That title was just trolling. I don’t have the standing to “apologize for America,” as the Republicans like to claim any non-Republican has an unhealthy penchant for doing; but I do often travel outside the country and in those exotic places I often find myself asked to explain what the hell we are thinking and how we got this way.
The plain fact is that we have a lot of politicians going around spouting absolute guff about things they know nothing about, and this adds to, rather than detracting from, their popularity. We have politicians who plan to force women who’ve been raped to carry the potentially resulting child to term. We have politicians whose ambition is to get into the bedrooms of their fellow citizens and intervene in the categories of (to quote an old limerick) “what, and with which, and to whom.” We have a number of politicians whose favorite trick is to go around declaring war on everybody else– and can’t locate on a map the countries they’d like to invade. We have politicians who specialize in insinuating that half the US population is made up of shiftless black and brown people who lie around wearing those loose shoes and collecting multiple welfare checks. We have politicians who say that God will take care of our climate issues, if we just burn enough fossil fuels to get His attention. None of this would be acceptable, let alone electable, in the other countries I travel to, where politicians and citizens are obliged to live a little closer to reality.
I used to think that our wealth insulated us from the facts. Now that our wealth seems to be thinning out, it may be our stock of weapons that does the insulating.
And now an essay in The Economist comes out with a good half-truth. Why is it that we have such electoral acrimony, such screaming and demonizing, given that the two parties’ real differences are so often a matter of nuance, as the Economist puts it, the difference between a 35% and a 39.5% top tax rate?
The grain of truth is that despite all the hollering about Obama as a “Communist” (we saw plenty of that on Youtube and elsewhere in recent days), he is governing somewhere to the right of Richard Nixon and taking advantage of all the Bush-era licenses to kill, to spy and to detain.
Granted, getting elected and governing are two different things, and the stuff you might have to say to get elected these days is not going to help you govern, should you actually want to make things work. Fair enough. The part that escapes the Economist writer is the way life in the US looks if you’re non-white, of unresolved immigration status, uninsured, female, or non-Christian. Under a Republican administration, white men would start acting like the majority they once thought they were, and would definitely take steps to disenfranchise, underpay, de-unionize, delegitimate and fiscally punish those pesky Others. In that regard, we’re not talking about 35% vs. 39.5%. We’re talking about voting vs. being silenced. We’re talking about living lives of servitude vs. living with some autonomy. These things matter, if you’re one of the people for whom they matter, or are acquainted with any.
The other thing I have to explain is the way unlimited campaign money acts to turn the usual hogwash of electioneering into a frothy brew of murky character and overripe scent, slung in the faces of every media audience member in the country for six to nine months before the day that levers are finally, gratefully, pulled. If the Supreme Court was led by a belief that free speech is good, and more speech means more of that good, the realities following from their disastrous Citizens United decision can be summed up in one concept: Gresham’s Law. “Bad money drives out good,” as the seventeenth-century economist put it. Whenever counterfeit is circulating together with solid coin and accepted at face value, people will hoard the real coin for themselves and transact their business with the fake stuff as extensively as possible. The availability of limitless funds for air time has led to the production of lies and stupidity on a scale so far unprecedented. I firmly believe that if the candidates had only so much money to spend on their campaigns, and only so much time to put their case before the public, they would concentrate on making arguments of higher quality. We wouldn’t have this tactic of spurting out every nonsense accusation imaginable in the hopes that something will get traction or remain unanswered. Limiting the amount of speech every candidate enjoys, so long as it is done equitably, might result in US elections coming to resemble those elsewhere in the world in at least this regard: they might be about the policies, not about personalities, a matter of judgment, not of identification.
At least, this is what I say to reassure people that we are not some mutant offshoot of the human species, but obey general social laws even in our craziness. And that’s my explanation tour.