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A Putrid Election: the Horserace as Farce

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Photo By Mike Mozart | CC BY 2.0

Photo By Mike Mozart | CC BY 2.0

Presidential elections are a spectator sport.   A well-known cliché likens them to horseraces.

Horseraces are more interesting, however.

This is why the people who pay the most attention are inveterate obsessives – “political junkies,” according to another cliché.

But in much the way that interest in horse racing picks up on Kentucky Derby Day, interest in presidential elections picks up when the candidates “debate.” The scare-quotes are appropriate because their debates aren’t much like the genuine article; they are more like joint campaign appearances.

There have been a lot of them this electoral season.

Republican aspirants for their party’s nomination debated over and over again.   Towards the beginning, more than a dozen or so of those dunces would be on display at the same time – with yet more of them, those who didn’t make the cut, waiting, as it were, in the wings.

Were the contenders not so well groomed, it would be apt to call the result a series of freak shows; or, were their debates better executed, to refer now to The Goon Show or the Three Stooges.   The sensibility was much the same.

Trump “won” the debates by stealing the show each time.   But his hectoring got old fast. Before long, all but diehard Trump diehards therefore lost interest. There wasn’t even a Sarah Palin around to lighten the mood; there was only Trump.

The Democrats’ debates were different because, on the Bernie Sanders side, there was some genuine political organizing and consciousness-raising going on; and the debates were part of the process. It would have been more satisfying had Sanders gone, Trump-style, for Hillary’s jugular, but at least he did oppose her for some of the right reasons.

For an audience accustomed to hearing only the hard right’s case against the Clintons, this was eye opening.

But the fix was in. The Democratic Party tolerated Sandernismo for a while, thinking, rightly, that it would keep younger voters and progressives of all ages, genders, and hues on board long enough for the Party to coopt them back into its fold, should any of them take a notion to try thinking or acting outside the duopoly party system box.

But when the spirit of rebellion threatened to slip out of their control, the grandees, with Sanders’ cooperation, pulled the plug. Perhaps he was with them all along; perhaps he turned cowardly in the end. Either way, he who made millions of people “feel the Bern” forfeited an opportunity to make history.

While the Sanders insurgency was on, debates in which he participated were enlightening, and also effectual enough to force Hillary and her co-thinkers off their rightward trajectory. But it was a flash in the pan. The Party stood its ground and prevailed.

From that moment on, Democrats again had nothing more positive to offer than sound and fury, and no candidate less noxious than Bill Clinton’s official wife.

In her race against Trump, the fix is in too.

Barring an act of God, Hillary will win – the only question is by how much. The smart money says – by a lot.

Why, then, waste a moment’s thought on that horse race?   The only reason I can think of is the hope that, playing to his strength, Trump, an inveterate entertainer, will make the spectacle interesting by going dirty.

He could have done that in the first debate, had he followed through with his threat to seat Gennifer Flowers in the front row. Monica Lewinsky would be better, but Gennifer will do.

He didn’t, though, – to be “nice,” he said, to the Madam Secretary. Don’t despair yet, however; unless the orange-maned boogeyman wigs out, there are two more debates ahead.

Clinton’s handlers and their media flacks, desperate to generate enthusiasm for their lackluster client, want people to think that Trump could win. With Hillary and the Donald still some way away from the final stretch, their machinations, along with the ebb and flow of events, did combine for a while to create the illusion of a real contest underway.

This was enough to make some eighty-five million people tune in to the first debate. “The Apprentice” never had an audience like that.

But the illusion cannot last – not with the entirety of the American power elite doing all it can to assure a Hillary victory; and not with Trump being Trump.

There is a lot of work to be done, even so, persuading voters, that there really is no work to do – that, thanks to the demographics of the electorate, anti-Trump hysteria is and always has been irrational; and therefore that even people who believe that Trump is, by far, the greater evil should feel no need to pile on votes for Hillary, when their time and energy would be better spent working, say, to assure that the Green Party does well enough to gain ballot access and federal funding in future elections.

Don’t count on anything like that happening, however; not with corporate media pulling out all the stops building up the Trump menace, and doing everything they can, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to make Hillary look good.

***

The debate last Monday night – or rather the consensus narrative about it that began to emerge even before it was over – turned the tide back decisively in Hillary’s favor.

During the first half hour or so, when the Donald was fairly restrained, it was, we are told, a tie. Then Hillary started pushing Trump’s buttons, and the Donald, predictably, lost his cool. Hillary soared ahead.

That is the story, and the talking heads of the corporate media world are sticking with it. Why wouldn’t they; it serves their purpose, and it seems right.

Before long, the polls should start reflecting this understanding.

In a slightly less irrational world, the rising tide for Hillary would also be reflected in a diminution in anti-Trump hysteria, and therefore in a non-negligible up-tick in the numbers of people determined to do something constructive with their votes.

Even disorganized protest votes would be useful – for impressing upon our next President that not only is there “a vast rightwing conspiracy” out to get her, but also that everyone to the left of, say, Donna Brazile, who is not already against her, soon will be — once the consequences of her fondness for war and her servility to corporate interests and to Wall Street start to sink in.

Voting for Jill Stein, the Green candidate, would be even more constructive.

