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Post-Political Disorder

Since history only hangs around these days for six months or so, it is easy not to notice that Republicans don’t act like Republicans anymore nor Democrats like Democrats.

Robert Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, or Margaret Chase Smith would be horrified at such political buffoons as Michelle Bachman or Herman Cain, not to mention the fact that Rick Perry has garnered $17 million for a presidential bid when he is actually qualified for little more than selling cleaning appliances on cable TV at $19.95 each. Further, they would find the desertion of the middle class on behalf of tax favoritism for billionaires thoroughly stunning.

As for the Democrats, FDR or LBJ would be pretty angry at what Clinton did to public welfare and bank regulation or what Obama has done to civil liberties, hasn’t done about the housing crisis, and threatens to do to Social Security and Medicare.

In fact, it has become increasingly difficult to tell the two parties apart. After all, liberals practically had a collective orgasm when they nominated a man for president who not too much earlier had said this of Donald Rumsfeld:

“I don’t think that soon-to-be-Secretary Rumsfeld is in any way out of the mainstream of American political life. And I would argue that the same would be true for the vast majority of the Bush nominees, and I give him credit for that.”

One of the few honest pieces in the mainstream media at the time was by NY Times reporter Jodi Kantor, who wrote of Obama:

“Friends say he did not want anyone to assume they knew his mind; and because of that, even those close to him did not always know exactly where he stood. . . Charles J. Ogletree Jr., another Harvard law professor and a mentor of Mr. Obama, said, ‘He can enter your space and organize your thoughts without necessarily revealing his own concerns and conflicts’. . .

“People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words. . . Mr. Obama stayed away from the extremes of campus debate, often choosing safe topics for his speeches. . . In dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.”

Fourteen years earlier, I had written of Bill Clinton:

“Of course, in the postmodern society that Clinton proposes — one that rises above the false teachings of ideology — we find ourselves with little to steer us save the opinions of whatever non-ideologue happens to be in power. In this case, we may really only have progressed from the ideology of the many to the ideology of the one or, some might say, from democracy to authoritarianism.

“Among equals, indifference to shared meaning might produce nothing worse than lengthy argument. But when the postmodernist is President of the United States, the impulse becomes a 500-pound gorilla to be fed, as they say, anything it wants.”

During the 2008 campaign, writing for Counterpunch, an anonymous political consultant explained America’s post-political culture: we were not choosing a politician but a product, one that made us feel good about ourselves – Obama was the iPod while Hillary Clinton was the cell phone. Wrote the consultant: “In the world of toys it is the one that stands out the most [that] is the most marketable,” which helps to explain why a black, inexperienced, atypical pol like Obama did so well against Clinton. And why McCain, who still, metaphorically at least, was using a dial phone, had such a hard time.

The author also noted:

“The two primary features of the post political age are a politics completely drained of all its contents and ability or willingness to be used as an agent of change in social or economic policy, and its full integration into the world of American popular, consumer and entertainment culture. To such an extent that there exists today a seamless web between our political, economic, media and consumer cultures wherein the modes and values of one are completely integrated and compatible with the others.”

One of the effects of this phenomenon is that apparently contradictory policies thrive. For example, with a political market being driven by upscale and comfortable middle class whites, “the forces that make it possible for the rapid acceptance of ideas such as gay marriage are the same which can create a society that will accept massive social inequalities.”

Which helps to explain why white liberals can talk so much about equality and pay so little attention to its economic factors.

Two years ago, politics received what may turn out to have been its final blow: the atrocious Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court. Politicians were now finally products indistinguishable from items in a mail order catalog – or small firms awaiting a large corporate takeover.

Admittedly, the ability to purchase politicians was not new, nor was the exclusive market that could afford to do so. An analysis of the 2004 primaries found that over 50% of the donations to both Kerry and Bush came from zip codes with a median income of over $100,000 a year and less than 5% from zip codes with a high level of poverty.

But Citizens United brought political bribery largely out of the closet, although most corporate donations are still funneled through cover organizations. In September 2010, just a few months after the Citizens United decision, Mother Jones described how it was working:

“The 60 Plus Association’s] spending has skyrocketed to nearly $6 million so far this year, and when Dave Weigel asked them where this tidal wave of new cash was coming from, they declined to say. But that kind of money doesn’t come from five-dollar donations from tea partiers. It comes from deep pockets  including, as Suzy Khimm reports, $400,000 from American Financial Group to Karl Rove’s new campaign spending group, American Crossroads, a contribution that wouldn’t have been possible before the Citizens United decision.

“Jonathan Martin of Politico reports that an internal Democratic spreadsheet has tallied up the spending so far, and the story is grim: as of this week, pro-Republican organizations had paid for a total of $23.6 million worth of ads compared to $4.8 million for Democratic-aligned groups…”

And more recently, writes Salon, “Deep-pocketed corporate interest are writing big checks to members of the super committee, the group of 12 senators and members of Congress who have been tasked with coming up with a plan to cut over $1 trillion from the budget in the next decade.

Ten members of the committee got $83,000 from some of the biggest corporate donors in the country in the three-week period in August that is covered in the latest federal election filings.”

The 2012 election has changed the post-political landscape even more. Barack Obama is the most reactionary Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. Even Woodrow Wilson got anti-trust laws passed and created the Federal Trade Commission.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are – and without an ounce of shame – publicly advocating huge public gifts for all those because of their wealth and greed least deserve it. The Eric Cantors and John Boehners are part of the most despicable and decadent crowd on the Hill since the days of the segregationist South.

What is most revealing, however, is the number of GOP politicians willing to openly advocate the subsidy of the smallest political class in America. There is no conventional political explanation for this; it’s never happened before; it should make no sense. No one, for example, has complained before that the middle class wants to take “someone else’s Cadillac” as Herman Cain claims.

The only reason this works is because conventional national politics is dead. The Boehners and the Cantors are not politicians but mercenaries for multi-millionaires and corporate hitmen. It is money that counts. With enough of the money, the votes take care of themselves. The votes you can buy through advertising and the lies you tell in it. If we had a fair and democratic political system every major party presidential candidate could be indicted for taking innumerable bribes.

Which is why the current demonstrations are so important. It is not that national politics does not still have a function in mitigating failure and oppression – will Obama take less of our civil liberties than Rick Perry is a fair question  – but in matters of progress or even guaranteeing the benefits we still have, it offers us next to nothing.

We are left only with ourselves, our souls, our choices – and our allies. The protesters have stepped away from their computers – discovering that there is far more than just “click here” to activism – and in just a few days have started to change the nature of things.

It is with the sharing, joining, and cooperating with one another that we can continue the struggle. Its forms are numerous – and, strikingly, like the current protests, mostly non-national in origins. More like the congregational model of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Yes, there are more protests to be held. But there are also bank accounts to be shifted to community institutions or credit unions, cooperatives to join or start, local and state initiatives to launch, law suits to be filed, and unanticipated alliances to be formed. And, of course, a constitution to amend so corporations can no longer destroy our culture and our communities by pretending to be people, too.

The fact that much of this unfinished business is not national but rooted in personal, local and state alliances will be novel to some, but change has always started at the bottom.

The task in the months ahead is not to figure out how we react to some national politician but how we can make these politicians react to us and our communities. We must create a political ecology that even their money can’t destroy.

Sam Smith edits the Progressive Review. He is the author of The Great American Repair Manual.

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