It is not my general policy to write about actual practiced politics, far preferring the rarefied air of political theory. Still, I am a member (somewhat begrudgingly) of a political system and am not immune from the pull of its pageantry. And so I found myself watching the entirety of both of last night's presidential debates. I learned nothing new about the policies of any of the candidates and even less concerning the quality of their rhetoric or of their apparent appeal to certain classes of voters. No, I experienced what I always experience when I consider such political spectacle, a deep sense of disquiet concerning the means by which Americans select their leaders. It is not my purpose herein to necessarily endorse or disparage any candidate who appeared last night, but here are some general observations concerning the debating process and the content thereof that should be etched into the minds of the electorate:
1. There was much talk concerning a simplification of the tax code. This is always a popular idea. This will never occur without upheaval which would likely do more harm to the system than good, and regardless, no president or party will ever be strong enough to effectuate such change against entrenched interests. The tax code has long been a popular means of introducing indirect subsidies into an economic system largely driven by large-scale corporate interests, which is why it is perceived (correctly) as primarily anti-democratic and primarily beneficial to the wealthiest interests in the state--though generally also to wide-spread economic stability. Corporate interests will always be more powerful than all but the strongest and most fervent electoral coalitions and will always benefit disproportionately from any income based tax system. As such, the tax code is far too entrenched and powerful a tool to remove from the legislative process without a full-scale overhaul of the economic system and the underlying legal system which makes such an economy possible. People who complain that this is a fundamentally corrupt bargain between large-scale economic interests and the legislature which stifles economic dynamism need to understand that such a structure has proven necessary to promote stability as economic markets tend to be volatile in ways that invariably threaten the underlying political structure in any advanced industrialized economy--this is partly why the American economy in the 19th century tended towards economic depressions every 20 years. You can't really have economic dynamism and economic stability at the same time--they are contradictory goods. Corporatism is, in some sense, the best means that we have yet developed to somehow combine these goods. If the corporate structure of our current economy is unsustainable in the short term (in the long term it certainly is, but there is no system perpetually sustainable) it is still possible that a restructuring of such interests may be too damaging to be effectuated without absolutely breaking the current political model--believe me, this is not something anyone should really want. One solution may be a restructuring of the underlying legal concept of corporatism, but even this discussion makes little sense from a national perspective as corporate legal models were largely set by federal competition among the several states throughout the course of the 19th century. In short, with the exception of talk of lowering federal corporate taxation levels, ignore everything else you hear candidates say concerning taxes.
2. There was much talk concerning the importance of the middle class to our economic and political health as a nation. This is almost certainly true. Unfortunately there is a real possibility that the very concept of a "middle class" is something fundamentally unsustainable in any political system over the long term. Middle classes tend to emerge in periods where there is a long-term easing of the means by which elites can appropriate property and capital to themselves. This is historically caused either by (1) an accidental political/societal event whereby a system is dramatically changed such that elites no longer have the means (in the short term) to structure the underlying political/economic system to their advantage (and when I say "accidental" I mean that willed human action for change tends not to effectuate such intended change), or (2) a dramatic increase in economic capacity whereby non-elites are able to take advantage of such increase by non-traditional means (such increase is usually the result of either a massive technological shift or a increase in available means of production [usually land] proportional to a given population). Our society has (unusually) benefited from both situations throughout the course of our history. I sincerely hope that the second cause, that is, the model of our society since the dawn of the industrial revolution continues, and revolutions in such productive technologies continue (the only means by which the first cause may be effectuated are too terrible to contemplate), but there are reasons to believe that such change is not sustainable past a certain point. What would it mean to sustain a society like ours with a shrinking middle class? No one knows.
3. There was much talk along the lines of "America is the Greatest Country in the World" and "we can make our country great again". I know this kind of rhetoric has a deep appeal for many, and such national pride has always been a part of our political discourse. I've always wondered whether it would be possible to engender at one and the same time the deep love and respect which many of us feel for the place we call "our own" without slipping into this sort of hubris. Probably not, but such hubris has consequences; especially for world affairs.
