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Let’s Make the Next Debates Good for Something

Photograph Source: Senate Democrats – CC BY 2.0

Do we really need three-ring circus “debates” to figure out that the only two candidates in the running for president who should be taken seriously are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?

Perhaps with Joe Biden still leading the pack; the sooner he is put back out to pasture, the better.

Perhaps with Kamala Harris running for president instead of an office that suits her better — like Commander of the Secret Police.

Perhaps to give national exposure to persons who might make decent running mates or be useful in a Sanders or Warren administration.

But that is about it, and there are better ways to do all that; ways that don’t involve quite so much ratings-driven corporate media “horse race” silliness or so much inane brouhaha.

Tulsi Gabbard never had a chance to be nominated for either the presidency of vice-presidency, but, unlike nearly all the others, she has something useful to add to the national conversation. The country would therefore be better off if she had a national platform, such as she would get if she were allowed into the debates. But she was excluded by the Democratic National Committee, and so the debates will likely not touch at all on the follies and iniquities of American imperialism and militarism.

Gabbard’s views must have been too far out of the Clintonite, liberal imperialist mainstream for the party’s stewards to allow her into the Magic Kingdom. Or was her support for Bernie, not Hillary, in 2016 the decisive factor, or the way in the last debate that she wiped the floor with Harris, the obvious DNC favorite? We may never know.

Andrew Yang, whose chances are no better than Gabbard’s, made the arbitrarily imposed cut-off at the very last minute; he also has something useful to say. Of the entire field, he is the only candidate talking about unconditional basic income. Evidently, DNC Chair Tom Perez and the people around him find Yang less threatening than Gabbard – barely.

But the time for the venerable and sound idea he promotes to trickle down into the mainstream or even to be taken seriously by corporate media is – not yet. It will be different when Artificial Intelligence and other technological advances make paid employment a lot scarcer and less necessary than it already is, but that is still some years off.

The others will just be saying what they have to while showing off their faces, forms, and figures. Watching them will be about as edifying as watching reruns of “Law and Order,” and a lot less entertaining.

The question therefore all but asks itself: what are those debates good for?

Surprisingly, this time around, there is a good answer, an unexpected one: they can be good for exacting pledges from Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to bring Trump to justice, no matter how his presidency ends; and for doing the same for the sycophantic miscreants, past and present, who govern in his behalf.

Republicans, after all, are not the only Trump enablers; Democrats who are shy of holding him to account, Pelosi Democrats and Democrats even worse than that, have been nearly as culpable. They blow air, but, in the end, they let Trump do pretty much what he wants.

Thus no amount of pressure on Democrats to do the right thing is too much. Making their candidates pledge not to let Trump off is the least we should demand.

That is not all.

The fall debates can be useful too for inquiring into the thinking of the major contenders about how they would counter whatever Trump might try to do to hold onto power – whether by the use or threat of force or by negotiating one of his infamous “deals.”

Being corrupt and unscrupulous, and lacking all respect for the office he holds, there is no telling what he might attempt when staring the hoosegow, and perhaps also financial ruin, straight in the eye.

Former Trump buddy Jeffrey Epstein could only harm himself; Trump has the most over-bloated military in the history of the world at his disposal.

This is therefore a matter of the utmost urgency.

***

Nancy Pelosi’s case for running out the clock on impeachment, translated into plain English and reduced to its core, rests on the claim that the constituents of many newly elected House members would bolt were Democrats to stray from their party’s inveterate moderation and pusillanimity.

This assumes — falsely– that only a “moderate” can defeat Trump. If anything, just the opposite is the case; the only way Trump can win is if Democrats nominate a terminally boring, rightwing Democrat – like, say, Joe Biden. Even then, losing would take some doing, as anyone reflecting back on the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton debacle, ought to realize.

Whatever Pelosi might say or think, Democratic voters do not yearn to turn the clock back to the Barack Obama days. That is Biden’s argument and “Dr. Jill’s.” It is the only one they have for making him, an old school retrograde geriatric goofball, the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer next year.

Nevertheless, leading Democrats and their mind-numbing MSNBC and CNN pundits have a lot invested in the idea that except for the wild and crazy fans of the “squad,” the four brown, black, and female thorns in Pelosi’s side that Trump wants to ship back to “where they came from,” potential Democratic voters think like Joe and Jill.

