Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The lesson of 2016: America is ready for a dictator

The politicians are watching, folks. Not Trump and Clinton and Bernie (though they are, too). I mean the guys and gals who will be running for Congress two years from now. And President four years from now. And beyond.

They're watching and they're learning the lessons that the electorate is teaching them during this election cycle, same as they always do. They're learning because when we support the candidates we do, we're continually sending the message "yes, please give us more of that." More candidates like that. More of that approach.

But this time around, I fear we've reached the tipping point, because the lessons we're teaching them sure aren't good. They're not good for constitutional government. They don't say good things about us as a people. They don't bode well for the future.

It may take the media and politicians a while to catch on, but here's what I think they'll figure out once they do, because this, is apparently, who we are and what we want more of:

You don't need to present policies or a vision --  It used to be that a Presidential candidate had to have a platform. It used to be that they at least had to pay lip service to the issues. They had to present a reason why you should vote for them. Not anymore. Trump paints a picture of a weak and damaged country that he can somehow "make great again," but offers nothing that stands up to even the most modest scrutiny in terms of how to do that. Hillary offers no compelling reason why she should be President other than A) She really wants to be and B) She isn't Trump. Both candidates' argument for why they should be elected amounts to "Vote for me because I want to be President and this is how I act," -- and, shockingly, that's going to be enough to get one of them elected.

We don't care if what you say is true -- We are so apathetic that we don't even make an attempt to check what the candidates are saying against reality. It doesn't matter if there is any data to support an assertion. It doesn't matter if you support an ideology that has failed historically and is failing spectacularly elsewhere in the world as we speak. We're not even going to look -- even in an age where it takes just a few seconds to verify information using Google. It used to be that you had to be at least a little concerned with the truth. Now, to succeed as a politician, you can get away with spouting utter BS: making statements that you know to be false while being indifferent to that fact because you know your base is equally indifferent.

It's all about tone -- A reality show performer locked up the Republican race long ago because a plurality of that party's voters respond to his pseudo-self confident "tough talk," in spite of his beliefs and policy positions (to the extent he has them) being outliers from the traditional Republican platform (e.g. limited government, Christian values, etc.). And Hillary has still failed to secure her party's nomination because of the widespread (and true) belief that she is a shifty, robotic opportunist who will say and do anything to become President. Sanders' slogan is so (I think unintentionally) telling: "Feel the Bern." The message is "Support Bernie because it feels right." We're evaluating the candidates based on how they strike us.

... and the tone we responded to is anger -- Bernie exploits popular anger against perceived Wall Street excesses and alleged responsibility for the Financial Crisis. The picture on the homepage of Bernie's supporters' website is portrait of righteous indignation. Trump galvanizes his supporters with nationalist, xenophobic rhetoric. And because the truth is unimportant (see above), this is what it's about: whipping people up into a frenzy and playing nakedly to anger, fear and resentment. This validates those emotions and, for many people,  a candidate's "I acknowledge and share in your anger" is enough reason to support them.

We don't value freedom -- As catalogued elsewhere (including by me), Trump's policies are in conflict with a boatload of fundamental American principles, including those related to free speech, freedom of religion and personal liberty -- yet he's the candidate drawing supporters from what used to be the libertarian-leaning political party. Sanders and his supporters are the intellectual force behind the Democratic Party and they unapologetically advocate a doctrine based on the subordination or abolition of property rights and fundamental economic freedoms. On both sides of the aisle, we are not only indifferent to freedom: we're actively looking for folks who will throw it out the window if it means solving a problem, real or imagined, that we've been lead to believe is important.

Right now, someone in Washington is in the process of putting all of this together. I don't think it's terribly hard to do: it's the glaring message we, the voters, are actually sending (as opposed to whatever message the more conscientious among us think they're sending). Maybe one of the current crop of candidates already has it figured out.

When that person realizes that a plurality of Americans 1) really respond to angry rhetoric, 2) don't care if that rhetoric is true or even coherent and 3) don't hold freedom as a significant value -- they're going to take the surprising yet logical next step and conclude that the American public is ready to embrace an actual dictator.

Soberingly, all the checks and balances in the world (or in the Constitution) aren't going to prevent that dictator from coming to power when he does step forward. The effectiveness of our system of government -- as well as the nature of the candidates for elected office within it -- are consequences of the dominant intellectual climate among the American people, not the causes of it. And right now, that climate isn't looking too good.

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