A Political Education

I post “political” stuff on Facebook and Twitter fairly often; somewhat less so on this blog. (I put “political” in quotes because I’m not terribly interested in politics, per se. What I’m interested in is matters of freedom, justice, peace and civility, and how these are aided or impeded by the actions of governments. This is why I rarely commented on the “horse race” aspect of this past election and why I continue to talk about these issues now that the election is over.) I suspect my postings are baffling to some: I’m not easily pegged as either left- or right-wing; during the campaign I bashed both Romney and Obama – and not because Romney was “too conservative” or Obama “too liberal,” but rather the opposite: In my opinion Romney is a faux-conservative and Obama is a faux-liberal. I’m more conservative than liberal, but I’d prefer the genuine article on either side to the counterfeit options we’ve been given.

Some interpret this attitude as cynicism, assuming that I’m one of those people who think all politicians are scumbags who contradict their rhetoric and betray whatever principles they have as soon as they get into office. Others interpret it as idealism, concluding I’m one of those pie-in-the-sky Libertarians who think that we could built a free market Utopia if the government would just leave us all alone. Neither of these is the case. By way of explaining, let me give you a brief history of the evolution of my political beliefs.

In 1980 I was ten years old. Ronald Reagan was running for President against the embattled incumbent, Jimmy Carter. I lived in an extremely conservative Christian subculture in a conservative city (Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of Gerald Ford). I don’t recall my parents being particularly strident about either option; my best guess is that my mom voted for Carter and my dad voted for Reagan. To the extent I thought about such things, I supported Carter because he was the only president I could really remember, and I had a vague notion that it was better to spend money helping the poor than to spend it on nuclear missiles. So I was a little unsettled when Reagan was elected by a landslide, even though I’m sure around 90% of my teachers and my friends’ parents voted for him.

Over the next eight years I came to realize that Carter had been a pretty mediocre president and that politics was more complicated than “Let’s help people instead of building more bombs!” Reagan seemed like he was doing a pretty good job and his message of personal accountability and freedom resonated with me. I was sixteen when the Iran-Contra scandal became public, and it bothered me because it seemed like Reagan’s administration had exceeded its Constitutional authority – even if it was for a good reason, which I believed it was. What bothered me even more was the reaction of my Republican friends, who didn’t seem troubled at all by the fact that Reagan had either OK’d an illegal operation or was so out of it that he oblivious to the activities of Oliver North, et al. I was also aware by this time that I lived in a very conservative community and that my own views might well have been colored by biases of those around me. I did my best to broaden my horizons; I’m probably the only 17-year-old C student who read Bob Woodward’s Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987 in an attempt to better understand the Iran-Contra affair.

Despite these misgivings, by the time I graduated from high school I had made what I felt was a conscious, well-considered decision to become a Republican. It’s impossible to free oneself entirely from the prejudices of one’s own background, but I felt confident that my political leanings were primarily the result of my own rational deliberations and not simply a matter of parroting the views of my friends, teachers or parents. I wholeheartedly supported George Bush against Dukakis in 1988 and was happy to see the Republican hold on the presidency continue.

While at college (an extremely conservative Christian school), I was exposed on a number of fronts to the ideas of libertarianism, and I found myself in vigorous agreement with its principles. I’m sure there was a psychological element to this; I’ve always been the sort of person who more than anything else just wants to be left the hell alone. So I started calling myself a libertarian. The nice thing about being a libertarian is that you can believe all kinds of crazy shit without ever having to worry about anyone empirically proving you wrong. And since the U.S. has a two-party system, you can keep voting for Republicans and be on the “winning side” a lot of the time. (I believed then, as many libertarians still do, that Republicans are generally more libertarian than Democrats.)

