The American Political Mind is in a Sad State

James Madison once said, “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.” An astute judgment. He also said, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.” Just a nick of idealism there. A look at the latest poll numbers should confirm that.

Last week Quinnipiac University launched a new poll that had Americans rank their presidents since World War II. Nobel Peace Laureate Barack Obama was ranked as the worst president since 1945. Probably for his wars. Droning Yemen. Escalating Afghanistan. Bombing Somalia. Wrecking Libya. Delivering cash and guns to alien insurgents in Syria. Cyberattacks in Iran. Some assassinations for good measure. Destabilizing Ukraine.

Massive surveillance, too. A shambolic unaffordable healthcare plan. Flouting the feckless scrap of paper once call the constitution. Bailing out insolvent banks. Letting the Fed prime the stock market every four weeks. Ignoring the foreclosure plight for millions. What has our thief-in-chief not done? Well, he did back out of Iraq, leaving an army that ran for its life when it heard the siren call of Sunni jihad on the outskirts of Mosul. And a five billion dollar a year faux-Embassy cum-military complex on the edge of the Tigris.

So you might say the American public got it right for once. But then you see who the public thinks is America’s greatest president since the war. First prize: Ronald Reagan. Second prize: Bill Clinton. Third prize: George W. Bush. Fourth prize—you guessed it, BO.

This fetid list of criminal executives confirms the Obama selection was just dumb luck. Perhaps those voting can only remember as far back as Reagan. We are the “United States of Amnesia,” after all, to resurrect Gore Vidal’s memorable phrase. Sure, all presidents commit crimes. But at least LBJ got civil rights, voting rights, Medicare and Medicaid passed. At least Carter didn’t start any wars. Even Nixon gave us the EPA and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Reagan installed Friedmanite economic policy as the great debt-and-inequality model that has showered us with grief and joblessness for 30 years. Intoxicated by the bubble economy, Clinton giddily deregulated everything in sight and fashioned the ticking time bomb of the Great Recession. Dubya wrecked the cradle of civilization so sneering Dick Cheney could feather Halliburton’s bottom line. Obama we’ve already covered—in part.

The takeaway is that the American public is woefully ignorant. Whether by its own hand or by machinations of elite propaganda is an open question. Either way, we are James Madison’s nightmare scenario. Dumb, apathetic, and being royally fleeced. Right now, ignorance is governing knowledge and ensuring that we are not “well instructed.” Still not convinced?

Two weeks ago another poll told us what America thought of Hillary Clinton. Eighty-two percent of African-Americans and 43 percent of young people rated Hillary positively. These numbers—core representations of our most disenfranchised and our most likely to agitate—might lead the informed reader to the nearest bottle of rye. But hold up—absorb a few more insights before you submerge yourself in a sea of booze. A negligible seven percent of Democrats polled viewed her negatively. But this is no surprise. Delusional Democrats—represented by a flap-eared donkey—wouldn’t hesitate to put a fascist in office so long as there was a communist standing in opposition. Nothing seduces like the lesser evil argument—a simple rhetorical palliative that enervated classes can hastily ingest before ignoring politics for another four years.

It gets worse. A giant pull quote in the NBC article says of Hillary: “She is perceived to be such a massively skilled politician. Voters worry that – if she’s really such a political animal, can you really trust her?” Beneath this mindless piffle is a particularly apt photo of Hillary laughing hysterically, confident that she has snowed the American public just as her husband did. If memory serves, Mrs. Clinton personally interred Bill Clinton’s efforts to reform healthcare. But she thoughtfully left a handy shovel for Mitt Romney, his esteemed plagiarist Barack Obama and a gang of hack website coders. She also fled the administration two years ago, having deposited the president’s whack-a-mole foreign policy in a pressure-cooker set to implode as soon as the vaudeville act of Kerry, Nuland and Rice skipped into the spotlight.

Alas, competence has never been the criteria by which we judge presidential candidates. Hard skills are anathema to a population with a bottomless appetite for Dodge Rams, Call of Duty, and NFL football. Better to vet a candidate on less intellectually taxing qualities. For instance, is he funny? Does she have a nice set of teeth? Can he cut a dashing figure? Does he use phrases like “regular folks,” and “feel your pain,” or is he adorably avuncular when he prattles on about “welfare queens” and the “evil empire”? As the infamous political trope has it, is this a man or woman you’d want to have a beer with? Bill Clinton was that kind of guy, an incorrigible rosy-cheeked rogue who would quaff pitcher after pitcher alongside an average Joe. Never mind that eighty percent of what issued from his mouth were lies. The likeability factor was off the charts. Barack Obama, on the other hand, aside from being black, smart, eloquent and handsome, was not particularly pub-worthy. Too academic and reserved for the garden-variety rabble-rouser. Thankfully for those desperate to witness an historic moment before their epitaphs were written, Obama easily outpointed the grim pathologies of John McCain and spray-tanned private equity lightweight Mitt Romney. Reagan was too old to pub-crawl with, but he was definitely the kind of guy you’d want saying grace before Thanksgiving supper. One could envision him dozing softly in a La-Z-Boy® while the Cowboys crushed the Lions on the tube (while the ladies did the dishes).

Fortunately for Hillary’s supporters, a majority perceive her as “compassionate enough to understand average people,” and “easygoing and likeable” with “high personal standards.” After all, she did tell us she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the Oval Office. Surely she can relate to Food Stamp Fred and Medicaid Mary. One also assumes that the former Secretary of State’s highly esteemed work in the-nation-state-formerly-known-as-Libya is an example of the latter “high standards,” while her comparison of Vladimir Putin to Hitler being a notable instance of her “compassion” for the average people of Eastern Ukraine. No matter that three-quarters of Russians approve of Villainous Vlad—a far higher approval rating than that of neocon front-man Obama. Set all that aside because the consensus is in. It’s Hillary all the way.

In any event, the future of American politics—and by extension the economy, foreign policy, and social services—looks bleak. Fewer jobs. Lower wages. Higher prices. A shoddy safety net. More wars. Less growth. A hotter planet. Melting ice sheets. Impromptu twisters. Improvisational hurricanes. But we already know this. After all, this is what the policies of the past have given us, but it is not enough to dissuade voters from stumping for a familiar face, whether a grandpa of the silver screen, a golden-spooned fuck-up, a big money shill with a crack smile, or even a tired, incompetent truth-twister with little to commend her historically. So be it. America is too busy to care.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.

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Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry and author of The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions, essay collections from between 2012-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.  

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