Part One: Presidential Elections: Not as Big a Deal as They Say


Freshets of creativity and excitement pulsing into the nation’s bloodstream, improvements in the general quality of life, have nothing to do with the presidential elections rolling around every four years, which rouse expectations far in excess of what they actually deserve. As registers of liberal or conservative political potency, American presidential elections seldom coincide with shifts in the tempo of political energy across the country. As vehicles for the ventilation of popular concerns, they are hopelessly inadequate, and should be severely downgraded on the entertainment calendars.

Take a couple of profound changes in the quality of life over the past thirty years. You can now buy good coffee, shoulder to shoulder at the coffee stand with a construction worker with hair in a ponytail and a tactful gold ring in his ear, anywhere in America from Baltimore to San Pedro, Key West to the Upper Peninsula. No American political party ever wrote a commitment to better cappuccino into its platform. From the late 60s on, the hippies, despising the dank tureens of perked Robusta coffee, roasted Arabica coffee beans. Small roasters held up the banner of quality.

Then, when Communism foundered (a collapse that owed nothing to Ronald Reagan) and Uncle Sam had no longer any incentive to fix the coffee markets and prices benefiting its prime Latin American cold war allies, smaller, better producers from New Guinea, Costa Rica, Kenya and elsewhere where able to send better Arabica beans to our shores. The quality of life went up markedly. Of course, at the level of national US “policy”, the World Bank, dominated by the US, then threw billions at Vietnam a few years ago to grow very bad coffee, which undercut the quality producers.

The bread’s got better too and so have the vegetables, thanks once again to the hippies, organic farms, farmers’ markets and community-supported agricultural networks. No thanks here to party platforms, or presidential candidates, or Congress people, all of whom are in the pay of the big food companies, which have killed more Americans than the Pentagon by a factor of hundreds, and which, having failed to outlaw genuinely organic food, have now captured its name and altered its meaning. Over the past thirty years the meat’s got worse, as small wholesale butchers have gone to the wall, bankrupted by the coalition of food regulators and big food processors, the latter industry now dominated by two vast meatpacking combines, Tyson and Smithfield.

You want to see fascism in action in America? Look beyond the Patriot Act, engendered in the Clinton era with the Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and consummated by bipartisan agreement after 9/11, 2001. Try your local health department, bearing down on some small business. Better still, visit family court. No candidate goes out on the hustings and pledges to reform family courts so that their actions have some detectable linkage to the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. No Republican or Democratic platform committee has ever devoted a paragraph to family courts. Yet there, day after day, week after week, relationships are destroyed, children severed irrevocably from parents and extended kin, fathers forbidden access to their children, their wages garnished, their bank accounts looted, staggering fines levied, without the possibility of challenge. (And no, this is not the defeated whine of a wronged dad.)

Judicial appointments are often the last frantic argument of a liberal urging all back in under the Big Democratic Tent. But these days the decay of liberalism is reflected in the quality of judges installed in the federal district courts. The Blacks, Douglases, Marshalls and Brennans were conjured to greatness by historical circumstance first, and only later by the good fortune of confirmed nomination. Today’s historical circumstances are not throwing up Blacks, Douglases, Marshgalls and Brennans, even if a Democratic president has the opportunity and backbone to nominate them. And at the level of the US Supreme Court, history is captious. The two best of the current bunch, Stevens and Souter, were nominated by Republican presidents, Ford and G.W.H. Bush. You’ll as likely find a maverick on the conservative as on the liberal end of a judicial bench.

Every four years liberals unhitch the cart and put it in front of the horse, arguing that the only way to a safer, better tomorrow will be if everyone votes for the Democratic nominee. But unless the nominee and Congress are shoved forward by social currents too strong for them to defy or ignore, then nothing except the usual bad things will transpire. In the American Empire of today, the default path chosen by the country’s supreme commanders and their respective parties is never toward the good. Our task is not to dither in distraction over the lesser of two evil prospects, which turns out to be only a detour along the same highway.

The way they are now set up, presidential contests focused well nigh exclusively on the candidates of the two major parties are worse than useless in furnishing an opportunity for any useful national debate. In 2000 Ralph Nader got about five minutes face time on the national networks.

It would be an improvement, and certainly more interesting, if the big four-year debate centered on which definitions of mental complaints should be added to or subtracted from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which governs official interpretations of America’s mental and emotional condition and which is revised every few years. Recalling one such revision in the 1970s, Phil Johnson, a gay man from Dallas, said in the film After Stonewall, “I went to bed one night, I was sick and depraved, and when I woke up the next morning I discovered I’d been cured.”. In 2004 Bush could have campaigned for the removal of ADD, arguing it’s a natural and useful condition, emblem of presidential greatness.

Monday: Boston Awaits a Dead Party

This column is excerpted from CounterPunch’s forthcoming book, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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