Machialinsky: A Radical’s Observations On American Politics, Take 1

Submitted for your consideration, some observations — some general, some tied to the moment — of an American radical, one not tied to the partisan circus in the United States:

Most people aren’t ideologues. In political discourse, we speak of “conservatives” and “liberals” but for most, these are merely inclinations, tendencies that aren’t set in stone but, bred into us by a combination of nature and nurture, serve as a general framework for how we see and react to the world. People tend to hold liberal views on some issues and conservative views on others. A “liberal” isn’t necessarily someone rigidly committed to some liberal orthodoxy; he’s usually just someone more liberal than conservative. And vice-versa. There are, of course, lots of people with strongly ideological views but most people aren’t in those camps.[1]

The United States is, fundamentally, a liberal nation. The public is polled relentlessly and this is a conclusion that screams through the body of that polling.[2] One is hard-pressed to find a single issue of major significance on which the public doesn’t, by large margins, hold to a liberal view. A lot of that is “soft” liberalism and that can be a not-insignificant caveat at times but that’s where people’s instincts take them. In last year’s presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders’ politics were treated by the political and press Establishment as far-left, marginal, way out there — a political non-starter. In reality, his views represent those of the broad political center of the U.S., many of them shared by even majorities of Republicans.

While the U.S. is theoretically a liberal democracy, it isn’t particularly democratic in practice. The views of much of the public are not represented in government, don’t drive most important political decisions and are virtually never the deciding factor in any policy dispute. Public influence is relatively very limited; for politicians, “the public” is mostly just an obstacle to be overcome.

The government and the elected officials that comprise it are, as a body, always significantly to the right of the public.

The corporate news media are as well and those who toil within them tend to worship at the altar of a notion of the political “center” that is always defined as well to the right of most of the public. Call it the alt-“center.” They tend to frown upon things that stray too far from this alt-“center.”[3]

Politics isn’t just a matter of how many agree or disagree with who or what. Much more goes into the making or breaking of an issue, a politician, a party, a movement.

Even as the Republican party leaves behind its longstanding conservatism and becomes increasingly reactionary, it maintains grossly disproportionate power in government. This is a consequence of structural advantages, not of ideological preference by the public. There is, in general, very little public support for right-wing policies.

The President of the United States is always going to be the most visible politician in the U.S. and fairly or not, the public is almost always going to associate the state of the nation and its politics with that president and his party. In times of prosperity, that party will enjoy good will; when times are tougher, it will shoulder a disproportionate share of blame for this.[4]

The two-party system confers upon the opposition party — meaning that party not, at the moment, in the White House — a structural advantage, as, when it comes to expressing dissatisfaction with the incumbent party, that opposition party is seen as the only game in town.

The American political system wherein campaigns of escalating expense are privately funded by interests regulated by the state — essentially legalized bribery — bakes in a huge conservative advantage, both for candidates avowedly of the right, whose ideological support for these status quo interests acts as a money-magnet, and for so-called “neoliberal” candidates, who combine conservative, pro-business economic policies aimed at attracting Big Money donors with liberal social policies aimed at drawing votes at election time. Candidates who don’t pander to the established interests will face the combined money-power of those interests mobilized in opposition to them.

An elected official’s real constituency is virtually never the people of his district, state, country; it’s those who pay for his campaigns.

In presidential contests, the electoral college — an anti-democratic anachronism of the 18th century — confers advantage on regions at the expense of people, and most states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis; those who receive 50%-1 get nothing. Two of the last three presidents were, as a consequence, candidates rejected by most Americans then given the office anyway. Such outcomes are not only anti-democratic, they significantly disadvantage an administration so elected, which must then try to govern without any public mandate a country that doesn’t want them.

Very few congressional districts in the U.S. are competitive. This is a consequence of both regional distribution — supporters of one party are just quite strong in some places — and of deliberate gerrymandering. Most elected officials never face a serious challenge from the other party.

Republicans presently hold the U.S. House of Representatives in an essentially guaranteed lock until at least 2022 because of widespread Republican gerrymandering in several blue states.

The system of gerrymandering not only confers unfair advantage, it helps give rise to extremism. If a congressman is in a safe district, he isn’t concerned with a challenge from the other party; he’s concerned about having to face a primary challenge from his own, in which his opponent would argue he isn’t extreme enough.

Elected officials tend to like to hold on to elected office. They really, really like it.

People tend to dislike a politician in direct proportion to how much they’re exposed to him. This is to the advantage of most congressmen, who, because they’re so numerous and so few managed to grab substantial headlines, remain out of most people’s sight and thus out of mind. In fact, most people can’t even identify their own congressman.

Because so much of congress comes from safe districts, those who do know their own congressman tend to like him — he’s usually out of sight and thus out of mind — and to reelect him over and over again. When people grumble about congress, they’re usually grumbling about the representatives others elect.

Control of the presidency tends to retard turnout for the incumbent party in off-year elections. Such elections lack a nationally unifying figure, get significantly less press attention and just aren’t treated as if they’re as important, while the idealistic motivating passions that are so often kindled by a successful presidential election campaign are smothered by presidencies that inevitably fail to live up to the hopes people invest in them. A motivated opposition, even when a numerical minority, is advantaged by this.

Long-running presidential incumbents, who, while in office, are never out of sight and thus out of mind for very long, are always a drag on candidates of their own party. People get tired of the same old thing.

In political contests, the lesser of two evils is still evil. People want political candidates they can support. Candidates who offer voters something for which they want to vote almost always succeed over those who merely try to get people to vote against their opponent.

Wars always result in the public rallying behind the president. Terrorist attacks on the homeland lead to an escalation in support for right-wing policies. Such boosts proceed from a sort of mania, the political equivalent of temporary insanity; they prove remarkably resistant to reason but also inevitably prove to be merely temporary.

— j.

[1] For some, politics is, like religion, merely an inheritance from their parents. Many treat it as a virtually substance-free spectator sport, dividing up into camps and rooting for their favored “team,” without much serious thought what they’re actually supporting or opposing.

[2] In examining this particular question, ideological self-identification polling has proven worthless. Our political labels become quite polarized in public discourse. The big, obvious example is that the political right has spent decades demonizing the word “liberal,” which has meant that people are much more reluctant to apply the word to themselves. The word “moderate” is without real substance — huge swathes of people who may actually be conservative or, particularly, liberal will see themselves that way, not only because they aren’t particularly ideological but also as a reaction against political polarization, which is judged quite negatively (particularly by liberals).

[3] Part of the traditional liberal theory of the free press is that it’s supposed to act as a check on those with power. In the context of the U.S. at present, the corporate press is, itself, a source of concentrated power — just another power-player, just another interest. Those who work in it at the level of regular journalists tend to see themselves as merely reporting the news rather than, themselves, being major players in shaping public perception. That’s part of what makes them so problematic.

[4] There are exceptions, of course. Even if people confer favor or blame on presidents, (who really have little control over the course of the economy, they aren’t entirely irrational about such things. The U.S. economy was in a horrible state in the early years of Barack Obama’s administration; polls showed that most didn’t blame Obama for this and recognized it was a mess he’d inherited from the Bush Jr. administration.