democracy and its discontents…

There are few things I detest more than cynicism.

It’s not that I begrudge anyone’s lack of belief in the integrity of a system or idea.  That, I can deal with (been there myself, more than once).  It’s the inevitable tone of condescension you hear in the words of all cynics, and the patronizing smile those are words are being spoken through.  It’s the smug, satisfied way in which cynics express the presumed hard wisdom of their perspective — and not so much judging others for having a different one, but rather just pitying their naiveté.  It’s the fact that fueling this cynicism is almost always a self-crafted narrative that says, “How adorable that so many of you are still such sincere believers… if only you had my insight, you’d see how pointless it all is.”  It’s defeatist.  It’s downright nihilistic.  And I can’t stand it, in myself or others.‘s Andrew O’Hehir dropped a giant, smoldering bombshell of cynicism this weekend, aimed squarely at those of us determined not to give up this mid-term election without a fight.  The title (leaving nothing to the imagination):  Yeah, the GOP is evil and will win — but the midterms are meaningless.

The reader is then met with a piece of columnizing that perfectly demonstrates the yawning gap that occurs when an intelligent person considers himself (and may, in fact, be) insightful about politics, but has no notion of (or is simply ignoring) the very real challenges of actual governing.

There are three points that I found particularly problematic, beginning with the piece’s tagline–

1.) “It’s the Party of Fear’s turn this year, and that blows.  But the cast of clowns in DC doesn’t really run the show.”

I’m just going to look at the first part right now (we’ll get to the second half later).

There is a fundamental myth of electoral politics that Americans have got to disabuse themselves of, and that is the idea that when one politician, or party, is in power then the responsible thing to do in the next election is give the “other guy” a turn.  Well, to paraphrase The West Wing‘s inimitable Josh Lyman — this is politics, not tee-ball.  The “other guy” doesn’t just automatically get to step up to the plate, they have to earn it.  There should never, ever be any concept of “turns” in American politics (though, admittedly, that does seem to be the GOP’s preferred method of nominating presidential candidates).

Elections should — must — be won based on the party’s ideas, and the GOP’s ideas have been demonstrably proven, time after time after time, to be morally bankrupt and utterly destructive for the country.  Why on earth would we ever give in to the notion they are now due a “turn”?  Especially as the establishment-vs-Tea Party civil war continues unabated and their cohort of candidates seems to get more ludicrous with each passing cycle?

2.) “[The Democratic Party] has no clear mission or agenda beyond being less pathological than the opposition party, whose appeal rests largely on racial panic, xenophobia, and anti-government paranoia, and whose only visible agenda is obstructionism.  It should be obvious to everyone who isn’t a profoundly deluded partisan loyalist that nothing that could possibly happen in the 2014 midterm elections will change any of that.”

First, I fervently contest the notion that the Democratic Party lacks any singular vision other than being the “less crazy” ones.  There are myriad issues — the minimum wage, fair pay for women, the DREAM Act, renewable energy, climate change, gun safety, student loans, women’s health — which show the Democratic Party to be forward-thinking and far more willing to represent the needs of those Americans who lack the lobbying power of Wall Street or the NRA (even if Senator Warren has to drag some her colleagues kicking and screaming along the way).

But let’s move beyond that and consider O’Hehir’s declaration that the mid-terms won’t change anything.  Certainly, they will have no affect on those qualities of the GOP which he enumerates (and his description pretty much nails it).  But maybe — just maybe — the country has a chance to avoid, or at least minimize, the effects of the GOP’s theatrics, which have brought us such hits as just-for-show investigative hearings, constant debt-ceiling brinksmanship, and an all-out government shutdown.  (Remember the shutdown?  It happened just about a year ago.  The GOP stopped funding the government to try and keep the Affordable Care Act from going into effect.  It didn’t work.)

