Unfollowing the Leader
It's April 2017 as of this exact writing, and it feels like democracy is scraping the bottom of the barrel (f your glass is half-empty) or is just going through one of its phases (if your glass is half-full). Regardless, here's where we'll put essays and writings about this sort of wide-ranging problem for the future of our civilization.
(And to a lesser extent, Prime Minister Shrime Shminister, which doesn't have much of a ring to it)
For decades, the President of the United States has been the most powerful man in the world (and (reminder) it was almost changed to the most powerful woman in the world last November). And that was said with proud authority. Now it's said with a meh, a shrug, a shake of the head, and that's only partly due to the current occupant in the White House. The power of the Presidency is weakening, and by circumstances unforeseen by the people that found the nation.
The Presidency was designed to be held in check (and balance) by the two other branches of the United States government. In fact, all three were meant to work as a panopticon of sorts, making sure that all are monitoring the other, the idea being that if one them gets corrupted or compromised, the others can still guide the nation and fix the problem.
And this has to be done quickly and efficiently, because if one rotten branch is left unchecked, it's only a matter of time before the disease spreads. Strong language, perhaps, but we are in a rather unique, uncertain, and unfortunate situation.
Democracy went about spreading the power out across many people, from many different parts of the nation, to prevent an abuse of said power. Now this wasn't even first introduced in any sort of fair or accurate fashion. Only 1% of the American populace could vote in the first few elections of the late eighteenth century. America wasn't actually a democracy until 1965, when minorities were finally given the right to vote.
It wasn't long after that, however, for the attempt of a consolidation of power to rev up again. The Watergate scandal (coming on the heels of Vietnam, an oil crisis, a recession, and the social-cultural revolution of the 1960s) helped solidify a simmering distrust of those in power. Cynicism and indifference towards the political machinations in the halls of power allowed for wealthy donors and corporate influence to enter Washington DC and, throughout the eighties and nineties, dismantle many of the regulations and social programs that helped America become the most powerful nation on earth in the wake of the Second World War.
The twist (such as there is one) is that it wasn't the Presidency that went bad first.
It was Congress.
It was too hard to bribe the President. And there were so many congresspeople that you couldn't bribe them all, right? Nope. Just have a lot of money, accept that they'll be setbacks, and be willing to take years to achieve your goal (these three factors are important in any large scale undertaking. It's just a shame that in this case the goal was dismantling democratic institutions). Over forty odd years, lobbying became not only the access to power, but the currency. And enough politicians on both sides of the aisle (but mainly pro-business republicans) slowly turned to supporting a checklist of special interest goals, instead of their constituents.
And the Commanders in Chief and their agendas slowly weakened in the face of this. Reagan was an actor turned governor turned President, and behind the reassuring smile was...not much interest in policy. But he had a well disciplined staff behind him that cut welfare programs, allowed mergers and monopolies to form, and carried out barely secret wars against the Soviets.
It was an effective enough sleight of hand that his understudy, the nebbish and considerably less charming Bush I, won the election after him. His successor was Bill Clinton, a centrist democrat, who barely had a chance to put much of his agenda forward (namely, fixing what Reagan and Bush I were breaking) before the democrats lost Congress for the first time in over forty years.
Today the Clinton administration, which hosted the post-Cold War tech boom is looked back upon wistfully, but it ignores Newt Gingrich leading a government shutdown to get cuts to absolutely everything passed and signed. Money from wealthy donors and special interests rained upon both sides of the aisle, with more of it going to whoever was more business friendly (which meant lower taxes and less regulation, which consequently lead to less government revenue to spend on...everything).
Bush II PR-ed the hell out of 'compassionate conservatism' (which meant absolutely nothing) as a candidate, but after 9/11 he became a war president (and didn't do a stellar job at that), and gave little attention to domestic issues (which meant he let tax cuts for the rich and more deregulation slip through), even after the Great Recession blew up his final months in office.
In the wake of this, Obama was sold as the saviour of all things democratic.
So how did he do?
Considering we are one hundred days into the Trump Administration, the following will not be a particularly original position to take, since Obama's tenure is a study of contrasts. He played the role and the image of a president quite handily. He was presidential in a way that his predecessor was not, and his successor is certainly not.