I had doubts about some elements of libertarianism; for example, what prevents private industry from filling the environment with pollutants in the interest of profits (this problem is known as the “tragedy of the commons”)? And won’t businesses form cartels in the absence of regulation, destroying the free market? But the U.S. was so far from eliminating the EPA or SEC, even under Bush, that these were purely academic issues. You could get away with saying that you wanted “lower taxes” and “less regulation” without worrying that taxes were ever going to get too low or regulations too lax. So you get to remain ideologically pure without ever putting your ideology to the test. Convenient.

I became somewhat disillusioned with Bush during the recession and his train-wreck of a reelection campaign and ended up voting for Ross Perot in 1992 for no particular reason that I can recall. I maintained my convenient libertarianism throughout the Clinton years. I remember being angry about a lot of Clinton policies but now I can hardly remember what any of my anger was about. Looking back, Clinton seemed to have been a pretty reasonable, moderate president. The one thing that did impress me was the bald-faced hypocrisy of the “feminists” who made excuses for Clinton’s perjury and serial sexual harassment of his employees. I realized that most self-proclaimed “feminists” had no real principles to speak of; they’d crucify a Clarence Thomas or Bob Packwood for their private behavior but defend Clinton because was a Democrat and therefore perceived to be “friendly to women.”

After eight years of Clinton, I was ready for a change. I had started to drift back toward a more pragmatic conservatism by this time, but I still leaned libertarian. I fooled myself into thinking that George W. Bush was the closest thing to a libertarian that we were likely to see in a presidential campaign, and I enthusiastically supported him. Of course, whatever libertarian streak W. might have had disappeared on 9/11, and frankly I wasn’t really disappointed. I was glad we had a Republican in office who would crush terrorists and anyone who supported them with the iron fist of the American military. I bought the whole WMD story hook, line and sinker. Even after it was clear that there never were any WMDs to speak of and that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it. I might have given up on W. if John Kerry hadn’t come along and demonstrated to my satisfaction that things would be even worse with a Democrat in charge. After all, it’s not like the Democrats had put up any serious resistance to the invasion of Iraq; all Kerry could offer was vague assurances that he would have handled the invasion better. Given the choice between two pro-war candidates, I went with the one who seemed to have some convictions on the matter.

I was willing to overlook excesses of the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo because I believed that there was a serious threat to American security and because I realized that the Bush administration was being forced to improvise. I cut them some slack because no one else seemed to have any better ideas about how to handle this new threat and because I assumed that these measure were temporary: the Patriot Act was set to expire automatically; eventually we’d figure out what to do with all these terrorism suspects; and we’d put stringent policies in place about torture and the treatment of prisoners.

But none of that ever happened, and meanwhile George W. Bush was spending like a drunken sailor on new federal programs (like the prescription drug benefit) that nobody had asked for and that seemed calculated solely to get Republicans reelected. And then the housing market crashed, taking the rest of the economy with it – and of course W. reacted with more big government solutions, like TARP, losing whatever credibility as an economic conservative he might still have had.

My disgust with the Republican Party probably peaked with the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s vice presidential candidate. It was like the GOP leadership was daring Americans to vote for this simpering bimbo. Say what you want about George W. Bush’s intellect; he managed to hold his own in debates with Al Gore. I’m not convinced Sarah Palin has ever uttered a properly constructed sentence.

Anyway, I abstained from voting in 2008 partly out of disgust and partly because I thought I deserved to go stand in the corner for a while after voting for Bush twice. I had also become convinced that Republican militarism and law enforcement excesses were as big a danger to freedom as taxes and regulation. Maybe it was time for a Democrat to come in and balance things out.

I mostly stayed away from politics for the next few years (and stopped watching TV news altogether), but I became fascinated by the fact that while candidate Obama had urged closing Guantanamo, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, scrapping the Patriot Act, and ending officially sanctioned torture, President Obama didn’t seem to have any interest in any of that stuff. Even more amazing was that nobody on the Left seemed to notice. Their rhetoric about peace, civil rights and due process simply evaporated, replaced with criticisms of Republican “obstructionism.” Just as Republicans managed to somehow overlook Bush’s rampant deficit spending, Democrats were now oblivious to the very abused they had been railing against just a few months earlier.