Not only are they dead wrong about that, as time will soon tell; their thinking is insulting – especially, but by no means only, to voters of color, and to persons of all hues still too young to be drawing Social Security old age pensions.

Evidently, it is not enough for unreconstructed, Obamaphile Democrats to disparage white workers displaced by the neoliberal trade policies their party championed, and by their party’s malign neglect of the labor movement. By identifying electability with what they call “moderation,” they have now taken it upon themselves to impugn the intelligence and basic decency of white, college-educated suburban women too.

Has their cluelessness no limit?

A better argument than Pelosi’s for going easy on Trump has a name: Mike Pence.

Notwithstanding his insipid demeanor and the adoring, Nancy Reagan-like gazes he casts Trump’s way, the plain fact is that, by virtue of the office he holds, he is nowadays the most prominent rightwing Christian militant in national politics. His squad, call it “the God squad,” is the very antithesis of the one that could be the Democratic Party’s salvation, the “squad” comprised of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashid Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley.

To be sure, with Pence in the White House, Americans would gain a deeper understanding of what life is like for persons living under the boot of the Taliban or the Islamic State. That would be all to the good. The problem, though, is that, before long, people would find themselves thinking that “making America great again” wasn’t so bad after all.

Pelosi’s claim is that, adding up seats gained and lost, it would be too costly to go after Trump before the next election; that it might even lead to the Democrats losing control of the House. In her view, as with asbestos abatement in old buildings, it is sometimes better just to let the menace be.

She is wrong about that, of course. The way to lose the House is the way that Rahm Emanuel helped Obama lose it in 2010 – by going all out for the rightwing Democrats of the Blue Dog Caucus, and letting the left, what little there was of it, fend for itself.

Pelosi is not completely off base, however. There is a certain danger in going after Trump aggressively. But it isn’t that she and her fellow “centrists” might lose their power.

It is that, if the object of their affection goads them on, the Trump-besotted creatures that crawled out from under the rocks he overturned might run amok, unleashing mayhem and even, as they did in Charlottesville, murder.

Not long ago, only the extremely paranoid worried about such things; a deplorables-apocalypse seemed about as likely as a vampire apocalypse. No longer. After more than two and a half years of Trumpian rule, that concern is becoming more reasonable day by day.

We are not there yet, but should “deep state” operatives, “fake news” purveyors, and effete, latte-sipping, metropolitan, bicoastal snobs rattle their cages the wrong way, the still sizeable hard core Trump base could end up giving new meaning to the old saw about being careful what you wish for, just as surely as a Mike Pence presidency would.

With Trump mentally decomposing in plain view, anything is possible. Nevertheless, it is still more likely than not that Trump will hold it together to some extent, notwithstanding the warnings of his former Director of Communications (for ten days), the peerless Anthony Scaramucci.

It is more likely still that, in the end, even should Trump go entirely over to the dark side, that a good chunk of his remaining base would finally wise up and back off. Getting them back under the rocks from which they came will require protracted struggle, but keeping them in check should not be too hard to do.

Assuming, then, that there is still enough sanity left in the body politic to counter Trump and Trumpism by more or less normal political means, now is a time to start thinking about how de-Trumpification should proceed, and about how the debates to come can play a positive role in the process.

***

We would be slightly better off now had there been a serious attempt at de-Bushification a decade ago. That never happened, of course. Add that to the long list of reasons not to yearn for the Second Coming of Barack Obama.

Anyone paying attention ten years ago knew that America’s corporate and financial elites had vetted Obama well; and that, with him in the White House, nothing fundamental would change.

Even so, people of good will could hardly not root for America’s first African American president. For that reason alone, the expectations his candidacy raised were contagious. Even those of us who knew better hoped to be pleasantly surprised.

I lost what little hope I had when he chose Biden for a running mate. Everyone who ran against Obama for the nomination in 2008 ran to his left – except Biden and Clinton, the two he empowered. That says a lot about Biden and Clinton, and even more about Obama himself.

Then, as news of his cabinet and cabinet level appointments began to trickle in, it became increasingly obvious that, with his “team of rivals,” what he was offering was the same old, same old.

Timothy Geithner was a big tell; so, of course, were Bob Gates and Clinton, most of all. By the time Obama made Larry Summers Director of his National Economic Council, the kindest thing one could honestly say about him was that he was better than Bush.