Plenty. Obamacare (for now), withdrawing America's exhausted global military footprint (for now), slow but steady introductions of policies to combat climate change (for now), the re-energizing of anti-poverty programs (already being dismantled).
But with America still in dire financial (most of the growth has benefited the already wealthy) and political straits, much of his legacy will focus on what he was unable to do. Energy, Wall Street regulation, inequality, immigration, bureaucratic morass, crumbling infrastructure, socio-cultural divides, Middle East instability that affects the globe. Certainly he has made attempts to address these issues, but he was hamstrung by the limits of the presidency. For his last six years, Obama's policies have been sabotaged by a political opposition that brought any sort of sensible legislation and day to day governance to an embarrassing standstill. The 2010 midterm elections gave Congress back to the Republicans, whose stated goal was not to work with the president. From the perspective of career politicians whose jobs were safe thanks largely in part to gerrymandering and an indifferent, cynical populace that defines low voter turnout, this strategy worked splendidly. From the perspective of a nation that prides itself as a functioning democracy that can address the majority of its citizens' needs, it was an unmitigated disaster.
Any bill that was meant to alleviate poverty meant Congress would accuse it requiring a tax hike to pay for. Any bill that was went to curtail corporate profit or institute regulations was criticized for being anti-business that would cost jobs. Sensible, moral immigration policy was labeled amnesty. As the opening line of the existentialist classic Waiting for Godot, noted: 'nothing to be done'.
And there was only so much Obama could do via executive order, which was frequently the one way he could bring change to the nation.
It doesn't matter how liberal his positions were (and how much those who voted for him supported them). It matters how many he was able to achieve while in office. In fact, the greater the divide between what he wanted to do and what he was able to do, the more ineffective he appears (this is true of every politician of course, but with Obama using the naked terms of 'hope' and 'change' as he ran in 2008, expectations were particularly high).
What you can't do with domestic policy, because so much of it has to be put through the bankrupt slaughterhouse that is congress, you can do with aplomb to foreign policy via executive order.
In terms of foreign intervention (not to be confused with overall foreign policy, which includes matters such as trade agreements and aid packages), Obama wound down two devastating wars in the Middle East, and instead replaced them with surgically precise military operations.
Best exemplified by the killing of bin Laden, he took cues from his predecessor and took killing people (including American citizen) without trial and ran with it. Drone strikes won't dog Obama's legacy (since it started before him, and will most likely continue after), but it undoubtedly deserves mention and reflection. And even while trying to introduce immigration reform, Obama still deported 2.5 million people under his tenure (roughly the same amount Trump wanted to deport right out of the gate).
The navigation of power within the country that still dictates the general direction of human civilization is prone to terrible errors that cost people their lives the world over and in countless ways. Obama was certainly the president America needed at the time, and it's clear that they still need one very similar to him in temperament and ability going forward.
But with such a broken and ineffective system, it was easy for a loudmouth con-man to step into the race. Trump ran against everything. Obama, Clinton, all Democratic ideas, entrenched Republican ideas and the bullet point blathering politicians that encapsulated them.
Running against Washington in general. And now he finds himself in charge of it.
Now this could work out if the man's confrontational, aggressive temperament could be matched with intelligence and focus (read: you can be an asshole in an important position, but you better deliver the goods to make your asshole-ness worth it. See: Steve Jobs, Lyndon Johnson, Kanye West). But it never did at any other point in his life (lest we forget, this is a man whose own casinos went bankrupt), and he shows no signs of being anything but a braying, egotistical ass who wants all of the credit for other people's work, and shovels the blame on others when his plans fail.
Even the basic task of staffing the executive branch is unfinished. Forget simply having terrible policies that would benefit the rich. These people aren't even capable of putting these policies together in coherent, legislation-ready format so that the congress which (to the rest of the country's dismay) would approve them, can't even do so.
That Donald Trump - an unqualified, egotistical opportunist who exploits people basest fears and make ridiculously hollow promises of 'making America great again'- can become president, exposes a huge flaw in the American foundation of democratic governance. He certainly can't choose a cabinet worth a fuck, and tweets like a fourteen year old.
Maybe America is truly the most advanced nation, in the sense that they're reaching the future first. A democracy that slides in autocracy through the increase in corporate power and concentrated wealth coupled with the disappearance of jobs through globalization and automated technology.
