightmare zones.
Have you ever actually been to a political party’s party? By pure party standards, they suck. I’ve crashed a few Democratic ones locally and here’s how they go: Arrive at some rich stranger’s house around a meal time and survive off of cheese and celery sticks; make small talk with the staff of candidates who are trying to figure out if you have money or are a journalist (no, and not technically); then just when the free wine mercifully starts working its magic, curtail all conversation so an aging Congress-human can deliver what they believe is a barnstorming speech about how MAGA Republicans are the reason why they are incapable of doing their jobs, except the part where they all approve the military budget, and that nothing is more sacred than every American’s democratic right to keep voting for them. If you’re lucky you can watch them evade some softball questions. Then it’s time to open up the checkbook, dutifully give this rambling grand-stander thousands of dollars, and promptly leave until 2 years later when you are called back to repeat the ritual, just with a greater sense of fear and loathing than last time. Take that, you fascist pigs!
Merely replacing boring career politicians with iconoclasts, even ones that speak very well on issues (can you imagine a President Cornel West negotiating with Kim Jong-Un?) would will not suddenly fix our rotten politics or dysfunctional government. Indeed, I suspect that many Trump voters have few illusions about his efficacy as President but simply enjoy the spectacle of watching him trample on everything the West Wing worshipers hold dear.
What I AM arguing is that most of the population and culture has moved on from the two-party system even if they’re not consciously aware of it. The credibility factor just isn’t there and I don’t think there’s any Lincolns or Roosevelts in the pipeline to bring it back. Otherwise Marianne would still be on Oprah, The Donald on The Apprentice and RFK would be practicing environmental law. A serious effort needs to be made to imagine American democracy that functions democratically - where regular citizens have a chance to pass judgement and have their opinions heard on the policy choices of their government: what their taxes are spent on, which taxes are levied at all and on whom, how the economy is structured, foreign affairs, city planning, crime and punishment, i.e the real business of government. But ideally unclouded by the distraction of partisan hacks hurling insults towards each other and dragging us all down with them. If you doubt the average American’s ability to handle these topics, consider how much manages to get done in this country despite the uselessness of most of our elected officials.
Following the War of 1812, the United States entered a brief period referred to by historians as the “Era of Good Feelings,” where national unity was high, the previous feud between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans had dissolved, and grassroots democracy spread rapidly across the country. Without excusing the many horrid deeds of that time (slavery, genocide, and sexism come to mind), I propose that we find ourselves now approaching an “Era of Bad Feelings,” where partisanship has become so stitched into the fabric of the country that even the very ideas of patriotism and civic duty solicit eye-rolls, if not outright condemnation, and most of us are just shrugging our way into a shitty future.
Despite ample evidence that America sucks, I for one would find it sad if the culmination of this multi-century effort to create a nation defined by allegiance to a system of self-government, rather than the divine rights of kings, is a descent into apathy and anarchy, which typically precedes authoritarianism. All of us need to find it within ourselves to break out of the stultifying mental cage constructed by the political class and recognize that like it or not, we’re stuck here together and the only way out is through.