America is providing us with our quadrennial entertainment: a presidential election. This provides a good moment to take a snapshot of American politics today. It isn’t for the faint-hearted. Dear reader, if you are an American liberal, you have my sympathy.
The campaign for the presidency itself has technically not yet started, but the Republican primaries are well underway, which is, in some ways, more entertaining. Here, we don’t have to immediately worry that one of these terrifying characters will end up in the White House; that nightmare scenario can wait until November. Right now, political junkies can sit back and watch the candidates for the nomination rip each other apart, make cringe-worthy gaffes, or just come out with outrageous statements.
The comedy has subsided somewhat since Michelle “truth-teller” Bachmann, Herman “Libyan rebel” Cain and Rick “Oops” Perry left the race, along with Donald “where’s the birth certificate” Trump, and Tim Pawlenty (who?). Mrs Bachmann, who the Pulitzer prize-winning website, Politifact, judged to have the worst record of making false statements out of all the contenders, believed the “Founding Fathers fought hard to abolish slavery” (about a century off); Mr Perry suggested Ben Bernanke should be beaten up, and forgot mid-debate which federal departments he would abolish; and Mr Cain, amongst many other failings, arguably knew less than Sarah Palin about foreign policy. Well, that’s a close one.
One might think that with the milestone of the Florida primary just having passed, the entertainment value would decrease, since the remaining candidates ought to have been pruned, to leave serious, learned people, aspiring to hold the esteemed office of Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not quite.
Rather, this play has morphed into something of a tragedy. We are confronted with a two-way fight between Florida’s winner and current frontrunner, Mitt Romney, the former private-equity tycoon, who I grudgingly respected four years ago when he seemed to be a moderate, but who has now displayed little conviction beyond a desire for power; and Newt Gingrich, whose history of hypocrisy and disgrace has somehow not yet conspired to knock him out. On the side, there is, at the time of writing, still Rick Santorum – who believes pregnancy through rape is a gift – who managed to win in Iowa (yet because this was not confirmed until weeks later, gained no momentum from it); and Ron Paul, whose intellectual consistency, it must be admitted, is admirably steadfast. But his ultra-libertarianism means he won’t win, and in TV debates he is almost blatantly ignored.
This gives us no cause for optimism. We have not seen a person of the stature of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or even Dwight D Eisenhower come out of the Republican Party for decades. And this tendency will only get worse.
What we see in the Republican Party is arguably the result of what Stephen Graubard calls the “Reagan Revolution”, in which the office of the President has become debased and is now coveted by men (mostly) who seek power, fame and glory. To do this, they require great acting skills, but little intellect.
Since the rise of the Tea Party, conviction is important again. But the sort of conviction required is not something that even many Republicans held before 2009, such as the blanket refusal to raise any taxes, that the right-wing lobbyist, Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform, has arm-twisted them into pledging. Moderate Republicans are now seen as closet liberals, hence the total lack of impact that Jon Huntsman, the only candidate who did not sign Norquist’s pledge, had on the race. Willingness to compromise – that staple element of democratic politics – is now seen as treachery; what follows is that purist ideologues such as Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle are nominated for Senate battles over their significantly better qualified ‘establishment’ candidates.
To further compound the misery, money’s role in politics can now operate virtually without constraint. As Elizabeth Drew writes in an excellent article in the New York Review of Books, with the decision Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court, “stripped away virtually all the constraints on the activities of corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals with respect to federal elections.” It was probably not the court’s most enlightened decision, and it led to the rise of the Super-PACs.
Super-PACs (short for Super Political Action Committees, though officially known as Independent-Expenditure Only Committees) have first reared their ugly heads in this election. They are officially independent of any candidate. The links aren’t well-hidden, but they can exploit loopholes to avoid revealing donor identities until after votes have been cast. They are created and backed by wealthy individuals and have spent millions of dollars placing adverts for their preferred candidates, and carpet-bombing their rivals. Mr Romney’s pretentiously-named Super-PAC, Restore Our Future, spent roughly $4million attacking Newt Gingrich on the eve of the Iowa caucus, just as he seemed to be a threat. As we saw, they ended up blasting the wrong guy.
Mr Romney will probably win the nomination, but now that many states assign delegates on a semi-proportional basis, rather than on a winner-takes-all system, it will take him some more months before he can wrap it up. Even so, he will have been hurt, and he will have been scrutinised, but when facing President Obama, he will have a lot of money behind him. And then, I would expect this financial emperor to flip back into more moderate clothing, ready to have his Super-PAC adverts depict him as acceptable to the entire populace, not just Republican voters. Theodore Roosevelt must be rolling in his grave.
This snapshot has only focused on the Republican primaries; the Democrats, and President Obama, are not the main focus for now – that can wait for another post. But even so, we can readily gauge that American politics, epitomised by the Republican contest, where honest intellectual debate is silenced, and evidence-based policy discussion is irrelevant, is in a dire state. Americans deserve better.
Eventually, when people realise that unrestrained amounts of money are being thrown around, with politicians seeking benefactors such as Sheldon Adelson, or the Koch brothers, they will start to question the fairness of the democratic system that America prides itself for having. This, after all, is supposedly the land of the free, the home of the American Dream, where anyone can make it.
But if the people find that this electoral process has been corrupted by the pervasive influence of money, what will they think? And if they deem it to no longer be fair, and therefore no longer democratic, what will they do?