Other advanced countries are following suit, albeit more slowly. Even countries that prided themselves as bastions of the social safety net like France are finding it difficult to afford all these programs that many citizens thought was a birthright. Politically, desperate citizens turn to a tough-talking, xenophobic strong person who is light on the details and promises to restore the country's former glory.
The New York Times' Roger Cohen and many Western media/critics characterize the current elections in France as inward versus outward, nationalism versus globalism. Which is certainly an accurate assessment of how the candidates and their parties are portraying themselves. The problem with this is that the political issues at hand are not that simple.
These ideologies do not rule nations any more.
The digital revolution and corporate governance (regardless of where its headquarters are) extends beyond borders. It can cripple industries within one nation, and the money that is 'saved' is not even collected by people who reside in that same country (and the taxes that said country might impose on the product or service 'leaving' will not nearly be enough to make up for the loss of job/revenue).
The robber baron industrialists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made billions as their many workers under them suffered, but the money typically stayed within the same country. That is no longer the case. The extremely wealthy of today know no borders. Political leaders and corporate executives are blurring together. Goldman Sachs executives are being given major positions in economic arms of the US government. A man bolstered by oil companies and who wants to dismantle the EPA is now running the EPA. If you were putting together a group of people who wanted to render the government completely ineffective save for the whims of the 1%, you would have the current US cabinet. And the President doesn't seem to understand this, or doesn't seem to care, and it's hard to say which of those two options are worse. Using populism and a sprinkling of conservatism to get elected, and then jettisoning both of them and running a plutocracy.
Now saying that any sort of idea or concept is 'dead' makes for better eye-catching headlines and click bait, whether it be rock or political movements. Saying that liberalism is dead is too easy, and saying that powerful political institutions that claim to embrace liberalism today feel more aimless and irrelevant than ever isn't nearly as exciting.
Call the French election the future of the EU, the future of immigration policy, the future of liberal policies.
Call the UK election a second attempt at Brexit.
Call every by-election a referendum on Trump.
(Double meaning for both questions below)
After all, what kind of politics are left? What kind of politics are right? Do we alternate from vaguely right and vaguely left, although actual policy is left up to whatever lobbyists represent the special interests?
Is conservatism a hollow nodding to traditional customs (religious or otherwise), cutting social programs, and military engagements against countries that don't have enough assets tied up in the international banking community (Thomas Friedman noted years ago that no countries that both had McDonald's ever went to war against each other. Now maybe that has to be changed to no countries with Goldman Sachs executives)?
Is liberalism a naive morass of everyone being supposedly equal in every way, which suggests it's more of a philosophy than a form of governance?
And as we compromise on these extremes to find a centre, does it even hold anymore? Does a centre exist if Donald Trump is there? What does Donald Trump want from America other than power and respect for himself?
A raging ego should not necessarily exclude someone from the presidency, but it becomes hideously toxic when combined with unfamiliarity and indifference as to how the political process works. Trump ran as a populist who didn't sound like the typical politician. Now he's governing how the Republican congress is telling him to (while they do a half-assed investigation in his Russian connections, which they will turn into a 'full-ass' and possibly impeachment if he tries to defy them) while still shooting his mouth off, which means the White House is typically in full disaster mode.
This is politics in the Western World in 2017.
The appearance/feeling of irrelevance (even though that is far from the case). And when that attitude seeps into the mind of the people, cynicism and indifference prevails, allowing those already with power to further consolidate it. Marine LaPen's best chance to become the leader of France isn't her platform or her ardent supporters, but the millions of disaffected French who could have abstained from voting altogether.
[The result of the primary round of the French election that most people overlooked: The first place party was only four percentage points ahead of the fourth place party! Four parties dominating with 85% of the total going to them, and all of them very close to splitting the amounts evenly. France may be divided, but they are at least divided in a very tidy fashion]
At least voting in France can be done by citizens with relative ease. America is slowly removing that right from as many citizens as possible, with increased gerrymandering and much more restrictive ID laws. All passed by the people voted into power. It's democracy being dismantled democratically.
If aliens came and said, 'take us to your leader', the average citizen would say it doesn't matter, and show the extraterrestrials their Facebook/Twitter feed and their credit card bill.
|Once you go post-structuralist, you never go back.|