Mitt Romney is our next President in all likelihood. It will not be victory for his ideas (a pastiche of Wall Street, the Tea Party and the Pentagon) nor his personality (flat and uninspiring) nor his leadership (he is timid and painfully indecisive). Conviction, character and capability have little to do with who comes out on top in current American politics. Participants in these tedious marathons more closely resemble aspirants to celebrity in ‘dancing with the stars’ than dedicated office holders deliberating over the nation’s needs and future. Any search for coherence or probity will come up empty handed.
Still there are proximate causes that help explain why this outcome rather than any of the many other, no less improbable possibilities. Let’s look first at the contextual elements. Most Americans are poorer, more distressed, feel greater insecurity and fear what is around the corner than they have for generations. They are acutely anxious about their vulnerability to forces beyond their control or even comprehension – financial manipulation by the Wall Street barons, inept and uncaring governments at all levels, the anonymous specters of a globalized world – with existential dread of the Islamic terrorists thrown into the fearful mix. Then there is Barack Obama. For some, the Saviour revealed as false prophet; for others, the anti-Christ; for the vested interests – the sheep in wolf’s clothes who has served their cause as only a supposedly liberal Democrat could. For all, a faded star who can neither explain, guide nor reassure. Hence, the road to the White House is smoothed by the current occupant himself.
A second element has been the Tea Party phenomenon – an orchestrated movement that tapped always latent right-wing populism. Its influence on American politics has been far, far greater than its core support could generate. For this, we can thank the media who are primed to publicize whatever is titillating, mentally undemanding and whose performances use the props of Americanism – physical props and emotional props and ideological props. Exploiting our country’s ingrained myths and legends is acceptable no matter how outrageous the spectacle. For it challenges nothing basic in our collective psyche. A ‘hot’ personality like Sarah Palin adds some dash to the celebrity mix. The Tea Party promoters understood a basic truth that eludes more conventional politicos – especially Democrats. It’s publicity that counts – whether it be ‘good’ publicity or ‘bad’ publicity. This is especially true when the great newsmaker in the White House has exhausted his repertoire for playing the game of celebrity politics in his 2008 run for the roses. Anyway, by mid-2010 Obama and his sub-prime advisers had come to believe that the Tea Party truly represented the dynamic core of the country’s collective political personality; just as the vested interests represented its foundation pillars. All words, all deeds became hostage to the odd belief that the President’s personal political future (the Democratic Party itself always was a mere instrument to that end) dictated that the reborn crack-pot right not be further aroused lest they do something beyond their current hostility that might cause him electoral harm. These dire thoughts represented the apogee of the White House’s imaginative powers. So, the White House curbed itself, the DNC and its supporters from fashioning a narrative that could be a persuasive alternative to the far right’s passion play.
Now, the air is rapidly coming out of the Tea Party balloon. Sarah Palin’s shooting star has landed in some remote Alaskan wilderness. Her copy cats in the Republican melee (Trump, Bachmann, Gingrich, Cain, Santorum, et al) are laugh lines in any honest history of this bizarre era. Rick Perry quickly exposed himself for the parochial Texas pol he is. Yet, the Tea Party’s two year run had served its purpose in the minds of the hard people and hard interests who own the Republican Party. It marshaled the free floating discontents of millions for the Party cause. It terrified Barack Obama into pre-emptive capitulation which added to the gifts that he already was bestowing on the financial moguls, big business, the industrial-military-intelligence complex, etc. It neutered the Democrats in Congress; and it muted the ‘progressives’ who dared not suggest that they had been betrayed by the White house so long as there was the specter of Sarah Palin’s finger on the button.
So the shook troops can stand down, the maverick Koch brothers can be properly rewarded, and the Republican establishment can rally around the conventional man in the grey flannel suit who frightens no one and who can be counted on to consolidate the gains, political and economic, made under Obama. He is the natural choice. Paul is too quirky and out of step. Huntsman occasionally gives discomforting signs of actually thinking on his own. This is history repeating itself. A look back at political history shows that the Republican establishment always has know how to arouse and exploit mania – McCarthyism and the Red Scare, racism post desegregation, Commie liberation movements in Central America, and most recently the Terrorist hobgoblin. They are smarter than Democrats – even those Democrats in whom they do not have a controlling interest via campaign donations, media coverage and dispensing the accoutrements of success in our grasping, status anxious society.
It has been an unequal contest for years. The Republicans throw at the opposition a West Coast offense, augmented by discreet side payments to the refs. They come at you non-stop from all angles, lots of misdirection and look to bend the rules at every opportunity. They have a lust for power and are ruthless about winning. The Democrats spend their time in dull retreats attending dreary workshops on Single Wing adjustments and the risks of switching to the T formation while quaffing refreshments donated by corporate sponsors.
What kind of President will Mitt Romney be? We already know – a continuation of the Bush/Obama administrations. That includes economic policies geared to serve the wealthy and corporations, a downsizing of all social programs, further assault on Social Security and Medicare, pandering to the Pentagon, deeper attrition of civil liberties, and an unrelenting if foredoomed attempt to maintain American dominance in the world at all cost. All low-key, business as usual, and well-tailored.
Americans are abandoned and distained by the nation’s political class. Still, the sad truth is that they themselves have contributed much to their own A lazy, self-absorbed populace is now an indifferent, unknowing citizenry.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.