Nevertheless, well into the first year of his tenure, willful blindness remained endemic and honesty was in short supply. Obama was like a Rorschach inkblot upon which those who should have known better projected their hopes.

It was obvious, though, from even before Day One, that the “hopey, changey thing” Sarah Palin would go on to mock was not going to work out well. It took some doing, but Obama managed to disappoint even those of us who never expected much of anything worthwhile from him in the first place.

In fairness, he was up against enormous odds. More Americans wanted him to succeed than wanted him to fail, but those who wanted to keep him and others with similar complexions down were unyielding.

The GOP was chock full of people like that. Once it became clear how much they could get away with, their feckless leaders did everything in their power to undermine Obama’s every move.

That they would try to do precisely that was predictable, though the lengths to which they went exceeded anything anyone even as late Inauguration Day would have imagined.

Their obduracy was so extreme that it almost rose to the level of the “sublime.” In Kantian and post-Kantian aesthetic theory, the sublime is that which elicits awe in virtue of its sheer size and overall massiveness.

That “No Drama Obama” would be thoughtful and cautious to a fault, and would therefore be easy prey for the profoundly odious, was predictable too. Even so, the extent to which Mitch McConnell and the likeminded malefactors around him would take advantage of Obama’s feet of clay was astonishing; their partisan viciousness was unprecedented.

But these are not the main reasons why the Obama presidency went as wrong as it did — why, on refugee and asylum issues, for example, Obama’s policies were essentially precursors of policies Trump would later make his own, or why he left Clinton and her liberal imperialist and neoconservative advisors free to undermine global stability in Honduras, Libya, and throughout the Greater Middle East.

For his role in helping Hillary et. al. create the refugee crises that have given rise to so many problems worldwide and caused so much misery, Obama has much to answer for.

His role in igniting rightwing populist social and political movements around the world was considerable. As much as anyone, he helped make Trump and Trumpism possible and even inevitable.

How did he do it? There is no simple answer to that question, but I have little doubt that the main cause was his and his Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to “look forward,” to let bygones be bygones — by not holding upper-level Bush-Cheney war criminals, or Bush and Cheney themselves, to account.

Obama did this in part because he had too superficial an understanding of the nature of the world that neoliberalism and liberal imperialism had created, and he did it because he realized that he was not about to change course himself.

The main reason, though, is that, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, he was morally weak and insufficiently steadfast. Thus he let world historical criminals off scot-free. This was his and his administration’s Original Sin.

***

It would be only a little unfair to say that, our political system, in its current incarnation, reduces mainstream politics to electoral politics, and that our electoral politics is about nothing more than selling candidates to voters.

In product marketing campaigns, the idea is to get shoppers to buy one brand over another. In much the same way, Democrats and Republicans compete for votes.

Thus “deliberative democracy,” the idea that collective choices emerge out of reasoned debates about the public good – something that political philosophers have been talking and writing about, in one way or another, since the eighteenth century – has almost nothing to do with the way decisions actually are made in so-called democracies.

It is a normative idea only, almost but not entirely, without real world effects. “Not entirely” because the idea lingers on, in the back of voters’ minds. Thus our “debates” do, in a way, pay homage to the idea.

It is, however, a hypocritical way because those debates have everything to do with hucksterism, and nothing to do with discovering or implementing anything like the public good. Thinking otherwise is like believing in Santa Claus.

Nevertheless, in recent years, within the political mainstream, whenever races for office are seriously contested, candidate debates have come to play a central role – before intra-party primaries and caucuses and before the general elections where Democrats and Republicans compete.

Though ideologically likeminded, especially in their dedication to capitalism and to maintaining the existing class structure, Democrats and Republicans are increasingly at each other’s throats.

Party polarization has become so extreme that, by now, Democrats and Republicans might as well be distinct tribes. Notwithstanding the praise they lavish upon “bipartisanship,” their leaders encourage and build upon this mutual animosity.

Disgust and embarrassment with Trump has by now caused nearly all sensible Republicans to defect, though apparently there are parts of the country where regional loyalties still keep a few on board.

But even with all the saner heads gone, Republican ranks would not be nearly as depleted as one might think. There are a lot of sad, desperate, people in the Land of the Free, and Trump seems to have hit upon the mother lode.