I think I had sort of a Matrix red pill/blue pill moment at this point. I came to see that the whole notion of a struggle between free market conservatives and big government liberals was a fiction. Sure, there were some real differences between the two parties on some issues – just enough to make the narrative convincing to the true believers on each side – but there was overwhelming agreement between the two factions on almost every fundamental issue. The “liberals” didn’t believe in civil rights any more than the “conservatives” believed in ending subsidies for big business. Both parties are pro-big government and both parties are pro-big business. Whenever there is a struggle between individual liberty and these twin pillars of American power, individual liberty almost always loses, because neither party is fighting for it. Neither party has anything to gain by closing Guantanamo, overturning the Patriot Act, ending the war on drugs or enacting better Internet privacy laws. And since both parties are in agreement on these matters, there’s no controversy, and where there’s no controversy, there’s little media coverage. The political stories that get lots of media coverage are generally of two kinds: Social issues like gay marriage and abortion, where neither party has an economic stake so they don’t mind letting their true believers run rampant; and minor differences that are exaggerated all out of proportion, creating the illusion that there is a vast ideological difference between the two parties. So, for example, Republicans rail against “Obamacare,” which was based largely on the plan Mitt Romney supported in Massachusetts and is similar to Republican proposals floated during George H.W. Bush’s administration, and Democrats condemn Republicans for wanting to slash federal spending when Republicans are really only suggesting moderate decreases in the rate of increase in federal spending. The parties waste time bickering over things like the “Buffet Rule,” which would raise a laughable $5.1 billion per year, reducing the annual deficit by 0.4%, avoiding any discussion of fundamental issues of taxation and spending.

I’m sure that my perceptions of these issues are colored to some extent by my libertarian leanings, but I’m not an ideologue or a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think it requires a belief in either sinister cabals or mysterious sociological forces to see, as Noam Chomsky says, that “the United States has essentially a one-party system and the ruling party is the business party.” I would modify that to say that the ruling party is the “big business/big government” party. Take any issue you like (other than purely social issues, like abortion and gay marriage) and draw a line representing the continuum of possible positions on that issue, with the extreme Leftist/liberal/socialist position on the far left end of the line and the extreme Rightist/conservative/capitalist position on the far right end. Then pinpoint the official Democrat and Republican positions on the issue. You’ll invariably find that the two parties’ positions are almost right next to each other, and in some cases even overlap. (And even on the social issues, their positions are often not far apart.)

So if there’s no grand conspiracy, what is the reason for this strange convergence of ideologies? And why is so much effort devoted to maintaining the illusion that a vast ideological chasm separates the two parties? The second question is easy to answer: our news media thrives on conflict. It doesn’t matter if the conflict is a drunken moron robbing a 7-11 or two political parties bickering over a tax increase; it all makes for good TV. Reasonable assessment of political policies does not. It also helps that the major news outlets are all owned by corporate interests or the government. And of course it’s in the interest of each party (as well as the pundit industry) to exaggerate the differences and demonize its opponents.

The answer to first question is also readily apparent with minimal reflection: both parties gain power through the mechanism of the State, and both parties are funded largely by big business. It’s in the Republicans’ interest to maintain the illusion that they are in favor of “small government” and free enterprise (while supporting a gigantic military and security/surveillance apparatus and bailing out corporations that are “too big to fail”), and it’s in the Democrats’ interest to maintain the illusion that they want to hold corporations accountable and make the rich pay “their fair share” (while taking billions from these corporations, supporting bailouts, and appointing banking executives to cabinet positions). This isn’t to say there aren’t well-meaning, principled people on both sides, but principles almost always take a backseat to money and power. If you want a demonstration of the near-total-irrelevance of principles in the two major parties, look to Constitutional conservatives’ defenses of Iran-Contra and the Patriot Act, feminist defenses of Bill Clinton’s escapades, fiscal conservatives’ glossing over Bush’s federal spending binge, and liberals’ silence on the Obama administration’s kill list and treatment of whistleblowers.

