March 6, 2016

How we got into this mess

Sam Smith

We are now looking at the prospect of having to choose between two candidates who have one striking thing in common: Trump and Clinton are each distrusted by over half of voters. This is not surprising given their dishonesty, manipulations, and treatment of issues as having only transitory value. What is surprising is that they have triumphed over such liabilities with such ease.

To dissect this grim development it helps to keep in mind that politicians reflect us more than they lead us. In a society that valued honesty, integrity, community, cooperation and kindness we would have different candidates. That this is not the case didn’t happen overnight; it is the result of a long trend in American society. While recognizing this knowledge doesn’t cure anything, it may help to understand our plight to understand some of the causes of it. Here are a few suggestions:

The corporatocracy: For more than a half century America has been shifting its views dramatically from those inspired by churches, community, small business, and an education system that still included  moral values as part of the curriculum towards those inspired and directed by a corporate America glorified by the vast expansion of business schools whose highest virtue is greed. In the 1950s we were turning out less than 5000 MBAs a year; by 2005 that figure had risen to 142,000.

And instead of valuing once popular books critical of dysfunctional business culture like the Organization Man and Death of a Salesman we would sooner turn to Donald Trunp’s “The Art of the Deal.”

As I wrote of the corporate curse in 2008:

One of the things what used to keep corporate culture in check was that, whatever its grandiose notions of itself, its most outward and visible sign was often the salesman, the man Arthur Miller had Charlie describe in his tale of the trade: "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."  

This classic character was so ubiquitous that it seemed every other joke began with, "A salesman knocked on the door and .”

But now we have moved from considering Willy Loman the opposite to what we admire to having Donald Trump, riding on a smile and a shoeshine, perhaps becoming our next president.

This is an extreme example of the damage of the corporate curse on our culture but far from the only one. As I noted:

The tragedy is that each of the [now] infected cultures, organizations and individuals once had their own culture that often was infinitely more appealing, intelligent, inspiriting and honest than that which has sullied it. Why is the corporate and business school tradition preferable to that of the church, the artist, the non-profit, the political movement or education? Is  politics just branding, is art just a product, is education just a learning process, would Martin Luther King have done better if he had gone to business rather than theological school? Each of these traditions have centuries of wisdom and experience behind them, but all that is increasingly put aside to fit the corporate model.

Television: In part because it has been replaced by the Internet in so many ways, we tend to forget what a major change television made to our culture, not the least of which was to our politics.

One major shift was to change the source of politicians. It was no longer necessary to have a record in some community or state serving a major constituency. Television effectively eliminated ordinary citizens, actions and places in politics replacing them with images bought by dollars. This phenomenon has only grown with time to the point that we now have a “black president” who, in fact, spent more time at Harvard Law School than with any black relative.  And a leading GOP candidate who failed to show up for most of his Senate votes.

With television, image became infinitely more important than reality. In the case of politicians, the media increasingly covered efforts to create their image in preference to reporting what politicians actually did. For example, where is the investigative reporting of those victimized by various Trump bankruptcies? Why the total journalistic indifference to what Hillary Clinton did in Arkansas?

The politician, thanks in no small part to television, has become an image like one finds on American Idol or the Real Housewives of Somewhere.  Reality carries little weight and narcissism carries the day.

The collapse of liberalism: One remarkable aspect of the Sanders campaign is that it is the first time in decades that the party has featured someone who actually fulfilled the definition of a liberal as established  by the New Deal and Great Society.  For the past few decades, increasingly upscale liberals have emphasized issues of personal interest such as gay rights and abortion while ignoring that former heart of liberalism: economic decency. It didn’t have to be  a choice between one or the other but it was and, as a result, a vast proportion of the public became susceptible to the lies of the Tea Party and people like Trump, Cruz and Rubio.  White liberals essentially gave their own constituency away not just out of indifference to the concerns of less successful whites, but actually dissin’ them. How easy it is to send struggling white voters Trump’s way if what they hear from liberals is talk of “white privilege.” A liberal constituency of less than 15% has tried to gain power by trashing those it should be attracting and converting., Add to that an obsession for proper symbolism over prosperous reality - getting rid of Confederate flags being considered more important than adding to people’s checkbook – and it is small wonder that liberals are so disliked by so many.

The gradocracy – The Democratic programs and legislation have increasingly been designed and written by those with law, business and economics degrees. These used to be skills that aided, but didn’t overwhelm, policies driven by social intelligent politicians. Even lawyers in Congress once came out of communities where their professions was integrated with their culture. And Lyndon Johnson would never have written a bill as painfully and masochistically complex as Obamacare.  Long gone are Democrats like Eugene Talmadge who used to say, “You all only have three friends: the Lord God Almighty, the Sears Roebuck catalog, and Eugene Talmadge. And you can only vote for one of them.” The people’s Democrat seems to have largely disappeared.

One central cause was the rise, led in no small part by the Clintons, of a neo-liberalism that reversed or drained a number of key liberal programs including such things as social welfare and control of the finance industry.  Central to this was the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, that not only boosted Clinton but helped get Obama underway. While this effort helped the Clintons, it seriously harmed the Democratic Party as a whole. Democrats were losing seats in Congress and state legislatures, even as Clinton was being dubbed the party’s savior. And becoming GOP Lite meant the party lost a character and purpose that the average voter could understand and like.


What do we do about all this? Much is out of our control. But the Sanders campaign shows that the current system can be shaken if not beaten. We should view it as the beginning of a long lived movement and not just a contest decided by one convention. Even if he loses, the more we follow what Sanders has shown us, the more likely we are to change things at long last.


Anonymous said...

"For the past few decades, increasingly upscale liberals have emphasized issues of personal interest such as gay rights and abortion while ignoring that former heart of liberalism: economic decency."

Terribly accurate and it's not over; now we have trans rights which, though valid, affect at most 1% when poverty grinds on at over 50%. In Seattle, gays are upset that "their neighborhood," Capitol Hill, isn't exempt from gentrification and its effects. Is it divine retribution that rich, socially-crippled tech bro's are the vehicle? It's liberal madness, but you point that out at your own risk.

Anonymous said...

Take it away, Phil!