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We’re as mad as hell and we’ll take it for as long as you feel like giving it.

The current political climate in the United States could best be described as “hatey.”  Teabagging rightists hate Comrade Hussein Obama and his army of zombified liberals.  Folks on the left hate the frothing, spittle-flecked teabaggers and their braying, ignorant leaders (you betcha!).  The ideological and cultural rift between these two groups seems impossibly vast, but political malcontents of all stripe share the same driving resentment, even as they go to absurd lengths to deny it: the bone-deep but unacknowledged awareness of their essential political impotence.

America’s civic religion holds that a person’s vote is their single most important expression of democratic virtue, and that of all the votes a person casts, their vote for president is the most important of all.  America’s civic reality is that the American president has far less power over the institutions of government and a much smaller range of viable decisions when exercising what power he does have than is commonly believed.  In short, we live in the world foreseen by Ned Beatty’s corporate titan in Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 satire Network.

Every American president, even in the post-WWII era of the National Security State, must operate within a global economic system of multi-national corporations and a forever-churning sea of money flowing across the planet, filling every nook and cranny through fiduciary osmosis.  All American economic policy must serve this system, as we saw during the economic crisis, when a Republican president passed a baton of bank bailouts and corporate enabling to a Democratic president without a hitch in the step.  Similarly, American foreign policy is dictated by a structure of global imperial power projection by this same economic system, featuring prominently as it does defense contractors and petroleum producers.  Yes, a particularly unhinged president could, pretty much on his own fevered initiative, invade a random Middle Eastern nation, but only because such a move reinforces that imperial paradigm.  No American president could possibly move to reduce the overall size and mission of the American military by, say, closing a bunch of our foreign bases.

In such a system, the president is less Leader of the Free World and more hen-pecked middle manager.  Nobody likes the idea that their sacred vote is really just a national referendum on an Arby’s Employee of the Month, and the chasm between the mythical Office of the President and the grubby reality is too vast to spend much time gazing into without getting seriously bummed.  Thankfully, there are three natural resources America will never run out of: type two diabetes, self-delusion, and narcissism.  The self-delusion and narcissism make for presidential elections were voters make a personal investment in candidates that is both intimate and skin deep.  Instead of voting for presidential candidates due to any specific policy platform (a platform that they’ll end up discarding in favor of the requirements of the economic imperative), we vote for the candidate who we feel “represents” us.  Not our specific ideology, but our self-image.  Since we can’t really expect a president to accomplish anything, we demand a president who will satisfy our desire to see our individual values and aesthetic preferences in Oval Office.  The president, as head of state and head of government, is a living embodiment of the United States of America, and more than anything, we want to recognize ourselves when we look at him.

One of the side effects of this highly personalized, image-centered politics is a refusal to accept the legitimacy of presidents who refuse to satisfy our selfish need to identify with the chief executive.   Let’s take a look at the public images of our past two presidents.

Exhibit One: the born-again son of a former president

What conservatives see: a pious, humble Christian, driven by faith in God and in the greatness of America, a plain-spoken straight-shooter who isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done for the good of the country.

What liberals see: a spoiled, fraudulent, rich kid, a casually cruel dry-drunk sub-moron, a swaggering dunderpate floating on a sea of unearned privilege and entitlement, devoted above all to maintaining the untrammeled power of the overclass.

Exhibit Two: the biracial community organizer and constitutional law professor

What liberals see: an empathetic, intelligent visionary whose experiences in Indonesia and the south side of Chicago, not to mention at Harvard Law School, that gives him a deep understanding of the need for social justice in America and the world beyond.  Not to mention: wow! a black president!

What conservatives see: a disciple of Marxism, radical Islam and Chicago-style political criminality.   A glib, elitist, vapid demagogue with a secret but abiding contempt for an America that he has no sense of connection to.  The ultimate example of out-of-control affirmative action.

These beliefs have little to do with either president’s policies, but rather with the way that their biographies and public personae react with the personal cultural and aesthetic preferences of a given voter.  When someone offensive to our view of ourselves becomes president, we feel disenfranchised and alienated. There’s an iron-clad but obtuse bit of logic at work: A legitimate president represents America.  I am part of America.  The president’s values and appearance do not represent me. Therefore, the president is not legitimate.

The flip side of this phenomenon is a fierce and nearly tribal attachment to a president who does strike us as a kindred spirit.  Our attachment, like our hatred, has nothing to do with policy.  In both cases, our superficial reaction to the person occupying the white house helps us ignore the nagging and dispiriting knowledge that our electoral power is laughably limited.  When George W. Bush passed No Child Left Behind and authorized the first bank bailouts, conservatives fumed, but their anger was diffused by their tribal identification with the president.  Luckily, a new, foreign-looking, elitist commie-type took office to soak up all that impotent rage.  Now, as Obama continues an economic policy designed to perpetuate the untrammeled power of the financial sector, sends tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan, and continues Bush’s policies on military tribunals and indefinite detention, liberals are feeling that same, vague sense of powerlessness that conservatives felt while watching Bush go “big government” all over the place.  Liberal dissatisfaction with Obama could, theoretically, lead to a grassroots agitation to push the administration to the left, but any such movement is crippled by the same tribalism that afflicts conservatives.  Rather than confront the feelings of impotence and betrayal that Obama’s status quo-humping evokes, liberals dump all of their anger and resentment on Sarah Palin and a bunch of rubes with misspelled signs.

Superficial identification with the president is both a symptom of and contributor to our post-democratic political system.  We watch as the men we come to love ignore our supposedly shared beliefs in order to conform to the dictates of global capital, then vent all of our frustration on the political leaders who fail to provide us with a sense of cultural solidarity. This cycle ensures that, at any given moment, no matter what sort of economic catastrophe or senseless war is going on during a given administration, only half of the electorate will raise their voices to object.  The other half will be too busy hating the objectors and ignoring every betrayal by their chosen political messiah.  The amazing thing is that such a beautifully rendered mechanism for dispersing dissent and maintaining a fiction of democratic engagement didn’t require any sort of planning by the media or political or economic elite.  We created it ourselves in order to cope; it’s a natural byproduct of social evolution.  Opposable thumbs for the body politic.

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