But no matter how polarized and pathetic the political scene may be, the joint press appearances that we call debates remain as central to “American democracy” as ever. This is entirely understandable. For making sales pitches before vast audiences, they are ideal.

With or without them, though, there would be little democracy in our democracy. The demos, the people as distinct from social and economic elites, do not rule; neither does the general citizenry, undifferentiated by class. Plutocrats rule, and Capital is Lord over them.

Abraham Lincoln praised government “of, by, and for the people.” Could anyone nowadays say that about the American government without the words sticking in the craw?

Ours is not even a full-fledged procedural democracy. In principle, and usually also in fact, when we vote, voters vote only once, every vote is counted the same, and the side that gets the most votes wins. But by Constitutional design and subsequent legislation, we do not accord citizens even a pale approximation of equal political influence.

The problem is not Russians or other foreign meddlers doing unto us what we do unto them many times worse. To the extent that meddling happens, its consequences are trivial – especially compared to Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression.

And even when outright cheating and finagling are kept down to more or less acceptable levels, states with comparatively tiny populations, and states that are many times more populous, each get two and only two Senators, making a mockery of the core democratic principle of equal political influence.

In presidential elections, our institutions are also compatible with, and even conducive to, minority rule – not just in subtle or recondite ways, but in the plain sense that the candidate with fewer votes sometimes wins.

Twice already in this century, we have seen what could come of that. We got George W Bush, a darling of the commentariat nowadays on “liberal” cable networks, but nevertheless, until three years ago, the worst president in modern times. And then we got Donald Trump, far and away the worst president ever. The two twenty-first century presidential elections in which the majority did rule brought us Obama-Biden administrations. Hallelujah.

In both theory and practice, even a minority rule democracy, as ours is in many respects, can still be a liberal democracy. It can still respect civil and human rights; it can still assure, as per FDR’s four freedoms, free expression, freedom of religion (and irreligion), and a decent semblance of freedom from want and freedom from fear.

We had a poor but not awful semblance of that before the Bush-Cheney and later Obama War on Terror; and, even as their assaults on traditional freedoms got underway, the situation remained in the acceptable range.

Trump has not yet (and may never) try to make our electoral system worse than it already is, but he is certainly no friend of liberal protections, especially, but not only, when persons he does not consider white, or white enough, are involved.

For him, “making America great again” means turning it into more of a Herrenvolk democracy, a democracy for the master race, than it had been in the period between the civil rights victories of the mid sixties and the onset of the Trumpian menace two and a half years ago. No wonder that, like other white supremacists, Trump holds the state of Israel in such high regard!

That this best friend ever of the self-described “nation state of the Jews” has actually brought classical anti-Semitism back to life, something that seemed impossible just a few years ago – is not likely to be discussed in this fall’s debates, though it is a matter of considerable pertinence. Among other things, it bears witness to the urgency of de-Trumpification, and therefore of the need to get discussion about how to deal with the problem going.

Trump makes everything worse; America’s ways of constraining tyranny and dealing with systemic racism are no exception. But much of the harm that Trump has done and would otherwise go on to do can be turned back if the 2020 election deepens and extends the advances registered in the midterm elections of 2018.

Between now and then, holding the line, is crucial. It is also doable. Our democracy may be ersatz, but our liberal institutions are sufficiently robust to withstand at least another year and a half of Trump and Trumpism.

Then, if all goes well, and if the participants in this fall’s debates go all out demonstrating how deep and broad respect for basic rights and liberties still are, democratization and liberalization can at very long last come back onto the agenda. The debates can be good for that.

The squad and its allies in Congress are good for that too, but our system is crazy enough that the pseudo-debate debates ahead may actually matter more — more even than the best our democracy, as presently constituted, is able to deliver.

And so, we can say with some assurance that the coming debates can be made good for something, indeed, for two things now urgently needed: for assuring that Obama and Holder’s Original Sin not be repeated – in other words, that Trump and Trumpians be brought to justice — and for defanging them along with the sordid, vile and potentially violent creatures they have let loose upon the world.

If the debates make it more likely that Trump is hobbled and perhaps even removed from office before his time is up, that could be good too. But the important thing is the easiest to secure: gaining assurances from any and all Democrats vying to replace him in the Oval Office that, so far as it is within their power, he will not get away with any of it – not his “high crimes and misdemeanors” and not his multiple violations of ordinary criminal law.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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