And, as a side-note, I can’t help but notice that disaffected liberal voters seem more interested in punishing the president for his, in their view, disappointing performance than in holding the GOP accountable for the absolute havoc they have wrought upon this country by their infantile, anything-Obama-likes-we-hate approach to governing.  Which is just irresponsible.

 3.) “It’s Political Punditry 101 to view widespread public apathy as both cause and symptom of a diseased political culture, and that’s at least partly true.  But declining to participate in an empty ritual that changes nothing is an entirely rational response…”

Here, O’Hehir cites fellow Salon columnist Joan Walsh’s description of politics as “an endless feedback loop of futility:  little or no policy change leads to a discouraged electorate, which ensures little or no policy change, which guarantees more voter apathy.”  Of course, O’Hehir believes that the lack of progress on matters of policy is not a fault of a broken political system, but is instead that political system’s actual goal (this points back to how “the cast of clowns in DC” aren’t really running things… don’t worry, we’ll get to that at the end).

But regarding the apathy, and the “feedback loop of futility”, there is a question that goes unasked (perhaps because O’Hehir doesn’t believe it’s worth posing):  namely, who bears the burden of breaking that cycle?

My answer, at least, is that it must be the voters.  It is the voters who must constantly engage in the process of weighing and measuring our political representatives, and sending them home when they have been found wanting.  But it is an ongoing process.  Rather than putting all their electoral hopes and dreams into one candidate, or one election — believing that this one, this time will change things “for good” — and then turning away disgusted when those hopes and dreams aren’t fully (or even remotely) realized, American voters have to stay committed to the process, year to year, cycle to cycle, understanding that each election is just one step in an unknowably long journey.  It is demanding, and it is frustrating.  But it is the cross we bear for the privilege of self-government.


Why all this pessimism?  Are elections really so entirely incapable of accomplishing anything?  For O’Hehir, the response is undoubtedly yes, because elections only affect the people occupying Congress and the White House, which are not, in fact, the power centers of our American government.  The real power — and this view is not O’Hehir’s alone — lies in the “deep state”, a semi-official conglomeration of private and government bodies manipulating world events, just barely out of sight, based on a set of priorities that remain unperturbed by electoral outcomes.  (For more information, start with Mike Lofgren’s vital essay on the subject, which O’Hehir cites as well).

This, then, is why the “cast of clowns in DC” — and, by extension, the process by which we put them there — is a gigantic waste of time to O’Hehir.  Because the decisions they make, or fail to make, won’t change the course of events being dictated by the NSA-Wall Street-Silicon Valley ménage a trois.  Further, because the deep state is so inextricably embedded, and it relies for success on continuity in policy (we mustn’t rock the boat!), the American people are guaranteed a lifetime of political stasis.  No proposal of substance that dares disturb the deep state’s steady course will ever be considered even on the table — though we’ll still get pretty diversions like gay-marriage and reproductive rights.

“If we were voting,” writes O’Hehir, “for or against candidates who were willing to address the power of the deep state, or at least to disclose and discuss it openly, then the midterm elections might mean something.”

Really?  Nothing else matters?

I don’t mean to minimize the significance of the issue — the depth and breadth of the national security apparatus in post-9/11 America is, to me, as much a threat to democracy as any external enemy.  But to argue that it is the only issue worth the effort of voting?  That’s simply a bridge too far for me.


O’Hehir calls elections an “empty ritual.”  And he’s entitled to feel that way.  But I maintain that elections only become empty rituals when Americans decide to accept them as such.  And, ironically, it is when Americans have accepted them as such that dangerous institutions — like the deep state O’Hehir is so concerned about — are truly free to do their will, no longer bothered by pesky, educated voters who actually give a shit.

And, as far as I’m concerned, liberals refusing to vote while saying “it doesn’t matter anyway” are just the same as the conservatives who campaign on the ineffectiveness of government then spend their time in office doing everything within their power to make government ineffective — all they do is declare prophecies which they themselves fulfill, and all the while saying snidely, “I told you so,” as the rest of us continue striving for something better.




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