Another reason for the convergence of positions between Republicans and Democrats is that it allows the parties to pretend to “compromise” by bending over to each other’s respective interests. For example, there are two reasonable ways to handle health care in a free society: you can let the free market take care of it and provide subsidies for the very poor (like we do with food), or you can have the government run the whole thing. The worst possible solution would be to combine these two systems, so that you have a layer of profit-seeking corporate bureaucracy and a layer of innovation-stunting government bureaucracy between consumers and their health care providers. If you were extremely cynical, you might “reform” the system by leaving the system exactly as it is while forcing people to pay into it. And that, of course, is exactly what our government has done. Unable to agree on either a free market system or a single-payer system (or on any way to actually improve care), the two parties “compromised” on a payoff to the insurance companies (and, by extension, pharmaceutical companies). It remains to be seen whether this “reform” will actually result in a net benefit to consumers, but two things are certain: the federal government’s involvement in health care will grow and insurance companies and drug companies will continue to do very well.

Probably the best evidence for the de facto collusion of the two parties, though, is the “war on drugs.” This war has been a colossal and insanely expensive failure by any reasonable standard and, despite decades of anti-drug propaganda, is becoming less and less popular. A majority of Americans now support the decriminalization of marijuana. And yet the drug war rages on, with the only significant opposition coming from grassroots initiatives in some states. Why? I’ll give you five guesses. (Hint: they all involve people who stand to lose money if marijuana is legalized.)

Once we set aside the fiction that American politics is dominated by Conservatism and Liberalism and realize that it’s actually about deciding which of our rights should be handed over to big business and which of them should be ceded to government, the vast, complicated landscape of power politics suddenly comes into focus, the way that Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun made planetary motions comprehensible. Try to name a single federal law passed in the past twenty years that increased individual freedom at the expensive of either corporations or the government, and you’ll see what I mean. I can think of two possible candidates: the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which has had minimal consequences (and those consequences are as much an increase in government power as they are a decrease in corporate power) and campaign finance reform, which was gutted by the Citizens United decision. Now try to list all the recent laws that expand government or corporate power at the expense of citizens. It may take a while.

We all have our pet issues and perspective. As I’ve said, I tend toward a libertarian/conservative perspective, and I’m generally more interested in economic issues than social ones (possibly because I’m not gay, don’t smoke pot, and don’t anticipate needing to have an abortion). The important thing to realize, though, is that our bickering over such issues takes place against a background of ever-growing corporate and government power. You can believe that you’re on the side of the Democrats against the corporations or you can believe that you’re on the side of Republicans against big government, but both of these beliefs are fictions with almost no basis in reality. And you can tell yourself that you have no choice but to vote for the lesser of two evils, but that too is a lie, and in any case voting is not part and parcel of one’s duty as a citizen. Far from it. To quote Chomsky again:

“Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics…”

So where does that leave me? Am I a disillusioned cynic, resigned to the inevitable diminishing of individual liberty? Or am I an idealist, waiting for a savior like Ron Paul or Gary Johnson to lead America into a new golden age of freedom and prosperity?

The fact is that I’m neither. Overall, I’m fairly pessimistic about the near future of our country. Things are probably going to get worse before they get better. Possibly a lot worse, because people paradoxically tend to react to the failures of government by demanding more government, and I don’t see any easy way to reduce big business’ hold on government, which means that the expansion of power is going to favor corporate interests over individual freedom. On the other hand, the mutual reinforcement of government/corporate power depends on a majority of Americans buying into a fragile and increasingly difficult-to-maintain fictional narrative about American politics. I only began to see the existence of this fiction myself after thirty years of continual disappointment, and only because I stopped watching Fox and MSNBC and started following sites like Truth-Out, The Guardian and Reason.com. But eventually, as more and more liberties disappear, I think more Americans are going to catch on and start demanding some real changes.

A man can hope, anyway.