4. Speaking of world affairs, why is it that everyone insists on being so naive and militaristic when it comes to Russian/China/Iran? It is as though in an age when we insist on ceding more and more of our economic sovereignty (and this is essentially what most trade agreements do, normalize the legal means by which trade may be effectuated and empty our toolbox of legal means of restructuring inevitable trade imbalances) we attempt to make up for this by becoming further entangled in foreign boondoggles. It is disturbing that only Rand Paul and (however imperfectly) Donald Trump are the only ones who seem to understand (or are willing to say) that a no fly zone over Syria is tantamount to an act of war against Russia. Russia is belligerent, but this is in part because the foreign policy establishment seems to have forgotten that the "normal" state of international affairs is a recognition of spheres of influence--a belligerent Russia is what you get if you back NATO up right into its backyard; just remember how pissed off the US has been against Cuba until recently. In short, the world is dangerous, but we are naive if we think that we are or can ever be a Hegemon. This was the wrong lesson for America to learn from the Cold War; to be strong is less about how big and impressive your armed forces are and more in how what forces you have are employed--furthermore, it is possible to have a military which is so big that it itself becomes a barrier to security (lest we forget, the Founders were VERY suspicious of European style standing armies). We seem to have learned little from our misadventures in the Middle East. It is sad but true that we are fundamentally incapable of causing anything but a further mess in that region of the world. Part of strength is recognizing ones own weakness, and we have weakened ourselves far too much over the course of the last two decades to afford this kind of neo-conservative idiocy.
5. We seem very intrigued as an electorate this cycle both by the prospect of incorporating new and unsullied blood into Washington DC and in the prospect of the strong man who, through the prowess of his skill and personality, will be able to right all wrongs. Both of these ideas reach deep into the depths of the human psyche and speak to our most fundamental hopes and fears. But like most such deep hopes and fears, they more correctly point to fundamental spiritual and religious needs than they do to political ones. The search for a worldly savior has proven historically disastrous. So long as we continue to exist in the world we will be faced with incompetence, graft, dishonesty, and downright cruelty in politics. This is as it has always been and always will be, so long as this age of humanity remains. This is so because politics expresses the human person writ large, himself a repository of such vices. If you find yourself in search of a savior to make things better, to wipe away the scourge of the corrupt system which proceeds him/her, either get to a house of worship or get busy distracting yourself with physical and artistic pleasures. The best one can hope for in politics is a decent administrator with at least a moderate sense of their own limitations. The desire for someone who is strong and supernaturally competent or for someone who is pure and doesn't have a good working knowledge of the process by which one can effectuate political compromise is only going to lead to incompetence in leadership or in demagoguery. This is partly why I so dislike the passions of the general electorate being so closely tied (granted, still mediated through a largely symbolic electoral college) to the election of the president--a technocratic election may give you an incompetent and corrupt party tool, but it is less likely to unleash the unbridled fires of a supreme dictator.
6. Finally and Most Importantly: The process of general public campaigning requires a subtle dissimulation concerning explicit policy views. This is not to say that politicians always lie concerning their views, but it is to say that the political process requires the politician to present their views by means most palatable to their respective audience. In the past, before the advent of instant mass communication, a politician could fit their message to the small group to which they were speaking and then turn around and tailor that same message to the next room until his policies would be unrecognizable to all but the most careful listener. This is the art of political persuasion; to temper the wormwood of any policy consideration or view not immediately acceptable to a given group of electors with the honey of perceived prejudice. In short, politics at its best is the subtle art of pandering. If either group had full knowledge of what was said by the politician in the presence of the other group they would be outraged and accuse him of "flip-flopping" and lying. But such was not necessarily the case--he was merely employing the time-honored tools of the politician to fit the message to the audience in question. He told them what he wanted to tell them such that they heard what they wanted to hear, without the two things necessarily being correlates. Mass communication was once primarily accomplished by means of print, which inherently provides more occasion for subtlety and nuance. In our age, however, where all communication is instant mass communication, anything said by any candidate at any time is not only fair game to be disseminated to the general electorate, but will be so disseminated. To that end, the candidate has two choices: they may either speak in the blandest of generalities--objectionable to no one but content-less--and thus run the risk of being ignored, or they may speak the most outlandishly partisan drivel designed to stir up the most extreme (and largely ignorant or disappointed) political base. In either case all nuance and depth (the essence of necessary political compromise in a complex world in which the "correct" solution is rarely apparent until long after the fact) are driven from political language and discourse. Even in our sound-bite driven media climate, rest assured that (most) politicians are not so simplistic in their thinking as they may at first appear. But the Manichean onslaught of over-simplified political rhetoric will take a toll on even the most hardened of psyches. Even if the politician begins spouting banal platitudes or venomous drivel to the crowd in a cynical attempt to pander, the unrelenting drive requiring "consistency" of their political message will eventually wend its way into their soul, driving out the flexibility of thought and nuance that lie at the heart of complex human undertakings; and most especially politics.