Apocalypse is the big threat in every major election, and this forecast of doom proves useful to both corporate parties. Heaven or hell, it’s a free country and it’s your choice. Midterm elections are within spitting distance of Halloween, and the party started early with lawn signs portraying the other party’s candidates as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, spreading plague and panic from sea to shining sea. Oh, your house has been foreclosed? No lawn signs for you, but you can wear tea bags from the brim of your camouflage helmet if you care to keep company with Rand Paul and Sarah Palin. We don’t quite know from day to day whether the tea party movement is a real breakaway faction of “libertarians” and “independents,” or just another front group for Republican CEOs.
Seriously, the Republican Party is scary. But there is this other creature in the living room we need to talk about, and it’s a donkey, not an elephant. The Democratic Party has the bad habit of coming on to voters like the neighborhood mafia extortion team. The Democrats have the incurably bad breath of reliably broken promises. They collar and corner us with mobster charm, they pick our pockets while pretending to pick our brains. Then as the big election day draws near, they lean heavily upon us and whisper an almost romantic confession: “Sure, we spit in your faces and ask you to pretend it’s rain. But the other guy is a real brute and would also break your arms.”
If this does not seduce us, they try the next pickup line: “Politics is the art of the possible.” If that gets old, they can still try this key to your heart: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If all else fails, they try personal compliments: “Why would a nice boy or girl like you pick a date with some skanky Red or skeevy Green? You have such a beautiful mind, you can appreciate the finer things in life, you deserve a lifelong marriage with the Democratic Party.” If you run screaming for the nearest exit, they will still chase you through the streets with this sweet love song: “We can light candles and burn incense in the inner sanctum, and no one else but you and me needs to see our lovely gilded idol of Franklin Roosevelt. Why can’t that be our secret?”
Those deep romantic secrets finally count for nothing, since what counts in the realm of politics can only be public policy. The contents of Bill Clinton’s heart, or Barack Obama’s, or Nancy Pelosi’s should remain as secret as the contents of their stomachs. What we really want to know is how they pick their friends and enemies in public life, and what battles they choose to fight before the whole world. I confess that I, too, was once a member of the Democratic Party. But like many other voters, I had to write that Dear John (or Dear Bill, or Dear Barack, or Dear Nancy) letter—you know, the one that spells out The End of Our Relationship: “I do not love you and I learned a lesson. Cheap dates get raw fucks.”
Yes, I am free to go to the voting booth like a drunk to the local bar, and I can thank my lucky stars that the cheap gin is not actually arsenic. There’s no accounting for taste? Oh, but there must be! The expensively groomed candidate of the Democratic Party must be a dry martini while the expensively groomed candidate of the Republican Party must be fermented cat piss.
Career politicians depend upon the biggest protection racket in this country, which is often called “our two-party system.” Ours? Really? Certainly that system has no foundation whatsoever in the Constitution of the United States. Nor did we, the people, ever vote for a bipartisan lockdown of every major election.
We are assured by Ivy League economists that economic booms are chiefly the product of an elite group of entrepreneurs, while economic busts inevitably shed workers with yesterday’s skills like dandruff. It’s the best of all possible worlds, so do keep that in mind the next time you read an Op-Ed column telling you politics is the art of the possible. If you grow suspicious that the recurrent breakdowns of capitalism are not simply the Nature of Things, but rather the all too human result of human decisions, then you are well on your way to becoming a socialist. The boom-and-bust cycles of the corporate economy cannot be graphed directly upon the boom-and-bust cycles of corporate politics. That is asking for too much order and symmetry in the universe. But we also go too far if we pretend the regular breakdowns of this economic system bear only an accidental relation to the regular breakdowns of this political system.
Are we condemned to ping-pong matches between Fox News and MSNBC from now till kingdom come? It’s easy to laugh at the blackboard lectures of Glenn Beck, who is busy making common nonsense of Thomas Paine and every other Founding Father. But if thinking youths get their politics from “The Rachel Maddow Show,” they are not yet thinking. The introductory caption for Maddow on my cable system always advertises the fact that she holds a degree from Oxford, but what do we find when she then invites a Princeton professor on her show to talk politics? Lo and behold, we find that the political terrain is no bigger than the usual bipartisan sandbox and fits the television screen perfectly. Maddow is best when she reminds us of forgotten history, and worst when she reverts to the usual scorekeeping of spectator sports.
The sit-down comedians at Comedy Central, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, never lack for great punch lines because the daily news is surreal when it is not truly sad. Their humor, however, would rarely make any Democrat break a sweat, while they give regular acid baths to Republicans. Their scripts are funny but predictably partisan. A comedian taking a wide view of our political system would need an anarchist free spirit as well as a tragic sense of life.
Partisan politics in the United States is a perennial game of Capture the Flag between Team Red and Team Blue. Sometimes as harmless as summer camp, sometimes as lethal as imperial adventures. If our political system is one big binary code, then choosing either Democratic or Republican candidates on Election Day is like typing forever in either Column A or in Column B. You don’t get to create the political script, but you get to choose Dishwater Dull over Batshit Crazy, or maybe Hipster Dude over Has-Been War Hero. The job of career politicians is to convince you that you have a perfectly free choice to hit yourself on the head with a brick or a baseball bat.