Stein could still get enough votes to help move the Greens out of the margins. But most voters are not about to put their votes to this or any other constructive use. The duopoly’s stranglehold over peoples’ minds is still too strong; and Trump still scares too many liberals.

And so, the farce goes on.

Because she is a Cold Warrior at heart, who seems undaunted by the prospect of hostilities with Russia, Hillary Clinton is a very dangerous woman. This is one of many reasons why the outcome of the farce now unfolding, a Clinton presidency, is dreadful to contemplate.

The process that has brought us to this point is dreadful too – for the many ways it offends democratic values and principles.

Forget about discovering the general will through collective deliberation and debate; forget even about aggregating preferences. The Clinton v. Trump contest has nothing to do with any of that.

This is not exactly news; presidential elections in the United States have never been particularly (small-d) democratic.

Our elections are marketing campaigns; they are about selling candidates to voters, in the way that advertisers sell goods and services to consumers.

But even this description doesn’t quite capture what is going on now.

In normal marketing campaigns, the idea is not to sell the public on the idea that the competition’s wares are too horrible for anyone to consider buying. It is to promote the virtues of the products or services that the advertisers they are peddling.

In fairness, it must be said that both the Clinton and Trump campaigns do try to conform to this model. But because they are selling defective goods, neither campaign has enough to work with to “accentuate the positive.” And so, there is nothing for either of them to do except deride the opposition.

How could it be otherwise when the best, perhaps the only, compelling argument for Hillary Clinton is Donald Trump.

Conventional wisdom has it that Hillary knows her way around Washington and in the corridors of power throughout the world, and that she is adept at getting things done. Well, yes, if knowing her way around means having been there and having had a lot of power for most of her adult life; and if getting things done means making a mess whenever she undertakes to use it.

If it means getting worthwhile things done, the kindest thing that can be said is that examples are hard to find. No matter how many times it is repeated in liberal print, broadcast and cable media, the idea that Hillary is a “progressive pragmatist” is a confabulation.

As for views on issues and general ideas about governance, Hillary has even less to offer. Her neoliberal, liberal imperialist and recklessly bellicose views and ideas are the very ones that, day by day, more and more people are coming to reject, with ever increasing militancy.

And so, only Trump is left. He is the only compelling reason Hillary and her supporters can advance for voting for her.

For them, though, making Trump’s views and ideas, as best they can be ascertained, the problem is problematic. Much that comes out of Trump’s mouth truly is horrendous, but some of his ideas are more progressive than Hillary’s.

Trump’s awful ideas pertain mainly to Muslims and Latinos; but also, in one way or another, to everyone who is not male, white, and long in the tooth.

His more progressive ideas have mainly to do with matters of war and peace, trade policy, jobs creation, and infrastructure development.

These are matters that voters care about; it would hardly do therefore to dwell on them insofar as Trump, not Clinton, occupies the high ground.

No wonder, then, that, as the campaign has unfolded, Hillary and her people have decided to focus mainly on the Donald’s temperament.

This is one of those rare instances where the line Clintonites push tracks reality tolerably well. Trump really is an adolescent in a septuagenarian’s body. It is easy to get under his skin, if you know what buttons to push; and he is inclined to act out.

These character traits bring out the inner fascist in large swathes of the American population; this is not a virtue in a leader of a highly fractious and racially divided country.

More importantly, they are not qualities one would want in the Commander-in-Chief of a country with a huge military presence all over the world, and with enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization many times over.

Similarly, the best argument for Trump is Hillary – because he too doesn’t have much going for him.   Needless to say, this is not Trump’s view of himself, but it is true nevertheless.

Having started out with a lot of money, Trump acquired a whole lot more. Americans are taught from birth to worship at the altar of business success, so this counts for something, even though governments are not businesses, and even though the skills required for succeeding or just getting by in the one hardly transfer to the other.

In any case, it would be fair to say that, even more than Clinton, Trump has accomplished nothing worthwhile – unless making truckloads of money by catering to gamblers and to the luxury needs of the nouveau riche counts as worthwhile.

Moreover, his business successes depend almost entirely on dealings with sleazy operators and bought and paid for politicians. His is hardly a Horatio Alger story.

Trump does have a defiant attitude, though; one that people suffering from politics as usual, Clintonite politics, can identify with.

No matter that many of his “solutions” would only make the problems worse or that there are more constructive alternatives readily at hand.

Sanders was an exponent of some of them. Elements of his solutions have found their way into the Democratic Party platform — where they remain dead on arrival. No surprise there: it was all just a consolation price for Bernie, and a sop to his supporters.

Jill Stein has better solutions, but the leaders of the Democratic and Republican Parties, working though their corporate media flacks and the Commission on Presidential Debates, have seen to it that most voters don’t even know who she is.

That leaves just Hillary as the argument for Trump.

There we have it: if you fear and loathe Trump, vote for Hillary; if you hate Hillary, vote for Trump.

This is what democracy in America has come to – a tragedy and a farce all in one.

The truly sad part is that, once it is over, and we are left with Hillary at the helm, not only will President Drone look good in comparison, but this putrid electoral season, with its ridiculous, mind-numbing debates will be looked back upon nostalgically – as a time when Hillary wasn’t yet quite so much in peoples’ faces or doing quite so much harm.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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